"Men, it has been well said, think in herds; it will be seen that they go mad in herds, while they only recover their senses slowly, and one by one." - Charles Mackay
Sunday, February 15, 2009
COLLEGEHUMOR.COM - It's all about how you look at opportunities
Ever since its inception, one of the internet's most commonly used features is the limitless pool of jokes and wacky pictures. Millions of people around the world devote large chunks of time to this phenomenon, particularly college students who can't get enough of dorm room gags, especially if they involve beer, bloopers, and topless girls. In the winter of 2000, connoisseurs of college humor and aspiring business students Josh Abramson and Ricky Van Veen created a website that would cater to this discerning demographic of 18 to 24-year-olds, giving students a forum for their often tasteless, crass comedy. The pair, friends since the sixth grade in Baltimore where they grew up, had the goal of finding enough online advertisers to pay for their beer (a considerable campus expense) and creating a website fully dedicated to grinding your academic efforts to a halt. There was never a business plan. The greatest thing about starting a business in college, says Abramson, is that there is very little risk. There was a $30 a month server fee and that's it.

CollegeHumor.com was launched with $200 of savings. Abramson and Van Veen spent their summer in a basement. They made flyers and let their campus know what they were up to. The workload was minimal until the pair started getting swamped with videos and photos of campus life from across the country. Only a month after it launched, CollegeHumor.com needed its own dedicated server to cope with traffic. Their hunch about the demand for the site was clearly spot-on. Van Veen says: "We just made it available to everyone. We just lifted up a rock and it was there".Their job is to filter the material photos, movies, links, and columns and serve it up on the basic website. Not that the filter is that rigorous. Expect to find plenty of photos of drunk students, animal bottoms, silly signs, and stories on such things as an outbreak of chlamydia at a San Francisco zoo. The CollegeHumor.com team has a list of things that aren't funny that includes midgets, Bill Gates, pimps, and Helen Keller jokes, but there is still a lot of room for bad taste.

Within three months it became clear that this business could pay for a lot more beer than Abramson and Van Veen could drink. The site gave advertisers direct access to the hard-to-please 18-to-24-year-old demographic of technology savvy, early adapters who were bombarding the site every day. The pair received several early offers to buy the business (one for $9 million), but Abramson and Van Veen were not interested. They were having too much fun. We'd be doing this if we were making less money. The point is we are doing something we enjoy,says Van Veen. The buy-out offers inspired them to take the project more seriously. We thought we could feed ourselves if we went full-time at it, says Van Veen. In 2003, revenue reached $250,000, and in 2004 it climbed to $2 million.

Early on, Abramson and Van Veen made an alliance with Zilo, a media company that specifically targets college and young adults through television, live events, and its online presence. They never put us as a priority, says Abramson, who has constantly had to deal with not being taken seriously because of his age. While young people don't necessarily have the experience to do certain things, this has no impact on their ability to be creative and have ideas.” The Zilo alliance did not last.

Today, CollegeHumor.com is based in New York in a $10,000-a-month Tribeca loft, and the founders, now graduates, have been joined by Zach Klein and Jakob Lodwick. Advertisers on the site include DreamWorks, Toyota, Coca-Cola, and sports betting agencies that pay up to $60,000 a month. 2005 revenues are forecast to tip $5 million, a slice of that coming from the sales of irreverent Tshirts (What would Ashton do?). The site receives around 600 pictures and 100 movies every day. It has 6 million unique visitors each month and 200 million page views. Staff numbers have deliberately remained low and margins, says Abramson, remain high. The partners apologize for some of the site's disorder. This is how the Internet works when you have four people running a site that should have two dozen.

CollegeHumor.com now has a parent company, Connected Ventures (run by Van Veen and Abramson), that collects the advertising revenue and product sales from the various websites it runs including Busted Tees (for all those crass T-shirts), Big Shocker (an in-joke hand signal that has been made into a range of Big Shocker products), a college dating site, and various other CollegeHumor spin-offs including video file sharing and a forum for music writers. In August 2006, InterActiveCorp bought a majority stake (51%) in the business. Abramson remains president of Connected Ventures, Van Veen content editor. The boys are living the fantasy life of every college student, New York loft, flatscreen TVs, positive cash flow, and meetings with high-level entertainment industry executives looking for ways to leverage the very marketable CollegeHumor.com brand. There are books, a possible Paramount movie in the pipeline, and a steady increase in advertising revenue for the site.

Abramson, an accomplished jazz pianist who used to work in a piano bar, was always seen as an entrepreneur. He went to the Robins School of Business at the University of Richmond, but does not rate this academic experience as contributing anything significant to his business career. His former professor of economics Robert Dolan describes him as a very laid back guy on the surface, but he was definitely someone with a plan. “You can tell the wheels are churning. He's an entrepreneur, he says. Abramson was selling string bracelets in high school, and later on he worked out that he could earn more in one night as a DJ with some sound equipment than his buddies were making in a fortnight as employees. "Ever since I was little kid it was my dream to run a company," he says. Abramson is one of those who believes that the entrepreneurial spirit is something some people have while others don't. Some people have the natural ability, some people don't. It is a way of looking at an opportunity. You could study business your whole life and still not get it. By Emily Ross & Angus Holland, exclusive online extract from 100 Great Businesses & the minds behind them. Buy online

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