As a longtime fan of content aggregator brands like Digg.com, in September of 2013 I had an itch to launch a viral site that would follow the same basic principles of theirs and a number of the other similar sites you’d always see shared on Facebook (ViralNova.com, Distractify.com, ShockMansion.com, etc). Idea being, if they could do it, so could I.
While roaming the isles of my local Kroger store, I called up one of my best friends, Michael Kelly, and gave him the let’s be partners spiel. “Hey man, so I know you’re addicted to Break.com. I have an idea.” In explaining the details of the site, the plan was to be a real no expectations kind of project, one that we did entirely for fun. This was something that was right up his alley and he didn’t hesitate to say yes.
While Mike, at the time, wasn’t all that familiar with e-business or website development, he is one of those rare humans that you can basically shove out of the car into pretty much any situation and he will quickly excel and somehow learn everything he needs to know, in record time. It’s freaky. He also had a background in graphic design, which was helpful.
We dug into my arsenal of domains, chose Unlooker.com, tossed up a WordPress site within a couple of hours and started mapping out the kind of content that this project would be known for.
You know it’s going to be an interesting day when you roll out of bed to see that you’ve already had 1.2 Million Visitors…..that morning.
If It Doesn’t Spread, It’s Dead.
The Unlooker project was a major departure from my usual high-brow ethics, because it’s goal was specifically to take advantage of the salacious, facts-be-damned mentality that is so common amongst today’s internet users. We would feed them a steady stream of exactly the kind of thing that would anger, inspire, and cause enough controversy to get them talking. We wanted the pissed off people in the comments section, the internet trolls threatening our safety. It’s like harnessing the stupidity of Fox News, minus the bullshit political agenda.
Just how low brow would we go? Let’s just say that Miley Cyrus’ scandalous VMA performance ended up an important win for Unlooker. Her twerking around the stage like a horny barnyard cat happened to coincide as one of our very first posts and it attracted an impressive 10,000 views in the first few hours. This wasn’t a ton of views by the eventual Unlooker standards, but it was the proof of concept we needed to carry on with passion.
The Method To The Madness.
The Facebook of 2013 was vastly different for outbound links than it is today. At the time, you could post something on your account and reasonably expect that a good number of people would see it. This was essentially the lifeline of Unlooker, and made it a mere mathematical equation of figuring out what would go viral, putting out as much of that as possible at regular intervals and betting on enough of those posts taking off on a consistent basis to keep traffic numbers high. It’s chaotic, but there is a science to it.
For this reason, Mike and I started reaching out to the some of the funniest people we knew to give logins to and post whenever and whatever they felt like. Idea being that the more people with vast social networks and twisted senses of humor, the better. Pearce Cleaveland, Todd Dirks and Michael Mills were our first three targets.
Pearce ended up being too busy to post anything, Todd had a few good ones and then, ever the entrepreneur, Mills saw the potential in the project and wanted to be more involved. He had a number of skillsets that would be useful (and a wicked Boston accent), so he was in. From there Mike, Mills and I were the three musketeers of Unlooker.com.
Hold Onto Your Asses, The Servers Are Crashing.
We each had an initial goal of posting around three Unlooker articles a day, for a group total of 10 – 12. This was designed to help keep the front page of the site fresh with content, but eventually served to create a healthy competition for who would have the most traffic each day.
The first post knocked out of the park, with an eventual 1,160,789 views on our site, was Casey Neistat’s video where he got a ticket from the NYPD for not riding in the bike lane, and then filmed himself crashing into all of the obstacles in bike lanes – including a cop car.
The Mikes and I took turns taking credit for one heavy hitting video after another, which quickly turned into 100,000 unique visitors being considered a bad day.
Not planning for millions of visitors, our original hosting was a measly shared account on GoDaddy.com. Yes, the $14.99 a month plan, and, yes, that immediately crashed. I called their customer service and migrated to an upgraded $150 per month account that was supposed to work better.
It took about 2 days for our next big post to crash that one, too.
Undeterred, we maxed out GoDaddy’s offerings with a $250 a month dedicated server, which also crashed, but for a different reason. We didn’t know shit all about server management and, unknown to us at the time, WordPress can be a pretty terrible platform for high traffic sites since it isn’t all that optimized for server demand and load times. You live and learn, especially with servers.
Needing a quick fix, we migrated servers a 4th time in our first couple of months to the completely awesome WP Engine (also $250 a month), which is a hosting company that specializes in managing WordPress sites. Our traffic immediately dwarfed that hosting account, too, and we were pushed into a $600 a month plan. For those of you counting, that’s FIVE server migrations in under 60 days. Do you get a Boyscout badge for that one?
Insider Tip: If you run even a somewhat demanding WordPress site, WPEngine.com is legit. Their uptime is flawless and their customer service extremely on point.
We enjoyed a decent amount of press, got the attention of major networks like CBS, submissions from the Conan O’Brien staff, had a cameo on Tosh.O and fielded some pretty attractive offers. Not bad for being only a few months old.
It’s All A Numbers Game.
Sites like Unlooker.com make their money through advertising networks. As a result, they live and die by the amount of ridiculous traffic numbers that they can achieve on a regular basis. Until you’re seasoned enough to have a dedicated sales force who can assist in maximizing your CPM rates into the stratosphere with premium advertisers that a TMZ.com is going to enjoy, you’re pretty much limited to the basic display and promoted post options. On good days, we would see $1.50 CPM on display ads and $2.80 on promoted posts, which would average to us making around $4 for every 1,000 visitors.
