Smart Idea

This company makes profits through demotivation.
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This story appears in the May 2004 issue of Startups. Subscribe »

What:Despair Inc., manufacturer of funny spoofs of motivational products, otherwise known as "demotivators"
Who: E.L. Kersten, Justin Sewell and Jef Sewell
Where: Austin, Texas
When Started: 1998

Sick of the trite platitudes and "hang in there, buddy" posters that plaster the office walls of overzealous managers, this trio of entrepreneurs hit comedy gold with Demotivators-their line of calendars, posters and such that parody the motivational set. Meeting when they all worked for an Internet company in the late '90s, E.L. Kersten, 44, and brothers Justin and Jef Sewell, both 32, bonded over the fact that their long-promised stock options didn't turn into the windfall they were expecting. They happened to see a motivational catalog around the office at that time, and, says Kersten, "We picked it up and spontaneously began to parody the posters to relieve our angst. One of [us] suggested we should sell parodies of these since they would be more real."

They kept toiling away at their jobs, but once the Internet company was sold and the entrepreneurs received a reduced sum of money for their services, they pooled it to launch Despair Inc. They immediately hit a chord. In fact, Despair Inc. hit a snag when a piece about them hit the print version of The Wall Street Journal (and not the Web site-only edition as originally intended), and an influx of orders caused a small problem with their credit card processing. Still, the creators of sayings such as "Idiocy: Never underestimate the power of stupid people in large groups" and "Success: Some people dream of success, while other people live to crush those dreams" knew they'd be able to handle the crisis with their signature humor and proficiency for communicating with the masses. Products are now sold via their online store and their successful print catalog as well as in specialty gift shops.

Today, Despair Inc. has sales in the $4 million range with its signature Demotivators line, The Pessimist's Mug, and its BitterSweets line of candy hearts for the unlucky-in-love crowd (come on, who doesn't want to pelt a smug couple with an "Aim Lower" or "Prenup OK?" candy heart?). Says Kersten, "We're just poking fun at human weakness and foibles."

Edition: July 2017

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