I’ve never really spoken about this publicly since it happened (and died down). As I’ve grown older and wiser, I’ve come to realize that embracing my entire journey is necessary for growth. I sat down recently to dig into my past (particularly the events of 12 years ago) and try to make sense of it. Writing this memoir of sorts was a surprisingly emotional experience and I’ve learned a great deal about myself as a result. My story is an unusual one, but it is my story.
College kids and high schoolers of 2017, take note. You did not invent the idea of going viral. Yes, before the days of YouTube, Facebook, and Instagram, there were some of us trying to go viral on eBay—and then there were a few of us crazy ones who actually did. It’s been twelve years, and I can still feel the heat of those ceiling lights on the set of ABC’s Good Morning America. As I nervously tied a red necktie around my neck, I hoped the last-minute blazer I had borrowed from my dad wouldn’t look too big on me in front of the four million or so live viewers who were about to hear my story. I was 20 years old and I had just received a call from an ABC producer the night before. They wanted to fly me to New York City to tell the world about an eBay auction I had made. I couldn’t have known this at the time, but this eBay listing would go on to become one of the most viral auctions the site had ever seen and the worldwide media phenomenon that followed would play a pivotal role in not only my career path, but my life in general. It was a once in a lifetime opportunity to be sure, and I can remember it like it was yesterday.
The year was 2005. I was 20 years old and was working as a web designer and product photographer for a now-defunct used computer reseller that sold primarily through eBay. During this “Wild West” period of the Internet and specifically eBay’s history, people were selling off-the-wall items for outlandish prices and companies were actually bidding on and winning these auctions as publicity stunts. For example, it’s hard to believe a grilled cheese sandwich would sell for nearly $30,000 on eBay, but that’s exactly what happened. It appeared to have the Virgin Mary’s face burnt into the bread. The media reported on it and the rest is history. A man who got divorced sold his wife’s wedding dress for $10,000 by modeling it himself and writing quite the satirical auction description. A lady walked away with nearly six figures after hilariously overpitching her grandfather’s walking stick that she claimed held supernatural secrets. Remember the original Nintendo Wii? Well, some parents banked big time after they decided to sell their disobedient kids’ would-be Wii Christmas present just days before Santa’s arrival because—as the auction listing described—Saint Nick had made a last minute switch and put their kids soundly on the naughty list.
Just about anything you could think of was being sold for outlandish prices. It was the stuff of legends, but it was real—crazy eBay auctions, insane winning bids, all of it. Why? Because the media couldn’t get enough of these stories. With each new crazy idea, the media would follow the auction like flies attracted to light. They couldn’t help themselves. The winning bidder got front page coverage in some cases, and suddenly $30,000 for a stale grilled cheese sandwich was actually $30,000 for prime advertising in hundreds of top news media outlets. Auction after insane auction, the gavel would hit the block and you could almost hear Meg Whitman shouting “going once, going twice…and SOLD, to yet another company buying strategic advertising in the form of a news story.”
After realizing that these off-the-wall auctions were really all about advertising and cheap PR (in the scheme of things), I decided to get in the game. No, it wasn’t like one of those scenes in the movies where the young inventor pushes through night after night and day after day of writing ideas and formulas on whiteboards—only to suddenly shout out “eureka!” at 6 in the morning. It was more of a thought here and there for a few days and an admittedly selfish prayer or two asking God if he could hook me up with a great idea that would actually work. I didn’t fall off the toilet and hit my head like Doc Brown in Back to the Future before he invented the time machine. In fact, there was nothing particularly remarkable about the moment. One moment I was thinking, and the next moment, the idea was just there. “What if I sold 30 days of advertising space on my forehead in the form of a temporary tattoo?”
I knew that was the idea I was waiting for. Not only that, but I knew it was going to work.
