The Chive's Smut With a Smile

The Chive is a multimillion-dollar humor website, merchandise business, and philanthropic community built on getting women to take their clothes off for free. Meet the two bros who’ve perfected the art of millennial marketing
John and Leo Resig launched the Chive in 2008 Photographs by Brent Humphreys for Bloomberg Businessweek

The guy applying to be an intern is locked in the conference room. “Leave him in there for a while. I want him to sweat,” says John Resig, 35, co-founder and president of the Chive, a website based in Austin, Tex. Resig doesn’t mean he wants the guy to be nervous—that’s already been accomplished—he means he literally wants the kid to sweat through his shirt. “I want a big sweat mark right here,” Resig says, gesturing to his belly.

When the Chive posts an internship opening, more than 2,500 people usually apply. To thin the résumé pile, and because he finds it funny, Resig resorts to mild hazing. He wants to know how far he can push people. But the kid just refuses to sweat. Word around the office is that he’s bro-lit author Tucker Max’s assistant, and he came to the Chive because he thought a wildly popular website built on pinup-style self-portraits submitted by women and blog posts on subjects such as “Kids, they’re like dogs that can sorta talk” and “Soooo … you got wasted” would be a fun place to work. It’s a crowdsourced, Internet version of a lad magazine—the Maxim of the 21st century.

Resig considers turning off the building’s central air conditioning, but it’s above 90F outside, and the dozen or so people—mostly men, mostly in their mid-twenties—sitting at their desks veto that idea. The Chive is making so much money that in September the founders relocated most of their 50 employees from Southern California to Austin, largely to avoid paying income tax. They bought a $4 million building and are spending an additional $3 million to turn it into the Chive’s headquarters. It will have an indoor slide, a hot tub, and a bar on the second floor with a chute to send beers downstairs. Currently they’re working out of a temporary office, a 127-year-old former morgue that’s been converted into a suite of bright, loftlike rooms with exposed brick walls—and there’s no way to overheat the guy without making everyone else suffer right along with him.

Mac Faulkner, an editor, and Bob Phillipp, Resig’s cousin and the site’s head editor, sneak over to the conference room window, put their mouths on the glass, and blow their cheeks out like puffer fish while Resig stands behind them, laughing. He has vivid blue eyes and a cheerful, youthful face that, except for the permanent lines in his forehead and the wrinkles crinkling around his eyes, still looks much as it did when he was in college. The aspiring intern, so anxious now that he’s pacing the room, notices them, smiles, and gives a little wave, but Resig still won’t let him out. Instead, he leaves the office with Faulkner and Phillipp to see how construction is going at the headquarters. He makes everyone promise to wait at least 30 minutes before they let the applicant out. (And no, he didn’t get the job.)

Resig and his brother Leo, 33, started the Chive in 2008. It generates 20.1 million monthly unique visitors, according to Google Analytics. Quantcast, which also measures Internet traffic, puts it ahead of Web destinations such as NPR, USA Today, Comedy Central, OKCupid, and Disney. It’s also one of the first outlets to find real success on mobile phones. Since March almost 9 million users have downloaded its iPhone and Android apps, which have a daily use rate almost as high as that of Facebook’s app.

Chive enthusiasts at an Austin meetup

The average Chiver, as fans call themselves, is 28, college-educated, makes $60,000 a year, and likes to drink beer. Seventy-three percent are men. In terms of unique visitors, the site hasn’t yet caught up to its rival, CollegeHumor, but the Chive has managed to do something its competitors haven’t and which suggests a yet-more-profitable future: The Chive has moved its audience offline and evolved into a lifestyle brand. Over the past two years, more than 200 Chive chapters have popped up from New Zealand to Denmark. In the U.S., four or five unofficial meetups happen almost every weekend. Chivers wear Chive T-shirts, drink from Chive shot glasses, put Chive bumper stickers on their cars, and golf with Chive tees and balls. They greet each other with “Chive on” and crowdsource donations for the site’s charity projects. This month they raised $320,000 in six hours to pay the medical bills for a young woman paralyzed because of complications from Hodgkin’s lymphoma. “We’ve moved from a website to a brand to a culture,” says John.

