MuggleNet Founder and ’09 ND Alum Spartz Creates Online Media Corporation
Marissa Frobes | Thursday, September 15, 2011
Notre Dame alumnus Emerson Spartz created the No. 1 Harry Potter fansite, MuggleNet, at the age of 12. He later went on to graduate from Notre Dame in 2009 with a degree in management from Mendoza, and is now the CEO of Chicago-based Spartz Media.
But the success of his first website inspired him to create other online communities.
Spartz Media is a hosting a tailgate before the Michigan State game this Saturday in celebration of reaching over 100 million monthly page views on their 13 websites and over half a million subscribers on their YouTube channel. Join Spartz Media in the Joyce Handicap Lot before the game to learn more about the company.
The Observer spoke with Spartz about the evolution of his online media corporation, and why its optimistic, forward-thinking model is one that will last.
Marissa Frobes: You began MuggleNet at age 12, and it has since evolved into the No. 1 Harry Potter fansite. From there, how did you begin to expand the brand and ultimately create Spartz Media?
Emerson Spartz: MuggleNet at its peak was tracking about 47 million monthly page views, and website traffic has been strong for years. My fiancé at the time, Gaby Montero, and I, graduated in 2009, and not a whole lot of people had jobs who graduated in that year. FML had just exploded in popularity a few months before, and Gaby was hell-bent on creating an FML-type website. We came up with the idea for GivesMeHope (GMH) — the basic concept being that while FML is a celebration of the funny but cynical way of looking at the world, for every story about something bad happening there’s got to be an amazing story about something good happening as well.
We decided to create the website and it exploded virally when we launched it. We were the No. 1 story on Digg.com over a 24-hour period, we were written up in Esquire, The Wall Street Journal and USA Today. With all that media attention we received hundreds of thousands of visitors. We never looked back.
GMH was so successful, we realized the platform we’d been building would be applicable to other website ideas as well. We noticed, for example, that the love stories on GMH were by far the most popular on the website. So we thought there would be probably be a lot of people who would enjoy a website devoted to short love stories. Love Gives Me Hope eventually received more traffic than GMH. Based on that success, we kept coming up with new ideas for websites that would work for that model.
Now, we have 13 websites and last month we hit 112 million page views. It really puts us in an elite category of online media. There are not very many companies who reach over 100 million page views.
MF: How often are you going to be creating new brands?
ES: One website per month.
MF: What is your favorite Spartz Media brand?
ES: GMH. GMH really does give me hope. When we were talking about the idea, I really was not sure of myself. There’s never been a high-traffic website that focused on accentuating the positive things in life. Gives Me Hope proved that people really are interested in celebrating the beauty of the natural world around us, and human achievement. Sometimes things just have to be packaged right. There are a lot of websites trying to do what GMH does, and they’ve failed.
With GMH, we’ve received thousands of letters from people saying that the stories on the website kept them from dropping out of school, saved their marriage or even brought them back from the verge of suicide. I get chills when I read some of the stories because they’re so touching and so powerfully emotional.
MF: Spartz Media has published a GMH book, as well as two MuggleNet books. Are you looking to keep extending the brand in other ways that go beyond the internet?
ES: Eventually we will start publishing more books, but right now there’s a greater benefit to us focusing on online media. We’re just playing to our strengths. We have five million followers on Facebook, Twitter and YouTube.
MF: How has social media enhanced Spartz in a tangible way?
ES: The reason why I’m such a big believer in social media is because [it] has an unparalleled ability to reach large numbers of people. In other forms of media, you spend a lot of money, you get an advertisement in a newspaper or in front of a TV show and people really don’t have a choice whether or not to respond to your ad. But with social media, you are graded based on how good your ad is. You can’t do that in the off-line world.
MF: How has Notre Dame played a role in your career and life in total up to this point?
ES: The majority of the company’s employees are Domers, and that’s not a coincidence. ND breeds the best and brightest, so for us it would be unthinkable to recruit talent from elsewhere. When I was at ND, I was making a list of people I would want to work with again down the road who’d given me opportunities.
That’s been a source of talent for us, just utilizing our networks at ND. It’s something we intend to continue to do as much as possible as we grow. Our model has afforded us the kind of hiring flexibility other companies don’t have — other companies hire for experience, and we hire for talent.
I compare it to “The Chicago Tribune,” which has about 1,000 employees and about 100 million page views. Their model makes it difficult for them to compete with us. They spend $2,500 on average to produce a single article for a paper, and we pay equivalently a couple pennies.
The experience that people would gain at the “Tribune,” much of that would not be useful to us. We’d rather have fresh-thinking, young, energetic, talented minds who aren’t encumbered with old ideas about how media works.
We create the tools that enable millions of people who were formerly passive consumers of content into active producers of content. I get really excited about the potential we have to change the world.
Look at the amount of time Americans spend watching TV every year — 200 billion hours versus the total time it took to create Wikipedia of 100 million hours. If we could shave off even a tiny fraction of a percent of that wasted time watching TV or doing unproductive things and channel the creative energy into producing useful things for society, then we’ll change the world.
Our websites educate people, they make people laugh and they inspire people. And there’s no limit to the opportunities that we have as we continue to refine this model and make it easier and easier for people to jump the divide from consuming to producing content.
MF: Do you envision yourself as the CEO of Spartz Media indefinitely?
ES: This is my life. I’m having the time of my life right now. This is the entrepreneurial sweet spot — having revenues, a hardworking team of talented coworkers and having an audience of 8.5 million unique visitors to promote your sites. This is as good as it gets for me.