How the Daily Office Birthday Email Became the Startup Cup of Zup

8/28/12Follow @XconomyDET

There was a time, at the turn of the century, when my chief purpose in life seemed to be serving as the stenographer for my tight-knit group of friends. All of us were newly graduated from college and, for one reason or another (often not at our own choosing), we were back in our hometown. Some of us were in grad school, some at entry-level professional jobs, and some of us worked in retail. All of us, though, loved a good party.

We thought we were a pretty clever bunch. Multi-racial, male and female, we often joked that we should start a “party enlivening” business because of our ability to show up to a place en masse and, in the parlance of the moment, get it poppin’. Though I was between journalism gigs at the time, the reporter in me refused to be idle. For that reason, I soon began writing morning-after email reports of our bar-crawling adventures that my friend Marlon dubbed The Razzi Report. (Razzi, as in paparazzi.)

No failed hook-up attempt, dance floor abomination, fashion gaffe, disastrous bout of overconsumption, or triumphant run-in with a high school nemesis went unreported. In looking back, it was a way to bring humor and a sense of purpose to a time riddled with doubt and even dread over the eternal post-collegiate question of, “now what?” The emails also gained a bit of a following among our extended group of associates. Luckily, the Razzi Report was too thick with inside jokes and profanity to ever make it as far as, say, parents or potential employers, but for a year or two, we had some pretty epic email chains going.

Cyndi Lareau, founder of the startup Cup of Zup, might consider me a kindred spirit, though one considerably more crass and less entrepreneurial. The company germinated last year when Lareau was chosen to be the Rock Ventures employee tasked with sending out the team email, called “The Morning Zupdate,” that detailed employee birthdays and notable company anniversaries. It got its name after a greeting popular around the office, “what zup?”

Because she’s one of those people who refuses to think inside the box, Lareau decided that she was going to make that daily email, the one with the potential to be utterly forgettable, into something worth reading. “On Flag Day a year ago, I added a joke and that was it,” she explains. “From there, I started adding pictures, riddles, mind twists, and it kept getting forwarded to people both inside and outside of the company.”

Lareau had no desire to tackle serious news topics, but if there was a fun fact, cool quote, pop culture tidbit, or adorable picture of a cat cuddled up to a squirrel, she was all over it.  ”Your email is the only one I look forward to,” Lareau’s co-workers began telling her. It got to the point where they were saving it to read and savor during their lunch breaks. More and more, they were also forwarding it out to friends and relatives. Soon, the decision was made to take the employee birthdays and anniversaries out of the Zupdate to increase its appeal to those outside the company.

Now called Cup of Zup, the daily dispatch has morphed into an email with interesting news tidbits, memes, sarcastic commentary, and photographs curated from around the web. Despite having no marketing efforts beyond word-of-mouth, Lareau estimates she has 7,000 subscribers and growing. As of June, Cup of Zup became an official Rock Ventures-backed/Quicken Loans family startup operating out of the Compuware Building in downtown Detroit.

Lareau has teamed with a colleague, digital marketing strategist Ann-Marie Murphy, to grow the subscriber base, drive traffic to the website, and generate revenue through advertising. “I hope to have a million subscribers a year from now,” Lareau adds. There’s also a Cup of Zup website that offers different content from the daily emails, with material contributed by a team of six people that have, Lareau says, lots of different tastes and points of view.

Lareau, whose Rock Ventures business card before she began devoting her time to Cup of Zup read Director of Creativity and Awesomeness, started her career in the company’s mailroom. Rock Ventures and Quicken Loans chairman Dan Gilbert, who’s a big proponent of seeking talent and soliciting ideas from every level of his company, put out an office-wide call for a new assistant.

Gilbert wrote in his email that he wasn’t looking for the best resume, but rather the person who could show him something unique. “My essay was a newspaper page I created, and everything had to do with me and Dan,” she says. Nobody’s creativity came close, so Lareau, the quirky young woman with maroon-dyed hair and large ear gauges, beat out more than 100 other applicants to land the job.

These days, Cup of Zup is spreading so rapidly that Lareau is beginning to hear about it from strangers. “My sister sent me a text message saying one of our friends got Cup of Zup forwarded to them by someone we don’t even know,” she says with a grin. “It has grown so fast.”

Sarah Schmid is the editor of Xconomy Detroit. You can reach her at 313-570-9823 or sschmid@xconomy.com. Follow @XconomyDET

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