- Matt Williams cofounded fortune-cookie provider OpenFortune after running a sports-media business.
- He runs a team of five and writes many of the fortunes himself.
- “I get inspiration from different philosophies, but stoicism is my favorite,” he said.
This as-told-to essay is based on a conversation with Matt Williams, a cofounder of the fortune-cookie provider OpenFortune from New York. It has been edited for length and clarity.
Our cofounder Shawn Porat used to eat a lot of Chinese food. Most of the fortune cookies he read were boring; the messaging had been recycled for the past 40 to 50 years with only a few being refreshed.
I met Shawn through an investor for my first company. He pitched me the idea for OpenFortune, and I immediately loved it.
I was running a sports-media business at the time, so he wondered whether I could help with brand and factory relations.
People love sharing their fortunes. We did a study with Nielsen that found many people posted their fortune on social media.
Shawn also noticed that the backs of fortunes were blank. He realized these things were tiny billboards sent directly to customers at the dinner table. Why not put an advertisement on them?
It was a light-bulb moment. We had an opportunity to refresh fortune cookies, while upholding the integrity of them. But we also had a blank slate on the back.
There is so much emotion tied to fortunes and so much emotion tied to brands, and we could nicely marry those two things. Our fortune cookies don’t say, “Insurance brand X is in your future.” We will say, “You will want to protect the life you love,” and then have an insurance brand on the back.
When we launched in 2018, we had a lot of pushback because there had never been ads on the back of a fortune before, similar to how there hadn’t always been ads at the beginning of a movie.
The first person who saw that was probably confused and annoyed. But now we all expect it, and some people even look forward to the ads before the movie — it’s the same with us.
We still get negativity, but it results in posts on the front page of Reddit because people are arguing about it in the comments.
Brands see people engaging with their brand. They see more than 600 comments on a post with their logo on it. That’s incredible awareness just from one cookie.
We have a creative team of five, including copywriters, graphic designers, and art directors who work on the fortunes. I run that team and write a lot of fortunes myself.
I take inspiration from many areas of life. I love reading philosophy. I’m a big self-help guy and a big gratitude guy. And I meditate every day to get into the right headspace.
I think a lot of the emotionality in fortune cookies is the same: Your life is short; go do that thing; apply for that job; go ask that girl on a date. I get inspiration from different philosophies, but stoicism is my favorite.
We also get inspiration from social media because we want to see what is resonating.
If you look on Instagram and search the hashtag #FortuneCookie, there are millions of posts of just the slip. You’ll realize that there are sentiments around different fortunes. People are happy. They get emotional, or it brings up memories.
We research what is really hitting home on social media at the time, then inject that into our work.
Right now, optimism is a hot theme because of COVID-19. People were cooped up, and after that, people wanted to feel optimistic.
We work with brands to distinguish which themes, emotions, and key words they want to include and work around that.
Fortune-cookie land is very mysterious. It was hard to find who the distributors are, who the factory owners are, and things like that. This was a major hurdle for us.
Once we found out all this, we had an issue with printing in full color. Before us, full-color printing at scale had never been done.
Shawn and I had to reverse engineer the printing process and make sure the ink was food quality. That was probably the hardest obstacle.
It’s hard to put an exact figure on what I earn, as I’m a cofounder. The copywriters on the team, who also write fortunes, earn between $50,000 and $60,000 a year.
Our database is endless. There are so many fortunes I couldn’t put a number on it. We try to write 10 fortunes every day just to keep it fresh, even when we’re not doing a campaign.
They’re printed on a big piece of paper that includes 118 fortunes. Our goal is to write at least 100 per campaign so that people sitting around the same table don’t get the same one. We never want that to happen.