Here is the first honorable use of venture capital: using the funds to design, prototype, test, and then build a rubber chicken pipe to smoke weed out of. The first time I saw Puff The Squeaky Chicken in real life, I can honestly say I was floored. What incredible stoners, I thought. After I used it for the first time, with a couple of friends in a basement, I was convinced: I was inhaling the future — or at least toking a vision of it.
Earlier that day, I had visited the chicken’s creators at their non-office office nestled in the heart of Williamsburg. It was November then, and there was no hint of what was lurking just around the corner. While the ongoing pandemic has sent the world into lockdowns and mass quarantine, the internet has flourished in its way: people around the world have been posting through the new restrictions on daily life, by turns angry, depressed, and horny. It’s sent businesses into a tailspin, and in America, it has left a quarter of the workforce — more than 40 million people — unemployed. Through it all, MSCHF, the creators of the chicken pipe, have continued their work, which is mainly to spread delight.
MSCHF — pronounced “mischief” and styled like an aughts post-pop band — is a startup that variously describes itself as an art collective, a band, or a creative label. Since last year, when this present iteration of the company was incorporated, the group has been putting out projects designed to do one thing: blow up online. There were the Jesus Shoes, which were fully customized Air Maxes that sold out instantly and retailed for $3,000 apiece (and are still doing a lively trade on the resale sites), and there have been the more conceptual projects, like This Foot Does Not Exist, which married neural net-generated feet with an academic treatise on why feet pics matter online.
I found the rubber chickens sitting on a table littered with the remains of dollar bills and PVC pipes just inside their office. A pentagram was drawn with white paint on the rough concrete floor just past their heavily graffitied front door, and to its right was a group of desks cluttered with computers. I spotted a tarp over a spot on the second floor spray-painted with the word “forbidden.” It felt a little like a TV parody of a Williamsburg workspace — but functional.
It’s here where MSCHF founder Gabriel Whaley and his motley crew of artists, designers, and product developers have decided to make their mark on the internet, by which I mean the world. Every other Tuesday, the group has a Supreme-esque drop, new stuff that’s used to alternate between physical products and online ones. But lately, the format has shifted. MSCHF’s supplier is fucked by the coronavirus, too. Even so, everything is limited: once something’s sold out, it never returns.
The company is cagey about the money, too. There’s no doubt that it does, in fact, make money off their playfully artistic projects and products, but it also employs 13 specialized full-time employees living in and around New York City. And while the company has done advertising before and has turned down acquisition offers from larger agencies, Whaley is adamant that MSCHF won’t ever do ads again — even if it’s between that and survival. “We’ll never do advertising,” he says. “We just wouldn’t do it. We’d shut it down.”
Obviously, there’s an unresolved tension here between the idea of Absolute Artistic Integrity on one hand and the common, shared reality of needing money to survive on the other. Within creative circles, it’s pretty common to value the art over the money, even though you literally cannot have one without the other. (If someone in a creative field does not seem to be concerned by money, in other words, assume they have tons of it.)
Anyway. Creating things for the internet is even harder because the idea that you’d make money off of the creative work you do there is a relatively new concept. And yet, for now, MSCHF is still here. The idea factory is running smoothly. But how long can one startup find a balance between the two? How long can Whaley and his company keep making beautifully dumb shit?
When I visited MSCHF, it was a Friday, their day for structured brainstorming, when the team orders sandwiches, plays games, and knocks off early. The team broke into groups, were assigned topics, and then split up to brainstorm. I was paired with Whaley and Dan Greenberg, a recent NYU grad who was juggling working full-time as a growth guy at MSCHF and going to class at the time. We made our way to a nearby upscale coffee shop populated by the kind of freelancer who works at a café solely for the ambiance (or the kind who did before COVID-19).
Our topic was plants, and so we spent some time thinking of free associative insights — my notebook says “ginkgo,” “weed,” “flowers,” and “invasive species” — and then turning those into workable (or not) ideas for future MSCHF projects. One idea Whaley came up with was a Kudzu Bomb. He described it as a mass of the fast-growing, invasive plant’s seedlings, which could then be deployed against ugly condo buildings and other corporatized nuisances. Greenberg wanted to do an experiment in plant growth by playing one set of plants Fox News broadcasts and another MSNBC, to see which grew better.
Unfortunately, we didn’t have a chance to get into specifics; our time had run out, and we were due back at the office. There, we returned to the pentagram to present our work, set to a soundtrack of Russian Orthodox church music. The atmosphere was permissive, good-natured, and welcoming. The point was clearly to find an idea that the whole team would be excited to work on.
