The year was 2004. Gmail was brand new. Donald Trump had just started hosting The ApprenticeYouTube was still a year away.

If you were an adult back then, or at least old enough to use a computer unsupervised, I'll bet you'll remember a single, highly shared video from that year -- the kind of thing that went viral before things really went viral.

I'm talking about This Land, a cartoon making fun of both President George W. Bush and his challenger that year, Senator John Kerry, in the midst of a highly charged, contentious election.  

Well, "highly charged and contentious" by 2004 standards. It's set to the tune of Woody Guthrie's anthem, "This Land Is Your Land."

Produced by brothers Evan and Gregg Spiridellis and the company they'd co-founded, JibJab, "This Land" was a sensation, viewed by millions on every continent and even the International Space Station. 

The brothers were named People of the Year by ABC News, brought in as guests on The Tonight Show, and heralded as the vanguard of a new variety of viral digital media entertainment.

And then? Crickets. Well, maybe not crickets. But as we'll see, cockroaches. 

While JibJab looked for a minute as if it might be on the road to massive success, the brothers' company had created something ahead of its time. There simply were no easy ways to monetize widely shared Internet videos at scale back in the mid-2000s.

All of which makes it both interesting and surprising that the company is alive and profitable in 2021.

JibJab might never become a unicorn, meaning a $1 billion private company, but as one writer described the company, it's the cockroach of the internet, having survived for more than two decades online. 

(The company's big hit was 2004, but they'd been producing content since 1999.)

"My first thought was, 'Wow, they're still around?'" said JibJab's current CEO Paul Hanges, describing when he was recruited to join the company in 2016. "Then I talked to Greg and Evan and saw their passion ... and what the business is and still is, and how it sustained and continued to grow over all these years."

The Spiridellis brothers have since moved on to other projects, so nobody associated with the "This Land" video is still working with the company. After a few pivots, JibJab's main product now is a subscription-based virtual greeting card site. 

Acquired by a private equity firm in late 2018, it now has 25 full-time staff in Los Angeles and a host of freelancers. Frankly, two numbers jumped out at me and made me want to learn more:

  • First, JibJab has grown to roughly 1.4 million paid subscribers. To put that number in context, the New York Times disclosed this month that it has 7.8 million paid subscribers, but with a much bigger staff and budget.
  • New subscribers are mostly at $24 annually; some are grandfathered in at earlier, lower price points. So, if you do the math, that subscription-based revenue works out to around $30 million a year. ("That's roughly right," Hanges said. "We don't officially disclose, but you'll see elsewhere online that it's $25 to $40 million dollars in revenue. That's right.")

Actually, I'd add a third data point, which is that JibJab's customers now are almost entirely moms between 35 and 55, meaning they would have been between about 18 and 38 when "This Land" was popular back in 2004. 

So, how did JibJab pivot, persevere, and survive? According to Hanges, the company did a few things. 

  • First, it stayed platform agnostic. When email was the main distribution mechanism, they embraced it; when it was Facebook, they embraced Facebook--along with iMessage, or how ever people want to share videos at any given time. 
  • Second, they got away from politics and instead focused on what their core audience wanted to share. Over the past year for example, their most popular digital greeting card was about pandemic-themed birthdays.
  • Finally, they focused on producing content ("Make a billion people happy," as Hanges put it"), along with subscriber growth and their membership model.

"JibJab is not a billion-dollar company and a unicorn, but also has not flamed out," Hanges said, adding: "We can rightfully call ourselves the cockroach of the internet."

I root for just about any business, but I'm not here to recommend JibJab or to pan it. While I remembered "This Land" within seconds when someone reminded me, I'm just not in JibJab's target demographic these days.

Neither is Hanges--or the Spiridellis brothers, for that matter. 

But, our entrepreneurial society spends a lot of time and effort lauding and learning about the stories behind the biggest business successes--the fast-growth, billion-dollar unicorns.

Many entrepreneurs dream of building the next one. But it's another kind of challenge entirely to adapt and survive, not just through one business cycle or trend, but through a whole bunch of them, lasting decades.

Being a cockroach doesn't sound too bad when you put it that way. Check in with me around 2038, and let me know how it's going.