Kris Sanchez is tapping furiously on the screen of his iPhone 6.
"It gets harder"—-tap, tap, tap—"and harder as you go," he says, staring intently at the sleek appliance. "You have"—tap, tap, tap—"less time."
It’s a blindingly sunny morning in October, and Sanchez, founder of the uber-popular Twitter account UberFacts, is sitting outside at a sidewalk cafe in Beverly Hills showing me a feature on the about-to-be-released UberFacts Android app. (An iOS app already exists.) He's playing a game called UberTap, in which you try to tap the screen a certain number of times within a certain number of seconds. Say, 80 times in 10 seconds. It’s mindlessly addictive (wait—what about 100 times in 10 seconds?), and has absolutely nothing to do with the weird, Ripley's Believe It Or Not-type trivia that has made UberFacts one of the most powerful brands on Twitter.
"I really want to give people a variety of things to do," Sanchez says, pushing up the sleeves on his dark green leather jacket to reveal a small tattoo on his wrist that says "wealth and prosperity" in Chinese characters (the other wrist says "love" also in Chinese characters). The 23-year-old former dancer—he studied theater in high school and was among the hundreds of dancers who performed at the Microsoft Kinect launch in 2010 in Times Square—is wearing jeans and purple high-tops. His dark hair is cut in a thick Mohawk, the tips bleached the color of burnt caramel. "I want people to be able to do more than just read facts all day long."
Of course, the greater public's love of doing just that is what has made Sanchez one of the top 100 influencers on Twitter, as well as one of the richest. By spewing out tens of thousands of the most "unimportant things you’ll never need to know," as the UberFacts Twitter page cheekily pronounces, Sanchez has accumulated over 7 million followers since launching the account in 2009 when he was a bored college student at SUNY New Paltz. ("Total hippie town, drum circles. I only went there for a year.")
Today he says he makes about $500,000 a year just from sponsored links. The way this works is that a company called Social Reactor, which pairs social media influencers with advertisers, supplies him with galleries or other web pages that he links to in his Tweets. He gets paid for every click those pages receive. Then there are the branded deals he’s done with companies like Ford and Paramount, wherein a simple tweet, accompanied by a link and a hashtag, becomes a virtual slot machine, gushing out thousands to tens of thousands of dollars. Plus the apps. The iOS app, which has been downloaded 1.5 million times, is estimated to generate $60,000 a week from advertising, though that has not yet been implemented.
Sanchez is a "special breed," according to Scott Jones, the CEO of ChaCha, which owns Social Reactor. "It’s pretty rare to make that much [money]," Jones says.
The reason Sanchez is "on the upper end of the pay scale," Jones says, is "partially because he has a big follower base, but more importantly, his audience is highly engaged. They stay for an average of more than 14 page views a visit. So if it's a gallery of 10 images, they're going to look at the 10 and then four (pages) of something else."
In a lot of ways, Sanchez is a personification of the kind of you’re-never-gonna-believe-this facts that his Twitter feed churns out. A twentysomething college dropout can make more money on Twitter than a corporate executive. But his tale is also revealing of the often tumultuous, sometimes painful, way that young, talented, creative, and very green new media mavens are forced to grow up in the fast-paced, self-regulating world of the Internet. It’s a place where entrepreneurs with bold ideas and Red Bull-fueled energy reserves can carve out insanely lucrative jobs and identities overnight, often without realizing that what they’re doing is actually a job, and usually without any real training.
In Sanchez’s case, until just recently, he thought of UberFacts as "a hobby." It was one that he started in college when, instead of studying, "I decided to kill time by searching for facts on the Internet."
Oh, and there was another reason, too.
"I also joined Twitter to follow Britney Spears" he says. "But I didn't have anything to tweet about. So I figured, hey, tweeting these facts would be a really good idea. It was just so I could feel like I was closer to her."
Alas, Britney didn't follow him back (and still hasn't), but Sanchez had found his calling. After dropping out of SUNY, he moved back to Brooklyn, his hometown, and, in between dance auditions and a job as an after-school counselor that paid $250 a week, he tweeted. Like many Internet pioneers, he worked out of an apartment, rolling out bed in the morning and sitting down in front of his computer before heading off to his real job as a counselor. Sharp, intuitive, and a very quick-study, it was not long before he figured out that generating more of the right kind of tweets at the right times of day resulted in more followers, and so he ramped up to 60 to 70 tweets a day. He also spent $1,000 on retweets and shout-outs from other influencers (now a Twitter no-no), and his account started taking off.
