"I was not a typical child," says Emerson Spartz, who planted the seeds for Spartz Media as a precocious 12-year-old. Having convinced his parents that he should be allowed to home school himself, he read voraciously, looking for patterns in the biographies of successful people. "People who change the world tend to be influential before they change the world," he says. "And so I became interested in influence, and one kind of influence is viralty. If you can make things go viral, that’s the closest you can get to having a human superpower."
Spartz is not yet the real-world equivalent of Iron Man, but he may be on his way. At 12 years old, he built a website called MuggleNet, a Harry Potter fan site that attracted 50 million monthly page views after it launched. At 15, he was living a rock-star life, hosting live fan events for crowds of 10,000 (accompanied by his mom). Along the way, J.K. Rowling invited him to interview her in Scotland upon the release of the sixth Harry Potter book. "It went extremely viral because she rarely does interviews," says Spartz.
While attending Notre Dam "for fun," Spartz met his future wife, Gaby, who had also created a website (Daily Cute) at age 12. "I hit the jackpot," he says. Now, MuggleNet and DailyCute (which features lots of baby animals) are just two of the web properties that are part of Spartz Media, the company they co-founded. Spartz now has 12 websites, mobile sites, and apps that attract 17 million readers and 160 million monthly page views. They include OMG Facts, Smartphowned, Unfriendable, among others, that appeal primarily to high school and college students.
"We launch a new website every six weeks with a 90 percent success rate," says Spartz, adding that he uses predictive science to measure the viral potential of his websites, which include GivesMeHope.com, a site that runs uplifting and inspiring true stories. "We’ve received thousands of letters from people saying that something on the site kept them strong enough to keep a marriage together, or stay in school, or even kept them for killing themselves," says Spartz.
The company’s audience creates more than 5,000 pieces of content every day and Spartz says that he’s developed a proprietary system for determining what posts will go viral. "Think of it as an awesomeness meter," he says. That algorithm tells the company what to promote via its extensive social media presence (it has over 12 million followers on Facebook, YouTube, and Twitter). The massive traffic that follows attracts an increasingly large amount of ad revenue, the sole source of Spartz Media’s revenue.
On deck for the company: 25 new websites this year. Spartz’s criteria are clear. "We want to spend less than $30,000 building each one, take less than three weeks to build it, and it has to deliver at least three times return on investment." And he’s doing it all with just a small round of capital, raised recently to acquire other properties. "After three years of audience building, we’re now beginning to focus on growing revenue," he says.
2012 Jeremy Johnson of 2tor, Ben Milne of Dwolla, Lucas Buick and Ryan Dorshorst co-founders of Hipstamatic, Zach Sims and Ryan Bubinski, co-founders of Codeacademy, and Amy Jain and Daniella Yacobovsky, co-founders of BaubleBar join our illustrious annual list. Plus the start-up stories of Pinterest, Spotify, GiveFoward, and Back to the Roots.
2011 Read about Kevin Systrom and Mike Krieger of Instagram, Matt Mickiewicz of 99designs, and Hayley Barna and Katia Beauchamp of Birchbox. Plus the start-up stories of Quora, Onswipe, Dropbox, Foodspotting, and Gemvara.
2010 Meet Alexa von Tobel of Learnvest, Naveen Selvadurai of Foursquare, Jack Abraham of Mint.com, plus the founders of Rent the Runway, Airbnb, Crowdflower, Posterous, LivingSocial, and Urban Escapes (now part of Living Social).
2009 Pete Cashmore of Mashable, Elliott Bisnow of Summit Series, Danielle and Jodie Snyder of Dannijo, Jamail Larkins of Larkins Enterprises were included on our 2009 list, as were the teams behind ModCloth, Thrillist, IdeaPaint, Foodzie, and Justin.TV.