If you don’t like challenges, don’t start a company. At least that’s what JibJab founder Gregg Spiridellis advises based on his experiences. “Everything is an enormous challenge. From discovering a market opportunity, to defining your product, to getting traction with an audience, to hiring the great people you will need to make your vision a reality.”Gregg worked as an investment banker for a few years and spent time “recovering” by attending the Wharton School of Business. “I started my company after I graduated with my MBA in 1999,” he says. “I figured I was already broke so it was the perfect time to start a business.”
Though Gregg didn’t start his company until much later, he says his desire to become an entrepreneur started at a much younger age. “I guess you could say that the journey began even earlier. My father was an entrepreneur and from the time that I was a kid I always knew that someday I would start a business.”
He decided to keep entrepreneurship in the family – his brother Evan was an independent filmmaker, and was working on developing a television show while Gregg was finishing his MBA. “I encouraged him to explore some of the new technologies coming online that would enable him to produce and distribute his work worldwide without having to go through a traditional media company intermediary,” he says. They started discussing how to pull it off and decided to partner up and start JibJab, an online digital entertainment studio that creates, produces, and distributes material that makes people laugh.
The company was started in 1999, and was originally located in a Brooklyn garage. The brothers originally supported themselves producing e-cards for other websites. In 2000 they created an extremely popular viral video about he U.S. Presidential election, the first time their content made it on mainstream news outlets.In 2002 they relocated to Los Angeles, and spent time working with companies like Sony to produce online content. They hit it big with another set of election videos for the 2004 U.S. Presidential campaign, which were viewed over 80 million times by the end of the election and resulted in Peter Jennings naming the brothers “People of the Year” on ABC World News in 2004.
Despite their success with online videos and content, in 2007 they decided to take the business in a different direction. “We had raised venture money (from Polaris Venture Partners) and were trying to figure out how to create a highly profitable, highly scalable business model that was based on our unique creative and distribution skills,” he says. “We realised that the advertising and branded entertainment business was going to be very tough to scale so I set out on a mission to find other businesses we could enter and win.”
It was after discovering that American Greetings had an $80 million e-cards business that Gregg found that opportunity. “I knew it was a space we could enter and innovate and open up to a much broader audience given what was happening in social media.” Their new e-cards included their line of Starring You cards that allowed people to add photos of friends and family to their cards.
According to Spiridellis, as of June 2010 the personalised videos and images have been viewed over 400 million times. The series also inspired them to set up a paid membership tier to the site, so members could have access to exclusive paid content – they’re now processing over one million transactions per year.
He says his experiences pivoting the company’s direction and business model have taught him not to define your business too narrowly. “Given the success we have had in this space, my advice would be to never think narrowly about what ‘business’ you are in. Constantly assess opportunities to put your skills as an organisation to work in whatever market is most attractive.”
In the years they’ve been making people laugh through their videos, e-cards, and other multimedia, the Spiridellis brothers have worked with big brands including Disney. Gregg says working with multi-national corporations taught him that the best situation for any business is to be self-sufficient and not to depend on any partnerships. “Today we have a very robust direct-to-consumer business and it allows us to focus on the interest of the audience as opposed to the interest of a third-party brand or partner,” he says.
Though they’ve had millions of views on their videos, have raised funding successfully and pivoted to support a sustainable business model, Gregg says he’s most proud of the team he’s assembled. “The proudest milestone is every morning when I walk into the office, 11+ years after my brother and I started JibJab, and the lights are still on,” he says. “In all seriousness, there have been dozens of milestones crossed given how long we have been in business but the one we are proudest of is the collection of great people we have assembled to work on building out our vision.”
Gregg says one of the keys to his success has been his partnership with his brother. “Find a great partner with complimentary skill sets when you start your business,” he says. “My brother and I were able to accomplish so much with very little in terms of resources because we each had skills that covered a broad spectrum of things with very little overlap,” he says. He also advises entrepreneurs to figure out some way to use the skills they have to make money as early as possible in the life of the venture, even if it is not the core business. “For example, JibJab always did a small amount of agency work to pay the bills, even though the vision was to build an original entertainment brand,” he says. “Having some cash flow enabled us to keep chipping away at the dream.”
With another presidential election coming up next year it might be expected that the Spiridellis brothers will be working on another series of funny videos. But according to Gregg, next on the agenda is “new products, new brands, and new platforms.” And maybe even a viral video or two.