Cheezburger CEO Ben Huh on Surrounding Himself with More Talent, and the Future of the Global Humor Blog Network
Ben Huh is a very busy man. He’s only 32, yet he’s already spent much of the last few years soaking up the media spotlight due to the almost instant success of his network of humor blogs famous for its eccentric and misspelled name, I Can Has Cheezburger. In the three years since Huh purchased the main Cheezburger site, also known as LOLcats, from two entrepreneurs in Hawaii and built it into a treasure trove of funny pictures of cute animals with the site’s signature misspelled captions plastered over them, the company has grown to become the largest humor network in the world with 340 million page views per month.
Cheezburger, formerly known as Pet Holdings, has been consistently topping the Seattle 2.0 startup index for the last year (and it’s still no. 1), has won a national webby award, and has been one of the few Seattle-area startups to continue hiring, even through the recession. The network now has over 50 sites, each dedicated to a particular niche of comedy. It would take a few paragraphs to list them all, but some of the more famed in the bunch include FAIL Blog, Babies Making Faces, There I Fixed It, Engrish Funny and Totally Looks Like.
Greg spoke with Huh about the startup’s strategy, rapid expansion and sudden fame in the online world back in October, when Cheezburger had 26 sites, 21 employees and had just exceeded 1 billion cumulative page views. Now, just eight months later, Huh has built a small empire with 51 sites, and 45 employees spread across the world (including one in Poland). According to Huh, Cheezburger has no plans of slowing down.
The company, as it grows, has sought to bring in more seasoned managers to help Huh manage this opportunity. The latest addition to the team is Pearl Chan, who has signed on as Cheezburger’s new chief financial officer among a slew of other titles, including treasurer, controller, director of finance, strategic business analyst, and tax manager.
I swung by Cheezburger’s Lower Queen Anne headquarters yesterday to chat with Huh about the company-turned-Internet phenomenon’s fast start, milestones in its relatively young startup life, where it’s going, what position it will be hiring for next, and the new user-involved “creation of culture” that Huh says makes the company unique. The office had all the trademarks of a startup. The reception area consisted of a small coffee table with a few of Cheezburger’s books strewn across it, and simple wooden chairs, no receptionist. The main room was an open space filled with rows of folding tables lined with computers and editors sifting through the over 19,000 user submissions Cheezburger brings in on a daily basis. Here are the highlights of the conversation, edited for length and clarity as always.
Xconomy: You graduated from Northwestern University with a degree in journalism. Were you planning on being a journalist?
Ben Huh: I was actually, but this was back in—1999 was when I graduated. That was like the heyday of newspaper valuation, so newspapers were going crazy. They were hiring. They were investing in dotcom stuff. They were merging and buying each other. It was pretty exciting. My role was actually on the presentation side/the design side and not so much the reporting. I did go to journalism school to be a reporter, and we didn’t have a visual program, but that’s what I ended up doing actually.
X: So you moved to Seattle in 2005, and in 2007 Andy Liu (also the board member) from BuddyTV helped you buy the original I Can Has Cheezburger site (officially launched in September 2007). How did you come across the site and what made you realize that you wanted to buy it up and eventually launch this massive humor network?
BH: My wife Emily, who also works here—she’s the editor—we started a pet blog because we had a dog—we have a dog—and we’d just moved here and we didn’t really know what to do with him. So we wanted to kind of write about our experience having a dog here in Seattle. It was a personal project. It wasn’t like there were any ads running with it. It was just something we wanted to do for fun. And then all of the sudden there was a pet food recall. This was back in 2007. And a whole bunch of pet food got recalled, a whole bunch of cats and dogs died because of the food. There was huge national news around it. And the company responsible for the recall had taken down their website. And what they had done, is they’d removed the homepage, so when you would go to the homepage, you couldn’t find anything right… And I dug around and I was able to find a cached file—a PDF of their annual report, which outlined their customers, their revenues, their facility locations and things like that. And just because I knew how to be a reporter, right—you dig a little deeper, right? So I posted it on this personal blog that we were running about our dog, and it got linked to from everybody. And one of them was a site called I Can Has Cheezburger, run by two people in Hawaii. And I contacted them and we kind of struck up a friendship. And so I just ended up helping them out because I knew a little bit more than they did. You know, in the land of blind people, a one-eyed man is king. So after that we became friends, and one day I showed the traffic to Andy, and he said, ‘Why don’t you buy the website?’ And I said, you know, I don’t have that kind of money. And so we said, I will run the company, I will do the deal, I will form the company and run it, and Andy will help me raise the money.
