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« Wall Street Journal Explores Retention Problems at Large Law Firms | Main | Interview: Margaret Minister O'Keefe: Overseeing Licensing at Angela Adams Designs »

Interview: Avi Muchnick: Lawyer Turned Photoshop Entrepreneur

Prior to starting law school in January 2002, Avi Muchnick, launched worth1000.com as a community site revolving around the concept of "photoshopping," that is, using Adobe's PhotoshopTM application to alter photos, typically for purposes of parody or satire. The site essentially allows graphic designers to enter their most creative images into various contest categories to be judged by their peers according to a strict set of guidelines.

What initially started out as a way to pay the rent while Muchnick attended law school, has evolved into an immensely popular site that attracts over 100,000 unique visitors a day, has over 250,000 registered members, and has spawned a book (When Pancakes Go Bad), and merchandising deals with companies such as Universal Pictures. The key to success, Muchnick explains, has been viral marketing as graphic designers share their images with each other and third parties, including the media (Worth1000.com's URL is embedded in every image submitted to the site).

Click the link below to read Muchnick's interview.

JD Bliss (JDB):  While attending law school you started www.Worth1000.com, an enormously popular Photoshop®-based graphic design web site that PC Magazine has named to its Top 100 web sites list.  Your profile on the site indicates that you have a background in web design & ASP/SQL programming, newspaper layout / desktop publishing and advertising. Can you provide us with a brief summary of your work in those areas prior to starting law school?

Muchnick:  As an undergraduate at Queens College in New York I worked as editor-in-chief of my college newspaper, where I learned a lot about layout and web design. After graduation I teamed with a friend to create The Satyr, an online venture that syndicated satirical news articles (accompanied by parody images that we created using Photoshop®) to college newspapers.  The venture didn’t last but the skill set enabled me to get a job as an Art Director of a multimedia production firm in New York. After 9/11, I was laid off, and I also got into Cardozo School of Law about that time, for January, 2002 admission.

JDB:  Given your success in journalism and design, why did you change directions to pursue a career in the law?

Muchnick:   Law school was something I’d planned on since college, but I had just gotten married after graduation and wanted to work a bit first.   Law was always my primary direction.  I had enjoyed working as a journalist in college but didn’t want to pursue all the boring local fieldwork that’s necessary to work your way up in a newspaper.  But the power of the press, and especially the First Amendment that protected it, intrigued me.  For example, when I wrote an editorial criticizing how the school president spent donor money, the Dean of Students called my house and implied that I’d be expelled if the editorial ran.  The press got wind of what happened and the story appeared in The New York Times, Newsday and on local television, and it was the president who backed down and was eventually let go.  The whole incident confirmed my interest in the law but there were plenty of other influences that intrigued me – Law and Order, the John Grisham novels and movies, and a law firm internship that I enjoyed during my freshman year.  I was attracted to how glorified various aspects of the law seemed.

JDB:  What motivated you to launch Worth1000.com during law school? Was there a "eureka" moment of some kind that inspired you to launch the site? Or had you been planning such a site for a longer time?

Muchnick:  I had three months to kill before I started law school, and had an idea for a web site using Photoshop® that I wanted to create bouncing around in my head.  Ever since my experience with The Satyr my real interest was not so much in graphic design – that had just been a means to an end, even at the agency – but in the Internet and how it can be used to create communities of people with similar ideas and interests.   I had developed a lot of contacts while working on the earlier web venture, and I wanted to have a source of income during school. My wife was also in school (but not studying law) and we had some money saved up, but I didn’t want to rely on my savings. I figured if I made a mostly self-running web site that could do its own marketing and rely on a community of users, it’d be a great model for generating really rich online content. The three-month layoff worked to my advantage. The site was launched on January 1, 2002, and I entered school a few days later.

JDB:  How did you handle the practical issues of launching and establishing and growing the site:  programming, financing, maintenance time, legal issues, marketing?

Muchnick:  Since I knew some web design, I bartered my services with a friend who knew how to program in different languages to build the site’s backend. Eventually I asked him to help me learn how to program myself. He recommended some books, I couldn’t put them down and I took over the programming shortly after. Regarding financing, the biggest cost was the programming and, as I explained, we worked that out. Legal issues didn’t arise immediately. We had some interesting ones come up – for example, making sure that there were no problems with Adobe, the makers of Photoshop® – but not in the site’s infancy fortunately.  I had some great professors in law school who helped out quite a bit. As for marketing, I designed the site to be self-marketing.

JDB:  How does that work?

