A few months ago, I saw this tweet from Jack Butcher and my mind slipped back to 1998.
“One Week” by Barenaked Ladies and “Gettin’ Jiggy Wit It” by Will Smith were all over the radio. There’s Something About Mary and Saving Private Ryan topped the box office. And a new technology called the world wide web was still considered a fad.
My life changed forever that year when, as a teenage nerd, I discovered how to make money on the internet.
My origin story, like many that started on the web, includes piracy, inside jokes, youthful indiscretion. The lessons I gleaned, though, stayed with me.
There’s a niche for everything. Every niche creates a market opportunity. I learned this back in the day with the help of a tip from my high school friend Bryan.
One day during our sophomore year, Bryan chatted me on AIM with a tip about a new site called eBay. I immersed myself in the online auction world. Starting as a buyer, I acquired random crap that then arrived by mail mere days later. It felt miraculous! But then I flipped the tables and became a seller, and the real magic started happening.
My path to internet money started with a passion for an obscure subculture, developed during my youth as a child of MTV.
The mid-’90s represented the golden era of MTV. I dedicated many weekend nights in middle school to Liquid Television. Liquid introduced my generation to the slacker brilliance of Beavis and Butt-Head, as well as the sci-fi psychedelics of The Maxx and Aeon Flux. My ultimate fix, though, arrived via The State, a bizarre sketch comedy show that aired for four incredible seasons.
Back then, SNL had its moments, but it belonged to boomers and Gen Xers. The State was ours. It was smart, silly and — if the skit names “The Bearded Men of Space Station 11,” “Monkey Torture,” and “Porcupine Racetrack” mean anything to you — well, I’m the Barry to your Levon.
But then, like Neutral Milk Hotel breaking up before they could sell out, The State disappeared. After a brief move to CBS, the show left the air in 1995 and the cast drifted apart. They occasionally reformed in smaller units for projects like Viva Variety, Stella, and Reno 911! But the magic seemed lost, until their triumphant return years later in the 2001 cult masterpiece, Wet Hot American Summer.
Searching for The State
To learn about the fate of The State, I scoured usenet message boards and AOL chat rooms. My detective work uncovered cast member Michael Ian Black’s AIM screen name. This was, of course, well before Twitter made everyone from world leaders to D-list celebs more accessible.
“Michael,” I typed. “Big fan of yours and The State here ….”
To my great delight, he responded.
“Not sure who you are, but thanks,” Black started. “We’re all working on other projects now. I’m sure we’ll do something together again at some point.”
MTV owned the home video rights and had no release in the works, he noted, and soon went silent.
Eventually, MTV did put out a VHS compilation of sketches from The State, called “Skits and Stickers”. No stickers were included. I bought it and, after meeting some similarly obsessed friends at my new high school, wore out my copy on repeated plays.
But I was – and still am – a completist. An hour long highlight video left me unsatisfied. Really unsatisfied. I needed the full series. For the first few years after the show left the air, I knew of no such copy that existed.
Which leads me to my sophomore year of high school and the discovery of eBay. One fateful day soon after, I searched the online auction site for The State. Lo and behold, I found a listing for a pirated VHS copy of the entire series, recorded off the air with the commercials even edited out.
So I bid on it. As the auction neared its end, the bids increased to well over $100. The price was daunting. But then I thought about the hours of enjoyment I knew I would get from finally being able to relive my favorite sketches. I knew I had to do it. Thinking back to one of The State’s most famous skits, I justified it to myself by saying it was still less than the $240 that Barry and Levon spent on pudding.
A few weeks later, my tapes arrived and, after several viewings, I had an epiphany. If I was willing to spend that kinda cash on The State, surely other deprived fans would too. And my parents owned two VCRs.
My own Pirate Bay
I made a copy, listed it on eBay and sold it for nearly $200. A niche, full of potential riches. I was hooked.
This auction, with its list of bidders, confirmed product-market fit for my MVP. Next I set out to scale my operation. I hooked up several VCRs in a daisy chain, and created new copies round the clock. The video quality degraded with each copy, but hey: people were buying and, for the first time in my life, I was making real money.
Piracy laws scared me a bit. How could I forget the FBI warning at the beginning of every VHS movie I watched growing up? But this was the wild west of the internet, and my outpost seemed unlikely to attract the local marshall. Plus, I provided a valuable service to a deprived fanbase. What was the harm in making a little money while spreading some laughter?
Eventually, my State piracy operation wound down. I tapped the available market and, like a typical teenager, I lost interest. The lesson, though, stuck with me:
The internet was a goldmine. And the riches...well, you know where they are.
It took over ten years from then for MTV to finally release the complete series of The State. Sadly due to rights issues, the home release edited out the original ‘90s soundtrack and replaced it with cheap knockoffs. The “Pants” skit just isn’t the same without The Breeders’ “Cannonball”.
So I like to think that for that lost decade, I kept The State’s cult comedy alive and circulating on the internet.
The whole thing happened almost by accident. But, like Jack Butcher’s tweet says, it changed my life in ways that would only sink in years later. Oh and my buddy Bryan who introduced me to eBay? He became my business partner and collaborator on many internet ventures to come. I guess we both learned the power of using the web to find a niche market, validate an idea, and get to dollar one – no matter how absurd your initial effort seems in hindsight.
Without eBay, The State, and those two VCRs, who knows what would have happened?