Falling down the Famous Birthdays rabbit hole, you learn that singer Jacob Sartorius has a cat named Prince. Dancer Maddie Ziegler once dated Stevie Wonder’s son; gamer Jacksepticeye graduated with a hotel management degree; and Mason Ramsey, better known as ‘the Walmart yodeling boy’, has hung out with Justin Bieber at Coachella. You’ll also find out that Gen Z really cares about TikTok stars like Charli D’Amelio but isn’t fussed by traditional A-listers like Brad Pitt (age almost certainly has something to do with it). According to Famous Birthdays, even Kim Kardashian isn’t that important any more.
As social media has created a new kind of celebrity, the website has become a pillar of the teen-centric world of influencers and creators. It’s where Gen Z goes to discover who’s trending. There are videos and interviews with the most followed people you’ve ever seen on social media, as well as those you’ve probably never come across – the thousands upon thousands of them. Each celeb is ranked by search interest and engagement, meaning the list is constantly updated, alongside stripped-back biographical information and lots of pics. And, obviously, their birthdays.
Over the past few years, the creator community has exploded and cemented its online presence. ‘Even nobodies have fans now (for better or worse)’ ran a New York Times Magazine headline in November 2019. But Famous Birthdays jumped on the trend way before anyone else, and has been riding the wave ever since.
It receives 35 million unique visitors across its app and website each month, with more than a million internal searches every day. Sitting on this huge amount of data allows Famous Birthdays to work out the most relevant people to their largely teenage audience, who increasingly spend their lives online, before feeding them more of exactly what they want. It’s not surprising it’s become the go-to database of teen culture in just a few short years. At once hugely popular and totally under the radar, in many ways how social media stars operate today, the rise of Famous Birthdays reflects the increasingly different ways in which we consume celebrity culture.
Mastering your niche
Being everywhere and nowhere also happens to be an accurate description of the platform’s founder. Evan Britton, gently spoken and 42 years old, is about as low-profile as it gets. He doesn’t give many interviews. And maybe that’s why his name doesn’t come up when people discuss the other big players shaping tech, digital media and the booming creator economy.
‘I don’t put myself out there because none of this is about me,’ he says while out walking in Santa Monica, LA, where he lives. Since the pandemic came along, he’s started taking his meetings outside and racking up 15 miles a day. ‘Famous Birthdays has nearly 2 million Instagram followers,’ he continues, ‘but I have just 300 and my account is private. I’ve never been into social media.’
Visiting the Famous Birthdays office has become a rite of passage for influencers. Five to 10 stop by each day to shoot interviews and pose in front of the branded wall. Evan doesn’t recognise many of them, but he never set out to create a site for Gen Z in the first place. After all, influencers weren’t mainstream, Snap had barely launched and TikTok wasn’t even born.
Alongside studying for a marketing degree at the University of Pittsburgh, he started Stockgolf.com. ‘The idea was to teach people about stocks by playing golf on the internet. “Stay under par in the market” was our tagline. You’d choose a Dow Jones driver, for example, or a Nasdaq iron. Then when you finished, you’d get a score depending on how your stock performed.’
Evan concedes the idea was ‘ahead of its time’. By 2010, he’d switched to developing a network of educational and hobbyist websites under the banner of ResourceWebs, with around 10 sites covering the likes of railroading, home-schooling, CV-writing, astronomy and fuel-efficient cars. ‘Pretty niche, right?’ (Like Stockgolf.com, many of them are now dead.)
Famous Birthdays arrived two years later. The business model across all of the websites was simple – attract eyeballs; sell targeted advertising – but there were only a handful of people at the company. ‘Nothing was really growing,’ says Evan. ‘Only then did I learn that you need laser focus for anything to live up to its potential. Sticking to your vision and mastering your niche are hugely important. But we had almost too many niches and spread ourselves too thin.’
‘I don’t put myself out there because none of this is about me. Famous Birthdays has nearly 2 million Instagram followers, but I have just 300. I’ve never been into social media.’
What’s really trending
Famous Birthdays was one of the sites he believed could be the most successful. But the subject matter was almost irrelevant. ‘I definitely didn’t mean to build this thing for Gen Z. All I cared about was the early potential of mobile and building a great experience there,’ he says.
