The Man Behind the Memes
When you make a commitment to your employees, keep it.
Be flexible with your business plan.
Hire people who aren't like you. In September 2007, Ben Huh, the founder of Pet Holdings Inc., bought icanhascheezburger.com , a website featuring funny pictures of cats with misspelled captions (an internet meme known as a LOLcat). Since then, life has been good. In addition to icanhascheezburger.com, his company now owns a number of highly trafficked sites like failblog.org and punditkitchen.com, boasting network-wide totals of 170 million page views a month and annual revenue in the millions.
As you might expect from a guy who saw opportunity in a URL that's virtually impossible to spell, he has a nontraditional view of how to run a business. Entrepreneur chatted with him about success, humor and the meaning of his cheeseburger hat.
You have a degree in journalism from Northwestern University--what made you stray from that career path?
I wanted to be a journalist all my life. But then I found out how much it paid. And it was 1999, and they were handing out signing bonuses to college kids to go work at dotcoms. So I sold out. Absolutely.
Did you pick up much about being an entrepreneur while working for tech startups?
Well, I can't say I learned anything related to the content I handle now. That part probably came more from me just liking things on the internet and goofing around, which I guess is not how people usually consider starting a startup.
But I learned how to keep costs low and make sure that whatever commitment you make to employees, you keep--fundamental rules that I think people overlook. No matter how strange or ridiculous a business looks, those fundamentals still need to be there.
If you were talking to someone who hasn't seen any of your sites, what would you tell him that Pet Holdings does?
Pet Holdings basically makes people happy for five minutes every day. That's really all we want to do. It's a simple-sounding goal, but to be consistently funny day in and day out for five minutes (which is the average attention span of a blog reader) is actually very difficult to do.
Is there a strategy in how you choose which sites to buy?
We're interested in stuff that has longevity and has the ability to gain new audiences. So it can't be too specific. So even though icanhascheezburger is relatively old in the world of internet memes, we don't know if it will die down. It seems to me that if the content is good enough, it will survive and grow.
But we're just having fun [laughs]. It's not very entrepreneury or businessy, but we've always been very much counterculture when it comes to marketing.
You don't have a business plan.
No, not exactly. We have a good time and we think if we enjoy something, other people will, too. It's counterintuitive, but we don't actually plan anything beyond 30 days. We tell ourselves we're here to be flexible and to be nimble, and not necessarily to stick to a master plan.
So advertisers "get" this?
I think more and more people are getting it. What's more surprising is that smaller companies have gotten it. We have a ton of small and midsize businesses that come back and advertise month after month. We are just now starting to see more pick-up from bigger businesses. They're just slower to move because they have that corporate mentality.
In some ways, it sounds almost too good to be true. You saw something you liked on the internet, and then you bought it, and it became this huge phenomenon. Was it really that easy?
Uh, yes. I don't know how else to put it [laughs]. We bought something, and then that month it sort of skyrocketed, and we got another website and the month we bought it, it started skyrocketing, and so on and so forth. Luck had a lot to do with it.
That's nice. Most people probably don't have such a good time while they're making money.
That's kind of the ridiculous part about this whole business, where I think no one else knows what the hell is going on. It's kind of a corner of the internet that people don't consider as a serious business, but it is very serious. This is new media in a very real sense.
Tell me about the day-to-day at the office.
The entire network is driven by user-generated content. It's user-sourced and user-filtered, and we basically moderate it. We have 600 square feet of office space, and there are a lot of people in here writing code, doing [paperwork]--it's very much like an internet startup operation.
Are you hiring?
Yes. We've recently hired people, and we're continuing to hire people. We have 11 full-time employees including myself, and the other part of the team is a handful of full-time contractors.
But when we were starting this thing, people asked who was going to run it, and I said, "I will, and my wife." And they said, "You're crazy." And I said, "Yes."
How do you find employees?
They come to us. You have to do something sort of oddball for us to notice you or say something interesting. But what we're looking for doesn't show up in a resume, and most people who have "it" are people who don't have jobs or can't really hold one down.
But you welcome them.
And we welcome them.
So part of your success is because you're not one of those people you want to hire.
Yes. Some people will say I'm the indicator of what's going to go mainstream. By the time I find something funny, it's a little too late in terms of hipster cred.
When I find it, the rest of the world is going to find it. But there's a roomful of people here who are a lot hipper than I am. So they lead me. They'll say, "You don't understand. This is really funny." And I'm like, "OK. We'll see."
So you aren't just being modest when you tell people you aren't on the cutting edge of humor.
No. Seriously, I've never gotten a LOLcat on the homepage of my own damn site. My internet browsing history looks like any other corporate American schlep's.
Is a picture of a cat with misspelled captions inherently funny?
It is. Humans like to ascribe emotions to animals, and cats have faces that emote really well. We've done it for a long time.
Actually, the first LOLcat was created more than 100 years ago. We found a postcard this company was selling back in the 1800s with a picture of a cat dressed up in a high chair, looking up and asking "WHERE IS MY DINNER" in all caps. I kid you not. We haven't come that far in 100 years. I was like, "Oh my God, if you just added a [misspelled word] somewhere, we'd have an actual LOLcat." But the prototype was pretty darn close to what it is today.
Paul Krugman, who won the Nobel Memorial Prize in Economic Sciences last year, used a LOLcat in his blog for The New York Times. What does that make him in your eyes?
It makes him supercool. You'd be surprised who enjoys this. We have a pretty large following at The New York Times, apparently.
We were highlighted as one of the more interesting influential sites on the internet by their tech guy, David Pogue. I need to find that article and frame it. [pause] Oh hold on, here it is. Pogue calls us an "important internet culture website."
Do you agree?
I totally agree, but I can't believe he said that about us. That's awesome! [silence] I'm sorry, I'm busy printing this right now [laughs]. I'm sorry, I know this is not how they tell you to behave in an interview.
That's all right. I've seen some interviews of you wearing a cheeseburger hat, and I meant to ask you if it means something.
No [laughs]. It was a gift. It was given to me by one of the founders of icanhascheezburger, who got it from someone else--maybe his mother.
I just thought maybe you wore it when you were in boss mode.
Ha, I should. I should threaten people when I wear it so they associate the hat with bad news. Whenever I'm wearing it, I'll yell at someone so they say, "God, no, he's wearing the hat!"
Do you have any parting thoughts?
We'd like to continue to do what we do--build bigger communities and just kind of evangelize the idea that the user is great at creating excellent content. The market is far more efficient than any one company will ever be. We've applied that theory to economics, but we haven't applied that theory to content. And I think that actually needs to change.