In 2017, before his senior year at Philadelphia's Temple University, Davis Harari traveled to Tel Aviv for a summer internship at a venture capital firm. While he was there, a jokey group chat and a popular meme inspired an idea for a business venture.
The Nut Button was, in its time, one of the more recognizable Internet memes. It gained traction as an image of a hand pressing a blue button with the word "nut" Photoshopped onto it. (The raunchy underlying joke is popular among young people with a particular sense of humor — Google at your own risk.)
Harari, now 22, thought the meme was hilarious and wanted to buy an in-real-life Nut Button, like the Staples "Easy" Button. When he couldn't find one, he realized it might be an opportunity to sell his own and make some money.
Harari called up another entrepreneurial friend from high school, James Reina, who was then a finance student at Binghamton University in New York, and pitched the idea.
"The first thing I thought was, 'That's the dumbest thing I've ever heard,'" Reina, 23, tells CNBC Make It.
"You're right, it is stupid," Harari recalls telling his friend, with a laugh. "But think about it. It's smart, kind of."
They knew there was brand recognition, plus there wasn't much of a financial risk selling plastic buttons online. What did they have to lose?
That was a year and a half ago. Harari and Reina have since sold more than 14,000 Nut Buttons for a total of about $200,000 in sales.
"I'm so happy this worked," says Harari, who quit his first post-college job as soon as their business began to take off. "I worked at a consulting firm for two months. Man, it f----- sucked."
Here's how the business partners turned a popular Internet meme into an IRL product and success story.
Harari and Reina didn't have a ton of experience with e-commerce, but they knew they had one thing going for them with the Nut Button: virality.
Early in 2018, Intelligencer, a vertical of New York Magazine, called the Nut Button "one of the most enduring online JPEGs of our current age." It was the fourth-most shared meme on Twitter between the summers of 2016 and 2017, according to a September paper funded by the European Union.
The meme is derived from a photo posted to Tumblr in 2015, which depicted someone hitting a physical "Like" button, according to the crowdsourced database Know Your Meme.
People then began to Photoshop on different words and images. What started as crude sexual innuendo, fairly characteristic of meme culture, began to take on a life of its own, spawning new meanings and more PG versions.
That meant many people were familiar with the Nut Button, and some even had an affinity for it.
The pair researched things like where to find a distributor and how to make sure their product popped up when people searched the meme. "Everything we learned is pretty much through Google and trial and error," says Reina.
Both had some money saved from earlier entrepreneurial endeavors (Reina had a pop-up coffee shop one summer and Harari re-sold concert tickets and sneakers online), so in July 2017, they ordered 1,000 buttons for $2,500 from a Chinese distributor they found on Alibaba. They used LegalZoom to figure out trademark information and set up a website through SquareSpace, an Amazon storefront page and an eBay page for international orders. They advertised the site on Instagram ($75 and $150 per post) and spent $10 per day on Facebook ads.
"Our first day we got zero orders. Our second day, we got one order and celebrated," Reina writes in a Reddit post. "Each day, sales were slowly dribbling in, and by week two, we were doing five sales a day and felt like Bill f------ Gates."
Then just before the 2017 holiday season, a video of a Jack Russell Terrier playing with one of their Nut Buttons went viral. According to Reina, it was shared on Barstool's Instagram account, which has roughly 6 million followers, and soon the co-founders were selling more than 100 buttons a day at $11.99 a pop. Reina, who had final exams, had to recruit his housemates (for $15 an hour) to help package and ship out the buttons to keep up with demand.
The Nut Button now sells for $14.99, and thanks to better prices from their distributor and cheaper fulfillment fees through the Small and Light Amazon shipping program, the company's profit margins are around 60 percent, according to the co-founders. So far, splitting everything 50-50, the partners say they have pocketed around $40,000 each.
For Amazon sales, which makes up about 90 percent of the business, the process is almost entirely hands-off. "Amazon pretty much does all the shipping and customer service for us," says Harari. (Ten percent of orders come from eBay and their website.)
Harari and Reina estimate they each put in around four hours of work every week.
"The beautiful thing is that people who buy the product do the advertising for us," says Reina. "They're posting on their Snapchats, Instagrams, Facebooks, whatever, and sharing it."
Still, Harari and Reina realize virality can be fleeting.
"One of the most important questions for us is: How long does a meme last?" says Reina.
They don't expect there to be demand forever, and they want to cash out while they're hot. They hope to sell the business in the next six to 12 months, and expect to come away with around $200,000, based on a figure they received from the consulting service Flippa.
If all goes to plan, they expect to close out with around $150,000 in profit each. Not bad for a dumb Internet joke.
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