I can haz business: King of the LOLcats on what it takes to build an empire

An entrepreneur who has reached the depths of depression after a failed start-up is now the CEO of a million dollar company

As a person who’s built an empire based on grammatically incorrect cat memes, you would expect Ben Huh to know a thing or two about how to generate income from unlikely sources.

Born in South Korea and armed with a journalism degree, the CEO of the Cheezburger Network — whose flagship website is the cat-filled icanhas.cheezburger.com — is surprisingly serious.

Besides a comment about a circling crow sounding like a crying baby, it's mainly business talk with Huh, who shows he is clearly passionate about some of the big issues facing the tech world, such as Internet freedom.

Huh bought the “I Can Has Cheezburger” website in 2007 when it was eight months old. He has spent the past 18 months trying to “reinvent” the business and looking to build platforms that allow users to create their own sites.

“That mentality is all about taking risks. We’re big enough [now] where I can say ‘great, let’s sit on our arse and let’s rest’. But that won’t help us grow. That won’t actually help us take up new opportunities,” he says.

“We have to take everything we’ve learned and everything that we’ve built so far and say ‘let’s bet it again because we think there’s a better opportunity’.”

Huh is also working on generating revenue from advertising and working out how to make money while still building platforms that make people laugh.

“There’s this chicken and egg [situation] where do you build the product first or do you generate more money, and you have to keep balancing that,” he says.

The Cheezburger Network now has 50 offshoot sites and Huh stars in a reality TV show about how the company creates content.

But it hasn’t always been this way. Like many entrepreneurs, Huh experienced failure before he found success — his first startup failed after 18 months.

“It wasn’t until after I seriously contemplated suicide that I was ready to handle a $30 million [cheque],” he wrote in his blog, wracked by self-doubt after the failure of his first company in 2001.

Although Huh says he toyed with the idea of giving up being an entrepreneur, he says his need to try again when he fails spurred him along.

Nine years after his first company folded, he asked venture capitalist Brad Feld for a $30 million investment in Cheezburger.

“The biggest struggle for me personally is not knowing that I’m right; it’s dealing with ambiguity,” he says.

“A lot of people are great when they’re told [what to do] … and a lot of people are great at high level strategy when they’re not accountable for what happens…

“But as startups, you don’t know what’s going to happen. You don’t know if that strategy is going to work. No-one’s telling you what to do, so you have to understand that you live in the grey area and you can’t be waiting for orders all the time or just issuing orders and hoping they get done.

“You need people who can roll up their sleeves [and] can also do it by themselves.”

This grey area, Huh says, can be challenging when people look to you to confidently say the company is on the right path.

He admits that he’s had to learn self-belief along the way, but it can make an entrepreneur more reluctant to issue predictions about the world because “you’re not very good at it”.

“Every week will go by and you get an email and you’ll be like ‘holy crap, this is amazing’ and you look at the numbers and go ‘holy crap, it’s terrible’, and so you have this emotional rollercoaster that you go through.”

Huh’s tips for startups

Huh says he was given some sage advice early on — that he would spend too much money, he would not work on his product enough, and he would raise too little money and spend too much time doing it.

“I made all three mistakes. I said I wouldn’t but I did. I ended up folding my first company in 18 months and then when I started Cheezburger I was a lot more frugal. I raised more money than I needed and so I was solving those issues that I had,” he says.

In Sydney to talk about entrepreneurship in partnership with Dell, Huh says Australian startups also make the mistake of avoiding risk. He says Australians should embrace failure as part of the process all startups must go through.

“A lot of entrepreneurs avoid failure, so they actually avoid taking risks. One of the things I want to teach other entrepreneurs is that failure [is] part of the dialogue and it’s ok if you fail as long as you take the right risks,” he says.

“Sure, you don’t want to fail, but if you spend your [time] avoiding failure, you’re never going to see the opportunity; you’re never going to fully embrace that opportunity.”

Huh also advises startups to avoid following trends: by the time it’s a trend it’s probably too late and too difficult to catch up.

The key to success, he says, is to be there first and be the one willing to take the risk.

Entrepreneurs also need to be passionate about what they do, according to Huh. Due to the emotional rollercoaster that being an entrepreneur brings, he says passion helps to deals with the highs and lows.

“You will have that moment where you think ‘I’m working really hard — I’m working a lot of hours. This is really, really tough. Why am I doing this?’ and a lot of entrepreneurs quit when they realise that they’re doing it for the money,” