Asking someone how they started their company is more a formality than anything else. Most people have a formulaic answer. “I had X problem in my daily life, and then I solved it with Y!”
And that’s fine, it’s just not exciting after hearing it 100 times.
So I was a little surprised that Emerson Spartz’s story began with the words, “When I was 12 years old, I convinced my parents to let me drop out of school and homeschool myself.”
For all of the stories about people learning from Khan Academy, teaching themselves programming, and learning via Wikipedia, I’ve never heard of a single person who homeschooled himself. Self-starters? Sure. Self-motivators? You’ve gotta be to get by. Self-teacher? That one is a little bit different.
The decision seems to have paid off. Fast forward ten years and Spartz’s company, Spartz Media, is now a thriving, profitable business. Between the company’s dozen-or-so sites, including OMG Facts and Gives Me Hope, he’s got an audience of 160 million monthly pageviews. And he’s got Jimmy Kimmel, Geraldo Rivera, JK Rowling, and millions of fans to thanks.
Emerson Spartz’s career in viral, community-based content started with MuggleNet, a Harry Potter fan site that Spartz started with a free website builder when he was 12.
But Spartz wasn’t interested in creating just any Harry Potter fan site. Instead, he wanted to build the Harry Potter fan site. So, as a 12-year-old, Spartz began to email “literally thousands of people” around the world — site admins, moderators, and well-known Harry Potter enthusiasts — asking for link-trades. He would link to them, they would link to MuggleNet, and MuggleNet would grow.
And oh boy, did it grow. As he worked on the site for more than ten hours a day, the site exploded in popularity. He published three books, one of which was a NYT Bestseller that sold more than 300,000 copies. “I got to go on tour, live like a rockstar, attend the movie premieres and after parties, visit the sets, and travel to Scotland for a private interview with JK Rowling,” he says. “We had, for a time, the most listened-to podcast in the world.” At its peak, MuggleNet was doing 50 million page views per month.
As Spartz pushed a community-based content creation model, the entire site ran off of free volunteers, which was a big deal in the days before the Huffington Post made free, community content a well-known business model. Spartz recruited from the most active contributors on the MuggleNet site, and gave them the ability to publish content.
This community-based model not only makes sense for a content site like Spartz Media, but more importantly, it’s one of the key drivers behind Spartz’s life goal of improving the world through harnessing community content.
I first met Spartz, who is now 25-years-old, on my trip to Chicago in March, where we had coffee together. The first thing you notice is that Spartz is his noticeable preoccupation. Not in the sense that he has a third eye, but in the sense that you can tell by looking at him that he is somewhere else. He’s paying attention and answering questions, but at the same time, he’s clearly thinking about other things, like building a company.
But he begins to come into focus when I bring up his schooling, because it really is something interesting. He sits up, starts talking fast (too fast, really) and dives into his upbringing. Not only did Spartz design his own curriculum and teach himself all through school, he also did it during college. When he went to Notre Dame for college, he was taking the normal load of classes. But it wasn’t enough, because he wasn’t feeling intellectually stimulated.
In typical self-starter fashion, he decided to teach himself even more. In addition to taking a full load of classes and graduating from Notre Dame, Spartz also managed to create a new method of self-teaching that he designed for himself, which uses a complex method of initialisms, mnemonics, and flash-cards to force him to memorize concepts.
Management, business, humanities, history, and just about everything else, they all use the system of self-teaching that he developed for himself, and they’ve apparently worked pretty well.
In addition to teaching himself as much as possible, Spartz also reads more than is normally possible for a person. At Notre Dame, he set the goal of reading one non-fiction book every day until graduation. It’s all a part of his desire to be intellectually stimulated and to learn, not dissimilar to what Bill Gates is known to do.
While at Notre Dame, Spartz also met his future wife, Gaby. She had a story similar to his. She had founded a website when she was 12 years old, which was very popular at the time, according to Spartz. Following graduation, the two of them founded Gives Me Hope, which marks the beginning of Spartz Media.