Ads on the Chive run from $25,000 a day for a splashy home-page spot to more than $100,000 for a bundled package with everything from banner ads to sponsored posts. According to John, advertisers, which have included Fox Sports and the Clinton Foundation, have to schedule their buys three months in advance because the site’s almost always booked. For those that want targeted creative, the Chive also acts as an agency. (Red Bull and Axe body spray are among those running Chive-produced videos.) Leo confirms that the site has a revenue stream well over $50 million and possibly approaching $100 million annually. The company won’t get specific about its revenue but says merchandise earns four times as much as advertising. “Let’s just put it this way,” John says. “We’re doing just fine.”

The site gets 10,000 photo submissions each day

The first thing you notice when you visit the Chive is an abundance of semi-nude photos sent in by the site’s “Chivettes.” The Resigs say they get about a thousand pictures a day from women hoping for a spot on the site, many wearing too-small versions of the Chive’s T-shirts and underwear. The photos are sorted into categories such as “Future lower back problems” and “Those dresses never looked happier.” Kaci Barker, a 22-year-old college student in Houston, frequently sends pictures of herself. “I do it because I want people to say nice things about how pretty I am,” she says. “It’s like a compliment machine.”

The Internet can be cruel and creepy toward young women, but the Chive tries to maintain itself as a safe place for people to sample the frat house mentality. In the early days, John would delete rude comments. “If some adorable girl is posting half-naked photos for you to look at for free, why are you complaining?” he says. “It had the effect of cultivating an atmosphere of niceness.” John no longer moderates the website; Chivers take care of that for him. Collections such as “Hot girls in the middle of nowhere” are now followed mostly by grateful men thanking Chive’s women for taking off their clothes. There’s often an awkward leer about it all: Barker says the creeps are still out there—a guy at a Chive meetup once grabbed her butt and, when she asked him to stop, told her he didn’t have to because he’d seen her photos online. “Whatever. He was just a gross loser,” she says. “That sort of stuff happens even if your picture’s not on some website.”

Cat Saturday is one of the site’s most popular slideshow series

“I’m sure half my co-workers see me looking at the Chive on my computer and think I’m a pervert,” says Matthew Crosta, 30, who reads the website when he’s bored at work. “I swear I’m not just sitting at my desk, looking at t-‍-‍-! OK, I am looking at t-‍-‍-, but I’m also looking at pictures of kittens.” Despite the Chive’s adoration of women in all forms and in all kinds of tight outfits, women rarely appear in its funny slideshows or heading up its comedy videos. When they do—such as when Olympic hurdler Michelle Jenneke taught editor Faulkner her sexy warm-up dance—their bodies are usually part of the joke.

John and Leo, of course, stress the voluntary nature of the Chivettes’ submitted selfies and their attempts to make the community as “nice” as possible, but even they approach the sex-laden part of their site differently. John, who’s single, has no problem posing with models in skimpy outfits for pictures, while Leo, who’s recently married, almost never shows up in them. “It’s not my thing, but I don’t think it’s that big of a deal,” says their sister Emily, 30, who also works at the site. The Chive’s breakthrough may not be serving up pictures of women but letting a certain kind of basically decent guy feel OK about looking at them. It wraps the whole thing in a pleasing package of charity and community set in a totally imaginary world that evokes that summer camp-out when everyone drank too much and went skinny-dipping.
The Resigs grew up in Fort Wayne, Ind. John graduated from Hanover College in 2001 and moved to Los Angeles to become an actor. (He succeeded at that, too: He has a minor recurring role as the town deputy on True Blood, which he won after climbing over the studio lot’s fence and sneaking into the callbacks. “I got all scraped up,” he says. “They probably thought I was crazy.”) Leo graduated from Indiana University and in 2005 joined his brother in L.A. He’s taller and blonder than John and has a casual, almost flippant demeanor that suggests a perpetual good mood. Leo got a job as an office manager at a now-defunct movie poster design company, where he learned Photoshop and got his first glimpse into digital media. “The Travel Channel would spend like $2 million on digital ads,” he says. “I thought, Wow, there is a lot of money to be had here. How do we get it?”

By December 2007 the brothers had created a Perez Hilton knockoff celebrity gossip blog called Derober. Suddenly, one of their posts went viral: They Photoshopped Donald Trump’s signature onto a restaurant receipt and claimed that he’d left a waiter a $10,000 tip. Fox News, E! Online, and the Huffington Post all reported it as actual news. Almost 15 million people visited the website, but, because it didn’t have many ads, the hoax earned them only $153.

