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Elon Musk wanted The Onion; he got Thud

Elon Musk never required him to make money. That made the meeting Cole Bolton had last December particularly hard: after working together for more than a year and receiving more than $2 million in funding from Musk to build an ambitious, offbeat satire startup, Musk’s chief of staff, Sam Teller, sat Bolton down to say that Musk was backing out and cutting off funding. That meant Bolton’s startup, Thud, would have to launch, find an audience, and figure out a way to make money before what little remained of Musk’s funding ran out. He had about six months.

Musk had initially presented the Thud team with a dream deal. Two former leaders of The Onion, Bolton and Ben Berkley, would be given free rein to create the kind of ambitious satirical projects they’d only dreamed of at their old job: taking satire off the pages of a comedy website and out into the real world, with fake brands, fake products, and fake museum installations. They would go toe-to-toe with 23andMe by advertising a made-up DNA test or leave ludicrous food guides recommending made-up restaurants scattered throughout a city.

The nascent startup, Musk said, would become his “intergalactic media empire.” Over the course of a year, the team grew to 13 people in total — writers, artists, and developers — with the whole operation built around crafting big, sharp, and surprising satirical projects. There were no business leaders and no sales team. The entire company would coast off the fortune of its eccentric billionaire co-founder.

So when, a year into working together, Bolton heard that Musk was pulling the plug, he knew he had an immense problem. “Making a swift transition from being a billionaire-backed project to an independent media company is...” Bolton trailed off. “You know. You know this industry.”

It’s now been over six months since Musk backed out. Thud launched, crashed, and disappeared without getting its biggest, boldest work out the door. Its story is both a warning about the difficulties of launching a digital media startup in 2019 and a parable about the extreme highs and lows that can come with working alongside the unpredictable founder of Tesla and SpaceX. And while its ambitions shrunk in scope, Thud did manage to create some rich satirical worlds along the way — at least for the few people who found them.

Photo: Thud

Thud got its start thanks to Musk’s love of satire — in particular, The Onion.

He first got in touch with the publication in 2014, when it was being led by Bolton and Berkley, who served as the site’s editor-in-chief and managing editor. Musk had emailed them to express his love for an article they’d recently published: “We’re Going To Enjoy This Cocaine-Fueled Mason Jar Rocket Ride For As Long As It Lasts.” The article came out “at the height of mason jar mania,” Bolton said. And it mentioned Mars in the second paragraph.

Knowing Musk was a fan, Bolton reached out to him later that year when the site was being put up for sale. Musk discussed a possible acquisition with The Onion’s parent company, but ultimately he didn’t make a bid. (The Onion’s then-owner wanted to sell the publication as a unit, with The AV Club and Onion Labs, an advertising division, as part of the package.)

Still, Musk wanted to do something together. At one point, he even floated the idea of hiring Bolton at SpaceX. “I never quite understood what the role would be,” Bolton said. “Make things more lively, I guess.”

After they both left The Onion in 2017, Bolton and Berkley knew they still wanted to make satire. They began putting together the pieces of what their new project would look like: it would build detailed satirical worlds, it would live in the real world and not just on a screen, and it would offer something smarter and sharper than a late-night style punchline on the day’s news. Details about Thud’s launch and ambitions were first reported in The Atlantic.

Their ideas were big. One project Thud eventually envisioned was to create an entire museum wing imagining Britain’s imperialist conquest of Heaven. There’d be a painting showing a ship ascending into the clouds and a plaque describing the treacherous journey there. Elsewhere, artifacts like a flaming sword would represent the treasures they brought back.

It was an odd, ambitious proposal, so they took it to the one person they knew who might be interested: Elon Musk.

”He thinks about issues very, very globally,” Berkley said of Musk. “SpaceX is about colonizing another planet as opposed to launching satellites. Tesla is about changing the way people move, as opposed to making a nice car. I think he thinks about satire in a similar way.”

To Musk, satire is almost a “public good,” Berkley said. It’s something that can be used to nudge people in the right direction and make life a little more tolerable, and that may have been what really drew him to the project. “If it’s on a global scale and it convinces people to change their mind about something or reconsider something,” Berkley said, “it might have a small impact that could have a larger effect down the road.”

Musk agreed to come on as a co-founder, providing funding and leaving the direction of the site entirely up to Bolton and Berkley. It was an unbeatable offer. Musk had a huge voice to help promote their projects, and he offered so much funding that they would never have to make money. At least, so long as Musk stayed on board.