I started telling a few people I was going to be the next big eBay auction, as in me, literally. I wrote an auction description, made a digital self-portrait cartoon with a “Your Ad Here” forehead tattoo, and set my starting price at one penny. I knew that nobody was going to bid on this thing unless people first heard about it, and nobody was going to hear about it if I started it too high and it didn’t get any bids. A little bit of chicken and egg thing going on, but I’ve never claimed to be risk adverse. I posted the listing and like clockwork, the bids started coming in. One cent. 10 cents. 3 dollars a few days later. My parents were cautiously optimistic, having grown accustomed to my “idea man” personality over the years. Some of my friends and coworkers joked about it and even helped bring the price to $60 with a few pity bids. Give your buddy a forehead tattoo for 30 days that says whatever you wanted for less than $100? It was a no-brainer. And I couldn’t be more thankful that it eventually became too expensive for pranksters like my friends to afford.
This was the perfect time to get the media involved. I emailed the auction to all of the local TV stations—ABC, CBS, NBC, FOX, and the local newspaper, anonymously of course, since nobody likes a shameless self-promoter. I was living in Omaha, Nebraska at the time, and honestly, if you threw a big enough garage sale there in 2005 you could probably have garnered some level of press coverage. And no, that’s not a slam on Omaha or their news media. There are fewer stories in a market of that size versus a Los Angeles or New York City. Who knows what would have happened (or not happened) if I had lived in a bigger market. Not only did Omaha’s media give this 20-year-old kid a chance, but to this day they remain some of the nicest and most professional people I’ve had the pleasure of working with. Oops—spoiler alert. I’m getting ahead of myself.
I heard back very quickly from not one, but all four local stations, the local newspaper, and a number of local radio morning shows. Within a matter of days, I was playing the role of official PR spokesperson for my own eBay auction to more than just local news. National media started reaching out. I was interviewed on over one hundred radio shows, dozens of entertainment websites, and multiple appearances on local TV. By now, this thing had spread internationally. I got a call from the BBC. They wanted to run a story on this “brilliant” idea, as they put it. Of course, I was more than willing to oblige.
Everything was going much better than I had expected. Yes, I did have a feeling this would be big. No, I never expected to find myself on more interviews than I can remember. I was walking on cloud nine. And suddenly, I was free falling towards the ground. I just wouldn’t realize that until the auction ended…
It was the big night. Friends and family had all come over for somewhat of a post-auction party and we were all watching the screen as the end neared. $19,000… $22,000… the bids continued to pour in. I sat in front of my bulky CRT monitor, hitting refresh as the final moments ticked by. A few more bids. $28,000… $29,000. It was over, but I had a sinking feeling about it. I didn’t recognize the winning bidder, and none of the bidders that had been in touch with me throughout the past few days had actually put in a bid in the 11th hour. Within the next few days, I learned that the winning bidder had been a prankster—set out to bid solely to ruin the auction for me. I was devastated.
How many times in your life will you find yourself in the limelight? For most people, the answer is none. Realistically, I knew I had been defeated by the evil forces of life at this point. The auction had flopped. There was no money to be paid, no actual ad to wear, no happy ending for the news to report. I relisted the auction, hoping my bidders would try again, but with this story already being old in the news, I knew as well as anybody, all was lost. I’d probably have to chalk this one up to fate and just be happy that I had a near-success. After all, it had still been a fun ride while it had lasted. But, as fate would have it, my story was far from over…
I was hanging out with friends a day or two later. We were walking through a Blockbuster video brick and mortar store (believe it or not, kids, if you wanted to rent a movie in 2005, you had to actually go out in the cold), and my dumb phone rang (dumb phone as in, definitely not a smartphone in 2005). The girl on the other end asked for Andrew Fischer. She was a producer with Good Morning America and she wanted to fly me out that night and have me on the very next morning.
In case you’re wondering, I didn’t rent a movie that night. I went straight home and packed. I thought this thing was over, but it was really just getting started. In fact, before the night was over, several other New York City-based shows had called to book me. When I mentioned I was actually headed there the next day, they wanted to have me on their shows as well while I was there. How many 20-year old kids have the opportunity to fly out to New York City for a live interview on the set of Good Morning America? I requested some time off work and boarded that plane, young, optimistic, and absolutely clueless about how insane this was all about to become.
