Profit Minded

When “going viral” makes gold, he has the Midas touch

If you want to understand how to make your message go viral, get to know Emerson Spartz. The 26-year-old CEO closed an $8 million financing round last week for his Chicago-based company, Spartz Inc., which simply launches websites that go viral.

Since age 12, when he created a Harry Potter fan website that, at its peak, relied on a staff of 120 and attracted 50 million page views per month, Spartz has made a career of “pioneering a model that uses predictive science to measure the viral potential of websites and apps.” His Spartz network now includes 18 websites ranging from OMG Facts, GivesMeHope, DailyCute (created by Spartz’s wife and business partner Gaby when she was 12), and his original MuggleNet. They boast 160 million page views per month and employ 30 people.

The wunderkind’s unique bio has been widely reported: He home-schooled himself while spending 10 hours a day running MuggleNet, which won him a trip to Scotland to interview JK Rowling; he supplemented his Notre Dame University education by reading a non-fiction book per day to get a deeper understanding of things like “how the human brain works,” and “what successful companies do differently than unsuccessful ones”; and the book he co-authored at age 19—What Will Happen in Harry Potter 7—spent 6 months on the New York Times Children’s Books bestseller list.

Spartz says his goal to “change the world on a massive scale” was inspired early by reading four biographies a day—as a self-taught speed-reader—of successful people like Bill Gates, George Soros, Nobel laureates, and sports heroes. “I immersed myself in the lives of people who had changed the world and saw that they tended to be influential before they changed the world,” Spartz says. When MuggleNet became the world’s top Harry Potter fan site, he says, “I had epiphany. I thought, ‘if I can do this at 12, imagine what I can do at 17.’”

He settled on mastering virality as the way he could come closest to having a superpower. “If you could go viral you could start revolutions,” he says.

Using Facebook as his petri dish, Spartz experimented with making fan pages and memes go viral. With a series of algorithms he developed, he could win 1 million fans within hours or days for a piece of content. Spartz says he kept optimizing and testing hundreds of variables to see which correlated positively to virality. “I ended up building a system,” he says.

With Spartz Inc., he has transferred the methodology to making entire websites go viral. “We started testing out theories using the simplest possible use cases where I could isolate variables,” he says. Now he can predict “with a higher degree of certainty which websites and apps have highest possible probability of going viral.” He says, “When we identify one we build it quickly and attract millions of users.”

The next level of complexity, he says, is to spawn virality for products or apps that can generate high revenues per user. “That’s where it gets interesting,” he says. “It’s every marketer’s dream.” He says he’s testing methods for that now.

For a man whose stated mission is to “change the world on a massive scale,” what’s the point of building massive followings for what appears to be mostly cloying or inane content for young adults, or even consumer products and apps? “Virality is extremely hard and fickle,” Spartz says. “Being able to engineer it systematically is a tall order. We create products that make people laugh and have an impact.”

In fact, Spartz says he’s received thousands of messages from people who have said Spartz content has saved their marriage, brought them back from suicide, or saved a daughter’s life. “Our intention is to use our resources and knowledge to continue our ascent toward solving bigger problems that will create more of an impact.”

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