Doug Chernack and Mike Bender have been making a career out of celebrating awkwardness since 2009, when they launched their popular website ‘Awkward Family Photos’. Since then, the site has spawned three books, a greeting card line, and even a museum exhibit.
In this ThriveWire exclusive, we talk to Doug (pictured on the right) about the launch of the site, how they’ve handled their success, and of course, we discuss he and Mike’s undying love of awkwardness.
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SB: Let’s get right to it. How did you and Mike start Awkward Family Photos?
DC: Mike’s family had an awkward ski photo hanging on their wall. Mike had just come back from his parent’s house and he had seen this awkward ski photo that looked like a Rockettes picture. He asked his parents why it was there because it was such a painful memory.
At lunch he was telling me about it and I said I have a ton of pictures like that at my parents’ house too. At that moment we just thought that a bunch of other people must have these pictures too. We went home that day and put up this very simple website in hopes of our friends and family submitting photos to the site. We wanted the site to be a place to place that showed that all of our families have been awkward at some point in our lives.
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SB: When did you know that it was going to be a huge success?
DC: It actually happened really quickly. We got lucky. The original website had ten photos, including photos of Mike, me, and some friends and family that sent in pictures. So we sent that out to all of our friends and family, basically just showing it to them and asking for submissions. One of our friends worked for a very small radio station in Rhode Island and said he was going to put it on the stations’ website. This was four days after we launched. That station is part of the Clear Channel network, so two days after they put it up, hundreds of Clear Channel radio stations across the country put the website up as their funny link of the day. DJs across the country were talking about it that morning. So we went from basically zero to a million hits in six days. We started getting submissions from around the world and that was the spark. It’s bizarre, but we were basically launched by radio.
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SB: When did this become a full-time job for you?
DC: About two years into it we just decided that this is such a fun world and there are so many cool things going on with it. That was about three years ago. We were screenwriters and we were working on a few different movies. When we started we didn’t even know how to set up a Facebook page for ourselves. The first six months running the business were very stressful. The site kept crashing because of traffic. We were on a shared server. We were two novices that had no idea how to run a website.
Mike and I still run the site. We have published three books and we have a fourth book coming out next year. We have a greeting card line that is sold across the country. We actually have a museum exhibition that we are really excited about. We just wrapped up our second city in Santa Monica , California and now we are touring it across the country in 2017. [See below for more information about the museum exhibit]
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SB: How many submissions do you get a day and what is the criteria for getting chosen?
DC: We get about 50 a day. It goes up and down during the holidays. Holidays are our busiest time of the year. We have had over 100,000 since we started. We are constantly trying to catch up in the inbox.
It has to make us laugh, or it has to be something that is unique that we haven’t seen before. There’s no formal grading system. At that moment if it strikes us as awkward and we think our community will enjoy seeing this then it’s chosen.
It never gets old to us. The classic is the matching outfits. If you want to include denim and make it all matching denim, that makes it better. The all-time favorite photo for us is the cover of our first book [the photo at the top of this article], it’s a family in all matching denim all piled on top of each other. So you’ve got three classic elements of awkwardness: you’ve got an awkward pose, matching outfits, and all denim. So, that’s our Mona Lisa of awkwardness.
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SB: The tone of the site is very positive and funny. Was that a conscious choice to stay positive?
DC: The point of the site has always been to celebrate our awkwardness. Saying “You think your family is awkward, well my family is awkward too.” And there’s nothing wrong with that, we love our family but there are those moments that make us a little uncomfortable and we want to explore that and celebrate it. We always wanted to make it a fun, family-friendly forum for that.
The one thing that we really focused on is tone. We said we weren’t interested in a site that was making fun of people or that was snarky. There were plenty of sites on the Internet that have that kind of tone. We wanted to make it feel like a very inclusive experience. Mike and I are very awkward people to begin with, and we started with our own photos so, who are we to judge upon anyone? We are just as awkward, if not more, as the rest of the world.
We were really trying to explore something that was interesting to us, which were these uncomfortable moments with our loved ones. So it just felt like this was the correct tone when speaking of our family. We love these people, but sometimes we wish we could be a little further apart from them.
As far as the museum exhibit goes, Doug gave us some details on the experience:
“We have 200 of our favorite submissions that we have ever received that we have blown up into museum style proportions. We’ve got the stories of each one from the families in the photos. And we have broken it out into all the family milestones. It’s a much more full experience than the website or the book. You are now walking into a museum and seeing awkward moments on vacation, awkward moments on holidays, awkward family portraits, awkward sibling photos, and it’s just been a really cool experience to see these comedic photos in a very serious setting. With the stories involved it’s added another level to the photos where it’s not just a quick laugh. You are seeing a little more of how this photo came about, the dynamic and the relationship between the family members. That’s always been interesting to us as writers, that’s what driven the content for us. Every photo has a great story behind it. We love being able to showcase more of that. “