The Resigs couldn’t rely on viral sensations to bring in cash; they needed a steady, reliable stream of traffic against which they could sell ads. John found one through the link aggregation site Digg, which allows users to vote on their favorite news articles around the Web. “If you could get one of those top spots on Digg you could get, like, 120 million views a day,” John says. “But the question was, how do you become popular enough to do that?” He studied the website and quickly realized that only a handful of Digg users were controlling what became popular, so he befriended them. Then he hired a coder named Jay Kumar to “clock the algorithm cold.” Instead of putting up links to Derober—Digg frowned on self-promotion—John submitted articles from the Hollywood Reporter, the video game website IGN, and other entertainment outlets that already had big audiences and a lot of money. “I’d do it for a month and then call them up and say, ‘Has your website traffic been spiking recently? Yeah, I did that. And I can do it again if you pay me.’ ” They did. “I remember one week I couldn’t pay $300 for rent and the very next one I had $40,000 in my bank account,” John says. After a particularly large check, the brothers celebrated with a trip to Jamaica.

While John was trying to game Digg, Leo, who’d moved to Chicago, turned his attention from celebrity gossip to weird Russian and Japanese photo blogs. They had a mixture of funny photos, interesting posts about art and architecture, and photos of half-naked women that, because they came from .ru Web domains, rarely got picked up by American sites such as CollegeHumor or BuzzFeed. He and John abandoned Derober and started a website that would capitalize on these photos. They combined the first letters of the cities they lived in, Chicago and Venice Beach, Calif., calling it the Chive.

The Chive was launched on Sept. 28, 2008, with a post by Leo imagining what it would be like if the NFL had a Facebook page. (Sample update: “Terrell Owens is now in a relationship with Terrell Owens.”) Subsequent posts ranged from a gallery of Annie Leibovitz photos to novelty Japanese products such as black tissue paper and a finger massager to illustrations from a 1933 German electrical safety handbook. Leo did most of the early posting while John approached his Digg customers and told them that instead of money, what he really wanted was traffic. Soon, TMZ, CollegeHumor, Cracked, and others were linking to the Chive’s stuff. Within a year it was getting a couple hundred thousand visitors a day—not much, but enough for John and Leo to quit their jobs.

They tried to get outside investors to fund the site, but it was the middle of the recession and nobody saw the value of funny time-wasters that people looked at during work. “People were like, ‘Oh, you have a website? Have fun with that,’ ” Leo says. “We had to fund everything ourselves.” To do that, they had to expand the site as fast as possible.

Most readers of the Berry are college-age women

By this time, the Chive’s content had shifted from Russian photos to more mainstream pictures of hot college girls and beer-pong pranks. They hired Emily to launch a less crude version of the site called the Berry—posts range from “Plastic surgery fails” to pictures of a pants-less Jon Hamm in bunny ears—that would pick up the female audience they were quickly shedding. “John and Leo assumed it would be a fashion website, but I told them women like funny stuff on the Internet, too,” Emily says. They hired other relatives: The Resigs’ youngest sister, Megan, also works on the Berry; cousins Bob and Rick Phillipp edit the Chive and the Brigade, its military-themed offshoot. Emily’s husband, Brian Mercedes, runs the website’s charity.

In 2011 the Chive started selling T-shirts. The first run of 400 sold out in minutes. Instead of ramping up production, the Resigs created scarcity: The Chive releases new shirts in batches, only a few hundred at a time, and they usually sell out. The merchandise line contains everything from shot glasses to yoga pants. But the most popular products are shirts that say “Keep Calm and Chive On” (sometimes abbreviated KCCO) or have a stenciled image of Bill Murray. Murray has become the site’s unofficial mascot; the Chive sponsors his charity golf tournament, and in return the actor allows the site to use his likeness on merchandise. T-shirts sell for $28 through the Chive but go for as much as $70 on EBay. When asked how much Chive swag she owns, Chivette Barker rattles off 15 pieces of clothing before she gives up and says, “I don’t know, like, a lot.”
A couple years ago, John started hearing from people who’d had their bar tabs or parking meters or Starbucks coffees paid by anonymous strangers urging them to “Chive on.” In one submission, someone sent in a photo of an unopened bag of Doritos taped to a vending machine, along with the message “Free snack! KCCO.” In Canada, someone woke up the morning after a snowstorm to find that a Chiver had shoveled his driveway. At a September meetup on the Jersey Shore, Bill Richardson, a 26-year-old Chiver, says that at toll booths he pays $10 extra for the cars behind him.

