The Business of Nudity: The Unlikely Success of Mr. Skin
The founder of the popular website talks about how he turned his passion into profit.
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Conventional wisdom says the way to succeed is to follow your passion. Unfortunately many passions are great hobbies -- and terrible businesses. And what if your passion is so unusual it seems impossible to turn it into a profitable business?
To find out, I talked to Jim Mcbride, a guy who turned his Rain Man-like ability (although I prefer Allen's version) to identify naked actresses in films into a multi-million dollar business and website that gets over 10 million unique visitors (not hits, visitors) every month.
Surprised you haven't heard of him? That's because he goes by the name Mr. Skin.
Since you clearly have super-heroic powers, I'm dying to hear your origin story.
I was one of those guys who liked nudity in film. In 1980 I was a senior in high school and for the first time we got cable TV. That was a big turning point in my life. Instead of ABC, NBC and CBS, now I had HBO and Showtime. I looked for the big black "N" in the cable guide that indicated nudity. Then I'd edit the tapes and make a compilation video of nude scenes.
So in time I became an expert. My friends would say, "Hey, has Marsha Brady ever been nude?" I could tell them not just the movie but also the exact time in the movie. If nothing else, it was a fun party trick.
I have a friend who can recite the starting lineups for every Super Bowl. He's a font of useless knowledge.
At the time that was me as well, and I clearly needed a day job. I worked in the Chicago Mercantile Exchange in the Eurodollar pit but kept honing my nudity knowledge skills. During slow periods people would say, "Hey, has Halle Berry ever been naked? Or Susan Dey?" For years I stayed at it.
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Then in 1997 I was in a bar and friends were quizzing me. A guy with a radio show overheard us and said, "Can you tell if any actress has ever done a nude scene?" I said yes, and he had me on his show: Listeners called and asked questions and I was able to answer them all.
Like any superhero, though, you didn't reveal your true identity.
Before I went on the air we decided I shouldn't use my real name. Somebody came up with "Mr. Naked," but that sounded weird. The next idea was "Mr. Skin" and I went with it. That's literally how much thought went into the name.
The show went well and the producer asked me to come back. I had a hunch something cool would happen, so I trademarked "Mr. Skin." I did more shows and then someone said, "You should really put what's in your head into a website." I raised a little money and in 1999 we launched MrSkin.com.
Your branding has a lighter, more playful vibe. How did you arrive at that?
I launched MrSkin.com in August of 1999, and a week later a guy sent me an email. He said, "You're the first guy who didn't make me feel sleazy and dirty for being interested in nudity." That's the premise we started with. We wanted a fun vibe. We don't run a porn site; we're an R to NC-17 rated site.
You run clips on your site. Does that create problems with the studios, like with rights issues?
Before I launched MrSkin.com I went to an intellectual property attorney and basically asked, "How do I make sure we don't get sued or shut down?" She said the site had to be a review site: provide news, criticism and reviews and ensure the clips support the expertise.
That's why we create a massive amount of editorial content. We're the experts on the subject. The website has links to hundreds of stories we've done on the actresses, their bios... tons of editorial content that supports the pictures and clips.
I have a friend who says the studios must hate people like you... which I think is silly since you help promote their movies. Besides, they must feel nudity sells tickets or else they wouldn't have nudity in their movies.
Over time we've had 70 or more studios send us screeners simply because we get millions of monthly visitors. And when I go on TV or radio and promote something on our site, a lot of people hear it.
And we're always positive. Take a show like Banshee on Cinemax. I don't know how many times I've spoken about the great nude scenes on Banshee. Why wouldn't a studio love that kind of publicity?
Still, the nature of the content has to create marketing challenges. It's not like you're running cute puppy clips.
I'm realistic. Procter & Gamble is not going to advertise on our site. Still, there isn't hardcore porn in mainstream movies. What we do is mainstream, so we work with advertisers who maybe aren't as uptight.
In terms of marketing the site, the formula is to put myself out there and be the expert. I probably go on 10 to 15 shows a week promoting what's new. That's free publicity for us; the only expense is my time. One of the reasons we've done so well is because we get the brand out there so consistently.
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You've been on national programs, you've been on Howard Stern a number of times and you definitely have a distinctive style. (As I recall, your kids are "skinfants.") How did you develop your PR persona?
I didn't practice it. I just went with my natural personality, not some persona. When you hear me talk on the radio it's the same as if you meet me at a party. I didn't have to become someone I wasn't.
The key is to simply believe in yourself and then be yourself. I don't have to fake an interest or an enthusiasm. The people who represent their brands best don't see representing their brand as what they do. They see their brand as who they are. That way they come across natural, unforced... and genuine.
So how did you transition from a solo "skintrepreneur" into a larger business?
The big thing I had to do was learn where and when I needed help. Don't assume you know what all your strengths and weaknesses are from the outset. I'm not a great writer, so in time I got writers involved. I wasn't good at grabbing clips and photos, so I found people who were experts. Be ready to let go of work and give it to experts.
My strengths are knowledge of the topic and PR. I've kept working to build on my strengths while letting others play to their strengths.
Speaking of that, you just launched Mr. Man, a site focused on male celebrity nudity.
For 14 years we've had MrSkin.com. We've had this thing going, we're great at it, no one comes close on female celebrity nudity. We're the curator of curators. I already had six or seven people constantly going through movies, TV shows, etc. We have nudity on 22,000 actresses -- we have a ton of content.
We had so much work to do on Mr. Skin.com that the thought of another site was overwhelming ... but at the same time I realized we have the best group of employees we've ever had, and we realized we had an opportunity: Who has better infrastructure, better knowledge, better everything than we do? The only difference is grabbing male nudity instead of female.
When we launched MrMan.com, we made significantly more money in the first two months than we did in the first two months of Mr. Skin. All the things we did right at Mr. Skin we were able to immediately put into Mr. Man.
When you have thousands of members, like we have on Mr. Skin.com, you have to be careful what you change. Sometimes your existing audience doesn't like major changes. With a brand new site you get to learn from your mistakes and do it the right way -- without the painful lessons.
But it's also a brand new audience.
We're definitely into new markets. Our audience is a combination of women as well as gay men looking for nude male stars. So we're working with different websites to generate traffic, working with different affiliates ... but "Powered by Mr. Skin" has been incredibly powerful.
All our years of branding definitely helps. You'd be amazed by how much money affiliates make. They work hard to build traffic so they care greatly about where they send that traffic, whether it converts, and whether they actually get paid.
After 14 years in the business, it's pretty easy to set up partnerships with great affiliates.
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