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Back in the first dot com boom, a lot of people were suddenly laid off in droves. Theo Fanning was one of them. He explains: "Companies were dissolving overnight, pink-slip parties were happening weekly, and many of my peers were fleeing San Francisco for greener pastures. Instead of moving to NYC or LA, I decided to hunker down, stick it out, and wait for the economy to stop smoldering. Since no one was hiring, I spent my days "documenting" my embrace of unemployment and launched a website: Unemployed Theo. It was silly, self-indulgent, and more than a little strange—but it kept me occupied while I looked for freelance work."
Unemployed Theo become an unexpected viral hit, before people even called it that. Now more than twenty years later, as Theo is on the hunt for a job, again, he found the website on a drive and relaunched it.
adland: Can you tell me how the website was originally received, how you got the word out, and how much attention it got back then?
Theo: After I got laid off from DDB (Tribal actually), SF was pretty desolate. My coworkers and I had our own pink-slip party (90% of our office was laid off rather unceremoniously). During this long and liquor-induced evening, one of my old CD, Brooke Lundy, coined the title “Unemployed Theo”—in his inebriated state he decided I was far more interesting as a person without a job. I launched unemployedtheo.com with just one episode not soon after that—mostly as a joke for my friends and old coworkers. I immediately ripped off Shepard Fairey and made a batch of the "UT has a posse stickers" and littered them around SF in the bars, bodegas, and taco joints I was frequenting.
I would post a new episode every few weeks and send an email out to the “mailing list” (a word doc with emails that were collected from the various emails to me about the site).
I had no distribution plan (or any plan at all).
As things did back then, it got passed around via email and word of mouth. I think in the first few weeks I got something like 5000 visits to the site—which of course encouraged me to keep doing it. By the time I posted episode three. I was getting 2-3000 site visits every few days.
Around that time, I started getting contacted by news outlets and publications. A bunch of sites did articles or posts about U.T. and I did a couple of phone interviews and even a couple of on-air radio interviews in Chicago and New York (yes, radio!). After that, it blew up for a couple of months. I think I got more than 200k visits monthly.
By the time I finished episode 6 and the contest, my 15 minutes of fame were fading—which conveniently coincided with my interest in the over project. I kept the site up at a dedicated URL for a year or so before I let the domain lapse. After that, I hosted it for posterity at my Spackle.com domain. So, I would say in the context of the times, it was very well received.
adland: Did the original "unemployed Theo" site get you job leads?
Theo: I did not get any job leads from it… but honestly, at the time there weren’t many jobs to be had. Also by the time “the buzz” was winding down I was beginning to start my own agency (Traction) with three of my old workmates who also had been laid off at the time.
In those early years of the agency, we did have clients who mentioned U.T. and it led them to be interested in the agency—but that wasn't very often.
adland: You never did have a webcam, did you? ;)
Theo: No, I never had a webcam. I thought the hack was much funnier (and looked just like 90% of “webcams” at the time).
adland: Are you stubbornly going to stay in San Francisco again, or are you open for work somewhere else and willing to relocate?
Theo: I am certainly not being stubborn about staying in SF—I am lucky to have gotten established here 20+ years ago. I have been looking for opportunities everywhere, but it is going to have to be something really good for me to uproot my family. And now with remote work, most of my freelance work is all over the country ( and the world).
adland: You pointed out some of the negative similarities between the dot com boom era and our current volatile times. What are some positive similarities?
Theo: There are some definite similarities to the dot-com-bust of 2001 and today. Honestly, I think between remote work and just the volume of companies and options out there, things will recover and shift into something new—and hopefully better. Hopefully.