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Keeping an Adult Biz
And Family Life Separate

From The Wall Street Journal Online

In the online pornography business, just about everybody has heard of Steve Lightspeed.

He runs an ever-growing network of more than 30 adult Web sites, and throws lavish parties for models and business partners -- at one Las Vegas convention, he hired stunt planes to fly partygoers around.

But few in the porn world know much about Steve Jones, the 39-year-old married father of two behind the Lightspeed persona – and that's the way he wants to keep it.

Outside the industry, Mr. Jones and his wife, who manages the company's books, maintain a low profile. When chatting with strangers at cocktail parties, Mr. Jones says that he's in "Internet marketing" or "computer consulting." The couple also don't tell others in their posh Phoenix neighborhood what they do, and they keep some relatives in the dark.

Of paramount concern, Mr. Jones said, is shielding the couple's grade-school-age children from the industry, as well as any criticism they might encounter. A few years ago, Mr. Jones relocated his family after some neighbors learned of his profession, and forbade their children from playing with his. "It was kind of heartbreaking," Mr. Jones said. He added: "My kids have no clue what we do."

Few Americans dealt with such issues until the late 1990s, when the number of adult Web sites exploded along with the Internet boom. The issues are gaining more attention in the industry. Last year, a couple who operate adult sites launched a group called Parents In Adult to provide support and legal resources for owners of pornographic Web sites. The issues were also the subject of a seminar at a national porn-industry convention this year.

Mr. Jones said he's not ashamed of his vocation. "The problem is public perception," he said. "There's so much misconception about what we do. Everyone thinks we're all involved in every dirty piece of the business. It's really not like that."

Keeping a Low Profile

Trying to lay low is getting tougher for Mr. Jones. His company, Lightspeed Media Corp., has been growing – it now has 15 employees, and is moving into new markets like DVD sales. Last year, Lightspeed Media earned about $5 million in revenue and $1 million in profit, Mr. Jones said.

Mr. Jones and his company are regularly subjects of articles by adult news sites. Such articles generally quote him as Steve Lightspeed, though some have also noted his real name. An entry for "Lightspeed Media Corporation" on Wikipedia, the popular online encyclopedia, identifies Mr. Jones by his real name as the company's founder.

Mr. Jones's effort to stay out of the spotlight is complicated by the type of porn he offers. Lightspeed Media publishes photos and videos of youthful models, and has long used terms such as "barely legal" and "barely 18" in its marketing. Users pay between $30 and $40 a month, depending on how many sites they want to access.

"He's caught a lot of flak because some people feel he makes them look younger than" 18, said Farrell Timlake, president of adult-video publisher Homegrown Video.

Mr. Jones said his standard reply to such criticism is: "I'm sorry my porn stars don't look used up yet." He added: "The federal government says 18 is the legal age, and if they don't like it, they should petition the government."

'A Little Extra Money'

Mr. Jones developed an interest in computers as a teenager, and attended Arizona State University to study computer engineering. But he said he was expelled from the school's engineering department in the fall of 1985 after he was accused of cheating. He said the allegations were related to his tutoring of a female classmate; the school confirmed his attendance, but declined to comment on the circumstances of his departure.

Mr. Jones returned to his home state of Washington, where he earned a degree in computer programming at a trade school. After working for a software company, he launched his own consulting business, which helped retailers set up their computer systems.

By the late 1990s, Mr. Jones was an avid viewer of online porn, and decided to start dabbling in a second career. He placed an advertisement for amateur models in an alternative weekly newspaper in Seattle. He hired three girls and began shooting nude photographs of them in secluded settings around town. "I really had no idea what I was doing," said Mr. Jones. "Our goal was to make a little extra money for our kids' college fund."

In April 1999, he launched his first paid-subscription site, called Lightspeed University (the name "lightspeed" came from an alias Mr. Jones adopted in computer chat rooms in the early 1990s). By 2000, the site was generating enough income that Mr. Jones was able to shut down his consulting business. "He went quickly to the top in an industry where that doesn't happen often," said Lawrence G. Walters, a Florida adult-entertainment lawyer who represents several rival porn sites.

The Lightspeed Persona

Executives in the adult-entertainment industry said Mr. Jones has a reputation for sparing no expense when taking on the Steve Lightspeed persona at conventions.

"He markets his personality," said Scott Coffman, chief executive of AEBN Inc., a large adult-video Web site. "That helps build your brand. Everyone wants to do sort of what Steve does."

The stunt-plane promotion – at a Las Vegas convention a few years ago – cost about $40,000, Mr. Jones said, and earlier this month he sponsored a dodgeball tournament at a gathering in Tempe, Ariz. The bar tab was about $50,000, he said.

"The Steve Lightspeed character is a little bigger than life," said Mr. Jones, who often sports a baseball jersey emblazoned with "Lightspeed" in capital letters. "I heard people say we once raced helicopters down the Las Vegas strip."

Mr. Jones declined to reveal details about his own salary, but said his showmanship often makes him appear wealthier than he is. "I don't have a jet," he said. "I don't have a yacht. I have a nice house. I tell everybody, 'I work for a living.' I don't drive a $100,000 car. I drive an old, beat-up minivan."

When not traveling to promote his business, Mr. Jones says he works seven days a week, often 12 hours a day, focused on marketing and managing relationships with business partners and models. He still photographs some models, he said, but most of that work is done by three staff photographers.

He said he and his wife mostly socialize with others inside the porn business, in part because it avoids the awkwardness of explaining his line of work. "Most of our friends tend to be in the industry," he said. Relationships with family members can also be tricky. Mr. Jones's mother works for Lightspeed Media, handling customer service duties, but he said some relatives don't know about his work and likely wouldn't approve.

Mr. Jones said he has been particularly worried about shielding his children. The Joneses installed software to block illicit content on both of their kids' PCs, and Mr. Jones has password-protected his and his wife's computers. "Being in this industry has made us more sensitive to how available on the Internet this material is to kids," he said.

As his children get closer to adulthood, he said, he'll explain what their parents do. "I wouldn't mind if my kids get involved in this business," he said. Then he added: "Behind the scenes."

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--April 14, 2006

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