Internet Famous: Zack Brown: Potato salad Kickstarter

Brad Keefe, Columbus Alive

As America followed the saga of the potato salad Kickstarter with a mixture of bemusement and outrage, you might be surprised to learn that the idea was basically born out of a joke that was painfully easy to execute.

"I have a persistent Google chat with some friends … which is terrible for work productivity but is just great for everything else ... standard of living, quality of life," explained Zack Brown. "We're just always joking around."

On a fateful day, just prior to the Independence Day 2014, the discussion in this Google Hangout turned to potato salad - spawned by a recent article inThe Columbus Dispatch and the approach of peak potato salad season.

"It's like when it gets cold, you want soup? When it's the Fourth of July, potato salad for some reason sounds really good," said Brown.

Discussions of having a party featuring a bathtub full of potato salad - admit it, that sounds epic - soon turned to a question of how they could fund it. The obvious joke was obvious.

"I said, well, you know let's do a Kickstarter for it … We just started making up all these ridiculous ideas for what we do," said Brown. "Ten minutes later I had filled out the bones of a Kickstarter. We got credit later for how it was such minimalist writing. Of course it was. It was how quickly could I fill it out ... like, we will think the joke is not funny very soon, so let's get this out."

The original intent was just to be a joke within the Hangout. One of Brown's friends in the group actually donated $20 then and there, because he had never pushed a Kickstarter over its goal before (original goal: $10). Then Brown shared it on Facebook, also for a laugh. The shares and the total contributed started to climb.

"I remember Saturday getting a text message from Ryan Vesler and not knowing who Ryan Vesler was. And when I found out it was the CEO of Homage texting about wanting to make a shirt about potato salad, I was like, this is as crazy as it's gonna get," said Brown.

He was obviously wrong about that.

"We put the shirt online and by Monday, we were at $20,000. It just spins totally out of control. Like, how the hell are we going to do any of this?" said Brown.

"There was never, 'This can go viral.' I didn't understand that that could happen until it was happening."

It was happening. Over next 30 days, a simple Kickstarter for a simple bowl of potato salad saw more than 4 million views - not counting television reports and other mentions - and, most unbelievably, $55,492 in donations.

People were "contributing to the total, when the total is the story. So you become the story," said Brown. That aspect of the joke was completely unanticipated by Brown and his friends. "A potato salad Kickstarter is funny, but a potato salad Kickstarter with $50,000 is way funnier."

Of course, the attention lasted much longer than the joke seemed funny to Brown and his friends. A large party was conceived, both as a means to shift some donated funds into a charitable contribution to the Columbus Foundation while adhering to Kickstarter's rules, and as a means of delivery. "There's no way you're going to ship potato salad," Brown said. "You can't put potato salad in baggies and send it."

One benefit of the manic whirlwind for Brown? Not having time to read the comments. "You won't know how weird-looking you are until you go viral," Brown joked. "Everybody just points it out."

Brown has taken his bizarre path to internet fame in stride, though he does have limits. "I am not built for, like, going to Seventh Son with friends and having someone scream 'potato salad' at me. That's not something I want," he said.

But a low-hanging joke among friends and what it became was an experience he relished. "I can't imagine what the path would be like otherwise. It's just been a really strange year and a half, which is great. That's great for me. I love strange stuff. I love being an oddity.

"It was a momentary stroke of genius ... This one was just really easy to do," Brown said. "That's what's going to separate those ideas for us. We're a lazy group of people, and this one was easier."