You could call Abraham Piper an accidental entrepreneur.
At 36, he lives in Los Angeles and runs a digital media company that he expects to make $30 million in revenue this year.
But he didn't set out to start a business.
In his 20s, the Minneapolis native was not terribly focused. It took him 11 years to graduate from college — he took time off four times, including once to learn how to make guitars.
In 2008, Piper was living with his wife and young son in a house four blocks from where he grew up. He was working in a mailing warehouse.
"The owner of the company was a family friend. It was one of those jobs where when I was between things — which, I was regularly in between things. It was the sort of thing where I could know I had a job," he tells CNBC Make It. "In one of my stints there I was a forklift driver. This last one, I was working a desk job that I don't even remember what I was doing — we sent out fliers, essentially."
While he was lost professionally, Piper had always liked writing. "I had fancied myself a songwriter when I was young," he says. And while he was working at the warehouse, he wrote a personal blog about a unique habit he had: taking three to four hour walks through the "bleak Minnesota winters."
But most of the writing Piper found online frustrated him. It was all too long, he says. So he started his own experiment: He would try to tell a story in 22 words. (He wishes he had a more prophetic explanation for why he picked the number 22, but he thinks it was Feb. 22 when he had the idea.) He used the free WordPress publishing tool to start the site 22 Words.
"When I first started it, it was really just to have fun," says Piper. He remembers being enthralled with the feeling that people were reading what he was writing. "After I had been doing it for awhile, the number that sticks in my memory as my daily goal was 2,500 page views. I just remember that being so exciting."
Even then, though, "I was never thinking, 'How can I use this to make a living?'" he says.
Half of his posts were about his own family and the other half were his "personal ruminations," he says. He didn't consider what he was doing all that noteworthy. "So many people had blogs back then. If you wanted a voice on the Internet, you would start a blog."
Piper would put Amazon affiliate links into his posts (Amazon pays publishers a commission on sales made from links they distribute) and pull in a few bucks. In 2009, he made maybe a couple thousand dollars from his blog. "It was a nice little hobby," he says.
But soon, Piper reached a turning point. He stopped writing about his kids and started posting viral content of kids doing funny things, general oddities and feel-good human interest stories.
"If you hold on too much to something that is not working, well then you are going to fail. You have to be willing to let go of ways you were to achieve success," says Piper.
He would get up at 4:30 a.m. to get the day's stories up before work. He also used the bookmarking service StumbleUpon to drive traffic to his blog.
It worked. In December 2010, Piper got 200,000 page views on 22 Words. The next month, he got 350,000, then 650,000. By March 2011, he had 1.3 million page views.
In early 2011, Piper cashed in on the traffic and sold 22 Words to a Denver-based start-up for stock and a job. He stayed in Minneapolis and worked remotely, writing full-time for the site. "Part of the allure of selling it was they were going to hire me to run it, and then I was going to be able to make blogging my living," Piper says.
However, when the Denver start-up changed the course, Piper bought back 22 Words in 2013. (He declines to disclose how much he paid.) Within months, 22 Words had 5 million unique visitors per month.
Since then, Piper both hired his first writer and brought in a full-time partner and CEO Josh Sowin in 2014. Now, 22 Words has 200 million page views a month and a staff of 25 (including himself). 22 Words brought in $17 million last year (largely from ad sales on the site).
Piper also acquired and built other digital properties focusing on viral, entertaining content, including MagiQuiz, Bad Parenting Moments and Happiness Heroes. He expects parent company Brainjolt to do $30 million in revenue for 2017.
Now, Piper, his wife and their four kids have moved to Los Angeles, where 22 Words opened an office.
Relocating to California has been a change — "Houses cost twice as much here as in the twin cities," Piper says. He also hires a babysitter more than he used to, but otherwise, he hasn't thought much about the trappings of success and invests most of the revenue back into the business. "I feel like we are basically the same, we just live in a more expensive place."
22 Words, still the biggest of his sites, attracts millions of eyeballs with headlines like: "30 People You Will IMMEDIATELY Want To Hang Out With," "This Is What Happens When You Ask the Wrong Guy for Photoshop Help," and "One Honest Mom Shows the Reality of Her Changing Postpartum Baby Bump." Readers are 75 percent women.
Piper realizes it's not ground-breaking content. "It is not serious and I fully own that. It's light, and even when we deal with heavier topics, we deal with it quickly and lightly," he says. "We are an entertainment site. We want to surprise and delight the Internet."
In the last nine years, Piper has gone from operating a forklift in a warehouse owned by a family friend to running a mini media empire. That's been exciting — but it's also stressful.
"I am not lying awake at night in dread, there is just a constant pressure," Piper says. "As soon as you start staking your life on your success, as in making it your business, then it becomes scary because continued growth is essential.
"You can't level off and succeed. You have to keep growing," Piper says. "So the pressure is high, but then when it works, it is exciting."
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