"No, it's not a typo," deadpans Ben Huh, the 31-year-old CEO of the Cheezburger Network. He's referring, of course, to his company's title—and its flagship Web site, I Can Has Cheezburger, which earns 8.5 million page views a day by posting cat photos with ludicrous captions, like "Rehab Kitteh...Has Relapse."
Unlike bigger user-generated content hubs, such as Facebook and YouTube, Huh's brainchild has been profitable since day one. It helped, he says, that during the company's late 2007 launch, "it was just me sitting on my couch at home, so it didn't require much cash." But this year, the Cheezburger Network (officially titled "Pet Holdings, Inc.") will generate more than seven figures from advertising, licensing fees, and merchandise sales. Traffic, too, is at an all-time high: In September alone, Huh's 20-odd sites—including FAIL Blog, Engrish Funny, and Emails From Stupid People—lured more than 11 million unique visitors, many of whom logged on multiple times a day.
And yet, in spite of his tremendous success, the former journalist fields calls from media types and Web users who think his business is just...a typo. "They're like, 'I can haz a cheeseburger?' 'I can have a cheeseburger?'" Huh laments. "And I'm like, 'Okay—let's start over. It's 'I Can Has Cheezburger.' The 'z' is in the cheese.'"
Huh recently stopped by the Fast Company offices, where we chatted about humble origins, viral content, recession-proof humor, and how he plans to turn the Cheezburger Network into a bona-fide media empire. Excerpts below:
OK, I'll start with the obvious question: How and why did you become a LOLcats mogul?
[laughs] Well, to be honest, I was working at a startup [in early 2007], and I really wanted to leave. And right around that time, I had started a personal blog about being a pet-owner in Seattle. One day, I noticed that my server was down, because somebody had hot-linked one of my animal images. When I checked the server logs, I saw a bunch of calls from a site called I Can Has Cheezburger. So I called the site's founder, Eric Nakagawa, and said something like, "Hey, jackass—you need to stop doing this."
Yeah, he immediately apologized, and switched out the image. But then it hit me: If one hot-link from this crazy site had crashed my server, it must be getting a lot of traffic. And if this crazy site is getting a lot of traffic, maybe I should stop thinking it's crazy, and start trying to figure out what the hell it is. So I began working for Eric pro bono. And after showing a friend—who also happened to be an angel investor—our traffic stats, he offered to help me buy it.
When did the site really take off?
Immediately. It was a pretty big blog when we bought it—one of the biggest blogs in the world, actually. And it just grew. So we added FAIL Blog, we added I Has Hot Dog, we added all these other blogs, and it just grew and grew and grew.
Can you share any growth stats?
When we bought I Can Has Cheezburger in September 2007, it had 500,000 page views a day. Last week, we were averaging 8.2-8.5 million.
Wow. Does that shock you as much as it shocks me?
Nah, we saw it coming. [laughs] No, I'm kidding—we had absolutely no idea. When we bought I Can Has Cheezburger, it was 8 months old. And when I raised investment money, people kept wondering, "Is this a fad? Is this a one-year thing that we're buying 8 months in, and it's all going to crash, and we'll be left with nothing but a cat blog full of misspelled captions?" And then I said, "I think there's a community here. And that's what we're really buying into."
So who's in your community?
Initially, it was developers and tech people—an Internet-savvy, younger audience. Now, it's all over the map. When we have events, there are parents with kids, kids with parents, somebody with grandpa, married couples, dating couples, high school kids, college kids—it's really hard to put a finger on it.
And you have fans all over the world.
You know, we were actually banned in China for a little bit. But then again, I think that happens to every popular Web site. It's like a rite of passage. You get big, you get banned in China, then hopefully you get un-banned in China. I think we're unbanned now.
Is having such a diverse audience—all sorts of ages, races, and countries of origin—tough from an advertiser's perspective?
Yeah, that's a problem. Marketers would prefer blogs to have targeted, small audiences. They're easier to manage, and easier to sell to. We've got more of a challenge, because our audience is so general. But that's also really great to see, because it means our humor is working. We're more than, "I like it because there are cute kittens." We're part of a phenomenon.
A lot of your content tends to go viral.
Yes, and our community is a huge part of that. Like, sure we're promoting content that's funny and shocking, but all that does is catch people's attention. Without our community, without a huge group of people who believe in what we do and what we say, that content wouldn't go anywhere. Virality by nature has to happen infrequently. So when something actually does hit, you need a community who will take it and say, "I'm going to make this my own, and send it to my friends."
How do you cultivate that community?
For us, it's with humor. Our readers see an element of truth in what we post. You know, "It's funny 'cause it's true." So they laugh, and they come back.
But humor is subjective.
Yes. That's why we rely on the tools of the Internet—metrics and measurements and stuff like that—to help us decide what to post. We don't have some guy somewhere deciding, "Oh, I think this it funny. I'm going to post it on the homepage." That actually fails 50% of the time, because people are very bad at understanding what's funny for other people. Everything we promote is there for a logical reason.
So what's "quantifiably" funny?
I think there's a general rule—but not a hard-and-fast one—that most funny things have to be simple to understand. Because frankly, people don't have a lot of time. If someone sends me a video they think is funny, and there's a two-minute lead-in, I'm like, "Pshh, no thanks." If I can't cut it down to 30 seconds, it's not worth it. So our funniest content has a clear hook, and it's also unexpected.
Now more than ever, it seems like people are looking for reasons to laugh. Has the recession affected the Cheezburger Network?
Well, now that banks have failed, and the economy has failed, the word "fail" [which on FAIL Blog denotes ridiculous occurrences, such as bees swarming a can of Raid] has become a lot more than an online term of endearment. But in terms of traffic: We started the company during the recession, and we've had tremendous growth throughout it.
Cat pictures are recession-proof?
[laughs] Yes, and so are human failures. Of course, I can't say that about advertising. I'm sure we all know that. But humor is certainly recession-proof. And what's fascinating is that I think most people visit us from work.
Not like I would ever do that.
No, nobody would ever do that. [laughs] But really, I think that when the recession ends and people go back to work, there will be a big opportunity for further growth. Our sites are great for five-minute work breaks. Like, "Ugh, I came from this horrible meeting and I cant stand my job anymore, and—click—let's go look at funny cat pictures for a few minutes."
So what's next?
We have a list of about 150 different blog concepts that we're working on, and we're planning to launch a new one every week.
That's pretty ambitious.
Well, you guys won't know about a lot of them, because we'll only publicize the ones that take off. That's been our strategy for a while. In fact, there are blogs generating a lot of traffic that are not yet associated with us, such as There I Fixed It and It Made My Day. But we're starting to promote them now, because they're doing well.
Go big or go home, eh?
Exactly. You know, people still think we're the underdogs—and maybe we are, in terms of media coverage—but we've got 11 million visitors a month. And nobody knows that, because they just see a bunch of blogs, and don't associate them with one company. I still get emails that say, "Dude, I love what you guys do. One day you're gonna be huge." And I love it. Because in my opinion, we already are.