John and Leo didn’t set this in motion. They’re not even sure how or why the random acts of generosity started. As these acts became a bigger and bigger part of Chive culture, John and Leo started getting e-mails from Chivers who wanted to give back in more meaningful ways. John tested the Chive’s altruism in 2011 when he posted a plea from a volunteer EMT unit in rural Virginia that had lost its government funding and was set to close. Chivers donated more than $30,000 to buy a new ambulance and keep it open. To encourage more philanthropy, the brothers created Chive Charities, which crowdsources campaigns for individuals with rare diseases or other special needs. The charity’s 501(c)(3) tax-exempt status is still pending, and it’s run only eight campaigns so far, but all have met their funding goals, with donations totaling close to $1 million. “The Chive has far outgrown our capacity to run it,” John says. “If all these people woke up tomorrow and started murdering people while wearing Chive shirts, we couldn’t stop them. Luckily, they just buy each other lunch.”

The Brigade has slideshows like “Chivettes that happen to be in the marines”

Chivers don’t think of themselves as readers of the same website; they think of themselves as part of a group. “If I see someone in a Chive T-shirt, I know what kind of person they are and that I’ll probably get along with them,” says Jess Hauck, a 25-year-old digital marketer who arrived at the Jersey Shore meetup wearing a Bill Murray shirt. “They’re funny, not easily offended, they like to party,” he says, “and they love Bill f-‍-‍-ing Murray.”

A few weeks ago, the company launched KCCO, a beer it plans to distribute nationally at sports bars Chivers frequent and, of course, at all the meetups. Sometime this winter—the date keeps getting pushed back—John and Leo plan to start a Kickstarter-esque campaign to fund the site’s first feature film, which Leo describes as “a choose-your-own-adventure horror-comedy movie, sort of like Scream, where Chivers get to vote on which sexy Chivette gets killed first.”

“Companies spend millions—billions—of dollars trying to do what these guys have done,” says Andrew Clark at Humanaut, a brand-awareness company in Chattanooga that specializes in making companies seem more personable. The Chive isn’t just getting people to wear its logo, it’s getting them to do it because they believe it says something about who they are. This kind of affinity has naturally attracted corporate America, and that’s led to Faulkner working on the sketches for Axe, Red Bull, and Corona. “We’re trying to figure out how to do ad campaigns that don’t feel like ads,” he says, “which usually means we can’t do product placement.” In a sketch for Corona, Faulkner leads a sightseeing bus in L.A. and takes tourists on a personal tour of his life that culminates with him smashing what he thinks is his ex-girlfriend’s new boyfriend’s car. For a limited time, a Corona ad ran before the spot. The beer is never even mentioned in the video.
On a Friday night in early October, the Chive’s New York chapter hosts a meetup at a sports bar called the Royal. It’s $20 for an open bar until 8 p.m. The line to get in stretches to the end of the street. Inside, about 300 guys—many of them firefighters and police officers wearing Chive T-shirts—become increasingly animated as they double-fist drinks. “Where are all the Chivettes?” asks Shawn Drees, a firefighter and head of the Chive’s central Pennsylvania chapter. He and seven friends have traveled to New York for the party, arriving in a stretch limo.

Drees has just pointed out the obvious—in a completely packed party sponsored by fans of a website laden with girlie photos, there are only a handful of actual women. “This feels like a fraternity party,” says his friend Jared Meshey, 25, a car salesman from Lancaster who introduced himself earlier by handing out a Chive-branded card that read, “Hello, I just wanted to inform you that I find you very attractive.” Meshey and Drees met through the Chive and are now best friends. “I’m a single guy, so of course I’d like to meet a girl tonight,” Meshey says. “But that’s not why I came.” He grabs a fresh beer from the stash of drinks his friends have hoarded, takes a sip, and continues: “I don’t know anyone else in this bar except the people I came with, right? But I know they’re cool, and by the end of the night, I’ll probably have new friends. Normally, if you get this many guys together in a bar, a fight breaks out. That’ll never happen with Chivers.”

As the evening wears on, the clusters of friends slowly meld into one larger group. The crowd is Caucasian and husky and heavily tattooed. By the front door, a man dances in a green morph suit. Meshey puts on a fake mustache. Drees wears a Chive-themed firefighter’s helmet that’s not as heavy, he says, as his real one. A few feet in front of him, someone in a rubber horse mask stands on a bar stool. There’s a little bit of dancing going on but not much since there aren’t enough women for anyone to dance with. The Chivers aren’t too bothered by this. You don’t need women to start an impromptu singalong to Livin’ on a Prayer, which they soon do.

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