If the internet is 90 percent cats, Ben Huh probably is 50 percent to blame.
Huh is CEO of the Seattle-based Cheezburger network, an ever-fluctuating empire of humor sites devoted to photobombs, memes and funny pictures, but mostly cats. Grumpy cats, adorable cats, sleeping cats, playing cats, cats, cats, cats. Haven’t seen it? It’s sort of the digital successor to those 1970s posters of a kitten hanging from a branch under the words “Hang in There, Baby! Friday’s Coming!”
The Korean immigrant and serial entrepreneur bought the blog in 2007 and has grown it into a Seattle-based network that gets approximately 375 million page views a month, numbers impressive enough to attract $37 million in investor money. And most of the content is generated by a fan base happy to share photos of cats falling off TV sets and mullets at the mall.
The company expanded into books, greeting cards and gifts and even was the subject of a reality TV show, “LOLwork,” but Huh said the company is dropping those ventures to concentrate on its core business.
Huh, a popular speaker at entrepreneurship conferences, sat down with ID8 Nation to discuss his success.
ID8 Nation: Did the humorous nature of the work appeal to you?
Huh: That definitely appealed to me. I didn’t consider myself a funny person, I didn’t consider myself a humorist, I didn’t consider myself an expert in humor or anything like that. It did appeal to me that the business actually had a very big community component.
ID8 Nation: What’s your goal for the network?
Huh: Our goal is to become the brand for humor in the digital age. And if I can do that then maybe we can become Disney for the 21st century.
ID8 Nation: Cheezburger is built around funny pictures and captions. Is there a limit to how much it can grow?
Huh: When I bought the site it was a one-man shop, me working out of my bedroom looking at cat pictures people were sending in. For me the scale of this business is not capped by what we think of it today; it’s capped by our ability to imagine and push ourselves. When we were first getting started, people said, “Oh, you’re in the cat photo business, you’re in the pet business.” I said, “No, we’re not. We’re in the humor business. We’re in the websites-that-make-people-laugh business.”
ID8 Nation: You said when you started here you didn’t think of yourself as a funny guy. Are you a funny guy now?
Huh: I think I’ve gotten funnier thanks to this job. People do expect me to be funny. It’s surprising to me how few people expect me to actually know business because they think of us as a kind of goofy, happy-go-lucky company. So when I’m onstage and I talk about business people walk away and they don’t know how to say it politely, they’re like, “I didn’t expect you to know your business.”
ID8 Nation: Should businesses make an effort to include humor in what they do?
Huh: Absolutely. If you want to create a great customer experience you need employees who genuinely enjoy what they do. I travel a lot. One of my guilty pleasures when I travel is a consistent cup of coffee, which I get from Starbucks. Not the greatest coffee in the world; I’ve had better. But no matter where I go in the world I’m going to get a very consistent cup. It reminds me of home. Every time I walk into Starbucks they have amazing customer service. You walk in and people are happy, they’re energetic, maybe it’s all the caffeine they pump into the air, I don’t know. But they exude a persona that makes you want to be there. And I walk into other coffee shops and I don’t get that. So where would I rather be? It’s not just about the cup of coffee.
ID8 Nation: Do you feel any responsibility for filling the internet with cats?
Huh: Yes, we feel a very heavy burden of responsibility for that. Senator Ted Stevens said the internet was a series of tubes — he was wrong. The internet is a series of kittens. I’m not sure how the data flows, but it’s a series of kittens.
ID8 Nation: I heard you’re actually allergic to cats.
Huh: I am, I am. Tearing, crying, puffiness, just unable to concentrate because it’s really uncomfortable. We do not own a cat. We do get to interact with them through the internet which is kind of nice, less allergens through the internet.