It turns out page load times are especially his thing. ‘Our site is extremely fast, but I still spend time working out how I can make everything power that 0.1% faster,’ he says, animated. ‘We have to make sure Famous Birthdays delivers a good experience for internal searches and discovery, and then get out the way. So I’ve ended up running a Gen Z site not because I cared about Gen Z per se, but because I wanted to build a better Wikipedia for the mobile generation.’
Famous Birthdays initially focused on traditional celebrities. ‘NBA athletes, Tom Hanks, Beyoncé and the like,’ he says. But two years after launching, traffic stalled and the business was going nowhere fast. Everything changed when Cameron Dallas and Nash Grier dropped in one day in 2012 or 2013, he can’t quite remember when. The pair were just starting out on Vine, which itself had only recently launched.
‘They were being searched loads and loads on Famous Birthdays,’ he says. ‘But my team and I had never heard of them. We thought, what’s going on? I looked on Wikipedia, and they weren’t there, either. In fact, there was no information about them anywhere online. But after we discovered they were also growing a big following on Twitter – they each had around a million followers – we thought we should call them into the office, shoot some pics and get their profiles uploaded.’
Back then, social media stars were happy to be contacted directly. ‘Their emails would be right there in their social media bios! It was so unlike people in the movie industry, say, where you find an actor with a single speaking line and only a couple thousand followers, yet you’d have to contact the agent of their agent and jump through all these hoops.’
Famous Birthdays was the first platform to interview Charli D’Amelio, when she had ‘only’ (as Evan puts it) a million followers on TikTok. Today she has racked up 115 million followers and 9 billion likes on the video app. With another 41 million followers on Instagram, the 17-year-old won’t be knocked off Famous Birthdays’ top spot any time soon.
‘The moment I realised that our internal search engine was our north star was the moment I set my mind to thinking that there was a very big vision to bootstrap here,’ says Evan.
Verification vs validation
For the past decade, mainstream media has been reluctant to recognise the huge empire of online creators and influencers producing wildly popular content. But the gap is closing. ‘Charli D’Amelio is in J Lo videos and [fellow TikTok A-lister]Addison Rae hangs out with Kim Kardashian,’ he says. ‘Even mainstream celebrities are on TikTok now, trying to connect with Gen Z. So it really feels like the social world has arrived.’
According to Evan, Famous Birthdays has become more culturally relevant in the past year. Today, he says, it has become an important resource for people at Nickelodeon, Disney and influencer marketing agencies who ‘use our platform every day to look at rising stars they can work with’.
For Max Levine, who is in his late 20s yet is sometimes described as an ‘experienced veteran’ in social media, appearing on Famous Birthdays is a big deal. ‘It’s almost like the verification badge before the verification badge,’ he explains. ‘It carries real weight in the community.’
It’s a community Max knows up close. Alongside business partner Brent Rivera, a creator with a combined total of 75 million followers, Max co-founded Amp Studios in 2018. Generating 1 billion views per month, the studio manages creators and helps them start their own businesses.
‘Famous Birthdays is helping a whole ecosystem of people create the brands of the future,’ says Max. ‘But the space moves very, very fast. A lot of the people you see blowing up – there’s a 95% chance they won’t be around in a couple of years. So I’m always pretty amazed how Evan and his team keep on top of it all. He doesn’t care nearly as much about the “industry” as he does about product. And that’s serving him well. He doesn’t let himself get distracted by all the noise, which is a trap lots of founders in this space fall into.’
Famous Birthdays doesn’t plan to take on outside investors, although Evan has received inquiries. The website is ‘very profitable’, says Evan, and makes money from billions of programmatic ads generated from places like Google and Amazon. Soon Famous Birthdays will launch its third international off-shoot in French, joining Spanish and Portuguese, as the company sees influencer culture spreading well beyond America. But otherwise things will mostly remain the same.
‘People always say, “You have so much scale, why don’t you launch a merch site? Why don’t you go into news? Influencer marketing?” And you always see companies with, like, eight social accounts. They have Twitter, LinkedIn, YouTube, Instagram and soon I’m sure Clubhouse, too, which might be the next platform that is going to launch stars. But they add so much random content before they’ve picked one social network and actually added value there. So my answer is always the same: to all the business owners out there, stay in your lane.’
This article was first published in Courier issue 41, June/July 2021. To purchase the issue or become a subscriber, head to our webshop.