While I was in New York City, I filmed several shows. The first auction may have ended as a dud, but with Good Morning America’s viewership alone, I had just promoted my auction to over 4 million potential bidders. People were even bidding right before the big Good Morning America interview because they knew the show might mention the current bidder’s company name, and sure enough, they did. At the time, the bidding had reached approximately $5,000.
After my media stint in New York City was over, the auction exploded. You could say it went viral, but honestly, Facebook and YouTube didn’t even exist at this point and the hashtag was still known as the pound sign. If something was referred to as viral in 2005, it was still time to go straight to the doctor. Looking back though, viral was the only way to describe what happened. The eBay auction started getting hundreds of thousands of views and actually raced to the top of what eBay called at the time “Most Watched Items”, a page that showed the most popular items on eBay on any given day. My auction remained there until it was over.
The auction ended about a week later, and this time it was a party. Friends and family had come over and we were all glued to the computer screen. Once again, the bids poured in as the clock counted down. Then, with mere moments to spare, the winning bid was placed for $37,375—a number I will not soon forget. This time, the winner was real. Not only that, but their CEO had learned about the auction a week earlier while watching Good Morning America, something he stated had been a long-term staple in his morning routine.
The Forehead Tattoo
I wore a temporary tattoo promoting a snoring remedy called SnoreStop for 30 days while I continued to make the talk show rounds. Was it weird? Yes. Uncomfortable? Of course. Try walking around with a forehead tattoo and see how it feels after even a few minutes. It was worth it though, and most people who hear this story agree that they would have done it too for that kind of money. I ended up back in New York City several times, was privileged to visit Los Angeles for the first time in my life, and was even met in Chicago by an international news crew that wanted to fly to the US and cover this story in person. I managed to do a second auction a month later (for around $10,000 or so), which took me to Las Vegas for the first time. Don’t ask me how (I’m pretty sure we went to the wrong limousine dropoff spot), but I even ended up walking the celebrity red carpet entrance at the 2005 Grammy Awards (dozens of photographers were in my face, but I never saw any of those pictures, unfortunately). The story grew and grew and the fad of temporary tattoo advertising exploded. Hundreds, if not thousands of copycat auctions were posted. Foreheads, pregnant bellies, arms, legs, chests, and more were all being transformed into 30-day billboards by optimistic opportunists looking to cash in on the craze, some even going as far as offering bidders the chance to tattoo their logo permanently on their bodies. Oh, and in case you’re wondering, due to my own success in this novelty auction market, I actually ended up holding a locked briefcase (yes, an actual locked briefcase with a glass window) containing that $30,000 “Virgin Mary Grilled Cheese Sandwich” in my own two hands and I have to say, somebody’s face was definitely there.
When it was all said and done, I had walked away with around $50,000 for a few months of forehead tattoo advertising. As for SnoreStop, they reported an increase of 50% in product sales as a direct result of the publicity they received from advertising on my forehead. Christian de Rivel, their CEO, referred to me as “a man who clearly has a head for business in every sense of the word.”
The Wind Down
Ever since doing this auction and getting all the publicity that came with it, I’ve had mixed feelings about whether or not it was all worth it. Sure, the spotlight was fun, but for a while it also caused me to do some crazy things (like other auctions and ideas that flopped miserably) in order to extend those 15 seconds of fame. I had become known as The Forehead Guy—somebody who was now old news. I found myself thinking “I needed to do something new to stay relevant.” Was I right? That depends on if I was living for society’s “thumbs up” or if I could be perfectly content just doing what I know I’m supposed to do, regardless of how others see it. I’ve had time to do a fair share of soul searching and self-reflection since then, and I eventually came to terms with the fact that I am not the sum of my successes or my failures. Who I am is much bigger than that. I didn’t ride off into the sunset and I didn’t “live happily ever after”. There were no curtains. Life just went on normally. Sometimes it was hard, other times easy, just as you’d expect anybody’s life would be through different seasons. You could say that the forehead tattoo auction caused me to catch the entrepreneurial bug, but you could also say that I had it before and that the auction was just a byproduct of that itch. Nevertheless, I learned a lot about myself through this endeavor, but the most important thing I learned is to never quit and to always get back up when you fall down. There is always something new to try. And guess what? Nobody remembers your ideas that don’t work anyway. As the billionaire entrepreneur Mark Cuban says, “You only have to be right once”. In my case, being right only meant an approximately $50,000 windfall, so I’ve had to keep trying, but you get the point he is trying to make.
