Tom Eblen: Fark founder hopes to help other entrepreneurs succeed

Patience, creativity key to success on the Internet

Herald-Leader columnistFebruary 13, 2012 

When Drew Curtis started Fark.com, he was a 26-year-old smart aleck who thought there was money to be made by collecting the world's funniest and weirdest news stories on one Web site and letting readers comment on them.

Now, Curtis is a 39-year-old smart aleck looking for bigger opportunities.

Not that he plans to change Fark and its often-crude brand of humor. Far from it. The site gets bigger and more successful all the time, Curtis said.

Fark now gets 56 million page views a month, said Curtis, the company's sole owner. Revenues from advertising, merchandise, premium subscriptions and conference generate enough income to support 10 employees in addition to Curtis, his wife and their three young children.

"We're operating at only about 10 percent of what the full potential is," he said.

But the Lexington native, who lives in Versailles, has ambitions to become a deal-maker, connecting other Internet entrepreneurs and helping them turn crazy ideas into profitable reality.

"I really like Fark, but it's not a billion-dollar idea," Curtis said. "I want to help people with 95 percent of a good idea achieve the other 5 percent. My great strength is that I see patterns in stuff."

Curtis is now in his third of five semesters in the prestigious Berkeley-Columbia Executive MBA program, a joint venture of New York's Columbia University and the University of California at Berkeley. "You have these two massively different ideologies, and you get flavors from both of them," he said of the program.

Why get a master's degree in business administration? "It fills in the gaps," Curtis said. "Besides, it removes certain questions from the table when you propose crazy ideas. Like, 'Who the hell is this guy?'"

While Curtis wants to branch out, he has no plans to leave Central Kentucky.

"I don't think there's anything I would fix about the place, to be honest," he said of living here.

But over lunch at Stella's Deli on Jefferson Street, Curtis was frank about some things he would fix about Central Kentucky as a place for technology entrepreneurs.

The biggest problem, he said, is the lack of enough venture capital.

"There are a lot of talented people with good ideas, but the funding environment is really weak," he said. "If a (startup) company got traction, they wouldn't know what to do next."

Curtis funded Fark on his own, but it took 13 years to build the company to what it is today. That's much too slow for entrepreneurs with ideas big enough to shape the global business landscape.

Many Kentucky investors want a controlling interest in companies they put their money into, Curtis said, and that isn't attractive to entrepreneurs with the best ideas.

"They're not doing it wrong on purpose," he said of investors. "There's just an experience gap."

Many Internet startups have died because investors pushed them to grow too quickly, Curtis said, adding that could have happened to Fark had investors been pushing him for quick returns.

"There's a reason why most Internet companies with financial backing last no longer than five years," he said.

Curtis said that creating Fark has given him a good sense for how to succeed online. It is different than most people imagine — even good business people.

For one thing, he said, companies must learn that using social media is more of an art than a science.

"You can't successfully develop a social-media strategy because they don't exist," he said. "Post stuff that's good. Done!"

New media, like old media, is a reflection of what consumers want, and that changes every day. For example, you can't make a video go viral on the Internet.

"The trick is knowing what to do when it happens," he said.

One thing is to request a response from viewers to keep the wave of attention going.

Curtis said Fark has been successful for the same reason The Daily Show with Jon Stewart has been: they both contextualize news and highlight stories people care about.

"Putting stuff online is easy," he said. "But figuring out what people care about is key. It's editing, basically."

Tom Eblen: (859) 231-1415. Email: teblen@herald-leader.com. Twitter: @tomeblen. Blog: tomeblen.bloginky.com

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