Facetime: Millennials Come Face to Face

As the co-developer of the No. 1 game What Do You Meme?, Ben Kaplan ’11 has successfully mixed technology with traditional board game amusement

Jana F. Brown

Ben Kaplan ’11 (c.) with business partners Elie Ballas (l.) and Elliot Tebele.

Ben Kaplan ’11 (c.) with business partners Elie Ballas (l.) and Elliot Tebele.

In 2013, Ben Kaplan ’11 launched Wigo, “Who is Going Out” – an app that facilitated social plans on college campuses. Since that time, he has become the director of business development for the wildly successful Instagram account, F***Jerry, which boasts more than 14 million followers. Most recently, Kaplan and partners, F***Jerry founder Elliot Tebele and partner Elie Ballas, are the architects of the most popular new adult party game in the U.S. What Do You Meme? – sold wherever board games are sold – is a throwback to family and friends sitting around a table. As Kaplan describes it, the game “brings memes to life beyond a screen,” pairing mismatched memes and captions to create funny combinations. It has been the No. 1 bestselling game on Amazon.com for the past two years.

When you last spoke with Alumni Horae, you were in the middle of the success of Wigo. What happened with that?

Wigo gained strong initial traction and we were fortunate enough to raise two rounds of funding and build meaningful communities of users at several hundred college campuses nationwide. But, ultimately, all businesses need to make money. As Wigo was free for users, the real opportunity to monetize the audience would come through strong communities in large cities. We geared up and launched Wigo in New York City and Boston, but ultimately couldn’t find the same engagement in these networks and subsequently decided to return the majority of the money to our investors and move on.

Tell me about what you have been doing in the last few years.

I ended up partnering with two guys [Elliot Tebele, Elie Ballas] running a large meme account on Instagram called F***Jerry. It has over 14 million followers today, one of the largest accounts in the world. My main focus was finding ways to bring in new revenue. Simultaneously, I was fascinated how, in a digital age, the game Cards Against Humanity made it socially acceptable for millennials to sit around and play a board game. The idea came to me randomly one day to combine the memes we were posting daily on Instagram with a party game like Cards Against Humanity. And thus, What Do You Meme? was born.

How did that thought physically turn into What Do You Meme?

As soon as the idea popped into my head, I rushed to my laptop and printed out 30 memes from the F***Jerry Instagram page. I cut the captions off the bottoms of the memes with scissors, wanting to see if caption A would be funny paired with photo B. I quickly found out the various pairings were even funnier than the original.

What has led to What Do You Meme? selling more than 3.5 million copies?

The business launched on Amazon and it truly went crazy. It rose quickly to be the No. 1 product in toys and games on the site. There are 1.5 million items on Amazon in that category. It got the attention of Target and Walmart and we quickly figured out how to scale the business across mass retail, mid-tier accounts such as Urban Outfitters and Spencer’s Gifts, and hundreds of specialty stores across North America. We even have localized versions in the U.K., Australia, and a fully translated version in Germany.

What has that expansion included?

We [co-creators Elliot, Elie, and I] have a 15-person team in New York focused solely on the game business, everything from operations to sales to marketing to content. We now have eight expansion packs and have licensed many famous memes. A few of our licensed products include Mean Girls, Rick and Morty, and Game of Thrones. Additionally, we launched two brand new titles at Target last month, and have seven more new games launching at Walmart and Target in the coming months.

Are you surprised by the success so far?

At one time, I thought Wigo was going to be my legacy. So, when we ultimately decided to wind down the company, it was not a happy ending. It’s been so refreshing for me to come back with a tangible product that actually makes money. As I mentioned, the Wigo app never made a dollar outside of venture capital investment, as it was a free app. What Do You Meme? costs money to produce, we sell it for more money, the difference is profit minus expenses. It’s a real, simple business at its core.

Is there an art to helping something achieve viral status?

No one can predict what will go viral. However we have a competitive advantage against traditional game companies, because we can leverage our social media presence in both marketing and product development. For example, before we launched What Do You Meme?, we mocked up the box, posted it on the F***Jerry Instagram page and watched as the comments rolled in along the lines of, ‘OMG I need this game.’ That is invaluable feedback – a digital age focus group, if you will. So that one post gave us the confidence to go and make the game and then, once available, we leveraged F***Jerry again to drive sales. It’s a nice little ecosystem we’ve built.

Social media has changed the way people interact. How does a game like this blend the face-to-face contact of old with the technology of today?

All of the content in our game is born on the Internet. People are used to consuming memes privately. Why the concept of the game is so fun for people is that it allows us to consume them in real life. You can see a funny meme and send it to friend, but you are not seeing their face. What we are finding is that, while technology will continue to develop, millennials have a nostalgia about life before technology took over. Board games like Monopoly were a big part of everyone’s childhood. It’s about time they made a comeback.

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