Back in ancient times, 1998 to be exact, two brothers bore witness to an animated dancing doodie streaming over a 56K modem and it changed their lives forever. What Evan and Gregg Spiridellis saw in their browser was more than a dancing piece of dung; it was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to be pioneers in a brave new world of entertainment.
At the time, Gregg was an MBA student at the Wharton School of Business, recovering from four years of investment banking, and Evan was an accomplished independent animator creating festival-winning stop motion films. The idea that production costs were dropping and distribution was opening up, coupled with their complete lack of media industry experience, led the brothers to believe that they could create a giant, new entertainment brand.
In 1999, the Evan and Gregg scraped together a few thousand dollars and started JibJab in a Brooklyn garage (despite the fact that starting an Internet company in a garage is really a cliché thing to do).
At the beginning, they supported their business producing high quality eCards for other websites. Then, in February 2000, they created their first viral video hit with an interactive video of the Founding Fathers rapping about the Declaration of Independence. They quickly followed it with an even bigger hit featuring George Bush and Al Gore in a rap battle for the 2000 presidential election. The video was one of the web’s first broad based hits and landed on Fox’s MadTV, ABC News, CNN and a host of other national media outlets.
The brothers were on the verge of success. Then came the dot-com crash…
AFTER THE CRASH
Within six months, all of JibJab’s clients went out of business. The brothers scrambled to find creative ways to make enough money to keep their new business afloat. They created a line of gag gifts based on their popular online series “Nasty Santa” and sold it nationwide through Spencer Gifts and Urban Outfitters. They also created animations for companies like Disney, Noggin and Kraft. They even published a children’s book with rap super star LL Cool J!
By the end of 2001, it was clear that online entertainment was not coming back anytime soon. Evan and Gregg realized that in order for JibJab to survive, they would need to close down their Brooklyn shop, say goodbye to family and friends, and set out in search of greener pastures.
In January 2002, they committed their second start-up cliché, packing all of their earthly possessions into a 24-foot U-Haul truck and hitting the road for sunny Los Angeles. Long gone were the dreams of a media revolution; now all they wanted was to figure out a way to earn a living making people laugh.
For their first two years in Los Angeles, the brothers toiled in obscurity. Despite the anonymity, it was a productive time. They published a best-selling holiday book for Disney called “Are You Grumpy Santa”. They produced a series of viral animations for Sony. They created the Bananagrabber character for the hit TV series “Arrested Development”. They created a political parody called “Ahnold for Governor” that landed them a coveted spot at the Sundance Online Film Festival.
Most importantly, they continued to pour everything back into original short programming for JibJab.com because they believed that building an audience by serving great content would ultimately lead to big opportunities.
In 2004, the brothers turned their attention to the Bush/Kerry political battle, hoping to replicate their success from the 2000 campaign. Nothing in the four and half year history of their company could have prepared them for what happened next…
On July 9, 2004, Evan and Gregg Spiridellis released “THIS LAND” and the media revolution they first dreamed of back in Brooklyn was at their doorstep overnight. The video, animated by Evan and written by Gregg, rocketed around the world from inbox to inbox after the brothers emailed a link to the 130,000 people on their fan newsletter. Within days, millions of requests poured in from around the world for their satirical video. As they told Brian Wilson in their first national interview on FOX News, their tiny little web server “spontaneously combusted”.
The string of media attention that followed was unprecedented for an Internet video. The Today Show, ABC News, Jay Leno, CNN, FOX, CNBC, Entertainment Weekly, Rolling Stone, The New York Times, Variety, Los Angeles Times and hundreds of other media outlets from around the world covered the story.
By the end of the election, JibJab’s election videos were more than 80 million times online on every continent, including Antarctica. American soldiers had emailed the brothers to tell them they were watching the video from within Saddam Hussein’s old palace. NASA had even contacted the brothers for permission to send a copy of the animation to the International Space Station. Then, on December 31, 2004, Peter Jennings named the Spiridellis brothers “People of the Year” on ABC’s World News.
AFTER “THIS LAND”
While most LA-based creators would have jumped at the opportunity to shift to traditional media, Evan and Gregg shunned the television and film offers pouring in and doubled-down on new media. They went to work leveraging the phenomenal success from the election to start rebuilding their business.
They kicked off 2005 creating a series of movie trailers that played before every film at the Sundance Film Festival. They did deals with Yahoo!, AtomFilms, MSN Video, and Anheuser Busch. During the course of the year, they released three more videos on The Tonight Show with Jay Leno including Second Term, Matzah and 2-0-5.
By 2006, things were moving faster in the online video business than ever before. The brothers had powered JibJab with six and a half years of sweat equity but they knew that if they wanted to realize their vision to build JibJab into a great company, they needed financing that would enable them to hire great people and build for the future. In March 2006, they met Jon Flint from Polaris Venture Partners and a great partnership was born.
After six and a half years of living on the edge of bankruptcy, the brothers cautiously set about deploying their new capital to expand their efforts. They launched a community joke-sharing website called JokeBox. They produced a series of sketch comedy shorts with legendary comedy director John Landis (Blues Brothers, Animal House, Trading Places and more). They produced a video with Weird Al Yankovic. They even premiered premiered a video, What We Call the News, for the President of the United States at the Radio and Television Correspondents Dinner in Washington, DC.
The only thing they hadn’t done was figure out a scalable business model that would enable them to produce and distribute online comedy – and pay the bills.
The brothers knew that the nature of the web was becoming more social. They wondered if there was an opportunity to take their skills producing satirical content and apply them to the creation of videos that could be used for personal expression on burgeoning social networks like MySpace. While researching the market, they discovered that American Greetings had a $80 million a year eCard business with 4 million paying subscribers. Booya!
In 2007, the brothers set their sites on innovating the ecard category. Their vision was to keep producing the high quality, fun content that made JibJab famous, but to couple it with personalization tools that empower people to express themselves in fun ways.
In August 2007, they released ‘Starring You®’, which let people put themselves into JibJab videos and images. From the day it was released, the product was a runaway hit that would eventually dwarf the size of the audience they attracted for their political satires. As of June 2010, people have uploaded over 150 million heads to the Starring You platform and viewed personalized videos and images over 400 million times.
Along with these new product lines came a new way of doing business. Rather than relying on advertisers to pay the bills (and clutter up the JibJab website with crappy banner ads) the brothers decided to continue offering a sizable selection of free content, but to make the vast majority of eCards and certain Starring You content exclusive to paid Members.
There were three reasons for this shift. First, by building a Membership model they could focus on making content their customers wanted (as opposed to what advertisers wanted). Second, by removing banner ads from the site they could offer their customers the highest quality experience. Third, they could afford to pay the artists, technologists and business people who make JibJab possible.
Luckily for the brothers – and the folks who count on JibJab for a living – customers have responded, transacting over a million times, and setting the company on a path to commercial success.
Since their days in a Brooklyn garage, Evan and Gregg grew JibJab into a nationally recognized brand by being obsessed about the quality of the programming and products they produced. Today they are joined on their mission to make things that make people laugh by an exceptional team of 37 artists, technologists and business people working hard (really hard) to surprise and delight audiences around the world with exceptional online entertainment.
And they’ll never forget that it all started with a dancing doodie.