In 2010, Madison Wickham got a call from his old fraternity brother Ryan Young. Young was training to be a firefighter, but he also had a great idea for a website.
A former psychology major at Texas State University, Wickham was working as a front-end Web designer and developer in Austin. Listening to people’s terrible startup ideas went with the territory.
Young and Wickham had been brothers in the Kappa Alpha fraternity before graduating in 2007. While they were in school, a catchphrase caught on: “Total frat move.” Brothers said it whenever they told ridiculous stories about girls, drinking, and college.
Young had seen other acronyms — such as FML (F–k My Life) and TFLN (Texts From Last Night) — explode on the Internet. He thought TFM had similar potential.
That was it; the whole idea was right there.
“I thought it had promise,” Wickham says.
Young ditched his firefighter training and teamed up with Wickham to create a blog featuring fratty one-liners followed by their acronyms. Wickham designed and coded the site, which launched on June 1, 2010, with total upfront costs of $US150 for hosting (although they later did rack up some credit-card debt).
The site allowed readers to post TFMs of their own, which they started doing immediately. Before long, the site also popularised NF (Not Frat) and GDI (God Damn Independents — students who aren’t members of Greek life).
“A sick lax pinnie, khaki shorts, and sperrys is my required work from home dress code. TFM,” one early post read.
“If I had a nickel for every time I heard the phrase ‘You’re an arsehole’ I wouldn’t be any richer. I’m too frat and too rich to give a sh*t about nickels. TFM,” read another.
They named their company Grandex and quickly expanded, creating sites for sorority sisters (Total Sorority Move) and recent graduates (Post Grad Problems). Combined, they now generate 18 million monthly unique visitors and 22 million pageviews. The sorority site accounts for nearly half of that traffic. The company has moved beyond one-liners to pictures of attractive women with shocking headlines, crazy party stories, and original content about college life. The company will clear several million in revenue this year. Grandex Inc. has 24 employees who work in a 5,000-square-foot office in Westlake Hills, Texas. Amazingly, the partners never took a dime of investment money until this past January, when the company reluctantly raised its first round -- just $US100,000, from the former CFO of Dell Inc., Jim Schneider. They didn't take his money because they needed it; they wanted him on board as an adviser, and a small investment would give him some skin in the game. [image url="http://static.businessinsider.com/image/532350406da811ea5fd10f87/image.jpg" alt="Ryan young total frat move grandex" link="lightbox" size="primary" align="center" clear="true" source="Madison Wickham/TFM" caption="Ryan Young, a cofounder of Grandex, working from the original 500-square-foot office off South Congress Avenue."] While many media startups today grow on the back of Facebook, Total Frat Move and Grandex focused early marketing efforts on Twitter. Its 140-character limit seemed like the perfect home for TFM's stream of one-liners. Wickham and Young scrolled through Twitter profiles and tried to identify the frattiest-looking avatars -- guys sporting Vineyard Vines shirts and baseball caps. "We started following people who fit the part," Wickham says, "not just any fraternity guy, but that southern, stereotypical fraternity guy who we thought had a high probability of sharing it with friends." The Twitter stalking was enough to drum up a loyal following without guerrilla marketing or paid advertising. The growth was slow and steady, and, by December 2011, Total Frat Move reached 1 million monthly uniques. Wickham says no single story put the site on the map; instead, it was the collection of one-liners that got passed along. It was a gradual explosion. Total Frat Move is one of several popular guy-oriented destinations that, along such sites as Barstool Sports, Guyism, and Brobible, target the demographic identified a few years previously by Tucker Max. They all owe their success, at least in part, to a willingness to publish the sort of raunchy, politically questionable content their audience loves. A recent lead story on Total Frat Move showed two women kissing. The headline: "Playboy Models Make Their Own 'First Kiss' Video, It's Astoundingly Boner Provoking." Wickham says the sexually explicit material hardly appears on Total Sorority Move and Post Grad Problems. He says it's rare on Total Frat Move, most content being "PG-13 and below." "The R-rated stuff accounts for a small minority of our overall traffic and content offering," he says. "Raunchy comedy is definitely a part of the TFM brand, but that's not solely what defines the brand. It's comedy and entertainment for 18- to 24-year-old males, so this type of content will always be a part of the TFM offering." Other content published by Grandex has been criticised as racist, sexist, and classist. An early TFM one-liner might be interpreted as a joke about nonconsensual sex: "Had to buy plan B the next day because neither of us remembered the details of everything that went down after the bar. At least she let me use her dad's credit card. TFM." In November 2013, a Missouri State student was offended by a TFM article that argued that women with short hair are less attractive. At the time, it was one of TFM's most-read stories. "Surely a website whose top trending article is 'Why Girls Should Not Cut Their Hair Short' is from an ancient era, not the 21st century, where gender equality has become the societal norm?" Taylor Brim wrote in November. A Stanford University sorority member was appalled to find posts knocking liberals and prudent women while celebrating rich brats:
"Turns out Obama and I do have something in common. We both love spending my dad's money. TFM." "No sex on the first date technically makes it the last date. TFM.""Anyone who works hard (in school, in their job, in anything besides 'fratting it up'), lives anywhere besides the South, doesn't have a large trust fund, has different political ideas (i.e., is not a Republican) or isn't part of Greek life is NF [Not Frat] and therefore is to be relegated to below-human status," the student wrote
"Anyone who works hard, lives anywhere besides the South, doesn't have a large trust fund, has different political ideas or isn't part of Greek life is NF [Not Frat] and therefore is to be relegated to below-human status.. "The posters on this website act like arrogant fools ... Being stuck-up, uneducated, and misogynistic is anything but what Greek life is about." Sometimes, TFM draws attention to inappropriate college behaviour and encourages reform. In October, a leaked email from a Georgia Tech fraternity, Phi Kappa Tau, was published by Total Frat Move; it read like a how-to guide on raping women and was signed "In luring rapebait." Total Frat Move called the email the "rapiest ever." Within hours, Gawker site Jezebel picked up the story. The email made national headlines and was discussed on CBS. Thanks to the attention TFM brought to the email, the Georgia Tech fraternity was put on probation and the email's sender was suspended from the house. The offender issued a public apology: "I am deeply sorry ... As hard as it may be to believe, it was written as a joke for a small audience that understood the context and that it is neither my nor my fraternity's actual beliefs on the subject. I have now come to realise this is a very serious topic that should not be taken lightly." For Wickham's team, deciding what to publish is a delicate balance between entertaining and educating its college-age readers. "We use our best judgment and determine what is and isn't appropriate based on the collective moral compass of our content team," Wickham says. "There are certainly lines that we will not cross, but it is nearly impossible to create entertaining content without someone being offended by your work. What makes TFM so authentic (and popular) is that the content is so true to the lifestyle of the millennial generation." It's an antidote, he says, "to the abundance of watered-down, inauthentic content coming out of the entertainment industry."