Cheezburger Network’s Ben Huh on Startup Strategy, Expansion, and Making It Big

It took about a year and a half before I could even begin to understand the I Can Has Cheezburger (or “LOLcats”) phenomenon online. The mundane yet bizarre cat pictures. The misspelled captions. The curious Internet-slang grammar. They were kind of funny, but mostly they were weird—and, at times, even a little annoying.

Yet millions of people flocked to these Web pages, submitting their own photos and captions and commenting on others. The Cheezburger Network, as the company behind it is now called (formerly Pet Holdings), has become a runaway success—an Internet sensation that has spawned a total of 26 humor sites, including FAIL Blog, GraphJam, Engrish Funny, and Emails From Crazy People. The original Cheezburger site hit 1 billion page views (10 billion cat images) earlier this month. And during the first half of 2009, the company raked in seven figures’ worth of revenue from advertising, licensing fees, and sales of merchandise, according to Time magazine.

So what’s its big secret? Why has the Cheezburger Network succeeded where so many other humor sites and blogs continue to toil in obscurity? It took me a while to realize it’s not about luck, or marketing, or the power of certain kinds of humor. There’s some good timing involved, sure, but mostly it’s about the drive and mentality of the company’s leader, Ben Huh.

Huh is often portrayed in the media as a jokester. Photos in articles show him wearing a funny hat or mask, surrounded by stuffed animals, or posing with a cheeseburger. That image is pretty far from the reality, as I understand from reading more about Huh and interviewing him recently. In a Q&A with Advertising Age earlier this week, for instance, Huh emphasized, “I am a business person.” And he shed some very interesting light on his approach to business: “We’ve gotten into situations where we’ve tried to acquire a blog for large sums of money, and they turned us down, and we’ve gone on to compete and we’ve won,” he said. “My final offer is, ‘If you do not do this, we will start a competitive blog, and we will not stop until we win.'”

Clearly, Huh has the killer instinct. He is deeply competitive, but not in an over-the-top way. He could turn out to be the Michael Jordan of consumer Internet startups, though we probably shouldn’t put him in the Hall of Fame just yet. Still, as a promising entrepreneur in his early 30s with a pretty big success already under his belt, his story—and his company’s strategy—is worth a closer look.

Huh first arrived in the Northwest in 2005 to work for Intava, an interactive media startup in Bellevue, WA. Before that, he had graduated from Northwestern University with a degree in journalism during the dot-com bubble. “They were handing out bonuses to college grads because we’d used the Internet once,” he jokes. Huh worked for a number of startups in the Chicago area, including his own Web analytics firm. “I made all the mistakes they say you’ll make,” he says. “I raised too little money, and spent all my time fundraising and not making a product for the market.”

By the time he landed in Seattle, Huh had made it a priority to always work for a company’s CEO, or at least have a dotted-line connection to them, in any job he took. “That was going to teach me more about running a company,” he says. “This is for my career, not for [any particular] job.” Huh had also learned from his previous startups to have a “huge focus on staying profitable.”

In 2007, he came across the I Can Has Cheezburger site, which had been started by a … Next Page »

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