X: It sounds like you really weren’t anticipating going down this mass humor blog route?
BH: No. Although, when we bought the site, I think the investors thought, do we have a pet community here? And I said, well we do, but really I think the market is humor—that’s the growth market, not pets.
X: We heard LOLcats isn’t your favorite Cheezburger site, since you yourself are allergic to cats?
BH: No, actually that is my favorite! Though I am allergic to cats, I Can Has Cheezburger is still my favorite site just because it’s the one that we started with and it’s still the one I save to read at the end of the day. That’s probably the site I read most consistently too. At the end of the day, same time, that’s what I read. It’s kind of like my little moment of happiness.
X: What are your other top favorite sites in the network?
BH: Obviously FAILblog. I think FAILblog is a great window into the—into schadenfreude —the ability to laugh at other people’s misery. I also really like The Daily Wh.at, which is our latest acquisition. And we really enjoy that site just because it’s such a great mixture of news and content that I’m interested in. It’s run by one editor [Neetzan Zimmerman], who’s out of Boston, and he’s just like a machine. [That site] was actually named by Time magazine this week as one of the top 100 blogs they love.
X: When did you acquire The Daily Wh.at?
BH: About six months ago.
X: How big was it when it joined the Cheezburger network, and what have you done to expand its audience?
BH: It’s grown 300 percent in the last six months.
X: You guys have grown rapidly since your start, and especially the last year, with many new hires coming on board, including your new CFO Pearl Chan, which Cheezburger is announcing today. Tell me about Pearl. When did you decide to bring her on board?
BH: We’d actually been working with her for about 18 months on a part-time basis prior to this, so we wanted to bring her on full-time because we felt that our needs were growing. And, you know, I think the fundamentals of companies are two things: people and money. So you have the most talented people who work well together, and then you have to have the financial foundation to ensure that you can do the things that you want to do. If those two things are in place, I think a company is actually on good solid footing. And with Pearl, she brought both. She can do the HR things because she’s worked with a lot of tech companies before, and she has a solid background in finance. Before we brought her on, I was doing the finance, and it wasn’t getting done in a way that it needed to be done—it wasn’t complying to accounting standards. We had a good sense of what we had, but not an exact sense of where we were. And when we brought her on, I think it was a great kind of sigh of relief for everyone in the company knowing that our financials would be looked at with an unbalanced eye, so we would always be flying clearly. And so that’s what we wanted in a CFO. And she brings in a lot of community contacts as well as a level of professionalism that I like.
X: Speaking of finance, how quickly did Cheezburger and its sites become profitable?
BH: They were actually profitable from the very first quarter. So when we started we were profitable, and that was kind of an interesting position because most startups lose money in order to gain growth, and for us, we had to sacrifice growth by making sure that we were profitable.
X: I know you guys took a hit when the economy crashed, but you came back strong shortly after. How are you doing now, a year later?
BH: We’re doing great. I think the company is on solid financial footing. We’re not turning in huge amounts of profit, but it’s something that makes us feel comfortable while sustaining this level of growth. And we’re reinvesting the vast majority of capital right back into the company.
X: You have over 50 sites already—any plans for more?
