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How The E-Commerce Gag "Ship Your Enemies Glitter" Became A Viral Hit—And Then A Nightmare

Who knew there was such a dangerously large market for glitter?

[Photo: Flickr user martinak15]

Mathew Carpenter had a wicked business idea: All he needed was a website, some stationery, and a heaping dose of glitter. Thus was born Ship Your Enemies Glitter, a site where grown-ups could wreak revenge, anonymously, on the people they hate the most in their lives. A boss. An annoying neighbor. A spouse. Payback—without the blowback.

Most of us would have laughed off this idea over a couple of brewskis. But this week, a very real Ship Your Enemies Glitter became the e-commerce breakout hit (so far) of 2015—a product so popular, and so viral, with orders that Carpenter tells Fast Company was "in the thousands" in under 24 hours, that its creator now regrets making the thing entirely. Karma is a bitch? No, e-commerce is a bitch.

This is the tale of how Ship Your Enemies Glitter went up in a brief burst of glory, and then just made a big damn mess.

Carpenter is a 22-year-old serial entrepreneur, and is what you could call a FILDI kinda guy. For years, he had suffered from friends and family who would send him birthday and Christmas cards filled with glitter. So cute and joyous. So hard to clean up. "I hated it and wanted the rest of the world to feel my pain so that's how the website was born," he says.

For just $9.99 Aussie dollars (about $8 USD), Carpenter’s Ship Your Enemies Glitter promises to send a glitter-laced letter to anyone, anywhere in the world. "We'll also include a note telling the person exactly why they're receiving this terrible gift. Hint: The glitter will be mixed in with the note thus increasing maximum spillage," the website says. Payment is via PayPal.

Ryan Hoover over at the Product Hunt discovered the e-commerce site almost immediately after it went live Tuesday. "The ultimate troll product," he declared. That’s when things began to spiral out of control. The Internet had scattered word of the service like, well, you know. So damn hard to mop up. By midday, shipyourenemiesglitter.com had 80,000 Facebook shares, Carpenter wrote on his personal Facebook page. A friend responded: "Enjoy your walk to the postal office." Redditors relished the thought of getting even anonymously for a mere $8: Within 24 hours a shipyourenemiesglitter.com thread had nearly 3,900 upvotes and well over 1,000 comments. Then all the media came piling on—The Washington Post, Business Insider, Huffington Post, THe Verge, and so on and so on.

Eight hours later, a remorseful Carpenter posted on Product Hunt: "Hi guys, I'm the founder of this website. Please stop buying this horrible glitter product - I'm sick of dealing with it. Sincerely, Mat."

He had some reprieves: The website crashed, more than once.

Carpenter may be young but he’s not exactly a newcomer to the startup world. He appears to have skipped over college and gone directly into business. His LinkedIn profile lists three startups. His Twitter bio sends the curious to another business he runs, sofamoolah.com, a how-to-get-rich-on-the-Internet website. He is also the author of the e-book How to Build, Market, and Sell Your Website for Fun and Profit. (Only $5 AUD.)

Carpenter is not having fun yet, but he should be making a hefty profit: Glitter is a high-margin item. And it’s giving him a classic education in the importance of infrastructure. If this were a popular Kickstarter project, heads might roll.

In emails with Fast Company, Carpenter fielded a few but not all of our questions about his newfound fame ("Site is getting hammered so have to be brief with answers, sorry!"):

Did your parents ever lock you in an art room closet? "I believe it was voluntary."

How do you fill all those orders without dousing yourself in glitter? "We wear bio-hazard suits." Presumably a joke, but is it? This is a lonely undertaking. For we, substitute the word "I" because Carpenter is the sole proprietor of this madcap enterprise.

It’s hard to know exactly why shipyourenemiesglitter.com went viral so fast. As The Washington Post notes, revenge by glitter isn’t new. LGBT activists have tossed glitter at people like Newt Gingrich; the Kardashians have also received glitter bombs, the paper reports. When you Google "ship your enemies glitter," you might also get referred to a site that ships nice, moist horse manure to the ones you loathe.

But there is something about Carpenter and his website that appeals to the inner child in every adult. You know, the one that longs for a well-deserved comeuppance. Ideally, something sophomoric. Humiliating but not life-threatening. The copy on the website hits that sweet spot—part frat boy, part junior MBA project, balancing a generous serving of profanity and corporate speak. The f-bomb abounds but then that’s offset with a "Process" vertical as if it were an institutional investing website and FAQs ("Is this real? Yes, you fucking idiot."). A review on the website gloats: "I never get tired of seeing my co-workers rage when opening their glittery envelopes." Funny, but David Mamet it isn’t.

On Twitter, he pleads with his Internet provider Media Temple to come to his help:

He even offers to pay extra to get the resources he needs and fast.

And this is the revealing thing about Carpenter: I ask if he is planning a special glitter mailing to Media Temple, which stumbled in the face of the site’s unexpected success. "Media Temple has been nothing but good to me," Carpenter writes. And that’s why he is likely to be very successful someday. He understands the limits of what others can do for him and is grateful for what they can do. And even if revenge is a powerful motivator, he knows saying thank you may be even bigger. He concludes his email: "Use my referral link if you want good web hosting: http://mdtm.pl/14TxFCK" He just referred me to another business! For someone who put the word "enemy" in e-commerce, Carpenter sure knows how to make friends. And the payback for that is likely to be huge.

Update: On Day Two, Carpenter has put his site up for sale.

Twitter user @darrellwhitelaw had the perfect response: "fastest exit attempt ever. Godspeed."