The week of February 14, 2016

The dirty business of online revenge

By Vanessa Willoughby

Let’s say your marriage has soured. Not only that, but your husband has disappeared to another country, shacked up with a new woman less than half his age, and now she’s written a poem declaring them soulmates—and sent it to you, hoping you’ll understand and not stand in the way of their destined happiness.

If it were you, you might want revenge, and you do something a little crazy. That’s the story blogger Amanda Chatel told to explain why she’d decided to send her husband a pile of shit in the mail. Her tale of a scorned woman’s revenge went viral (“He knows I fight dirty,” she later said) and drew attention to the remarkable number of bizarre postal-revenge services cropping up online. In addition to Shitexpress, the service Chatel used, there’s the venerable, and I Poop You—whose logo, reminiscent of the poop emoji, bears the slogan “Professional poop delivery service. For that special someone.” (If you like your payback more phallic than scatalogical, there’s both Ship a Dick and, now, Phuck in a Box.)

It’s probably not surprising that there’s a market for outsourced revenge, or that some savvy entrepreneurs would step in to fill the demand. After all, it’s pretty inexpensive to stock an inventory of poop and cardboard penises, and you can ask a hefty markup from people who want to nominally maintain their anonymity by ordering online with Bitcoin or PayPal. Sure, states have anti-harassment laws that might pose legal problems, but that seems a small hurdle to overcome. So for those catering to jilted lovers, disgruntled employees, and frustrated neighbors, is the business of online mail-order revenge as booming as you’d expect?

It might depend whether you consider these actual businesses. Reached via email, the CEO of Shitexpress, asks to be called “Peter Hu.” (He provided this name after asking to remain anonymous, writing, “By not reveal our name we show the respect to the others who don’t want to reveal theirs.”) He says he built the site as a “marketing experiment.” He wanted to show that, with the right pitch, “people are willing to pay a lot of money for a piece of poop.” You’d have to concede that he’s proven that: Today, he claims the site has had more than 1.5 million hits and more than 3,000 shipments since launching in late 2014.

“People are willing to pay a lot of money for a piece of poop.”

Like any good founder, he’s posted a blog entry explaining how he got to where he is—or “How We Earned $10,120 in 30 Days by Sending Horse Poop to People.” The short answer is “savvy marketing.” And maybe some luck. The post describes his previous experience with “online business and entrepreneurship,” including “[f]ree ebooks, piano sheet music, contests and giveaway services, or some super simple infosites.” (His company also appears to be associated with sites that used to promise movie downloads and anonymous proxies.) The idea of shipping poop to people wasn’t new, he notes, but he focused on creating a minimum viable product, emphasizing that thanks to Bitcoin, buyers could remain anonymous. Soon enough, he writes, he had the site up and running.

He built it, and nobody came. So he started promoting it on Reddit and a Bitcoin forum. That worked, but it wasn’t until Product Hunt, Hacker News, Motherboard, and Engadget all featured the site that Shitexpress really took off. The idea was “edgy” and had the right kind of angle (Bitcoin!) to hook plenty of writers. With the increased sales, Shitexpress has even taken on drop-shipment partners who can ship poop from their own supplies, and Hu says he has a small staff to help grow the business. Ultimately, though, the CEO says, the site’s based on marketing and “the fact that people nowadays spend money on worthless stuff.”

But Amanda Chatel didn’t think having manure sent to her cheating husband was worthless. She doesn’t think it was immature (though, she says via email, “the fact that [the post about it] went viral was shocking to me”). She wasn’t worried about getting scammed—what’s $15?—and, she says, “Vice tried it and that was good enough for me.” She wasn’t just buying a package of poop, obviously, but an emotional venting. It could have been worse. “Honestly,” she says, “I think my behavior was quite tame.” And she says that when she wanted to confirm delivery of her poo box, the ever-savvy CEO, who’d read her viral post, offered to send another pile gratis. “Of course, I took him up on his offer.”

It seems there are plenty of people like Chatel out there, and there’s room for more than one feces-delivery service. A spokesman for the recently launched, San Francisco-based I Poop You describes it as a modern take on the old flaming bag of poop gag. And he’s careful to address the legal nuances of the service, saying in an email, “The only intention of our business is to engage both the sender and the recipient in a joke and we do not condone the use of our service for any illegal activity or to harass or intimidate.” It’s all (supposed to be) in good fun. Asked what the future of the business holds, the spokesman writes, “Full of shit I hope!”

“He never found out who sent it either, nor did he care. From that point on, it completely changed the work environment.”

That kind of entrepreneurial optimism might lead the revenge seeker to not just already-existing services, but to creating his own. After all, how hard is it? That’s what happened with Jay Storm, the 35-year-old proprietor of Phuck in a Box. Like many a discontented worker, he wanted to get revenge on his bullying boss but wasn’t sure how to do it. While working on his writing after hours, a line of dialogue came to him, with the phrase “fuck you in a box.”

That was all it took. He found a small box at a craft store; inside it he printed a plain sticker reading “fuck you.” Warming to the project, he drew a cartoon penis on the top of the box, then filled it with hard candy penises. He mailed the creation to his boss at work. He was pleasantly surprised when his boss opened it: “At first, he looked confused. But then a smile came across his face and he laughed,” Jay says via email. “He never found out who sent it either, nor did he care. From that point on, it completely changed the work environment.”

It wasn’t the reaction he expected—it was better. “That’s when I thought, hey, if it can change him, could it work for others? Why not?” Storm says. So he decided to start a company. Today, he says the company sends about 1,000 of its boxes a month, with delivery confirmation and, occasionally, handwritten notes. They’re not all sent with dark-hearted revenge in mind, though: Jay says that one customer sent his 90-year-old grandmother a box for her birthday. “When we asked why,” Jay says, “he said it was because ‘fuck you’ was her favorite phrase to say. We never found out her reaction, but we hoped she loved it!”

As Jay sees it, his company isn’t out to ruin anyone’s day. Sure, it might be crude, and it’s at least a little risque to send a phuck in a box to someone you don’t know very well—but there are candy penises involved. (And it might be more emotionally healthy than revenge-shit.) As for Jay, he just sounds excited to have turned a goofy revenge plot into a viable side business. He somehow turned it into a real company, he says, and “it’s been fun ever since.”

Illustration via Bruno Moraes