Emerson Spartz is 28 years old today, married, a college grad, and CEO of Spartz Inc, a media empire of websites that publish funny, inspirational, and mind-blowing posts that people love to share.
And it all began when he was 12 years old. That was when he dropped out of grade school, taught himself to code, and created a Harry Potter fan site called Mugglenet that would become (and still is) the most popular Harry Potter fan website on the ‘net.
A precocious kid teaches himself
The year was 1999. The internet was young and J. K. Rowling had just released the third book in her international phenom Harry Potter series, “Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban.”
Spartz told us, “I convinced my parents to let me drop out of school and started home schooling myself.
It was a self-directed curriculum and my parents were wonderfully open-minded about the possibility of doing this. I was a precocious child.”
He wanted to “build stuff” and he when he came across a free webpage maker he was intrigued. He spent a month building websites that went nowhere until he came up with Mugglenet.
He liked it but he didn’t know how to get people to come and use it.
“So I just emailed every single Harry Potter webmaster on the entire internet. This was before search engines were a thing, so it was an enormously difficult process. I emailed thousands of them and a few hundred got back to me, and we linked to each other. And people started to come to the website.”
Mugglenet quickly grew to become the No. 1 Harry Potter fan website.
“I had to grow up in a hurry because I was managing a part paid/part volunteer team of 120 people. I kept my age a fiercely guarded secret, thinking as soon as they knew, I would have to deal with mass departures,” he tells us.
To run the site he had to teach himself how to code, write, edit, design, and manage projects and people.
Mugglenet grew into a collection of properties including an huge chat forum, role-playing games, and a huge fan fiction site.
“We published a number of books, one of which became a New York Times bestseller. We also had the No. 1 podcast in the world,” he said. It also sold merchandise.
At the peak of Harry Potter mania, Mugglenet was generating “hundreds of thousands of dollars a year in revenue. For many years,” he tells us.
He still owns the site as part of Spartz, and it’s still a top Harry Potter site, although he no longer runs it day to day.
Discovering a human superpower
As a kid tech mogul, “I learned a tremendous amount from this experience. And my parents stayed pretty much out of my way, they let me study whatever I wanted. But one thing they did do, which was really smart (I mean, I complained about it all the time back then), I had to read four short biographies of successful people every day,” he says.
“This shattered my little 12-year-old brain. I started to think really big. I started to think like: if I can do all this and I’m only 12, imagine what I can do at 17? 17 seemed so old because they could drive cars,” he laughs.
He quickly came to one conclusion: “People who change the world tend to be extraordinary influential before they changed the world. Influence and impact were inextricably linked and the more influence you have, the more impact you could create.”
And this in turn, “set in motion for me a lifelong fascination with influence. There was one type of influence in particular that really captured my imagination: virality. I thought, if you could make things go viral, that’s like having a human superpower. You could influence elections, you could overthrow dictators, you could start movements, you could revolutionise entire industries.”
An obsession with virality
When he was old enough, he decided it would be “fun” to go to college and he got into Notre Dame. He had no high school grades or transcripts, but his scores on his standardised tests and his experience as a tech CEO did the trick.
While in school, he gave himself another challenge, much like his parents did: Read one non-fiction book every day.
“I wanted to be able to connect dots and see patterns between different industries,” he says, so he read books on business, politics, economics, science, and studied SEC filings, research, abstracts, textbooks.
And he had also come to another conclusion.
“It would be a waste of time to learn all this stuff and not be able to remember it or apply it in relevant situations. Being able to learn provides an exponential return on the investment,” he says. It’s like “wishing for more wishes.”
So he did a deep dive into the human mind: neural science, cognitive and behavioural science, and the science of learning.
Learning, he discovered, required a three-part process: “reading, reviewing, and rehearsing.” To retain what he learned he built “repetition schedules” where he would review important concepts a day, a week, and months later.
To “rehearse” he built what he calls “frameworks” which set up practice schedules for certain skills like persuasion, negotiation, innovation.
For instance, to practice innovation, he went to Walmart and randomly picked up items and tried to come up with versions of the items for each business model he studied.
If he picked up a dry erase marker, he’d ask could it be built for the luxury business model?
“Could I sell more expensive dry erase markers for status to people with enough disposable income? Obviously that’s not an exciting idea. Is there a ‘long tail’ model? Could I let people customise their own dry erase markers? Again, that’s a stupid idea, but it’s really just about practicing generating ideas.”
What he really wanted was a way to figure out the “probably of success” of any given idea. Which ideas could become the $US1 billion ideas?
And that gave him the idea to build an algorithm for predicting how ideas go viral.
Facebook was the ‘petri dish’
He used Facebook as a “petri dish,” he says, to see which basic pages he could get to go viral.
“I created dozens of pages that collected from zero to millions of fans over a few hours to a few days. I was testing hundreds of different variables to see which ones correlated with virality until I could tell within 20 seconds which ones were going to go viral.”
He did the same on Twitter, “getting millions of followers” and on YouTube, Tumblr, with web sites.
Although each platform has its own quirks, and some are better than others in allowing people to share information, the basic principles were the same.
The secret to viral content is:
- It invokes an emotional response, from humour to inspiration/hope.
- It’s a percentage game, he says. Any given piece of content may not be widely shared. But the more pieces of emotionally charged content you produce, the more likely they will go viral.
- Virality is contagious. You can use the success of one piece of content or popular website to seed another.
He married another 12-year-old web entrepreneur
While in college, he met his wife and co-founder, Gabby Montero-Spartz.
When she was 12, she also built a website that became wildly popular in the early 2000s called The Daily Cute. At its peak, it had over 30,000 unique visitors per day, the site says.
They had similar childhoods, “So we started building things together,” he describes.
They build a site called “Gives me hope” where people could share uplifting, true personal stories, and it went viral in 2009. They launched one that lets people share love stories and one where people shared secrets.
All told those sites generated half a billion page views since 2009, he says.
Spartz’s brother came to work for him as did his best friend from college. They launched some humour sites, including one where people shared funny iPhone autocorrects, which went nuts in 2011-2012 and got a billion page views, Spartz tells us.
From zero to 45 million readers a month
A year and half in, they launched OMGfacts.com, which focuses on interesting things youdidn’t know, and Dose.com, which focuses on everything else.
They also started hiring writers and staff.
Both those sites are doing well, too, Spartz says.
In just over a year, “we went from nothing to 45 million monthly unique visitors, which is where we are now.”
He’s now at the point where Dose isn’t just a website, but a platform that runs the other sites. Its claim to fame is how it can track and measure how likely any piece of content is to be shared, how it went viral and why.
The sites earn revenue by selling ads through “programmatic” advertising, where an ad network automatically places an ad as a visitor views a page. But he has plans to start selling more custom ads to companies.
“Our plan in 2015 is to start using our tech to help brands and agencies make viral content. There’s nothing that we’re doing that couldn’t help brands and agencies do the same,” he says.
About that super power
Spartz admits that while he’s become an authority on virality, he hasn’t yet influenced an election or overthrown a dictator, or even started a movement.
But he’s still working on being that powerful.
“I look at life is if I’m a character in an RPG game, I know that’s the most extraordinary nerdy way to think. But I’m a character and I’m trying to get myself and my companies to keep levelling up. As we gain experiences, we create value to the world through the educational and entertainment and inspirational content that we’re creating,” he says.
Beyond that, he says, creating hits is “just a really fun puzzle and makes me excited and go to work each day.”