BH: We actually do have plans for more, but I think what we’re looking for is how do we increase the value per day? So I think part of the problem is we’ve grown so large so quickly that people don’t know everything about all of our sites, and we want to make sure that it’s easy to find new content. We struggle with discovery, which is that there’s all this great content, but you might not know how to get there. You might not know which site you want to try out. So I think we might actually go through a phase of consolidating into clusters—like these sites make sense together, these sites make sense together. We’ll do that while we continue to experiment with new sites and content.
X: Who is going to head up this phase of consolidation?
BH: We’ll actually go through it as a company together. There’s a product manager whose job it is to work through the process of consolidation and things like that, but you know, the content and the community is too important to be left up to one department. We want to make sure this is a team effort by people in content, as well as business and technology.
X: You keep emphasizing importance of the team, and considering this all started with just you in the beginning and now the Cheezburger network is expanding at a rapid pace, will you be making any other big personnel moves in the near future?
BH: We’re actually currently in the process of recruiting an editorial director who is going to be the head of content.
X: Isn’t that Emily’s role?
BH: It’s actually my role right now. I’m actually the head of content. Emily manages most of our sites. Kristyn Pomranz, who is our managing editor, manages our other set. And then we have another editor whose job it is to launch new websites or rebrand existing ones. So what I want to do is I want to remove myself from the day-to-day role of content and give it to somebody who’s going to devote 40 hours a week to it. And that’s what we’re hiring for right now.
X: For someone who might be interested in that job, what would your 30-second pitch be?
BH: It would be that this person would manage one of the largest humor communities online and one of the biggest media properties online, and it’s still the fastest growing. We’re a profitable organization and we’re here for the community, and we want to make sure that we can empower the people to entertain themselves.
X: You told us last year that your ultimate goal was to become a “first-tier publisher,” essentially a household name. Do you think you’ve reached that goal yet?
BH: I don’t think so. I think in the Internet community and the tech circles we’re pretty well known. I think we’re good in certain circles, but we’re not quite out to mainstream America yet. And that’s where we want to be. We want to change the way popular culture works. Popular culture today is very passive. You sit in front of the TV and you consume culture that comes through the TV, or movies, or what have you. We want to make sure that this is an engaged experience—that you are able to participate in the creation of culture that your peers or your family could also enjoy.
X: So how do you get there?
BH: I think we get there by making it really easy for people to participate and making sure that they want to participate in the creation of content.
X: There are five Cheezburger books, two of which are New York Times best sellers. Where did you get the idea to republish content from the sites into books?
BH: It was actually our literary agent who pursued us from the get go. She said ‘you really should turn this into a book,’ and we did not realize that we were basically at the forefront of this blogs-to-books industry. And so as we started it, and as we hit the New York Times best sellers list, the category exploded… So we’re going to concentrate on what we do well, which is basically make the community happy by featuring their photos in these books.
X: Any more books in the works?
BH: Yeah! We’ve got a book coming out called “There I Fixed It,” and that’s basically based on the same site, There I Fixed It. And we’ve got the third installment of the I Can Has Cheezburger book, which is going to be all kittens this time, so that should be absolutely adorable.
X: There seem to be a lot of things on your site that can be categorized as “absolutely adorable.”
BH: Thanks! That’s like one side of us—there’s this cute, funny, adorable animal/babies cluster, and then there’s all this really slapstick comedy, and then there’s more cerebral [content]. We’ve kind of covered all these different angles.
X: Do you think the company will ever venture into any other kind of web publishing that’s not comedy?
BH: I think we probably will, I think it’s just natural expansion for us. I don’t think we’ll ever get to the really hard news. I think our real angle is the happiness that we give to people, but we might kind of straddle that infotainment space.
X: Do you think you’ll ever leave Seattle?
BH: No, we like it here. We might open offices other places, but this is our home. And you can’t beat this view! [Points across the adjacent parking lot to the Space Needle]. I’m going to be so sad when they build a building here. I’m going to be like, ‘no, that’s our view!’
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