This is a story about the awkward, dated photos that your parents are probably still displaying in their house somewhere--and about the guys who turned them into gold.
Meet Mike Bender and Doug Chernack, childhood friends who became Hollywood screenwriters. They managed a few IMDB credits to their names (Bender wrote the 2001 comedy, Not Another Teen Movie), but they're best known for a simple website they built called Awkward Family Photos.
AFP, as they call it for short, led quickly to an audience--and then to a couple of New York Times-bestselling books, a traveling museum, and a calendar series. Now they have a new podcast, and they're even talking about a potential Awkward Family-themed restaurant chain.
Lots of people start websites and build audiences, but most get stuck trying to turn them into real businesses. I talked with Mike recently about how he and Doug started Awkward Family Photos, and what they built it into over the past eight years. Here's what he had to say.
It all started with a goofy skiing photo...
Bender had been a working screenwriter for almost 13 years, but the business had changed since he first came to Hollywood, and he was looking for something else. On a trip home to visit visit family in New Jersey in 2009, he said, he noticed a photo his mother had hung on the wall--and it changed his career.
"It was this cringeworthy ski photo, where my father had my brother and I do 'Rockettes kicks' with our skis. Soon after I got back to Los Angeles, I was at lunch with Doug, and we were talking about how we all have those kinds of photos in our houses. We decided to start a very simple website with about a dozen of our own embarrassing pics, and asked people to send in their awkward family photos," he told me."In about a week's time, it took off,."
It was simply a fun little project at first, Bender said, with no monetization strategy. But within the first two weeks, they had tons of traffic--and an acquisition offer.
A simple website becomes a business
"We got an offer from Ben Huh at Cheezburger Network to buy the site. Believe me, we thought long and hard about it," he said. "It was two weeks of work and we could have walked away with a decent amount of money."
Instead, they decided that the learning experience of running the site could outweigh any short-term financial gain. But that meant quickly finding a way to turn their basic website into a business.
"Quite frankly, we had no idea what to do. Curating submissions from all over the world was a full time job. It wasn't really until we started hearing from book publishers that we realized this could be a real business.
Those publishing inquiries ultimately led to two New York Times bestselling books, and a decision to sell calendars and other products highlighting their readers' submissions.
"We have about 7 employees now," Mike told me. "I'm focused on the creative; Doug is focused more on the business side of things, working closely with brands on integrations and managing our ad platform. We bring different skill-sets to the table, and more importantly, we've known each other since high school, so there is a trust there."
A podcast and a restaurant?
The site's traffic has waxed and waned over the years, but Bender said they're focused on a few specific areas now, including building their social media traffic, doing a podcast, and looking for investors for a restaurant chain.
I'll leave it to him to explain how you turn a visual site like Awkward Family Photos into a podcast, where by definition the audience can't see the photos. (The podcast is part of the Panoply Pilot Project, where listeners decide which podcasts get greenlit for a full season. You can vote by subscribing to the podcast on iTunes, here.)
The podcast gives us an opportunity to look deeper into what exactly is going in some of the more mysteriously awkward pics. We get the chance to talk to the real people and families and hear their stories, which are often much different than you would think.
We also felt that if we were going to ask people to put their awkwardness out there for the world to see, we should as well. So, the podcast is hosted by myself and my wife and journalist, SuChin Pak (who is way more qualified to be hosting a podcast than me btw) and we will also be sharing uncomfortable moments from our own family.
Got an idea to turn a blog into a business? Let us know in the comments below--and if you're really daring, share an awkward family photo of your own.