For Unlooker to work in the long run, we needed to capture as many Facebook likes, e-mail addresses and devoted fans who would accept our call to action promotions or log into our main page each day. Even with millions of page views, capturing loyalty from those single use visitors is a pretty difficult task.
Another set of important numbers we found out the hard way, were January’s advertising rates. As in, they are in the toilet. All of the major companies weight their advertising towards Q4, so Q1 are at pennies on the dollar. Wasn’t uncommon to see $.30 CPM rates, down from $1.50. This is relevant, because January was one of our strongest months. Oops.
Casting A Big Net.
While it isn’t always a feat easily achieved, one of my favorite tactics in business is to do something that gets a lot of attention. Because with attention, comes opportunity….in droves. Our seemingly meteoric traffic numbers skyrocketed our Alexa ranking to be one of the top 15,000 sites almost immediately, which caught the attention of pretty much every ad network on earth. One of our partnering networks, Taboola, would call on a regular basis and say that our daily revenues were exceeding such juggernauts as Mashable.com and the WallStreetJournal.
We also received a decent amount of press, submissions from major companies like CBS, calls from the Conan O’Brien staff, had a cameo on Tosh.O and, as you’ll see below, had some interesting offers. Not bad for being only a few months old.
Businesses For Sale, Come Get Your Business!
In coincidental timing, my partner on another site of mine had decided it was time to sell and we were fielding offers from various equity firms. With Unlooker being one of the internet’s darlings du jour, it was also getting attractive interest from publicly held companies.
In what quickly ended up with me feeling like I was having a company clearance sale; not one, not two, but FOUR of my sites were suddenly being courted by multiple major buyers for acquisition….all in the same week.
Unlooker was of particular interest to a relatively new digital media company, because we had built a special ability for getting things to go viral in frequent succession. We knew what was cool, they wanted our team onboard to help build their 18 – 35 demographic.
In several days of back and forth negotiations, Unlooker received an offer for what was the then equivalent of $500,000 in stock, plus $90,000 a year jobs for each of us to work full time at their company. Since I was already exiting my other brands in separate deals, this was an attractive deal to me — one that I definitely argued in favor of, but that even I wasn’t entirely sold on. It required my working for someone else full time, and I hadn’t ever done that. I get the impression I’d be a shitty, yet hugely profitable employee.
Mills was moving to England, no matter what, so he didn’t like the idea of exchanging a growing company for stock and then not being guaranteed anything beyond that fluctuating asset. Mike Kelly had spent years developing his engineering career and wasn’t confident that it was the right move to get into something completely unknown, in something he was only invested in for a matter of months.
In the end, we opted not to sell. This was an expensive decision, but one that (likely) ended up being a better move for all three partners.
Breaking News: Facebook Deals A Deathblow.
In the weeks and months after the company fire sale, I was busy sorting obligations for the other acquisitions and often neglected my posting duties. Mike and Mills valiantly took up the slack in posts (and in yelling at me for not posting more often….) and each received a couple more heavy hitters in the viral department. Unfortunately, Unlooker.com was about to receive a fatal death blow in the form of Facebook updating their algorithm. It was exactly what we had feared for months.
Since our recipe was based on an exponential number of people sharing a video to viral status, we needed the most number of people to always see each post. Facebook, wanting users to always stay on their site, made the decision to slash the number of views any post that led to an outside site would even see.
In other words, for every 100 friends you have on Facebook, only a small handful were even seeing posts to Unlooker.com. The math was no longer in our favor.
Our daily traffic eventually plummeted into the mere thousands of daily visitors, which wasn’t enough to pay our now heavily bloated hosting bills. We had built up a pretty decent company bank account for Unlooker Media LLC and would eventually invest in a number of ideas to revive the site, but the traffic never recovered and we ended up just cutting out while we were ahead.
In another twist of fate for the now beleaguered brand, GoDaddy had messed up in migrating it back to their (much cheaper) server and we lost all of our data without any real backup. We had now lost Unlooker as a brand, and, literally, lost Unlooker as a site.
I bought out both of my partners for $500 (yes, $500) and we went on our way about it. Michael Kelly and I tried a couple of unsuccessful reboots, but the site has basically sat abandoned since, collecting a dwindling $200 a month in residual Adwords revenue from the bigger posts that still get traffic.
Lessons Learned from the Unlooker Project.
I can’t speak for Mike and Mills on all of the things that they learned from our time with the Unlooker project, but I can say with certainty that this was a consequential site for both Mike Kelly and I. He ultimately left engineering and got into digital media full time, now operating IRS.com, Banks.com, Bikini.com, and UtilityTips.com.
For me, the entire experience was more an educational one. I learned an entirely different side of the display advertising industry, the dynamics of things going viral, how to prepare for large amounts of traffic, negotiating acquisitions, was reminded of the tediousness of posting things regularly and given a reinvigorated passion for learning as many facets of e-business as possible.
Also, while I’ll likely earn considerably more money on my own projects than I would have had I accepted a full-time position in conjunction with an acquisition of the site, the one regret I have is that I didn’t have the option to make that decision on my own accord. With respect to my partners on this one, that isn’t something I’m used to. In future partnerships, I’ll sleep better at night knowing I’m in complete control of all major decisions.
In the end, we all had a blast working on Unlooker.com and I’d work with either of my business partners again in a heartbeat. On to the next one.