Entrepreneur builds media empire on funny cat photos
Boredom and funny cat photos were catalysts for Ben Huh to create one of the Web's fastest-growing media companies.
Three years ago Huh's Web log about pets, which he started to counteract the effects of a boring tech job, crashed after another website linked to one of the pictures he posted. When he investigated, Huh discovered a quirky local pet photo-sharing site - I Can Has Cheezburger (www.icanhascheezburger.com) - was sending too much traffic for his blog to handle.
More fascinated than mad, Huh befriended the site's owner - Eric Nakagawa - and even provided him some pro bono consulting. A short time later Huh offered to buy the company.
"There was a lot of traffic there and when I was talking to my investor friends about it, they suggested that I buy the site," said Huh, who would not disclose how much he paid for the acquisition or the angel seed round he raised to buy it. "The whole deal got done over Instant Messenger."
Huh created an umbrella corporation called Cheezburger Network (www.cheezburger.com) and quickly rolled out a handful of humorous companion sites to flagship I Can Has Cheezburger, including Failblog.org, TheDailyWh.at and Memebase.com.
"What we do is take content that users have submitted and create the best, most amusing site for peoples' collections," said Huh, 33, who works alongside his wife Emily, 31, and has expanded his network to a total of 50 websites.
Cheezburger, which doesn't pay for its user-generated content, receives "tens of thousands" of submissions every week, said Huh. He added that half his staff of 50 are dubbed "air traffic controllers" whose job is to sort through the content to determine if it's worthy of posting. Huh said he is looking to hire an additional 20 to 40 people over the next year.
When Huh first acquired I Can Has Cheezburger, he said it generated about 15 million page views and reached a little more than one million people per month.
Since then traffic has gone through the roof.
"We generate about 375 million page views every single month," said Huh, referring to Cheezburger's entire network. "About 100 million video views, which makes us one of the largest, independent distributors of video on the Internet and we reach about 16.5 million people."
Huh credits Cheezburger's success to the "real cultural shift in the way people consume media," noting that engagement levels are far higher when people are commenting and trying to remix content.
"It's no longer about passively sitting back and reading something, but it's about getting engaged with the story and getting engaged with even the company that actually generated the content."
While Huh won't disclose numbers, he said revenue last year more than doubled from 2009.
"We have well more than doubled every single year since we started," Huh said, adding the company generates money through merchandise of its Web characters, sold online through LOLmart.com, as well as advertising, which he said is the "bulk of our revenue stream."
Huh said he's been getting calls from VCs about being an attractive target, but was non-committal about raising more future funding.
"It's kind of interesting to see a startup that's profitable in the media space, especially during the recession," he said. "It's always something that we think about, the question is where would we use the money? And if we found a good place to use the money, I think we would certainly go down that path but being profitable is a very envious position to be in and we're very comfortable being profitable."
Huh said Cheezburger's biggest competitor is unemployment, because the more people work, the more they need a break. The major challenge for him is to maintain the company's rapid growth since he acquired it.
"We're really interested in growing this company," he said. "We really want to be the next Disney. We really want to be the next cultural force in media and I think we've got a really good shot at it."