But for a one-man operation, the schedule was challenging, he says, and earlier this year he was called out by BuzzFeed and Gizmodo for posting a number of untrue, or, in some cases, untrue-ish, facts. (One of the latter had to do with a Huggies diaper that sends out a tweet when a baby pees; Sanchez maintains that a prototype of the diaper was made, even if it didn’t actually hit the market.)
"There are so many tweets going out each day that it was tough for one person, being me, to make sure that every single one of them was completely true," he says, adding, "Anything that I posted up there, I thought was true. And I'm always bummed to find out that it isn't."
Sanchez is visibly still hurt by the incident—which he calls "my first public mess"—though he's eager to talk about it, perhaps because it wound up prompting a major maturation in himself and his company.
"It was really the first time I was really publicly attacked on the Internet. And, you know, BuzzFeed is a really popular website. And it was Lindsay Lohan’s face and my face on their front page. It was after that that I was like, okay, UberFacts needs to be treated like a real brand. It has a large following and I want to put more work in it and make it better. I just want to increase the quality of it."
Last January he moved from New York to L.A. and got serious. He made himself CEO of UberFacts and brought on two business partners (who, in the startup tradition, are also his best friends and roommates), in addition to a small staff of fact-finders whose sole job is to comb through reports, websites, and various publications looking for the kind of quirkily stupefying factoids that are likely to generate clicks. He then goes over their suggestions and selects which ones will be posted.
When I ask where he and his staff find most of their ideas for tweets, he says "BuzzFeed, ironically enough," as well as Reddit and Digg. "On Reddit, a lot of people will find an article then write about the article they found. So I'll click on the article and see what else there is," he says.
Even though he's not always culling from The New Yorker or other rigorously fact-checked sources, Sanchez says he stresses the importance of fact-checking to his staff, and that after one employee came up with a series of tweets about pandas that, after being posted, were discovered to have been taken from a book about made-up facts about pandas, the person was let go.
"That was the fourth employee," he says. "Now there are three."
Many of UberFacts' tweets are actually pretty soft, noncontroversial facts, particularly the gallery links that earn him so much dough. ("15 foods that can boost your sex drive!") Still, there are the occasional tweets that rely on the conventional wisdom of the Internet and are stripped of nuance for the sake of sensationalism. For instance, this one: "Drug Lord Pablo Escobar had so much cash that rats ate nearly one billion dollars of his money each year."
Sanchez cites his source as being the website Elite Daily, which touts itself as the HuffPo for millennials. In a "Gangster of the Week" compilation of wowza facts about Escobar, the drug lord's brother Roberto is quoted as saying: "Pablo was earning so much that each year we would write off 10% of the money because the rats would eat it in storage or it would be damaged by water or lost."
The quote seems to be taken from Roberto's book The Accountant's Story: Inside the Violent World of the Medellín Cartel, and is a little mangled, but the point is that rats alone were not responsible for destroying Escobar's cash.
Sanchez isn't the only one who ran with the partial reading of the line. Rats eating Escobar's billions is a widely circulated meme on the Internet. But it's not the whole truth.
UberFacts might seem like one of those deceptively simple ideas that we all could have thought of, had we been thinking about deceptively simple ideas that would take off on Twitter. But the art of the brand is more than just coming up with oddball trivia and shaving it down to 140 characters. Sanchez has a unique style that is itself deceptively simple, as well as a knack for coming up with facts that walk the line between totally unbelievable and just believable enough. Sample: "Blue whales are so big that a human can swim through their largest veins and arteries."
He is also a keen student of how the web works.
Says Jones: "Kris only had 200,000 followers when we first met. And in just a matter of a few years, he’s grown that to 7 million. The real trick he pulled off is, he’s tweeting at the right times, and tweeting stuff that resonates. He pays attention to the engagement level of his audience, and he tweets more of the stuff that works and less of the stuff that doesn’t work."
When asked what kind of trivia he likes to push on UberFacts Sanchez says "cute animals" and "those studies that say people who drink more coffee tend to be more open to ideas that contradict their own.
"I love stuff like that because it’s just so unexpected. It’s not something that you hear and you say, ‘Oh, I knew that.’ It’s not common sense."
So what’s he planning to do with all his cash? Brand expansion, naturally. Beyond the apps, there’s talk of a book, TV deals and possibly—hey, why not?—a calendar.
Still, he says he will never stop toiling to come up with surprising tweets. "Sometimes you have to spend hours going through really mundane pieces of information to find the one that’s magical. But I really enjoy finding those magical ones."