Doug Ludlow is the CEO of Hipster, a virtual postcard site that has been talked about as much for its viral publicity campaigns as for its actual product. Fast Company caught up with Ludlow to talk about zero-gravity flight, the concept of the bubble, and his company’s Pabst Blue Ribbon expenses.
What is Hipster?
We built Hipster to be a fun way to share where you are and what you’re doing. Using your iPhone or Android, you send a postcard from where you are and share it with friends.
Why did you feel the postcard needed reinvention?
Postcards work because they’re a fun metaphor people are used to using. Hipster didn’t start out as a postcard company, and our goal is not just to be a postcard company, but for now the metaphor is serving us really well.
Originally Hipster was a location-based question-and-answers site. Why did you pivot?
We decided after a lot of soul-searching that location-based Q&A was not a good business to be in. The network effect was just not large enough. After a lot of brainstorming, we said, what if we got rid of the question, and just had answers? We’re very glad we did that.
Hipster created quite a stir just from its landing page, before you even revealed what the service was. How many people did you sign up?
37,000. There was a big dose of luck. It kind of went viral. There was a combination of beautiful imagery, a viral mechanism, and the name was kind of funny, an attraction by itself.
The word hipster seems to pack something like the force of an ethnic slur in some circles.
I don’t see it like that. We chose it largely because it’s two syllables, in the English language, and it’s something urban. You don’t associate a hipster with the country, you associate it with cities.
After your landing page went viral, your recruiting campaign went viral.
We wanted to build a team, and we started using Craigslist, Crunchbase–all the places you go to try and find team members. But even the coolest job posting absolutely got lost in the noise. We knew we had to do something to break out and get attention. We just had the idea, why don’t we play on the name Hipster itself, and offer a year’s worth of PBR? We built a campaign around it, and that went extremely viral. We got 850 job applications, of which 10% were truly high quality. We ended up hiring two people, and they’re both getting a year’s worth of PBR.
How much is that setting you back?
The way they do it is they just submit receipts from Safeway or a bar, and we reimburse them that way.
Are they coming to the office drunk?
Not at all. I think they appreciated the $10,000 bonus more than they did the PBR.
I’d be throwing keggers every weekend.
Don’t tell those guys that.
And most recently, you have this new, dare I say, gimmick…
It’s absolutely a gimmick. Yes. Hipsters in space. Outer space is maybe a bit of a stretch. We’re sending one winner up in a zero-gravity flight. They take you up in a modified Boeing 747 and do parabolic loops. It costs a little over $5,000, not that crazy at all. We figured it’s a marketing expense well paid for. It’s been a very successful program. There’s been a big spike in users signing up.
How many users do you have today?
We broke 100,000 users in January, and we’re well no our way to 200,000 now.
How do you outdo this gimmick?
I really don’t know. Maybe our gimmick days might be over after this. I think at this point, we’ve pulled off three successful publicity campaigns, and hopefully the flywheel has been spun fast enough where it’s self-propelling at this point. This could be our last gimmick, but don’t quote me on that.
Have you ever thought that the real talent of the Hipster team is for marketing? Maybe you should make a Hipster-branded ad agency.
We did talk about that quite seriously after the hiring campaign. But you can’t serve two masters. When the book closes on Hipster, years from now, maybe some of us will go and do something along marketing lines.
Have people likened Hipster to Color, which was originally a location-based photo sharing service?
One nice compliment when we launched was that it was “Color done right.”
We recently profiled the founder of Color, Bill Nguyen. Interestingly, he wasn’t hurt by being associated with the word “bubble.” How do you feel about that word?
I really don’t think we’re in a bubble right now. The term “bubble” is so over used–it’s almost like the word “hipster”–that it almost doesn’t mean anything anymore. People project what they want “bubble” to mean onto it: inflated value, a lot of VC, a ton of small companies… It means a lot of things, to the point where it doesn’t mean anything.
This interview has been condensed and edited.
Follow Fast Company on Twitter.