How 20-year-old Emerson Spartz turned his passion for Harry Potter into a lucrative online business
If you've read the first installment of the Harry Potter series, you'd know that Harry's childhood began fairly normally. He grew up as a Muggle, as those in the wizarding world refer to nonmagical folk. And although his wizard parents both died when he was a tot, forcing him to grow up under the care of his abusive aunt and uncle, Harry Potter himself was extraordinarily ordinary. Ordinary, that is, until his 11th birthday, when he learned that he was also, in fact, a wizard. And not just a wizard, but the wizard.
Emerson Spartz, the 20-year-old creator of the popular Harry Potter fan site Mugglenet (mugglenet.com), experienced a similar run-of-the-mill adolescence. "I wasn't an entrepreneur when I started," says Spartz, who now tallies more than 1 million hits per day at Mugglenet. "I became one after I realized the Web site's potential."
Spartz grew up in La Porte, Ind., not far from Chicago, with a routine common to many youths: reading, playing sports, watching TV, etc. However, in the fall of 1999 at age 12, bored by extra time he had because of home schooling, he made a decision that would change his life.
He converted his "abnormal obsession" with the still-obscure Harry Potter into a fan's Web site. And, as Spartz soon learned, Mugglenet was to become not just a Potter Web site, but the Potter Web site. Looking back, the University of Notre Dame business student muses, "I had no idea what I was getting into."
Still a Potterhead
After about two years, Mugglenet had outgrown the confines of an ardent fan's hobby. Server costs were "starting to cut into allowance money," Spartz recalls, and advertisers were breathing down his neck, eager to attract the many Harry Potter fans patrolling Mugglenet.
Despite his purely "innocent intentions" with Mugglenet, Spartz began selling ads and invoked criticism from friends and Mugglenet's contributors, who were upset the site had been tainted by commerce. Spartz says the outcry subsided over time as fans began to realize that the ads didn't really affect their Potter discussions. As for Spartz, he had stumbled upon a gold mine.
Although worried that his image as a businessman could tarnish his Potterhead status, Spartz tells BusinessWeek he pulls in "a six-figure income." To angry fans who accuse him of financially exploiting their Potter passions, he simply cites server costs: Once a minor fiscal drain, they now run $125,000 annually. "If I can meet Harry Potter fans' needs and make money at the same time, why shouldn't I?" he asks.
Still, Spartz says his loyalties remain with the site's mission: to generate intelligent and passionate discussion about the J.K. Rowling books he loves. "The site never would've taken off without the passion and knowledge that I have for the books," he says. "That comes before the business."
With Potter now appearing in dozens of languages, and fresh readers still coming to the franchise, Spartz is confident about Mugglenet's future, even after Rowling's seventh and final Potter book. He is adamant about one thing: He has no plans to shutter Mugglenet. Still, this Mugglepreneur concedes he's conjuring "bigger plans" for an entirely new site—only marginally related to Harry Potter.