Over the past couple years, buzzy media startups such as Mic and Mashable have crashed back to Earth, as investors learned that taking advantage of social media to recruit audiences didn’t create loyal readers. In 2017, Mic’s peak valuation was $100 million; a year later, it sold for about $5 million. Mashable had a valuation of $250 million in 2016 but sold for less than $50 million in 2017. Satirical properties have had it even tougher: Racket, a planned satire site from First Look Media, shuttered in 2014 before it even launched; while The Onion, after being valued by Univision at “less than $100 million” in 2016, was just sold off alongside all of Gizmodo Media (itself a $135 million acquisition) for a reported price of less than $50 million.

“I think satire is a hard sell, especially for people who want to make money off of it,” Bolton said. Thud certainly had it even harder, which might explain why Musk invested in the company with no intention of it ever becoming profitable.

Unlike The Onion, Thud never planned to have a regularly updating homepage where all of its work came together — its projects were all envisioned as being independent, floating out on the internet for you to stumble across.

That’s where part of the trouble lay. Thud came together in large part around the idea that it would have Musk behind it: both as a backer and a promoter. Berkley notes that Musk has a huge Twitter following of nearly 27 million people; losing him meant losing an enormous avenue for distribution.

Without a homepage for repeat visitors, Thud also lacked anything that could even begin to resemble a traditional business model. There was no subscription to sell and no articles to run ads on. Only one of Thud’s first four websites — for a fake, always-firing gun — sold merch: T-shirts and hats that went for up to $30 a piece. The option to buy them was later removed.

Musk and the Thud team seem to have recognized that their chances of turning a profit through any conventional means were limited. Digital media companies typically make money by placing ads on their websites, but that market has gotten tougher and tougher to compete in. For a quirky, distributed network like Thud, it’d be even more challenging.

The display ad market is growing, but more and more of the money has been going to big names like Google and Amazon. That’s left smaller publishers to fight over a shrinking slice of the pie. “It’s really hard to make that much money [with ads] unless you have either large scale of your own, really premium content, or a really premium audience,” said Nicole Perrin, who studies the digital ad market at eMarketer.

Thud wasn’t going to have any of those things at launch — its oddball distribution model meant it had an inherently limited audience, and its audience would differ from site to site, depending on the subject. Even if Thud delivered hilarious and brilliant projects, advertisers still may not have risked being associated with its potentially edgy content, like a send-up of gun culture. “There’s just so much inventory out there [that advertisers] can be pretty picky about it,” Perrin said.

Musk set Thud up around that assessment that it was unlikely to ever make much money. He only wanted Thud to get to a point where it “broke even, pretty close, more or less,” Berkley said. And while Thud hadn’t planned to make money right away, there are some obvious routes the company knew it could explore.

One option would be to make ads of its own. The Onion runs ads, but it also supplements those ads with a division that applies its satirical talents to creating custom spots for partners. In the past, that’s included making podcasts about Szechuan sauce for McDonald’s and an April Fools’ mashup for Warby Parker and Arby’s (“Warby’s”).

Native ads are now used by “virtually every legitimate mainstream publisher,” said Rebecca Lieb, an adviser and analyst on native advertising. They’re “potentially way more profitable” than regular display ads, Lieb said, but they’re also a lot more work. “You’ve got to create the copy, you’ve got to come up with new and novel [creative approaches], and you’ve got to come up with ways of placing it,” Lieb said. “It’s not just accepting someone’s artwork from the beach and running it on Tuesday. It’s much more heavy lifting.”

It’s the kind of thing Thud could excel at. Lieb said that Thud’s model — “a kind of velvet rope insider slash influencer strategy,” where some people (perhaps a paid influencer) know about a funny site before others — could be appealing to brands that want to appear a little more hip. “It’s a little bit elaborate, but I think that’s all kind of part of the cool factor here,” she said.

Berkley says he accepted that Thud would probably have to make ads at some point, but he didn’t want it to become a substantial part of the job. Creating sponsored content is “kind of the opposite of why we started this thing,” Bolton said, so they never pursued it. It also meant they weren’t prepared to start making sponsored content when Musk’s funding vanished and Thud suddenly needed the money.

After Musk backed out, Thud raced to get its work out the door. Dozens of projects were in development, but the team’s goal became publishing the ones that were nearly finished and still within their suddenly quite limited budget.

