Where’s George founder Hank Eskin: How is this a business?

Today I’m genuinely excited to interview my Wharton MBA 1992 classmate Hank Eskin, founder of Where’s George? (http://www.WheresGeorge.com) about his work.

Hank founded WheresGeorge.com in 1998 “for fun and because it had not been done yet.” The premise is simple: You can go to WheresGeorge.com and enter the denomination (it’s not only for singles), series, and serial number for US currency in your possession. Then, enter your ZIP code. WheresGeorge.com will determine if anyone else has entered that bill into its system and tell you where the bill has been, how far it’s traveled, how long it took to get to you.

Joe Hage: Hank, it’s great to be back in touch. Congratulations on building something that, according to your site, intrigued people to enter 181 million bills!

Hank Eskin: Thanks, Joe. Yes, as of today people have entered into WheresGeorge.com nearly $1 billion worth of currency in the last 12 years.

Joe Hage: How did this get to be so big?

Hank Eskin: I never expected anything like this in 1998 when I started the site.

Back in 1998 when I had a “real job” as a technology consultant at Answerthink Consulting (now The Hackett Group), I was in a lunch line, holding a dollar with an odd message: “WRITE THIS MESSAGE ON 10 OTHER DOLLAR BILLS, AND GOOD LUCK WILL COME TO YOU.”

At first it annoyed me; it reminded me of anonymous chain-letters people used to send in the U.S. Mail. And the same with this one dollar bill – I was wondering who wrote this message on the bill and how did it get to me?

That’s was my “eureka” flash. I realized each dollar bill has a unique serial number, and in theory, a system could exist that tracks these things by serial number.

Joe Hage: So people would enter their currency? What business opportunity did you see in it?

Hank Eskin: I wasn’t sure at the time. I envisioned a website that allowed people to track dollar bills by serial number but over lunch I lamented it’s such a simple idea, surely someone had already thought of it.

After lunch I did some initial research and spent a couple more days digging deeper. It hadn’t been done before and just because it was a fun (albeit quirky) idea, I’d figure out how to do it. The Internet wave was starting and I wanted to break out of corporate consulting and create a start-up (my Wharton major was Entrepreneurial Management). I figured this would be a great test-bed idea to learn these new technologies and business models, so when I actually had a real “big idea” I would be ready to “hit the ground running.”

Joe Hage: So it wasn’t your “big idea.” It was your “experimental idea.” When did you realize this IS the big idea? How do you make money?

Hank Eskin: That moment came in August of 1999 when USA Today picked up on an WIRED NEWS online story on an idle Sunday night. By Tuesday, USA Today had called me to do a story on the site which they wanted to run on Thursday. Without enough time to prepare the website, I talked them into doing it on Friday, which was great because the story appeared on the front page of the “Money” section, above the fold. From that moment on, it became a “big idea.”

I started monetizing the site with some banner ads – originally just enough to pay the web hosting fees. I also started to sell rubber stamps that said “Track where I go – wheresgeorge.com,” which was very low-tech, but a great revenue stream for a couple of years. Also by early 2000 when the internet bubble was at its peak, my advertising revenues had become phenomenal! So between the rubber stamp sales and advertising, I was able to quit my “real job” as a consultant.

Little did I know that two months after quitting my job that the the Secret Service shut down my rubber stamp sales AND the Internet bubble would burst … so in a span of about four months, both my revenue streams essentially dried up.

Joe Hage: What a story! So how much time do you spend on the site now? Are you a consultant again (how do you pay the bills)?

Hank Eskin: I get the “time” question a lot these days. It takes as much time as I let it take. There are always things to do on the site, so some weeks it could be 100 hours or more, and other weeks, if I’m busy or on vacation, very little time. But on average, it’s the equivalent of a full time job, just with a lot of flexibility.

Once the rubber stamp and advertising revenue dried up in 2000, I started an optional premium membership program for users who really take their hobby of currency tracking very seriously. For only $7 per month, these users access the site entirely ad-free. They also get extra detailed reports and stats, and dynamic maps of where their bills have been found. This new revenue stream really supported the site in the doldrums of 2000-2002 until ad revenue picked up again and the site grew in popularity, which in turn, generated more premium paying members.

In addition to Where’s George?, I run another business with a friend. “Indie Owned” publishes a local, biography-style directory of independently owned businesses. The difference with our directory is that the business owners can tell their own stories of how they got started and how they run their businesses (see www.indieowned.com). Between Where’s George? and Indie Owned, it’s enough to pay the bills.

Joe Hage: I just found the FAQ page where you have a link to the “Friends of George” $7/month program. I won’t ask how many take you up on that but, Wow! There must be a lot of George zealots out there.

Hank Eskin: (Laughs.) They call themselves “Georgers.”

Joe Hage: Has the “moment passed” for others to build a novelty site with the hopes that traffic would be so large there would be advertising and premium subscriptions to come? Said another way, would you encourage a friend with a really good novel idea to try to achieve the success you have? What advice would you give?

Hank Eskin: The moment is never passed. I absolutely would encourage anyone to try out new ideas they have. In this world, you never know what will strike a chord with on the Internet and go viral. Very simple sites like PostSecret or FMyLife didn’t exist a few years ago, and now they’re huge businesses.

PostSecret even has FIVE books published with their content. If someone came to me and said they want to create a website that posts anonymous post cards sent to them, I would have told them, ‘I don’t see a revenue stream other than advertising, so how are you going to build traffic? It’s going to take investment to build the site and to market and promote it.’ But it went viral, and now they’re ranked in the top 4,000 sites of all US web traffic. (Where’s George is ranked at about 8,000 for US traffic.)

FMyLife is even larger – ranked at about 2,100 for US traffic. And that site is even more simple than PostSecret. So who knows what simple web app will go viral and create another internet phenomenon?

The tricky part of your question is no one knows if it’s a “really good novel idea” on the web until it hits. A website called “SixDegrees.com” started in 1997 tried to get people to sign up, link, and map all their friendships. Users could send updates to your 1st, 2nd, and 3rd degree “friends” (sound familiar?). It grew to about a million members, but it failed in 2001. The web just wasn’t ready for social networking until MySpace and Facebook came along years later. So timing is also an issue.

Joe Hage: Hank, thanks so much for this interview. Very interesting and I appreciate your perspectives especially on that last question. Good to be back in touch. (I’ll mention this in next quarter’s Wharton Magazine update.)

Hank Eskin: Thanks, Joe. I enjoyed it too. I’ll check in from time to time to answer any questions folks may leave in the comments.

Comments

  1. I applaud his observation “The moment is never passed. I absolutely would encourage anyone to try out new ideas they have. In this world, you never know what will strike a chord with on the Internet and go viral.”

    This is not an era for the timid or bland.

  2. Agreed. Best part of the interview.

Speak Your Mind

*

7 + 1 =