The Self-Made Man: Matthew Inman
Matthew Inman, creator of The Oatmeal, has been the subject of some pretty heavy online discussion lately. A rape joke in one of his recent cartoons stirred up a lot of outrage among readers, as did his pissy attempt at an apology, and the whole mess led to a savage and inaccurate Buzzfeed article that portrayed Inman as a heartless capitalist with no genuine creative drive or incentive beyond making money.
Inman has responded to the Buzzfeed article already, and since I’m not here to defend the joke that got him into all this trouble (which wasn’t funny because rape jokes aren’t ever funny), I’ll just do my thing and talk about Inman as an entrepreneur.
In another world, Inman could have built something like Facebook or Spotify. He got into computer programming when he was 13 and was a professional programmer by 17. By his own admission, he did SEO marketing stuff in his early twenties and stunk at it, and got smacked down by Google for trying to game their system. He also designed and coded his own online dating website (Mingle2), and attracted users with the quizzes and cartoons he drew for it. Those cartoons morphed into The Oatmeal, which got its name from the handle Inman used when he played Quake Online.
Inman describes his process for coming up with cartoons as “brain-farming,” which is a fancy term for
thinking a certain topic to death while he’s doing other things, like running (a big hobby of his). A lot of his comics correspond with contemporary Internet humor (zombies, bad grammar, etc.), and his visual style borrows heavily from Gary Larson, creator of The Far Side; the characters are doughy and simply rendered to make them more relatable.
The Oatmeal got more and more popular, which jacked up his bandwidth costs, and Inman had to call for donations to keep the site running, and was as surprised as anyone else when they came pouring in. Without necessarily trying to, Inman had built up a loyal and generous fanbase that has thown money at a few other causes of Inman’s, namely his interest in the Tesla Museum.
Inman attributes much of his success to luck, and low-level SEO knowledge, but he always stresses that the real key to making things happen is to “make something great, focus on that and ignore your social-media strategy.” Simply put, marketing came second to quality. Inman made The Oatmeal work because he invested a lot of time and effort into making something that people liked, and then put it out there through social media for them to find. The same can be said about a lot of people whose companies I’ve profiled here; the primary reason their products were successful is because they were good products.
Inman talked about his career trajectory and how he keeps The Oatmeal profitable on the Rise to the Top podcast, and it’s an interesting conversation. Whether the rape joke situation has soured you on him or not, give it a listen; there’s some good stuff in there for budding go-getters who want to do more than write ad copy and Tweet for a living.
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About Dave Kiefaber Dave Kiefaber is a Baltimore-based writer who regularly contributes to Adfreak and the Gettysburg Times. His personal website is at www.beeohdee.blogspot.com.