A humorous Web site created seven years ago by two childhood friends during their freshman year in college is no joke. On the contrary, it has grown into a million-dollar small business.
CollegeHumor.com, the Web site catering to the deviant minds of high schoolers, college kids and bored office workers alike with funny and sometimes lewd photographs, videos and columns, was launched in 1999 by childhood friends and then-college-freshmen Josh Abramson and Ricky Van Veen. The teens spent non-classroom hours updating the site, getting the word out about their venture and negotiating advertisement deals. Abramson settled into his role as business manager and Van Veen took the post as editor of the site’s content, which is mostly user-generated.
In 2001, new college pals Jakob Lodwick and Zach Klein came on board as programmers. By the time three of them graduated in 2003, they were bringing in enough to support themselves and decided to take the risk of becoming full-time entrepreneurs.
“We weren’t taking baths in Cristal or anything, but we could afford to maintain the business and we believed in the idea,” 24-year-old Abramson said.
Abramson, Lodwick and Van Veen, (Klein still had another year left of school) decided since they could work from anywhere, they might as well work in a place with great weather. So they headed to San Diego for what they called “entrepreneur boot camp.
"All we did the entire time in San Diego was work. Breakfast, lunch, dinner. … It was fun, actually,” Abramson said.
“We weren’t making a huge amount of money, but we all agreed we’d rather make very little money and work for ourselves ... than make a little bit more money and work for someone else and not get to do what we want,” Abramson said.
At that point, the dotcom bubble was fizzling, so the guys didn’t consider the site to be the focus of the company; they took some time to explore other ventures. They started Bustedtees.com, a site that sells T-shirts with humorous and sometimes suggestive comments, along with Alldumb.com, another platform on which they sell ads, which shares content with CollegeHumor.com. They also patented and started selling the “Big Shockers,” which are big foam hands similar to those sold in sports arenas, albeit in a more vulgar formation.
Then, that year while the boys weren’t looking, College Humor blossomed.
“We thought College Humor might just be a means to an end, something that would allow us to launch into another Web company,” Abramson said. But big profits from advertising made them decide to stick with the original dream.
The foursome decided to take the business to New York City. They rented a four-bedroom apartment in trendy TriBeCa and set up shop.
While their bio on CollegeHumor.com says Abramson and Van Veen just wanted to start a site “to share all of the funny things floating around their college networks,” it really was more contrived than that.
“[We wanted to start] an advertisement-based business,” Abramson said, “because at the time the advertising market was pretty hot and we’d seen other people develop Web sites that were popular making a lot of money.”
And as the adage says, “Do what you know.” The boys did just that.
“The humor is what got us the audience, and we wanted to do something that we thought we were good at and something we thought would be appealing to most college students,” Abramson said.
With almost 1.5 million hits in May, according to Nielsen Media's Net Ratings, 17 full-time staff members, one published book, one on the way, a movie with Paramount in the works and advertisers by the names of Ford and Universal, it’s fair to say the team is doing just fine. Last year Connected Ventures, the parent company of the site, made $6 million. They expect to make $10 million in 2006.
Some of the site’s content is a bit racy, but Van Veen says they give fair warning before it can be viewed, which they recently did to appease advertisers.
“Anything that’s ‘R’-rated is in a separate section… There are definitely things I wouldn’t want my grandmother to see.”
The company has to thank its readers for its success. According to Van Veen, about 70 percent of the content is user-generated, meaning it comes directly from readers.
Most often the theme of the site’s picture, video and article submissions is alcohol. There is a picture of Natural Light Beer tattooed onto a guy’s rear end and a video clip of a girl rollerblading while drunk before falling onto her face. There’s a shot of two cops who appear to be taking part in a drinking game and a video of a kid crushing 12 beer cans consecutively on his head in his dorm room.
There’s also CHTV, a recent addition to the site. The 5-minute skits are intentionally low-grade quality, says Van Veen, who is 25.
“When you look at CHTV, it looks very low budget because it is,” he said, adding that the five-minute segments are actually filmed by students at nearby New York University.
While it may take a little extra work to sift through, some say relying on user-generated content isn’t a bad thing, and could pay off big time in the end.
“At one level it could be citizen media where citizens are reporting. And people are commenting about photos or what’s going on in the community. Or (it could be) people making fun of Lindsay Lohan. Myspace is an example of this. Big companies are paying attention to this," she said.
Myspace.com, a social networking site that allows users to create unique pages tailored to their likes and dislikes, was bought in 2005 for $649 million by News Corporation (NWS). (FOXNews.com is operated by FOX News, which is owned by News Corp.)
So are big companies paying attention to College Humor?
“We’ve had several people that have expressed interest in every kind of deal but there hasn’t been anything that has been put on the table thus far that’s been interesting,” Abramson said.
But, he says, the company is not closed off to the idea of a takeover.
“We want to create this company that we think College Humor could become. So if there’s a situation where we can work with someone else where we can better achieve that goal, then I think it would make sense," he said.
Web Comedy Competition
According to Nielsen's May count of unique hits (which counts each user's single visit, not repeat visitors), Ebaumsworld.com is the top hit humor Web site, with more than 4.4 million hits. CollegeHumor.com ranks fifth with 1.4 million hits.
Jon Gibs, director of Media Analytics for Nielsen//NetRatings, said Ebaum's success is due to its content.
"They’re offering content that might be a little more risqué," he said. "And one of the areas you’re going to see growth is when you start adding adult content. You see a similar thing on College Humor but Ebaum has that edge to it."
In other words, sex still sells:
“It’s not just topless girls, it’s the content you wrap around it,” he said. “You can find a lot of adult content on the Web, but it goes back to the old story of when the old male lifestyle magazines like Playboy ... were re-founded in the '60s. It’s not just the adult content but the lifestyle you have around it.”
Another competitor appeared on the scene this year.
In February, Time Inc. launched a site that shares some qualities of College Humor. Officepirates.com also offers videos, photos and jokes, but is more geared to the office crowd, a strategy Abramson thinks is sure to fail.
“Office Pirates is pretty awful. It’s a perfect example of how a company would try to come and make a humor site and it’s completely the opposite of organic growth,” he said. “It feels very contrived. It doesn’t have a sensibility. When people are in an office, they don’t want to look at other people in an office.”
Gibs begs to differ. And although Office Pirates didn’t make the list of top humor sites, Gibs says there is hope for the venture.
“What makes it so interesting is that it has a similar tone, but it’s being sponsored by a real publishing company. It’s being geared to an older audience, the professional audience rather than a college audience," Gibs said.
Their focus on a slightly older readership might be what could eventually help them topple CollegeHumor.com.
“While sites like College Humor, that are viral and have a fragmented audience, can do well for a short period of time … the College Humor crowd will graduate and won’t be able to look [at the office.] It’s always a question if the next generation will glom onto the content.”
But Abramson thinks they have hit the right demographic. He says they try to attract the range of readers spanning from high school kids who are looking forward to college to graduates who spend their days reminiscing about college.
And while they admit to intentionally keeping the site’s design more rough (users navigate through the content via simple tabs at the top of the site), Abramson says they aren’t afraid to change with the times.
“Originally [we just had] pictures and broadband wasn’t as nearly as widespread. Now that everyone has broadband, videos have become increasingly popular so our focus gradually shifts toward the demand,” Abramson said. “I think the most important thing that we do, and what any Web company can do, is really focus on the users’ experience and listen to users.”