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Give This Rich Dude $1 or The Onion Disappears Forever

There was nothing funny about the way Jeff Lawson left Twilio, the startup he cofounded in 2008 and built into a multibillion-dollar public company enabling businesses to communicate with customers via text messages and phone calls. Activist investors had been pushing for management changes and even a sell-off, and Lawson resigned from his CEO post in January. He now describes his role at Twilio as “shareholder.” No wonder he needs a good laugh.

Since he’s a rich person, Lawson has the means to acquire all the chuckles he could ever need, with some belly laughs thrown in. Last week he bought the legendary, though somewhat faded, satire factory The Onion. To do so, he set up a company called Global Tetrahedron, inspired by the name of an evil fictional corporation used as a running gag by Onion writers.

Lawson won’t say what he paid. To operate the site, he hired former NBC reporter Ben Collins as CEO, former Bumble and TikTok executive Leila Brillson as chief marketing officer, and Tumblr’s former director of product Danielle Strle as chief product officer. He promised to retain the entire editorial staff. Then he immediately did something that was never part of the Twilio business model. He asked The Onion’s customers to give their money to him—in return for “absolutely nothing,” says Lawson. Suggested donation: one dollar.

Remember when The Onion was a huge cultural force? It was founded in 1988 in Madison, Wisconsin—even now it’s in Chicago, cleverly avoiding both smug coasts—and rose to a beloved status, first in newsprint and then online. Everybody seemed to read it, and quote it. Some of its memes still resonate—the headline “‘No Way to Prevent This,’ Says Only Nation Where This Regularly Happens” gets republished after mass shootings, over 20 times so far, and never fails to draw attention. But it’s been a long time since its 1999 book Our Dumb Century was a runaway bestseller. There was even an Onion movie, though it was no Animal House; five years after it was shot, it was released direct to video. In recent years, Lawson says, even though The Onion’s loyal writing crew remained mordant and witty, visiting the site was not much fun. As Lawson wrote in a tweet, under the traffic-obsessed regime of its owner G/O enterprises “The Onion has been stifled, along with most of the internet, by byzantine cookie dialogs, paywalls, bizarro belly fat ads, and clickbait content.”

How will Global Tetrahedron fix that? “The vision is to basically unshackle The Onion from this very traffic-driven strategy of pageviews and programmatic ad impressions,” says Brillson. “We want to get out of their way and make them a truly independent space, as opposed to being a part of a private equity venture.”

That’s where the dollar donation idea comes in. When I told Lawson it reminded me of the original dollar-per-year fee charged by WhatsApp in the years before Facebook purchased the service for $22 billion, he confirmed that was indeed the inspiration. WhatsApp had been a Twilio customer, and Lawson at first didn’t understand the point of the fee. One day he asked WhatsApp cofounder Jan Koum about it. It was sometime around 2010, and there were new chat apps popping up every day. “I asked Jan, ‘Why are you charging $1—with all those competitors, why would you put this friction in your signup process?’” Lawson recalls

Koum replied that the fee was critical because chat apps were a dime a dozen. “Usually, you just download a chat app, use it for five minutes, and you delete it,” Lawson recalls Koum explaining. “But if you ask someone to put up $1, and they do, they have a financial investment in it. It’s a symbolic thing. Once you put something in, you care about it more.” Not to mention when hundreds of millions of people signed onto the service, those dollars turned into real money.

Read More: Give This Rich Dude $1 or The Onion Disappears Forever

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