Evan Spiridellis, co-founder of Jib Jab, came to ITP last Friday to speak about the beginnings of his work with his brother Gregg, the evolution of their company of time, and the future of media. Compared to most people who speak at ITP, Evan was the most approachable. There was no mechanical Microsoft or IBM-ish aura in the room when we entered. Team Awesome Member, Madeline Jannotta, had told me about the talk and invited me to sit in on it. You know how I love parsing through the student list-serve. Good thing she stopped me before I left after Digital Imagine:Reset, because Evan’s show and tell was quite inspirational for all of us in the room.
First off, Evan asked all of us in the room what Interactive Telecommunications was. Madeline and I looked at each other and laughed, because there is no official definition of this field from NYU. People in the room tossed out what it was not, and a few things that it was. I think ITP needs a concrete identity, so we will have to work on this. Next, Evan asked what about what kinds of programs we knew. Naturally, every person in the room spouted off a list of software we all take for granted on the floor, including: Processing, Arduino, Java, PHP, Final Cut, The ENTIRE Creative Suite, etc etc. He was very impressed, and said that it was good that we did not just focus on one program, such as animation in Maya. I guess we are Jacks and Jacquelines of all trades, so that was nice to hear. He then asked if we maintained blogs and websites of our own. Everyone in the room nodded and said yes. Evan was surprised because he said when he usually asks that in a room of students, only a handful of them say they have a blog. Thanks Marianne, for getting me in the habit of blogging and documenting things. Evan’s final question was what do we want to do when we are done at ITP? No one in the room had a definite answer, but the general consensus was that we all wanted to do something creative that pays well, and allows us a certain degree of artistic freedom. Maddy and I want to lead a team of designers and production people, so we put that out there.
Evan then set into telling us that he was not in a rush to get a real job after he finished school at Parsons. He said he studied illustration, which I thought was cool. I am not a great illustrator, so I admire them because I have to take photos to make things look good. Coordination is not my thing, lol. He explained that there are about 5 people that control the material on every channel in America, which was scary to think of, and that they are having to re-think everything in the context of delivering their content online, much like print media (Are you listening NYT?). He said that in this digital age, we should aspire to be the Jim Hensons, Lucille Balls, and Merv Griffins of online entertainment. They were pioneers in the TV era, because they set the stage for what had never been done. That resonated with me.
Next, Evan talked about how liberating it is to, “Throw everything you have in a truck and drive.” He explained that when he moved to California, that is what he did, and said that it was a meaningful experience for him, because though he had a destination, he was not sure of where he would end up.
He then fast forwarded to the video that put Jib Jab into the public eye. Yes, you remember it, “This Land.” It seemingly came from nowhere, and was emailed and shown around the globe more than most television seasons can ever hope for viewers. However, as Evan explained, making that animation was difficult because of the amount of technological constraints at the time. Think back to when Kerry ran against Bush—what kind of modem did YOU have? Chances are it was not FiOS. This was also well before the advent of YouTube, so there was no real digital delivery site for video. News companies had just started experimenting with online video distribution at that time. This meant that the video would have to be optimized extensively for delivery in an efficient manner for downloads everywhere. Evan laughed and said that the original file size was 13.5mb, but after his keen optimization, it shrank to just about 4mb. He mentioned that in Iraq, the military had to block access to the video because so many soldiers were trying to access it, and it was bogging down their communications. No fun for the people that do the fighting. The moral of this story, Evan said, was that you should push the boundaries of your tools, but make sure that the final product is readily accessible by your target audience.
His talk about overnight fame was really great to hear. He was really humble about it, but was clearly proud that he was invited to meet the President—–“For making a cartoon!” as he put it. He exclaimed, “It was staggering because there are only 44 of those guys!” He said that at the time, they made use of exclusive contracts for the online distribution of their content to make money, but that this lasted only until YouTube came around and smashed that business model. They had to start over essentially, and it was hard, because they were used to a steady stream of millions of viewers. He explained that being under the gun and having to produce a hit every time to make money to stay alive, and outdo your previous work is no way to live–things need to be more sustainable. During the winter of 2006, Evan and his team had the breakthrough idea of using e-cards, or sendables, to create a steady source of revenue. They quickly set to work in January of 2007 into creating a library of sendables to distribute a la carte, that could compete digitally against the likes of Hallmark. This model was short lived, and it was re-fashioned into a yearly subscription that they currently use. This model draws in more attention, and encourages people to send more, and thus, spread the Jib Jab gospel even more. He explained that the best press, is the kind you don’t have to buy. Last, Evan spoke about the new directions his company is taking with its “Starring You” interactive animations. Try them out, they are hilarious, and it feels cool to make something your own face is in.
By the end of his presentation, I was really excited, but I was not quite sure why. His story was really inspiring for me, because I am not quite sure what job I will be holding ten years from now, but I do know the general direction I’d like to travel in: Up. As with my move to New Orleans, and here in New York, I look at each big move I make kind of like how he described it when he packed up all his things in the truck and drove. It is one of the best feelings in the world to cut yourself loose from one thing, and go in search of a completely new horizon.
In addition, Evan had a whole bunch of very useful advice and words of wisdom for us all:
*”Figure out what you do well, and surround yourself with people who can do the rest well—Keep looking for people who are better than you.”
*Infuse what you do with utility, and people will buy it.”
*”Go to the museum, the MUSEUMS, you are in New York—be inspired.”
*Read, “What Would Google Do?” along with blogs and RSS feeds.
*”Charge people as little as you can to stay in business.”
*Help people express themselves.
*Be like Soujla Boy! Move stuff and sell yourself like him.
*”Find people who are hungry as hell and who wanna eat raw meat—even the vegetarians”
*”If I spent 12 hours in the studio with you working hard, would I still want to get a drink with you at the end of the day?”