The limelight eventually faded for me, but my passion for tackling big dreams didn’t. Since the big eBay auction days, I set out to finance and produce a Hollywood movie, started this website, PopMalt, and I’ve had articles and videos I made go viral with millions of views. I’ve been asked to speak publicly on the idea of “going viral” and I started NURV, a boutique creative multimedia production and digital marketing agency based in Colorado. Yes, I’ve had some successes, but I’ve also tried SEVERAL ideas that didn’t go anywhere. I continue to think big and have all sorts of dreams I’d love to tackle. And while it’s great to set big goals and aspire to reach new heights—at the risk of sounding cliché—I’ve learned and experienced that there’s more to life than all that. There’s also faith, family, and friends, things that so many entrepreneurs (including me at times) put on the back burner while they chase careers. I’ve learned that pride goes before the fall and that the best cure for a bruised ego is to not get a big head in the first place. I’ve also found that a great idea doesn’t always require a money-oriented endgame. I have several passion projects and even non-profit projects in the works, some that have even cost me considerable resources, and I’ve honestly found that those can be the most rewarding and meaningful.
Putting it All Together and Moving Forward
Would I do it again if somehow the money was guaranteed? Probably. It’s nice not seeing an ad on my face every time I look in the mirror, and the thought of my receding hairline giving way to an even bigger forehead tattoo than before is daunting, to say the least. But, if a company contacted me and wanted to pay me that kind of money for 30 days of being a human billboard once again, a conversation would definitely be had. The truth, though, is that this idea has been played out. People often ask me how they can do this too, and honestly, if it was easy enough to do this and actually make money, we’d all be doing it again and again. It’s been done. It’s old news. Back in 2005 and 2006, there were several others (including some that I met and even became friends with) that did variations of both temporary and permanent tattoo advertising and made some money. This is 2017 though, and I’ve been able to go outside without being recognized as “the forehead guy” for years now (it’s nice actually). That chapter is over.
So where do we go from here? There are countless better ideas out there just waiting to be had. Not just gimmicks like forehead tattoo ad space, but real, tangible ideas. Use your head (no, not literally like I did), and think of the next big idea. Take it on Shark Tank, self-fund it, launch a Kickstarter campaign, whatever fits you best. The world has changed a lot since 2005. If social media had been around back then, I’d have a lot more followers on my Facebook and Twitter pages than I do now (yes, those are links to my pages). Today, you can practically sneeze and go viral. Think of something and pursue it. If it doesn’t work, try something else. Can you sell your forehead on eBay and make money? Realistically speaking, no. Can you (fill in the blank) and make money? Perhaps, but only if you try it, so what’s stopping you? Go chase your dreams and catch them before somebody else beats you to it—and remember, money doesn’t have to be at the end of a dream to make it worthwhile. Find what you’re meant to do, whatever that may be.
Will I ever top the success of the infamous forehead auction? That’s the last question people ask me and the perfect one to close with. In some ways, I have already. In other ways, I have not. It’s difficult to create something so profound and innovative that every top morning show in America wants to have you on—especially something conceptual that requires zero out of pocket budget like this auction. It’s also difficult to be a good husband and father, two things I’ve added to my plate since the eBay success—two things that are far more important than making money or chasing a career. Besides, even if I do go on to invent some amazing product, win an Oscar for best director, or cure cancer (admittedly, I probably could have still made this point using less ambitious examples), there’s always going to be that person who remembers me as simply “that guy who sold his forehead on eBay”, and that’s OK. That’s not going to stop me from pursuing the bigger and more important things I’ve set out to do.