It was 2004. Donald Trump had just started hosting The Apprentice. YouTube was still a year away.
If you were an adult back then, or at least old enough to use a computer unsupervised, I'll bet you'll remember a single, highly shared video from that year—the kind of thing that went viral before things really went viral.
I'm talking about This Land, a cartoon making fun of both President George W. Bush and his challenger that year, Senator John Kerry, in the midst of a highly charged and contentious election.
Well, "highly charged and contentious" by 2004 standards, anyway. Now, it seems like rock-paper-scissors. (Link here.)
Set to the tune of Woody Guthrie's, "This Land Is Your Land," the video was the work of brothers Evan and Gregg Spiridellis and the company they'd co-founded, JibJab.
It was a sensation, viewed by unheard-of-at-the-time millions. The brothers were named People of the Year by ABC News, brought in as guests on The Tonight Show, and heralded as the vanguard of a new variety of viral digital media entertainment.
And then? Crickets. Well, maybe not crickets. But as we'll see, cockroaches.
JibJab looked for a minute as if it might be on the road to massive success, but the Spiridellis brothers had created something ahead of its time. There simply were no easy ways to monetize widely shared internet videos at scale back in the mid-2000s.
All of which makes it both interesting and surprising that the company is alive and profitable in 2021.
JibJab might never become a unicorn, meaning a $1 billion private company, but as one writer described the company, it's the cockroach of the internet, having survived for more than two decades online.
(The company's big hit was 2004, but they'd been producing content since 1999.)
"My first thought was, 'Wow, they're still around?'" said JibJab's current CEO Paul Hanges, describing when he was recruited to join the company in 2016. "Then I talked to Greg and Evan and saw their passion ... and what the business is and still is, and how it sustained and continued to grow over all these years."
The Spiridellis brothers have long since moved on to other projects, so nobody associated with the "This Land" video is still working there. After a few pivots, JibJab's main product now is a subscription-based virtual greeting card site. Acquired by a private equity firm in late 2018, it now has 25 full-time staff in Los Angeles and a host of freelancers.
Frankly, two numbers jumped out at me and made me want to learn more:
First, as of last year anyway, JibJab had grown to roughly 1.4 million paid subscribers.
That's an amazing number. To put it in context, the New York Times says it has 8 million paid subscribers, but with a much bigger staff and budget.
Believe me, I know firsthand how hard it is to get one paid subscriber online, or 10, or 100—or enough to sustain a digital media company to the point where you don't have to continually drop subtle hints asking people to subscribe.
Or not so subtle. Hint-hint. (But thank you as always if you already are a paid subscriber.)
Second, JibJab's paying customers today are almost entirely moms between 35 and 55, meaning they would have been between about 17 and 37 when "This Land" was popular back in 2004.
So how did JibJab pivot, persevere, and survive? According to Hanges when I interviewed him a while back, the company did a few things.
First, it stayed platform-agnostic. When email was the main distribution mechanism, they embraced it; when it was Facebook, they embraced Facebook, and then whatever came next.
Second, they got away from politics and instead focused on what their core audience wanted to share. During 2020, for example, their most popular digital greeting card was about pandemic-themed birthdays.
Finally, they focused on producing content ("Make a billion people happy," as Hanges put it"), along with subscriber growth and their membership model.
"JibJab is not a billion-dollar company and a unicorn, but also has not flamed out," Hanges said, adding: "We can rightfully call ourselves the cockroach of the internet."
Check in with me around 2038, and let me know how it's going.
7 other things I want to share
The US Supreme Court begins its latest term today, and the agenda is basically a parade of the most controversial American legal issues of the last 50 years, with major cases about abortion, guns, and religion. So this will be interesting. (CNBC)
A Michigan man who was convicted of murder and spent 15 years in prison for the deaths of five children in a fire was exonerated and set free, after a prosecutor asked the judge to dismiss the case, “the climax of an investigation that found misconduct by police and [former] prosecutors.” (NPR)
Who are the most prolific smugglers bringing people across the border from Mexico? Young men and boys under the age of 18, since US policy is simply to deport them as juveniles if they’re caught. (Meet Antonio, 17, who will soon have a decision to make.) (WashPost)
Meet the man who runs the absurdly effective lost-and-found Facebook group for the entire country of Senegal. (NPR)
There’s a metaphor here, I’m just sure of it: a North Dakota squirrel stashed more than 150 pounds of nuts in a truck in just a few days. (The Drive)
A missing man in Turkey who reportedly got drunk and wandered off in the woods accidentally joined his own search party last week, offering his help for hours before realizing that he was the person everyone was looking for. (BBC)
Oh man, I almost forgot. In advance of the 10th anniversary of the death of Steve Jobs, I wrote this thing about how he always used the “Rule of 3” in his speeches. It was really hard to unsee once I saw it. (Inc.com, might be a paywall, sorry)