But rarely do you hear about the company’s ups & downs, the key moves they have made to pivot with each trend and grow along the way.
Which made our recent visit to their new space in Marina Del Rey such a wonder.
JibJab HQ has its own madhouse dynamic, with a three-tube slide from the mezzanine into the office’s open work space, as well as breakaway rooms named after hugely influential creators such as Henson and Hopper.
Then you hear about JibJab’s journey from its humble roots in Brooklyn 1999 to their current state today, and it plays out like the ups & downs & ups of every creator and studio, from Disney on.
In the words of CEO Gregg Spiridellis, he and his artist brother Evan “wanted to be the SNL of the web.”
Gregg, a Wharton MBA who had spent a couple years as an investment banker, saw huge opportunity as the web started coming into its own in the 90s: the cost of production was coming down, which was making it easier for little guys to carve out their own space on the Internet.
The Spiridellis brothers and their friends started creating content out of their Brooklyn studio in 1999, survived the original tech bubble, and moved out to LA in 2002 before really hitting it big in 2004:
“We were on the cusp of wondering if this internet thing was ever gonna work for entertainment when we released [the George Bush / John Kerry piece] ‘This Land,’ which lit everything on fire — we literally went within a week sitting in our offices by ourselves wondering if anybody cared to sitting on Jay Leno’s couch and everywhere else.”
The overnight sensation, five years in the making
Keep in mind that this was nearly two years before YouTube existed, so, as brilliant and popular as “This Land” turned out to be (80 million views!), along with it came the challenges of distributing the video worldwide from their own servers, and paying for the associated bandwidth, two things today’s YouTube-enabled creators take for granted.
JibJab wound up doing a distribution deal to offload the bandwidth requirements to serve the video — prior to that, the company “had been self-distributing, mirroring sites… we had one shared server in Texas and so it blew up our server, and then we partnered with Atom Films, who absorbed the bandwidth.”
In addition to bandwidth & servers, “Venture Capital certainly wasn’t available, and we weren’t seeking it.” In fact, it was Gregg’s experience as an investment banker and the brothers’ overall caution in partnering with anyone seeking a quick buck that kept them alive, even as nearly every single entertainment-based venture-funded company from that period pretty much went out of business.
And by not taking the easy route, it forced the bootstrapped JibJab to find its own feet and keep iterating with every trend in digital consumption — the company was able to license exclusive content to the likes of MSN and Yahoo, and even built a healthy DVD business.
Says Spiridellis of product cycles, “It’s very dynamic, you’ve got to be constantly be innovating, constantly be producing, new products, new content, and I think that’s how we’ve survived and grown all these years.”
It wasn’t until 2006 that JibJab took VC money, largely from Polaris out of Boston, and has since only raised $18 million total from a handful of investors, which include Sony Pictures and Overbrook (who count Will Smith and James Lassiter partners), the last raise being in 2008.
Says Spiridellis of raising smart money, “I’ve gotten so much value out of the Polaris network. Money is money, but #1 is the integrity of people that give you that money, and are they going to be around to roll. You’re gonna be at high sea with the waves crashing over your boat and [have to ask yourself], ‘Do you want that person on the boat with you?’ Polaris has been awesome, we raised our last round in midst of financial crisis [in 2008]. But it’s also the network you build — through the events Polaris has run and people I’ve met there, I can’t even count the number of times its delivered value for the business.”
“We’re really a technology-driven entertainment company. And the way that we’ve built the business from the very beginning is by being faster than anybody else in identifying trends, and then producing a great story and great art to support those trends.”
Back in 1999 fans would share their favorite content via email.
But by 2005, people were starting to socially share content.
So JibJab added fuel to the pre-selfie generation by enabling viewers to place themselves in JibJab videos, by being one of the first partners when Facebook opened their platform for sharing.
Now, says Spiridellis, “We look at messaging, which is why we’re evolving the product to not only be long form eCard videos, but really short form loop content that is perfect for lightweight messaging exchanges.
(yes, you want to work at JibJab — they’re hiring!)
“We have a new app called JibJab Messages. It’s got GIFs, emojis, sitckers, all Starring You, so we’re really focused on producing lightweight content that you can use for everyday fun anywhere you want — I want JibJab in the mobile world to be the funny button.”
JibJab for Messenger is directly integrated into Facebook Messenger, and was highlighted by Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg at their recent F8 conference.
JibJab also launched StoryBots in 2013 as an opportunity to create Sesame Street for the next generation, given how children’s consumption patterns on portable devices have changed since Gregg and his brother grew up in front of scheduled TV shows.
“We’re producing everything from learning videos to personalized storybooks, games for the classroom based on common core, a whole suite of content and aps for kids that are supremely more fun than anything else on the market — all animation, puppetry, stop motion, 3D animation, live action, the whole spectrum.”
And since original children’s-based IP is still such a huge vehicle for promotion and licensing, JibJab is even producing a StoryBots TV show.
Which brings us back to the here & now, and the new office space, which is quite a change from having outgrown, suite by suite, from 15 to 80 people, in their old space along Main Street in Venice.
In addition to the trademark slides, the mezzanine features a live scroll of users’ faces as they are uploaded — an important means for the staff to feel connected to the tens of millions of monthly users from around the world.
And as for being in LA, Spiridellis says, “Being in Los Angeles is awesome for what we do, the access to creative talent is unmatched, this is where you go. On the tech side, early on it was tough. But now there’s so much talent — [the competition for great engineers and product people] is still tough, but it’s better than it was in 2002.”