From muggle to media mogul by age 25

FROM MUGGLE TO MEDIA MOGUL BY AGE 25

By Anne Moore
Crain’s Business Chicago, April 23, 2012

At age 12, media entrepreneur Emerson Spartz persuaded his parents to let him and his 10-year-old brother, Dylan, quit school. His parents agreed, as long as the boys read widely, including four magazine-length bios of successful people per day. Freed from other homework, the seventh-grade dropout turned his attention to his passion, the Harry Potter books, and created what would become the series’ No. 1 fan site, Mugglenet.com.

A year later, he had six employees and 120 contributors. None knew he was working for a newly minted teenager. “I kept my age a fiercely guarded secret,” Mr. Spartz says.

Now 25, Mr. Spartz is CEO of Chicago-based Spartz Media Inc., whose 15 sites draw 160 million page views monthly. Targeted to teens and 20-somethings, the sites, with names such as OMG Facts, Six Billion Secrets and Gives Me Hope, ask visitors to post confessions, secrets, facts, stick-figure comics, captions or brief stories. Visitors vote for their favorites, and that determines placement.

“His audience comes back time after time, they’re engaged, they contribute very personal stuff of high quality,” says John Corrigan, Chicago-based director of category development at Edo Interactive Inc. of Nashville, Tenn.

Unlike most tech startups, Spartz Media is profitable and self-funded. (Mr. Spartz declines to provide revenue.) He and his 30 employees work out of a 4,000-square-foot loft in River North that’s more frat house than slick media space.

A $200 charge for server service turned Mr. Spartz from hobbyist to business owner. To pay the bill, he opened his Harry Potter site to advertisers. Ka-ching! His Potter-inspired books, which theorized what would happen next, were New York Times best-sellers. When J.K. Rowling published her sixth Potter book, Mr. Spartz, all of 18, was invited to meet the author at her home in Scotland, in 2005.

“I was hit by the lucky stick,” he says. The eldest of three sons, Mr. Spartz grew up in La Porte, Ind., in a comfortable home, simultaneously indulged and pushed to succeed. The boys could watch TV, but they had to use closed-captioning to enhance their reading skills. In the car, they listened to Tony Robbins motivational tapes. Mr. Spartz’s father is founder and CEO of solar panel manufacturer All Day Solar Inc. in La Porte. His mother is president of philanthropic group Unity Foundation of La Porte. Brother Dylan is now Spartz Media’s creative director. The youngest, Drew, is 13.

Mr. Spartz earned a bachelor’s degree in management from the University of Notre Dame’s Mendoza College of Business. Though he craved social interaction after being home-schooled, he recalls that he holed up in his dorm room for a year to read everything about business he could.

Tall and thin, Mr. Spartz wears jeans and T-shirts to work. He played golf and basketball as a kid, but these days his only exercise is city walking. His diet is awful, heavy on energy drinks and deep-dish pizza. Mr. Spartz is newly married to his college sweetheart, Gaby, who is Spartz Media’s vice president of community. They live in Streeterville.

Fellow entrepreneurs say Mr. Spartz is generous with expertise and dispassionate with advice. Says Ryan Bethea, a San Diego startup consultant: “It’s like talking with a great composer who’s playing something you don’t even hear.”