In March, the first four send-ups went out over the course of a week: one went after nonsense claims about DNA testing, another skewered gun nuts, a third offered a ridiculous Myers-Briggs type test that claims to analyze your personality, and the fourth parodied companies like Casper that sell a single product that can cure everything.

The projects weren’t just confined to the web — Thud managed to bring them out into the world, albeit in much smaller ways than they’d initially hoped. For the fake DNA testing company DNA Friend, Thud had wanted to run ads anywhere that 23andMe did. Instead, all they could afford was to have a costumed mascot, a smiling drop of spit named Spitty, make an appearance one day in Times Square and at SXSW in Austin. Thud also bought out “most of” the billboards available in Columbus, Georgia to advertise its fake wares, which meant drivers may have seen an image of the grotesque cure-everything product Ploog and the tagline, “The future of sticking things into holes is here.” But there was a severe storm the week they ran, and no one seemed to notice them.

Thud’s quirky and limited approach to marketing meant that few people discovered its projects. Of its initial send-ups, two out of the three that include social media components have fewer than 150 followers combined across their Twitter and Instagram pages. The most successful project, DNA Friend, has around 2,000 followers across both platforms.

Another of its spoof websites, for an always-firing gun called Tacstorm, opens with a fake promotional video hosted on YouTube. It has fewer than 1,900 views to date. There are only four comments, and one appears to be from the actor who stars as the fake spokesperson. “Haha I loved working on this,” he wrote. “Came out great!”

Bolton said he hoped everything “would make a little more of a splash,” but that Thud’s collapsed budget prevented the team from promoting their projects as much as they had initially planned.

As Thud raced its projects out, Bolton and Berkley also began searching for investors who might be interested in keeping the company alive. Their best-case scenario was to find another patron willing to fund Thud in the same aimless way that Musk had. “A passion project would be ideal, obviously,” Berkley said. “But it’s not a common thing.”

The meetings went poorly. “I’m not sure everyone quite got it,” Bolton said. Investors wanted Thud to pivot to creating sponsored content, but the team would have had to produce so many ads that there would have been little time left for the satirical projects they dreamed of making. “The balance didn’t make sense to us,” Berkley said.

Thud pushed another two projects out the door over the following weeks: a send-up of trendy LA food guides and a Thud phone support line. The food guide, Mampfen — “the ultimate LA dining guide” — was printed out, and free copies were distributed at a trio of bookstores across LA. The phone support line drops you into a lengthy menu, with no way of ever reaching an actual Thud employee.

With Musk’s funding just about used up, Thud paid for hosting to keep its sites online for a while, and Bolton and Berkley began the process of dissolving the company. Thud shut down for good in May.

Photo: Thud

Musk and Bolton only emailed a few more times after his funding was pulled. It had been Sam Teller, Musk’s chief of staff, who sat down with Bolton to relay the news, not Musk himself. Afterward, Bolton emailed Musk to thank him for taking a chance on Thud, and that was the end to their communications. “Our talks with him were so minimal throughout the entire process, it didn’t seem that abnormal,” Bolton said. Teller and Musk declined to comment.

In his meeting with Musk’s chief of staff, Bolton was told that Musk really liked the projects Thud was working on, but that Musk had become concerned that the startup’s work could reflect poorly on him. It’s easy to see why: in 2018 alone, a 420 joke landed Musk in recurring trouble with the Securities and Exchange Commission, an appearance on Joe Rogan’s podcast led to unavoidable GIFs of Musk awkwardly smoking weed, and a tweet calling a cave rescuer “pedo guy” turned into a defamation lawsuit. Thud was one concern too many.

“He was starting to get worried about how [Thud’s projects] could reflect on him during critical times for Tesla and SpaceX,” Bolton said. “You know, his companies that are obviously quite a bit more large and, I would say, important than Thud.”

Bolton emphasized that he’s not mad, though, with how the whole thing turned out. Thud may have fallen apart sooner than he expected, but he had still been given more than a year to build a “satirical art playground” on Musk’s money. “It was a crazy thing to get into and actually have be a reality for a while,” he said.

And while their websites will one day disappear, their physical creations still exist: the mascot, the restaurant guide, and the T-shirts and hats for a made-up gun that never stops firing. Thud managed to sell a few of those before the store disappeared, Berkley says. “I’m scared to see those out in the world.”

Correction July 2nd, 11:10AM ET: This story initially stated that the described meeting between Bolton and Teller was their “final” meeting; they have met since.

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