Bored Panda: how we built a global media business with $5/month

You may not know about us, but chances are you’ve clicked on one of our links. We’re Bored Panda, now one of Europe’s leading social media publishers. We currently have 35 million monthly unique visitors, 200 million monthly video views, and over 7 million Facebook followers. Let me tell you the story of how we bootstrapped our way here.

I’ve always been interested in photography and video art — from filming TV ads, shooting weddings, to attending various film festivals. But since I thought I eventually needed a “real” job, I studied business at Vilnius University in Lithuania.

While a student, a classmate and I were continually trying to figure out ways of making money online. Our first project was a blog about other people’s success stories. It was like killing two birds with one stone — we could inspire others and, while writing about other people’s success, we actually learned many things about building online businesses. Eventually the blog made enough money to pay for daily lunch in the canteen… our version of ramen-profitable :)

I started Bored Panda from my bedroom

I started Bored Panda from my bedroom in 2009. The only cost was 5$/month for WordPress hosting. Even the design template was free. I was laser-focused on profits from day one. The idea was to create content that people would share on social networks, which would bring free traffic back to my website. All this traffic then could be monetised with AdSense banners.

Because Bored Panda is a natural combination of my hobbies and interests — photography, art, technology, and business — the long hours have never felt like a sacrifice in the last 7 years. But there were some very, very long hours.

Outmaneuver your competition by leveraging your strengths

A key concern in the early days was that being merely profitable was not enough. We were up against very large companies, with big teams and even bigger budgets. But constraints breed creativity: we had no choice but to try to be smarter and more focused than them. I noticed early on that some of my posts were performing much better than others. So instead of publishing ten daily posts, I concentrated on one or two, with the goal of making them much better than anything else out there.

This “quality over quantity” approach not only helped in attracting a lot of loyal followers on social media, but it was also key to building a destination site that most other social publishers lack these days. Actually, even now, with 30 employees, we still publish fewer posts than our competitors. We just make them better.

The same story, but crafted with Bored Panda love.

Surviving the emotional rollercoaster

In the last 5–6 years, we’ve seen a lot of competitors come and go. Many exhibited massive growth for a very short period of time and then fell off a cliff. We believe our whole industry has this tendency to over-optimize for short-term results.

In 2009, our main driver of traffic was StumbleUpon (remember StumbleUpon?), one of the early social content discovery websites. The first months of Bored Panda were looking really promising — my strategy was working and everything was growing fast.

But then StumbleUpon simply cut all their traffic to us and asked me to buy their ads…!

Little did I know at the time that this was their business model. It was an early and incredibly important lesson: the only way to survive in this industry is to build long term value through loyal followers. I started to grow the number of Facebook followers and newsletter subscribers. It took more time to reach exponential growth again, but this time it was sustainable growth.

Don’t chase short-term success

In 2014 and 2015 we were already growing fast, I was hiring new people and had started to turn Bored Panda into a “real” company. However, there were new sites popping up on Facebook every day that were growing much faster than us. You may have heard of Viralnova, Upworthy or Distractify. All of them were exploiting Facebook’s algorithm and misleading users with clickbait titles like “What Happens Next Will Surprise You!”. It was very tempting to do the same, but we decided to stick with our focus on high quality posts and a focus on building a loyal follower base. And eventually Facebook changed their algorithm… and all those sites took a serious hit. Interestingly, we grew substantially because Facebook directed their traffic at better sites like Bored Panda.

Investing in outstanding people

“Invest in people” may sound a little trite — kind of what a random mentor would say at some startup gathering. But there’s a lot of truth here. Bored Panda is still based in Lithuania, but we are hiring the best and the brightest both here and abroad, especially in the UK. It’s this team that has helped Bored Panda maintain very high growth rates in the last three years. We invest in our people and try our hardest to make them happy. And we are constantly looking for great editors, copywriters, image editors and developers.

Make decisions based on metrics

In some situations, entrepreneurs need to trust their gut. However, we try to maximize the number of decisions based on metrics rather than emotions. We have been investing in great developers and data analysts to create unique technical tools, helping us find the next big story, measure its potential for our audience, or simply to save time in daily operations. I have incorporated these tools deeply into our daily editorial processes and they are a big reason for our growth.

Community — a source of long-term value

The Internet is huge, but the longer you work in this industry, the more you realize that there are not so many original ideas around. A lot of publishers simply copy each other, not putting too much effort into discovery.

Therefore, we have invested a lot of time into building a platform on which artists submit their own stories and (with the help of our editorial staff) spread them across social networks. This way they get exposure for their work and we get the best original content online. These are simple tools like our “Submit Post” form or our community-curated Open Image Galleries. At the moment, we have over 600,000 registered members which have led to over 7,000 community-generated viral stories. We’re proud that Bored Panda has changed the professional lives of many of these artists.

We love making our Pandas more successful.

These are just some of the most valuable high-level tips on the journey of building Europe’s leading social content business, Bored Panda. We are still growing fast and won’t stop learning for a while — but some fundamental things don’t change. I would recommend starting with simple things you love, figuring out what your values are, and then building a long-term strategy based on that. It takes more time, but it’s much more sustainable and leads to a better, happier business.

Thanks for reading. If you’re interested in joining our team or working with us, you can reach me at tomas@boredpanda.com.