Sometimes it feels like everyone who tries to become internet famous fails miserably. You can’t calculate virality. The best moments on the internet—the dress, Lil Terrio, “Why The Fuck You Lyin’”—all come with a delectable sense of fuck it abandon. You could stare at the chart beat and hypothesize 500 different “Gangnam Style” parodies, or you could make a completely natural, dadaist statement and watch it enter the stratosphere.
This is what happened to Zack Brown in 2014, when his stupid potato salad Kickstarter blew up.
If you were on the internet two summers ago, you probably remember the basics. In a moment of profound apathy, Brown asked for $10 to make some potato salad. His pitch was one line, and mentioned that he hadn’t decided what kind he wanted to make yet. When the crowdfunding wrapped up, he had taken in over $50,000.
It was a great moment of boy scout, Reddit-indebted futurist optimism: an unconscious global movement to give some random guy a bunch of money because it sounded like a funny thing to do. Brown has since added a number of stretch goals to his campaign, and has dealt with the wax-and-wane cycles of backlash and reverse-backlash that color any 21st century zeitgeist. It’s been over two years now, and we decided to reach out to see how his life has changed since potato salad, and what it’s like dealing with an internet fame hangover.
First things first: Are you still working on stuff related to your potato salad Kickstarter?
Zack Brown: You bet. I'm still coordinating reward fulfillment with a few backers and I'm headed to the Buckeye Book Fair this weekend.
It's been a couple years since that thing took off. Does it feel surreal thinking back or is it just kind of a normal part of your life now?
Both. It's weird when I meet new people through friends and the first thing they say is "you're the potato salad guy!" For the most part, though, everything has gone back to normal.
I think a lot of people would've been happy to just take the money and be thankful, but you decided to go the other route and make a bunch of stretch goals and other stuff to capitalize on the virality. Did you end up actually making any money during the crowdfund or did all of that go into various projects?
After paying for reward fulfillment, I put the remaining funds into a charitable fund at the Columbus Foundation. We are using the fund to help organizations working to end hunger and homelessness in Central Ohio.
I read a story that said you took a hiatus from your real job during the height of the potato salad thing. Has that hiatus continued? Do you still have a real job?
I was a 50 percent owner in a company I started in 2011. I took a hiatus during 2014 and never returned. I sold my half to my business partner. In 2015, I founded a startup called Root and today I work as an autonomous vehicle developer for a major car company.
Is it nice to be not in the center of the internet attention anymore? It sounds fun but it also looked a little stressful. Is it good to be out?
It is SO good to be out. I enjoyed the attention, but it was addictive and probably unhealthy.
What's it like to get backlash from people even though literally all you did was ask for $10 to make potato salad?
This never bothered me. The backlash is what made the thing go viral in the first place.
What advice do you have for other people who find sudden internet fame out of nowhere?
Enjoy it. Sleep and eat. Remember that, like all things, this too shall pass.