Gives Me Hope, on the off-chance that you don’t have a female teenage relative, is probably the most encouraging site you can visit on the Internet. Want to recover after a day of battling trolls in the comments? Gives Me Hope. Bad day? Gives Me Hope.
The concept behind Gives Me Hope was to give people a way to share short, inspiring, and heartwarming true stories. All of the stories are a few dozen words, and go a little something like this one (GMH stands for Gives Me Hope):
The stories are short, nice, and it’s hard to find people that wouldn’t like to read them. Sounds like a recipe for viral success, doesn’t it? Well, it is.
In the early days of the company, traffic was sustained by sharing posts via Facebook. In fact, the company’s content was shared so much on Facebook, that Spartz was able to create algorithms to predict if content was going to go viral, based off of the mountain of data they had collected. If a post didn’t follow the trajectory of a certain number of shares or “Likes” at a certain point in time, it wasn’t going to go viral.
Using this, Spartz Media had it good for a little while. But then, Facebook began to crack down on the success of content. It became harder and harder for the company to game the system and make it more shareable, until finally, Facebook won the cat-and-mouse game.
Good news for the company, though, as Twitter was gaining popularity at the time. With a more viral-friendly social network to focus on, the company really began to take off. The company’s network of sites now have millions and millions of followers, and is growing at a rate of 400,000 new followers every month.
While the success of Gives Me Hope would have been a notable story on its own, more surprising is that the success spread to other sites. The company launched Love Gives Me Hope, Six Billion Secrets, and OMG Facts, each of which was successful on its own. In fact, OMG Facts has been so successful, it now has 6 million Twitter followers and sees 30 million page views per month.
Despite this success, though, the company was still only Emerson and Gaby Spartz, and a team of overseas freelancers.
According to Spartz, the reluctance to hire full-time employees was because he wanted to make sure they had a product fit before they hired anyone. After all, you don’t want to change the company’s business model two months into a new hire, meaning they’re no longer needed. But he had an “a-ha!” moment when he received a check for $100,000 from an advertiser for one month’s advertising on the site.
The delay in hiring, however, was a mistake Spartz made, as he himself admits. According to Spartz, he saw “how much more we were able to accomplish with full time, in-house talent” forcing him to admit that he realized “how stupid I was for not hiring earlier.”
Once the company started hiring, things really started to take off. According to Spartz, when the company was just the couple, it had 7 million monthly page views, when it had 5 employees, it saw 42 million page views. And when it had 160 million page views (present day), it had 30 employees. In three years, it had doubled the number of people coming to the site almost five times.
The best part of Spartz Media is that the viral model works incredibly well in so many areas. Because the content is all community-based and -driven, it scales to as many verticals as there is interest. You don’t need to hire dozens of people for another topic to cover, because it’s the same basic underlying technology and free community, tweaked for the topic.
That’s why the company is looking to expand to as many verticals as possible, while still maintaining the support, and without diluting the brand. According to Spartz, this means launching a new site every one to two months, with 95 percent of the sites being successful over time.
When I was speaking to Spartz, though, we started talking about the underlying mission of what he has been doing with his life so far. According to Spartz, everything he has done has been aimed towards improving people’s lives by harnessing the power of communities, whether by giving them a brief moment of hope or making them laugh.
While building a company viewed over one billion times per year definitely meets that goal, Spartz has also set his eyes a little higher. I asked if he would move into the public service area, and he said he had considered it, because that would truly make it possible to improve people’s lives in a substantial and meaningful way.
Which is what everything comes down to. As Spartz puts it, he wants to change collaboration platforms “in the same way that Jimmy Wales popularized the Wiki model and changed the world.”
While he’s doing that, though, he’s going to have to be content with being poked fun of on Jimmy Kimmel.
[Image source: wikimedia]