There used to be a time (yes this is true) that I used to wake up each morning, reach for my phone and – before even checking emails or messages – I’d look up Icanhascheezburger. If you’re not familiar with this internet phenomenon, it’s simply a website full of cat photos accompanied by funny captions. These days, other animals of the non-feline variety also feature on the site.
I used to look up this site because I was guaranteed to have a giggle. And it was a great way to start the day. Such a simple idea, so effective. Since then the site has grown from one person blogging funny pictures of cats into a media empire which has garnered more then $37 million worth of investment.
Behind this empire is entrepreneur Ben Huh. And when I had the opportunity to interview the Seattle-based business owner when he was in Sydney earlier this week, I couldn’t pass it up. His story is this week’s Enterprise post.
I have cats. I like taking photos of them. I love sharing these pictures with my friends. But I don’t have a $37 million company. That’s because I’m not Ben Huh, an entrepreneur whose websites have gained cult-like status around the world. And it all started with a simple website full of cute cats with funny captions.
Of course, no person in their right mind could have predicted that cats would become one of the most popular and most shared personalities on the internet. But Huh tapped into the zeitgeist and he’s laughing all the way to the bank. Huh is CEO of the Cheezburger Network, a business that runs around 50 sites at any one time, all based on humour. Along with the original cat site I Can Has Cheezburger?, the other sites include This is a Photobomb and Totally Looks Like.
Taking risks and changing direction
In Australia this week, Huh is here as an ambassador for Dell’s Flip Your Thinking campaign (promoting the Dell XPS12 convertible ultrabook). He is talking to students and wannabe entrepreneurs on how to take risks and not to be afraid to change direction in your business. Because driving the crazy cat pictures and inane captions that accompany them is a sea of data – and it’s this data that impacts Huh’s business decisions. And behind Huh’s quirky public image is an entrepreneurial brain that has figured out how to generate 375 million page views a month. It’s a statistic most media companies only dream about.
When Huh was a boy, he didn’t expect to grow up to run one of the biggest cat picture websites in the world. After being born in South Korea, he moved to Hong Kong with his parents at the age of 10 and then to the US at 14. He went on to study journalism at university. “I love media and content,” says Huh. “I worked on my high school newspaper and I even tried to create a radio station. But when I graduated from college I realised that my behaviour was a bit different in that I wasn’t reading the newspaper, I was more likely to read the web. That gave me a perspective into the future.”
After graduating in 1999, Huh worked for web startup cars.com (a car sales website) for five months before taking the plunge into creating his own startup, a web analytics company. “I felt that [the car sales website] wasn’t a true startup; it was big corporate newspaper people trying to figure out how to be a startup. I felt I had the resources to strike out on my own.”