This is the process by which MSCHF comes up with their projects, and it’s had a remarkably high hit rate. Their first drop, in May 2019, was a 2008 Windows laptop running six pieces of malware, which have collectively caused $95 billion in financial damage. It eventually sold for $1.34 million. After that, MSCHF put out “Man Eating Food,” a YouTube channel that had videos of a guy eating any food viewers requested; it obviously went viral. Then there was a version of Times New Roman that was slightly wider than the original font (“Times Newer Roman”), a Slack-based guessing game (“Word of the Day”), a Google Chrome extension that let you watch Netflix at work by making it look like you were on a conference call (“Netflix Hangouts”), and a website that converted any article on Wikipedia into academic prose (“M-Journal”).
The feeling of stumbling across a MSCHF product in the wild is a little like discovering a TV show you love and then realizing you still have four perfect seasons left to watch. It’s magical and maybe even a little secret, a place where you might even find some community. “It’s not necessarily marketing. We’re just creating experiences that people end up sharing,” says Whaley. “I think it’s definitely made for a generation that is more online than any other.” And MSCHF is focused on winning that particular war for attention. It’s not Supreme, which is a) physical, and b) concerned with retail. Everything MSCHF makes has a double purpose. It’s meant to do the thing it does — be a rubber chicken weed pipe — and draw millions of eyeballs online. (And their physical drops, Greenberg says, sell out in seconds.)
All of the projects MSCHF creates add up to a coherent vision. And while those get a lot of press coverage together, it wasn’t until Jesus Shoes, which debuted last October, that MSCHF became widely known as an independent creative entity. The group customized $200 pairs of white Nike Air Max 97s with references to the Bible, 60ccs of water from the River Jordan, and crucifixes hanging off the tongue; they were priced at $1,425 and immediately sold out. Drake bought a pair; MSCHF made some money. “There was a lot of labor involved, and I can’t really talk about how many we sold,” says Whaley. “But we did well.”
That’s an obvious dodge. It could mean a lot of things. MSCHF declined to comment on their finances. (Which makes sense; we know Whaley and co. are good at building hype by being mysterious.)
When I visited the office for the first time, some of the staff told me they’d knocked out some walls in what’s now their kitchen to give the place a more open feel. None of that is cheap, especially in Williamsburg, one of the most expensive places for real estate in the country. For me, what it added up to was a creeping sense of unease, like the part in a horror movie when you begin to suspect that it’s not just the pipes you hear settling in your beautiful new country house. I wondered how long it could last.
In a lot of ways, the story of Gabriel Whaley mirrors the story of MSCHF: both are prankish outsiders. For Whaley, who grew up on a farm in North Carolina to a “Korean tiger mom” and an “ex-military white guy” dad and who attended and then dropped out of West Point, it happened in those military dorms. He’d intentionally fail all of his white glove room inspections — “where someone comes in checks every horizontal surface, if there’s any dust, you get dropped for, like 1,000 push-ups” — and so he’d do things like slide a copy of The Communist Manifesto into his bookshelf, just to see if they’d notice.
After a couple years of push-ups, he transferred to the University of North Carolina (philosophy major), learned to code, and moved to New York. All the while, he kept making projects that attracted media attention — like, for example, a sexist tip calculator. BuzzFeed eventually offered him a job making lists and quizzes, where, just as eventually, he found himself bored.
On his own time, he kept circling a single question: “How do you just create something that will naturally spread across the internet without having to resort to hacking an algorithm on Facebook or optimizing for what YouTube wants to see?” Lo and behold: MSCHF, a company that’s the answer to that particular question.
That amount of attention on demand is something that agencies and brands are willing to pay a lot for, which is possibly why Whaley doesn’t seem too worried about the money. “I think that as they grow and they have more people on salary, there’s going to be a different kind of bottom line that is going to be quite interesting in terms of just trying to kind of keep the lights on,” says Ben Hordell, a partner at DXAgency, which specializes in marketing and advertising. “But, you know, it doesn’t seem like they’re going to want to take a traditional route, so I’m definitely curious to see how it goes.”
For marketing firms, the traditional route Hordell mentions is: make some interesting creative projects that get some good press, then start signing clients (or get acquired by a larger brand). For now, MSCHF plans to do neither. “I mean, there was a time where we would consult different brands throughout the city, but those days are kind of in the past,” Whaley tells me. MSCHF has always found a way to make the money it needs to survive. “And now we sort of hit this clip, and this momentum where we’re dropping something every two weeks. And the money is no longer an issue.”
The company’s Securities and Exchange Commission filings, however, show why the organization can take such a haphazard approach to making money. At the end of last September, MSCHF raised $3.5 million from two outside investors by selling equity in a seed round. By the end of January, MSCHF had 11 investors and, in another round, raised another $8 million. The investors weren’t named, but there was a clue: Laura Chau, an East Coast technology principal at Canaan Partners, had joined MSCHF as a director. Chau declined to comment for this story.
