If Comedy Is King, Then ZUG Is The Kingdom

Comedy is its own special medicine. It is amazing what one laugh can do. If one laugh can work miracles, I can only imagine how healthy the people who read and contribute to ZUG are.

There is a lot more to comedy than many of us know. We might enjoy laughing but what makes us laugh? ZUG recognizes what people enjoy, because it is the community contributing. Just make sure to leave your assumptions at the door. They are not your traditional “joke” site.

John Hargrave is the founder of ZUG as well as the individual quoted below who would “like to lose about ten pounds, and develop finely-sculpted abs.” 🙂

What inspired you to create ZUG?

In 1995, as the Web was just being born, I was working at a large publishing company that was struggling to figure out what this “Web” thing was all about. The ideas I heard from management were just terrible. I saw nothing but growth and excitement in the new medium, and they were trying to make the Web like a print magazine. So I started my own comedy site, thinking, “I’ll show them how to publish great content online.” Dissatisfaction with the way your current employer is doing things can be a powerful motivator for entrepreneurs!

How has ZUG changed since its launch 13 years ago?

In 1995, none of us understood in 1995 the role that user-generated content could play in building a successful site. We were early on this trend, launching our comedy community back in 1998, which has since become the growth engine of the site. We truly have some of the funniest people on the Web contributing content–and that content serves to attract more funny users, which is the “engine” that powers our growth.

What hasn’t changed is our commitment to creating great comedy content. Google’s mantra is “Don’t be evil”; ZUG’s mantra is “Don’t suck.” We want to write content that’s funny, addictive, and gets passed along. We want to stay away from content that sucks.

The dilemma is that most user-generated content–let’s face it–does indeed suck. Five minutes on YouTube will make you painfully aware of this. So you still need good editors who can separate the signal from the noise, tighten it up, and feature the best stuff on the homepage. I call it “Web 3.0.” It’s the user-generated content of Web 2.0, with a strong editorial filter on top.

When was your joke book, Prank The Monkey published? How many copies have been sold so far?

When ZUG had grown to about 5 million pageviews a month, we were contacted by Kensington Publishing in New York, who had recently published a few very successful books written by Internet humorists. The formula was simple: find Web sites with a large, loyal audience, then market the new book to that existing audience.

The “secret sauce” was the e-mail list. They told me to pay attention to signing up site visitors for our e-mail list, which could be used to promote the book directly to our audience when it was published. They claimed the size of the list was pretty much how many book sales we could guarantee.

For a first-time author, selling 5,000 books is usually considered a success, meaning the author will probably get offered a second book contract. When the book was published, we had a mailing list of about 20,000 registered users–and within six weeks, we had sold 20,000 books! So I’ve become a big believer in the power of building your e-mail list–it’s just smart marketing.

I know you have plans to publish another book next summer, have you thought of a name for it yet?

Yes, the book is called MISCHIEF MAKER’S MANUAL, and it is the definitive reference book of pranks and practical jokes for kids aged 8-12. It starts with basic pranks like short-sheeting a bed, and plastic wrap on the toilet bowl–and moves into more sophisticated mischief, like faking an alien landing or hoaxing the media. It’s like the Boy Scout Manual’s evil twin.

We just got advance copies of the book, and it looks absolutely magnificent. I predict it is going to become the authoritative reference on the subject of childhood mischief. I can’t wait for everyone to read it. Middle schools are never going to be the same.

The book will be unleashed on June 11, 2009.

What is your target audience with your books?

No matter how crowded a field is, there’s always a way that entrepreneurs can differentiate. There are a ton of humor sites out there, but we differentiate ZUG on who we appeal to.

For instance, most humor sites are skewed heavily male, but ZUG appeals to a surprisingly even mix of male/female (almost 50/50). Because we have so much user-generated comedy, I think that helps women feel more at home on the site. And we differentiate on age as well. Most humor sites are targeted to the 18-36 male, but we’re strongest in the 30-40 age range.

What have you learned from your work with websites like ZDNet and CNET that you’ve been able to apply to running ZUG?

I’ll sum it up as quality and quantity.

On the quality side, I can’t emphasize enough the importance of great content. People want something new. They want something funny, useful, interesting, or controversial. You have to have a passion for doing high-quality content that keeps users reading–and sears your brand into their mind.

Then there’s the importance of quantity: it’s not enough to do one funny article every three months, you have to keep doing it, again and again. The more frequently you update your site with great content, the more traffic you will attract. That’s a secret.

Do you have any specific goals you’d like to meet over the next year or two?

I’d like to lose about ten pounds, and develop finely-sculpted abs.

What makes your ZUG stand out in the crowd among all the joke websites that can be found online?

First, we don’t do “jokes.” We don’t do topical humor. We don’t do fake news, and we don’t collect funny videos of zebras sitting on tourists.

We do original comedy features, written in the first person, about some stunt or prank that our writers actually attempt. One of our writers just did a taste test on tinned meats: he tried everything from Spam to canned snails, then reported on their delicate flavors and aromas (http://www.zug.com/scrawl/meat/). That’s pure ZUG.

We want our writers to be the stars of our comedy articles. We want to make our users famous. We believe “everybody’s a comedian,” and some of these everyday users are funnier than any comedian working the stand-up circuit today. We believe the funniest person in the world is sitting in a cubicle somewhere, posting to our site while he’s supposed to be working.

Do you have any bits of advice you’d like to share with the people reading this interview?

The book that made the biggest impact on me as an entrepreneur was Michael Gerber’s The E-Myth Revisited. He talks about “working on the business while working in the business,” or functioning on two levels: as the person who’s doing the work, but also the person who’s improving how the work gets done. Successful entrepreneurship does involve working on both those levels–and being aware of those two levels, which is the most difficult first step. This has been very helpful for me, keeping the big business picture in mind as I deal with the day-to-day minutiae of running the site.

I would also emphasize that for all entrepreneurs, the mantra should be patience. The stories that get written up in the business press are the overnight successes, but we must ignore these stories. True success is built one customer, one pageview, one user at a time. We worked hard on ZUG for six years before our first real opportunity came along. Then it was another six years before we got our first book deal. So choose a business that you really love to do, that will be enjoyable over the long haul. And persist! Ignore those who tell you that you can’t do it; refuse to give them another thought.

“It takes 20 years of hard work to become an overnight success.” — Diana Rankin

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