Pure Genius

Q&A: The Oatmeal's Matthew Inman talks crowdfunding, creativity

Q&A: The Oatmeal's Matthew Inman talks crowdfunding, creativity

Posting in Technology

Creator of the popular humor website The Oatmeal, Matthew Inman recently turned his talents toward philanthropic crowdfunding, raising $1.37 million for a new Nikola Tesla Museum.

You could say Matthew Inman is a bit of an overachiever.

While we might start a humor website, send the link to a few friends and be happy if they say it doesn't suck, Inman will start a humor website that's funny enough to bring in up to 7 million visitors every month.

While we might take up running and congratulate ourselves for finishing a 5K alive, Inman will take up running and finish marathons and a 50-mile ultra-marathon. He'll post a funny illustrated story about it, too.

Maybe we shouldn't be surprised, then, that when the high-achieving Inman — creator of the popular humor website The Oatmeal — recently turned his talents toward philanthropic crowdfunding, he again exceeded normal-person goals and expectations.

He spoke with us about building a webcomic empire and translating his fundraising goals of $20,000 and $850,000 into $211,000 and $1,370,511 in actual contributions. He also described the level playing field that he and other creative people can find on the Internet and explained his fascination with the inventor/engineer Nikola Tesla.

For those who haven't seen your site before, how would you describe what you do?

The Oatmeal's basically a one-man comedy website full of comics, quizzes, illustrated stories — basically anything I think I can make funny I tend to pour into it. 'A good time waster' is probably the best way to describe it.

Do you have any count on how many people visit?

I just tallied this up yesterday. The site is three years old and the number of unique visitors in the past three years is 113 million. In terms of page views it's almost a billion. Right now it gets 4 to 7 million unique visits a month depending on how many comics I make and how funny they are.

At what point did you discover how powerful the Internet could be for you?

I used to own an online dating website that I built and designed and coded. I didn't know anything about marketing and I had no marketing budget, so I just started making funny things like quizzes, comics, illustrations. Through that, millions of people started coming to my dating site to read my comics. The dating site became successful and the comics became more successful. It showed me the power of one person on the Internet right now. The Internet really levels the playing field in terms of who can be read and who can get the most exposure.

When I had the dating site, I made a fake dating site within it called ZombieHarmony. It ended up getting so much traffic that Google's search engine ended up putting it at the No. 1 spot for free dating sites. If you Googled 'free dating site,' my zombie site outranked eHarmony, Match.com — all of these dating sites that have seven-figure budgets. Again, it made me realize that the playing field is really level if you're funny or you're smart or you have something great to say.

When did you realize that your current site, The Oatmeal, had developed a huge following?

I knew that I had a good following for a while, but I didn't think it was people who would actually act on things financially. My site is the kind of website where you go to giggle. You don't have your credit card in your hand; you're not looking to fill out a form; you're not looking to do anything that requires a time commitment or a financial commitment. That's fine. I'm not Amazon. But when I got threatened with a lawsuit earlier this summer and I saw my readers donate — I wanted to raise $20,000 [for the National Wildlife Federation and the American Cancer Society] and they ended up donating $211,000 — I realized that my following wasn't just strong, but these people were actually willing to help me in a cause, which was really cool to see.

Between that and your recent Tesla Museum crusade, you seem to consistently surpass fundraising goals by a wide margin. I'm sure there are many professional fundraisers who'd love to know how you get people actually donating to these causes.

The best advice I can give anyone for leading a crowdfunding campaign is to pick a good cause. Another thing that I found really helped is that I didn't use a video in either campaign. Most crowdfunding campaigns seem to think they need to have a video to explain things and have clinky emotional music and b-roll of mountains. When I go to a crowdfunding campaign and I have to watch a video, even if it's two minutes long, I get aggravated because I don't control the pace of that video and I don't want to watch a video. I want bullet points and then I'm going to leave.

How did you get involved in the Tesla Museum campaign?

I had a big following of Tesla fans because of a comic I made about him. When the property went up for sale, somebody else was bidding on it other than the nonprofit I'm working with now. The nonprofit suddenly had this sense of urgency. I saw Tweets coming in from people saying, 'Hey Oatmeal, look at this, you should help them out.' I got a hold of them and said, 'Let me do this thing,' and we decided to do an Indiegogo campaign. My role is kind of like the spokesperson-slash-dude-who-promoted-the-whole-thing. I got the ball rolling and provided a lot of the perks for donating.

You've said that you're a big Tesla fan. What do you consider his most important accomplishment?

I would love to say it's one particular achievement, but I'm not an engineer and I certainly don't understand most of what he did. For me personally, the thing I really relate to is the fact that this guy was an absolute genius — he was absolutely brilliant — and he changed the world and he was a pure geek at heart and he suffered for it. That's really what I empathize with: this absolutely brilliant man who demanded no financial compensation for his genius and ended up suffering until his final days.

On a more specific note, he did create ball lightening, which is something we can't even reproduce in a laboratory today. It's lightening that is in the form of a sphere and it travels very slowly — about the speed of someone walking — and it floats three feet above the air.

Where does the Tesla Museum stand now?

The campaign just ended at $1.37 million and we have a matching New York state grant, so the nonprofit is putting together the offer on the property to buy it. They think they can get it for significantly less than the $1.6 million it's listed at, which would free up a lot of extra money to clean up the property, renovate the building, that kind of thing. I'm excited to hopefully post a picture of the deed. [There's an update on the successful purchase here.]

What advice would you give people who want to build a following like yours?

I'm asked that a lot, and I actually made a comic about it. It's kind of a disappointing answer, especially to marketers: just make things that are likable. Make great things. If you want to make an amazing band and become a famous musician, you probably get there from making amazing music more than from getting on Twitter and asking people to re-tweet everything you do or begging every friend and family member to 'like' something on Facebook.

My advice to is to make something great, focus on that and ignore your 'social-media strategy.' I think most social-media marketing is a load of bullshit. I went to South by Southwest years ago and it was programmers and musicians and filmmakers. I went a year and a half ago and every person I met was a social-media consultant. They're kind of like the self-help gurus of 2012 with the sweater and the DVDs you can buy. Every time I run out of jokes in a comic, I'm like, 'Let's make fun of people who Tweet for a living.' That's comedy gold.

What do you see in your future?

I would love to do some sort of animated series. I've been saying this in interviews for, like, two years, but I really mean it this time. I want to keep making comics, but I've probably only got a couple years left before I want to switch to something different — comedy writing or an animated series.

How do you hope people view The Oatmeal 10 years from now?

I don't want to be Peanuts. I don't want to be syndicated. I don't want to be around for 50 years of comics. I want to be more like The Far Side. Not that I could ever compete with that man, but he quit early, and because he quit early, he preserved his work as perfect. The same with Calvin & Hobbes. I think it would have lost its character and energy and he'd have been phoning it in. My dream with The Oatmeal is to quit early and move on to something else.

Let's end with a broad question: What does Internet fame mean to you?

It seems impressive when you're on the Internet but it doesn't mean anything in the real world.

Photo by Koa Metter.

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Molly Petrilla

Contributing Writer

Molly Petrilla is a freelance writer based in New Jersey. She has written for The Pennsylvania Gazette, Philadelphia magazine, Cleveland Magazine, The History Channel Magazine and The Princeton Packet. She holds a degree from the University of Pennsylvania. Follow her on Twitter. Disclosure