Grumpy Cat, Inc.: The business of an internet sensation
In September 2012, Tabatha Bundesen’s brother posted a photo of her surly cat on Reddit. Grumpy Cat went viral—and a star was born.
“I had fun once,” reads the text over a photo of Grumpy Cat. “It was awful.” The famous fur ball is known for her exaggerated frown and heavy-lidded eyes—likely caused, by the way, by feline dwarfism. Her apparent—and adorable—crankiness has made her a veritable celebrity: During public appearances, an entourage of five ensures the 3-year-old’s safety and comfort. She has traveled by police motorcade. Fans wait hours to take a photo next to her, as she sits, and often sleeps, on a plush cushion. It wasn’t too long before there was Grumpy Cat merchandise.
“When I started doing this, there were very few people that would not laugh at me when I told them what I was doing,” says Grumpy’s manager, Ben Lashes. But after two New York Times bestselling books (with a third book due this fall), a Lifetime movie, and a range of over 400 licensed products, it’s Lashes and Tabatha Bundesen who are laughing now; the brand has grossed around $100 million. Internet love can be fickle, but Grumpy Cat continues to flourish online: More than 7.5 million people have liked her Facebook page, and she’s got 647,000 followers on Instagram and 278,000 on Twitter.
Lashes thinks Grumpy’s fanbase has remained steadfast in its affection because the people chose her themselves. “The reason Grumpy’s famous is because one person clicked ‘Like’ on it, and then another person clicked ‘Like,’ and all these people really signed their name to it,” he says, noting that a viral success often resonates much deeper than something that begins as a paid advertisement. “It’s the next level of pop culture, where they’re helping to create it,” he says. “It’s like the world is its own focus group.”
Grumpy’s appeal extends beyond just being a funny-looking cat. She comes with a personality, and people use her as a proxy for their snarky comments. “It’s one of those places where people can explore a negative emotion in a playful way,” says Wynn Rankin, Grumpy’s editor at Chronicle Books. He compares her to a classic cartoon. “Cartoons have this ability to speak to people in a broad way really quickly, and convey an emotion over and over, without feeling like it’s used up.”
Bundesen agrees. “I’m not going to be like, ‘I hate Mondays,’ and post a picture of my face,” she says. “But if I post it with a picture of Grumpy’s face, it’s going to be more socially acceptable. People aren’t going to be like, ‘Oh, Tabatha’s a grump. Nobody likes her.’ Grumpy Cat makes it okay.”
For now, the four-and-a-half-pound Grumpy doesn’t seem to mind all the star treatment. In fact, she may even relish it. “Even at home, if we have a lot of people over, she’s trying to be in the center of the party,” Bundesen says. “I have five cats—none of them are cool like Grumpy is.”
What could possibly be next for the curmudgeonly kitty? “A theme park,” Lashes jokes. “Grumpyland. Or even a ride… it would be great to have a dark ride in Disneyland. It’s going to be terrible. It’s going to be really herky-jerky. It will definitely have some boring parts.”