Steve Gadlin is mildly allergic to cats. But he can draw them (just barely). He likes the United States Postal Service, too. In the Internet Age, that’s enough for something like fame and the possibility of fortune.
When last we heard of Gadlin, a website developer from Evanston, Illinois, who works in Chicago, he managed to convince Groupon (whose mascot is a cat) to promote his not-so-big idea: he will draw a child’s stick-drawing of a cat, to the customer’s specifications (Super Cat, Abraham Lincoln Cat, Rahm Emanuel Cat, etc.), fold the letter-size paper, put it in an envelope, and drop it off at the post office.
For $9.95. That’s it.
Gadlin, who resembles a character out of the Dilbert cartoon strip, also does a little dance on his YouTube video.
That really is it.
Gadlin was, of course, catnip for television.
“There’s an economy for stupid that I didn’t realize existed, which is great because I am overflowing with stupid, ” Gadlin says. “I just thought it would be fun to see how far can an idea go.”
Pretty far, it turns out. Gadlin caught the attention of the producers of Shark Tank, the bombastic ABC-TV show where a panel of self-made, filthy rich investors — known as sharks — consider offers from contestants (not known as chum) seeking financial backing for their business or product.
In January 2012, Gadlin appeared on the show. He told the sharks that 94 percent of the $9.95, that he charges, is profit, and told them that he could draw 25 cats in an hour, — 1,000 in a week — for about $9,400.
Nonetheless, Gadlin bombed with four out of five sharks… except one.
Mark Cuban, the eccentric billionaire and owner of the Dallas Mavericks basketball team, agreed to buy 33 percent of Gadlin’s company for $25,000. An extra bonus Cuban agreed to is that he would randomly draw 1 of every 1,000 customer orders for cat drawings.
Since then, Gadlin’s company has taken off. Well, sort of. Six months after his Shark Tank appearance, Gadlin drew another 5,200 cat drawings, for total revenue of nearly $52,000.
His video has been viewed hundreds of thousands of times. It’s hardly in the Charlie Bit My Finger viral video territory — a video about a baby boy biting his brother’s finger — which has been viewed 7 million times and climbing, but still a popular destination on YouTube.
Nearly all of Gadlin’s YouTube views came after his appearance on television.
Gadlin, now 36, is married and has two small children. He still has his day job as a web manager at Weigel Broadcasting, a television company that broadcasts WCIU-TV (Channel 26), in Chicago.
What business lessons has Gadlin learned so far?
- Starting a company is, as he puts it, “CEO boot camp.”
- Building a digital company means you have to learn how to organize a traditional company. He filed to become what is known as a “limited liability company.” That means that if the company goes bust, creditors can go after the LLC’s assets, but not Gadlin’s personal assets.
- Building an Internet company means honing whatever digital skills you have to build things like an online shopping cart.
And how are Gadlin’s other digital tools, his fingers? Does he have repetitive stress disorder, the crippling withering of the fingers that strikes factory workers?
“My wrist was pretty sore that first week after ‘Shark Tank,’ but I’m pretty sure it grows stronger with each session,” he said. “From time to time I have to ice it up, but I haven’t suffered any serious injury. Yet.” ❒