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Comedy is hard, but making money from comedy online is harder

When you’re competing against every funny video ever made, JibJab CEO Gregg Spiridellis asks, “where’s the money that can afford the investment?”

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JibJab’s personalized memes Courtesy Gregg Spiridellis

It took five years for JibJab to become an overnight success. In 2004, when the digital entertainment company released a parody of the U.S. presidential election called “This Land,” it was on the verge of going out of business.

“We were at the point where we were like, ‘The internet’s never gonna be used for entertainment,’” JibJab CEO Gregg Spiridellis said on the latest episode of Recode Decode. “We were about to give up, but we knew that election cycles were really big for comedy.”

So, Spiridellis and his brother/co-founder Evan decided to take “one more shot” — and it worked.

“We did 80 million views, back in 2004,” Spiridellis told Recode’s Kara Swisher and Chorus CEO Dick Costolo. “There was no YouTube. We needed to string together a global network of mirroring sites because we had a $400-a-month shared server in Texas ... A week from thinking we may have to give up the business, we were on the couch with Jay Leno.”

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It’s in large part because of YouTube that JibJab’s last-minute rescue wouldn’t happen today. Realizing they had captured “lightning in a bottle” with “This Land,” and recognizing the “tornado on the horizon” that was free-to-distribute online video, the Spiridellis brothers pivoted to personalized online greeting cards like Elf Yourself; today, the greeting cards have morphed into personalized apps for messaging platforms like iMessage, and JibJab has produced two seasons of a children’s show for Netflix, StoryBots.

On the new podcast, Spiridellis said a viral video like “This Land” — which had a shelf life of months as friends and family members traded it over emails — just couldn’t go viral to the same degree. Back in 2004, the options for entertainment online were so much fewer that striking gold with a funny video for the masses was at least somewhat attainable.

“I would bet — and I don’t have any proof of this — of everyone who saw a video in July of 2004, I bet we had 90-plus percent share,” Spiridellis said. “That just doesn’t happen anymore. Now we’re in a world where everything is so targeted.”

“I think ‘mass funny’ is, where’s the money that can afford the investment?” he added. “If you look at Jimmy Fallon or this great, super-well-prodcued video content, it’s really hard to compete against that, if you’re just looking at digital.”

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