Muchnick:  All of the site’s imagery, which is created by our members using Photoshop®, is automatically watermarked with our site’s URL. We realize that the images will be emailed around the web, and we get a lot of advertising that way. We also had writers for USA Today and Wired magazine who mentioned us prior to our launch. This was arranged via a contact we’d made during our time publishing the satirical news site. We also had friends at other sites plug us the day of our launch.  After the site was up and running I created a book, When Pancakes Go Bad: Optical llusions with Adobe Photoshop, which contained some of our best images, and marketing the book through Barnes and Noble and Amazon gave us another boost.

JDB:  Was it difficult juggling law school with the growing demands of the site?

Muchnick:  Yes. Fortunately I paid more attention to the site than I did to school. I remember some days when the site would be down, that I’d be on a school payphone for hours with tech support. I operated what turned into a major business from the school library. It was the biggest relief in the world when I graduated.  Today we still run a very lean operation.  The site is hosted with a company in Florida, and I have a couple of employees and a staff of volunteers who help with the rest.

JDB:  At what point after launching the site, did you decide to abandon your legal career? Was it a difficult decision?

Muchnick:  That was in the middle of my first semester. I didn’t like studying law and realized it very, very early on. I believe I stayed with law school, as opposed to business school, mostly because I didn’t like the stigma of being a quitter. The moment Worth1000 was profitable enough to pay my monthly rent (about six months after launching it) I had made up my mind. I then decided to stay in school just to have a JD as a backup, should things not work out and also so my in-laws wouldn’t give me dirty looks. Either way though, I really loved the opportunities for business that the Internet provided and probably would have eventually pursued that path no matter what.

JDB:  Can you briefly describe the premise of the Worth1000.com site? It seems you sponsor contests as well as offer community-type services such as forums.  And where does the name come from?

Muchnick:  It’s a creative contest site for graphic images – the “a picture is worth 1,000 words” concept. We offer a contest theme with set guidelines, timelines, etc… and anyone on the net can submit appropriate content to the contest. We have areas for Photoshop®, Photography, Writing and Illustration. Our Photoshop® area is by far the most visited.  Some of our most popular Photoshop® contests have been celebrity-focused – like “Fountain of Age,” where celebrities are artificially aged to how they might look in their 80s, and “Celebrity Sideshow” featuring off-the-wall images such as Tiger Woods with a tiger’s body.

JDB:  Worth1000.com has become phenomenally popular since it was launched in 2002.  What are some of the measures of your success, and how did you generate the "buzz" and brand awareness to build that kind of traffic and membership in such a short time?

Muchnick:  We receive 100,000 unique visitors a day. We have close to 250,000 registered members now, and signing up for a membership gives you a free account that allows you to enter any contest.  Our number one tool for visibility is the branded emails of images submitted by our members. We retain the rights to affix our URL to the images, and sooner or later an email with an image ends up in the right inbox, and someone writes a story about us and then a lot more emails go around the web, and the cycle repeats. It’s self-sustained viral marketing at its best.  We have had some major traffic spikes when a number of media outlets picked us up at once. During the war in Iraq, an army sergeant started printing funny Photoshop®-modified images of Saddam from our site and hanging them around Iraq as a form of propaganda. CNN picked up the story on it, and soon almost every other media did as well. The pentagon even issued a statement distancing themselves from the images.

JDB:  What is the business model that you use to monetize your Worth1000.com traffic? Advertising-driven? Sponsorships? Memberships?

Muchnick:  Really all of those.  We do have advertising on the site.  Our merchandising consists of a variety of things, from the When Pancakes Go Bad book to the use of selected images on t-shirts and mousepads.  For the image merchandise we hand-pick the images, verify their legality, and purchase the rights from the Photoshop® artist.  We enter into merchandising partnerships, including our most recent one with Universal Pictures for the new King Kong movie.  We serve as a virtual design agency, using selected members for logo design and other services.  And then there are sponsorships and some revenue earned from members entering contests.  So, obviously, we have a diverse business model, but everything depends on really amazing and original content.

JDB:  What are your business objectives for the next several years?

Muchnick:  We’re releasing our second book on January 24, 2006, and it will be a compilation of Photoshop® tutorials. Personally, I plan to spin off several more websites (including one that goes back to my journalism roots) and to expand our merchandise line.  We have lots of other things on the horizon:  for example, partnering with more companies to utilize our brand name and content, and providing better ways for our artists to monetize their works.

JDB:  In light of your success, what would you say to encourage other lawyers considering a completely different career direction?

Muchnick:  Quite simply, always do what you love and you’ll make your own success.  When I look back at my time in law school, I pursued my J.D. because of the expectations that I had for myself as well as the expectations that my family had for me.  I wanted stability, a reliable income stream, a means to support my family.  It turned out that Worth1000 allowed me to achieve that, but I didn’t give up the idea of practicing the law completely until I had established a degree of success that made me at least somewhat comfortable.  Pursuing what I loved came first, the success followed, but the decision to rely on the site for a living came only after I saw the success – and I still have my law degree to fall back on if I need it someday.

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