It's St. Patrick's Day in New York City, and there's a raucous soiree going on at Joe's Pub. But this isn't your typical green beer kind of party. The crowd is going wild for a man bench-pressing his dog, a woman hula hooping on one leg, two Canadian guys stuffing potatoes in their pants and even an AOL Small Business writer celebrating his feast day with his father. Just another monthly live show for the Universal Record Database, an open-source community website that wants to be the go-to destination for world record-holders.
Standing in the middle of the madness -- wearing vintage Howard Cosell-esque yellow jackets, no less -- are the show's impresarios. Dan Rollman, the tall, lanky, avuncular host, and Corey Henderson, his short, focused, handheld-tally-counter-wielding sidekick, co-founded URDB. Together, they have taken on a monumental task: Challenging a certain book's longtime record arbitrator supremacy.
"We want to be the authority, the recognized place to go for world records," Henderson says. "We aim to be the Wikipedia to Guinness' Britannica. Why do they get the final decision on what's a record?"
Like many a half-genius/half-half-baked idea, the origins of the URDB trace back to Burning Man. In 2004, Rollman, a self-described "world record fanatic," decided to try out an idea he and friends had brainstormed at the eclectic festival. His basic premise was simple: Everybody is good at something, so why not use that talent to set a record? As long as the record was verifiable and breakable (and generally not life-threatening), it was good to go. The Burning Man folks loved the "Playa Book of Records" and it grew in fans, record-setters and technological sophistication every year.
In 2007, Rollman, an advertising creative type working in San Francisco, was introduced to Corey Henderson, a computer engineer who had done a lot of work in programming and systems and had been part of tech startups. As luck would have it, Henderson was also a records junkie, and the two decided to launch a Web version of Rollman's Burning Man community writ Internet large. Rollman left his full-time ad gig and moved to Brooklyn, and the two of them spent more than a year and a half (and around $55,000, raised from personal savings and a $15,000 bank loan) building up the URDB website.
"Using Craigslist as a model, I though we could build a large-scale, open, yet refereed community," Rollman says. "I've always had fierce confidence in the idea."
URDB launched in November 2008, and it didn't take long for the co-founders to realize that the concept -- from a communal user experience, at least -- had legs. Within 10 days, the record for "Most Giraffe Tattoos on a Shoulder" came in from Amsterdam. A couple of months later, a San Diego morning radio show enticed someone to break the giraffe record, which naturally led the original record-setter, Australian Daniel Fowler, to add three more giraffe tattoos, so he would once again have a long-necked stranglehold on the record.
Absurd? Silly? Baffling? The mano-a-mano giraffe tattoo showdown is affirmative on all three counts, but it captures the spirit of what URDB is -- and why it attracted honest-to-goodness angel investors. "The honesty, integrity, purity and sense of fun come across," says Corbin Day, one of the partners in 77 Ventures (and occasional record-setter in his own right.) Day's firm specializes in consumer-branded products such as Zoob toys, Blake shirts and Wyoming Whiskeys, so URDB is a bit of a departure, but Day says he sees a number of ways the company can go and has faith in the men behind it.
"You invest long enough, and you get a gut feeling on the people who will give up after six months," Day says. "When I first informally met with the URDB guys, there wasn't much of a business plan, but I saw the passion and drive. Even if I can't quite explain what it is, I'm proud to be involved and always look forward to the URDB events."
Henderson, Rollman and third principal Marc Covitz (operations and legal stuff) haven't become Barnum & Bailey just yet, but things are progressing quickly at URDB. Maybe not "Fastest Time to Peel a Clementine" quick, but fast enough that the online records are helping fuel growth and expansion into different types of media. The company signed a two-book deal to write up URDB records, and recently shot an NBC pilot, That's A Record! Becoming a 21st century Real People or That's Incredible would raise URDB's profile considerably, and it already has a solid fanbase, thanks in part to regular appearances on Late Night with Jimmy Fallon. (No matter how absurd, networking works -- Fallon produced the URDB pilot.) The Late Night gigs always boost traffic, but Rollman doesn't want to rely on the goofy host turning himself into a Bloody Mary or Cameron Diaz cuddling up with a hammock full of bunnies to sustain momentum.
"The Web traffic is a roller coaster -- when something amazing happens, we feel like we're on top of the world, but also like our audience is a fraction of what it will be," Rollman says. "That's why we are also creating more and more commercial opportunities in integrated branded content."
The URDB website doesn't have advertising, nor do the videos, but it does have record-setting clips that incorporate brands. It was clear at one of the first live shows that this could be a marketable strategy, as records using Campbell's Alphabet Soup and Skittles were in the lineup. Companies have since gotten into the URDB act, creating specific content pieces such as "Most Frozen Turkeys Fit in a Ford and Delivered to a Food Bank," part of the automaker's "Fusion 41" campaign. (The record stands at 183 turkeys.)
The live shows are another area with limitless boundaries. The monthly madness, named "Best Oddball Night" by New York magazine, has an enthusiastic cult following that serves as URDB's unpaid buzz builders. (Come see what all the bizarro fuss is for yourself on December 1--that same AOL writer will be attempting some sort of holiday-themed wackiness.) The college tours during the school year, and outdoor summer events like Chicago's Pitchfork Music Festival, create personal connections and add new fans just like an up-and-coming indie rock band at a local venue. Corporate functions provide another way for URDB to branch out, because getting co-workers to put together a record is more fun as a team-building experience than yet another motivational speaker. "The companies we've visited love the controlled creative chaos," Rollman says. They recently bought the URDB act to influential advertising agency Wieden+Kennedy -- the firm behind Nike's famous campaigns, among others -- but the concept works just as well for kid's groups, church functions or retirement homes.
One other thing URDB has going for it is that the content plays right into the "long tail" theory. The records are essentially timeless, so the more exposure URDB gets, the more time new users will spend digging into the back catalog. To that end, Henderson says the immediate tech issues are improving the community moderation tools (e.g., allowing for the most popular videos to get more prominence) and for more editorial content to be added with individual pages that tell the stories of the record-setters. The back-and-forth saga of folks smashing peanuts with their foreheads is presumably one for the ages.
That's the essence of URDB. Rollman encourages everyone to join in the fun. "What are you unusually good at?" he asks. "Maybe you're a lawn-mowing aficionado, so you could set the fastest time to cut 100 yards of grass. Whatever it is, we want it."
The original version of this article appeared on AOL Small Business on 11/29/10.