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."
Building the BusinessGrandex has been profitable from the beginning. It had to be since neither of the cofounders came from family money. Initially, Young and Wickham implemented Google AdSense to scrape by, but advertising was never their intended business model. [image url="http://static.businessinsider.com/image/53235c7f6da811791fd10f71/image.jpg" alt="Grandex tfm traffic sources" link="lightbox" size="secondary" align="right" clear="true" source="Grandex/Google Analytics"] "We figured if we could create content that resonates with 18- to 24-year-old young adults and got them coming to a website every day, then we could build business models around the audience," Wickham says. "We were capturing our customers before we had anything to sell them." Seeking to replicate the success that College Humour had with Busted Tees, they launched an apparel arm, Rowdy Gentleman, in 2011. They designed one shirt, a pocket T with the 1984 Reagan-Bush campaign logo, (the site has a decidedly Republican tilt), ordered 72 of them (the minimum allowed), then promoted them on the site. Now Rowdy Gentleman carries a number of shirts and hats, most notably its American-pride T-shirt, which boasts "Back to Back World War Champs." The apparel is sold in 80 brick-and-mortar stores, and more than 63,000 orders were placed online last year. Wickham says Rowdy Gentleman now accounts for 80% of Grandex's total revenue. [image url="http://static.businessinsider.com/image/532358e4eab8ea27472e4d6b/image.jpg" alt="Fratty bird" link="lightbox" size="secondary" align="right" clear="true" source="Fratty Bird/Grandez"] Grandex is exploring other revenue-generating opportunities. They have teamed up with a travel company on spring-break promotions. "Total Frat Move" the book debuted at No. 7 on The New York Times best-seller list (and received a mixed review from Tucker Max himself). A movie is in development. And the company recently hired a full-time app developer to design a suite of college-related apps. The developers' first smash hit for Grandex was a "Flappy Bird" clone called "Fratty Bird." It's like the original, except the bird sports a backward baseball cap and flies past a series of frat houses. Though the app is running an AdMob banner, it's not a big moneymaker, having brought in just $US50 on its second day. But that doesn't mean people aren't playing it. Wickham's team promoted the app on all of its channels, and the game rose to the No. 7 free-app position in the App Store within 24 hours. By the next day, it had 120,000 downloads and had served 1.5 million ad impressions. It's proving to be a powerful branding tool for Grandex. A line of "Fratty Bird" T-shirts might be in the pipeline. With all their college-related endeavours combined, Wickham and Young are making a good living. Wickham says his company is generating multiple millions a year. He wouldn't give an exact number but said annual revenue is somewhere between $US2 million and $US10 million. As Wickham and Young might say on their site: Starting a blog with $US150 and a few dumb jokes and turning it into a multimedia empire. #TFM
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