Whaley confirmed to me that Canaan had led the seed round and said that the company had taken $11.7 million in outside funding. I knew MSCHF was clever enough to convince a bunch of VCs to throw them some dough, but I couldn’t figure out what they might have said in those rooms: maybe, like, we make stuff that kids like online?
It’s pretty straightforward, Whaley says. “We have a repeatable process that creates output that self-distributes on the internet without requiring paid spend.” That’s it.
Every other similar brand that has tried to IPO has achieved this kind of massive online scale through a commensurately massive paid spend, Whaley notes. “But,” he says, “we’re saying we can do it without that.”
Greenberg, who recently graduated from NYU’s Stern School of Business, told me that while he was in school, his classes would occasionally use case studies drawn from MSCHF. “As you can see, my face is just in pain saying this,” says Greenberg. “They used one of the projects I worked on as a case study in class and we had to do a write up on it.” He didn’t tell anyone he’d worked on it. “Here’s the kicker: I do a write up on my own project. They give me a B minus.”
“Puff The Squeaky Chicken” was MSCHF’s next physical drop after the Jesus Shoes. The custom-designed rubber chicken pipe went on sale for $42, though you could get it for $4.20 provided you texted the company and proved you weren’t a narc. It ordered 1,000 from a factory overseas, which means MSCHF netted somewhere between $4,200 and $42,000 on the drop. That doesn’t include the costs of manufacturing and designing the product, which took six months from conception to sale. “We’re not here to become a DTC chicken bong company,” says Greenberg, the company’s head of growth. “We’re not going to roll out more colors.”
“There’s room for us to create that opportunity and then turn it down,” Whaley adds, “cuz we’ll just keep on moving. We’re not here to milk something until it’s dead.”
We were speaking in a park on an unseasonably warm afternoon in November. In the shadow of the Williamsburg Bridge, Whaley was wearing a chore coat over a thin blue Patagonia puffer; Greenberg was wearing joggers and a Volcom hoodie over a wrinkled Jets tee.“The goal is just to be able to do more of what we’re always doing at a greater scale,” says Whaley. “It’s like a child growing into an adult.” With MSCHF, Whaley has realized that the more often it creates these products, the more momentum the company builds, and the more doors spring open. “We’re not necessarily here to make the world a better place,” he continues. “We’re not gonna be disillusioned like that. But we think that we have the ability to transform products and experiences around us into unexpected moments of surprise and delight.”
To create joy from nothing. MSCHF is also very concerned with being a quote-unquote real company because, as Whaley tells me, “that’ll kill the magic.”
That magic is the brand. “What I’ll say to that is that whenever someone sees a MSCHF project, they should see what is hopefully a refreshingly new take on storytelling that defies what platforms dictate they should be,” Whaley tells me months later. “All of a sudden, the word content is almost synonymous with quick bites of video content that bigger richer people try to come in and capitalize on. And that’s why what MSCHF does is it’s almost like a punch up at the powers that be to tell stories in a way that’s more human and less platform dependent.”
But how do you reconcile punching up with taking a ton of money in venture funding?
“Maybe they’re just pawns in the art project. Our investors know that they’re along for that ride,” says Whaley. And then adds: “Investors should beware.”
Whaley and Greenberg say the pandemic hasn’t changed much about MSCHF’s business, with two exceptions: Greenberg is now working from his parents’ basement and the aforementioned supply chain disruption.
“Something interesting that I have observed is the common thread of people who have been reaching out saying how much they need, or look forward to the MSCHF drops even more now,” says Whaley when we video chat in April. “There’s nothing to do. People are just bored.” That has given MSCHF a renewed sense of mission, one that’s at least half-generated by the scads of people who love their work. “It is kind of ironic that we like to feel that we have pull on the internet, but now we’re literally doing it from basements,” he says.
And their physical drops continue to sell out. MSCHF recently cut the spots out of a Damien Hirst painting and sold each, individually, for $480 apiece; now the spots themselves are on the resale market. “As far as monetization goes, and like how we’re making money as a business this year, nothing has changed from our original plan,” says Whaley. Well, sort of. MSCHF isn’t hiring. And though the team had planned to open a physical space this year, that won’t happen either.
Whaley is also aware of how internet culture is changing, which is about what you’d expect from someone who spends a lot of time thinking about how to make art online. “The internet is just becoming pretty creative,” says Whaley. “People are finding ways to kind of like, bring some levity to the situations we’re dealing with. Like all these horny people on Twitter, they’re just being funny, right? Like, it’s actually funny. This isn’t people being gross, or, like, inappropriate.”
In a way, he says, everyone’s creating their own MSCHF.