Earlier this year, a piece in The Atlantic disclosed the names of the geniuses behind a series of massively-popular Twitter accounts, including Earth Pics and History In Pics — each with over a million followers. Were they former journalists, or staffers at a science magazine? No. They were teenagers. To be specific, 17-year-old Xavier Di Petta from Australia and 19-year-old Kyle Cameron from Hawaii, with the help of an older friend, 30-year-old Eric Damier.
At the time, the three were making close to $1 million a month from advertising on sites that they directed their huge traffic firehoses to. Di Petta and Cameron were both still in school, and their Twitter accounts were less than a year old.
After seeing how much interest — and revenue — they could generate from those accounts and related pages on Facebook and Instagram, Di Petta and Cameron decided to get serious and turn their hobby into a company. That company, which eventually became known as All Day Media, went through the 500 Startups accelerator and last week closed a $2-million seed round of financing, including Mark Suster’s Upfront Ventures.
In an interview, Suster said he was immediately impressed with Damier’s sense of what makes content work online and how to build engagement:
[blockquote person=”” attribution=””]”I come across a lot of people who do online media and content, and you get a pretty refined sense of people who really understand consumer behavior and media and how people share information, and Eric is about as good as it gets. It reminded me of meeting [BuzzFeed founder] Jonah Peretti.”[/blockquote]
Damier — who is 30, and met Di Petta and Cameron when the two were involved in creating viral YouTube channels, and Damier was marketing similar kinds of content — said in a recent phone interview that making hundreds of thousands of dollars a month showed the two had tapped into something with real potential. And much of that money was being made with standard commodity-level, programmed banner ads.
Even though they were hugely popular, however, EarthPix and HistoryInPics also started to come under fire from photographers and media organizations for using pictures without regard to whether they were in the public domain, and for not giving credit to the original picture-taker. The photography blog Petapixel wrote a critical piece on the accounts entitled: “How to get big on Twitter: Ignore copyright and creative credit.”
When he was interviewed by The Atlantic‘s Alexis Madrigal and a number of other media outlets, Di Petta seemed fairly cavalier about the copyright or credit problem: he said the accounts were happy to take down images if someone complained to Twitter, but that most of them were in the public domain, and even if they weren’t, “I’m sure the majority of photographers would be glad to have their work seen by the massives.”
In his interview with me, Damier explained that those comments were made when Di Petta and Cameron were still just experimenting with Twitter and “growth hacking,” and before they started thinking seriously about turning those accounts into a business. “Xavier literally took that call 30 minutes before he was going to high school,” Damier said. “We weren’t really thinking seriously about it being a business, it was just something fun to do.”
Pulling in a million dollars a month has a way of changing your mind about whether something is a business or not, so the three co-founders moved to San Francisco and joined the 500 Startups accelerator program, after being introduced to founder Dave McClure. Last week, they closed their seed round and they have set up an office in Los Angeles and are hiring editorial staff, developers and a host of other jobs.
A viral content network
Damier said the founders now recognize that taking images and using them without permission may drive a lot of traffic, but “it’s not the way to build a sustainable business” (90 percent of the company’s content is licensed now). So All Day is working with Getty Images and other entities to license all its images, and to create easier tools for others to do so — and it’s also reaching out to the dozens of copycat Twitter and Facebook and Instagram accounts that are doing the same thing EarthPix was doing just a year ago.
For his part, Suster said that plenty of major media businesses have started by playing fast and loose with copyright, and he thinks the company has a chance to play by the rules and still build a successful startup:
[blockquote person=”” attribution=””]”Show me a single great company that’s been created that didn’t have at least some copyright infringement in the early days — not YouTube, not Google, it needed to push the boundaries. Of course my focus when I met with them was that this needs to be professionalized, and it will be.”[/blockquote]
Damier said the company wants to help other accounts figure out how to easily credit the photos they use, and also wants to partner with them to monetize the traffic they drive. But instead of making money from programmatic display ads on cheesy websites, All Day has created its own portal, and is building a team (it has gone from just three employees to more than 25 in the past several months) to curate content and sell advertising.
The company’s focus, Damier said, is on creating high-quality native advertising that fits with the main themes of its Twitter accounts — history, nature and science. Damier said All Day has no plans to try and become like BuzzFeed and cover the entire range of entertainment content. If BuzzFeed is MTV, he said, the model for AllDay would be something like the Discovery Channel or the History Channel.
In an age where social networks like Twitter, Facebook and Instagram are the dominant way in which an increasing numbers of web users find content, companies like AllDay feel like the next generation of BuzzFeeds or Vice Media. If nothing else, it’s fascinating to see a couple of teenagers turn their obsession with Twitter images into something approaching a modern media company. As someone once said, the next big thing always starts out looking like a toy.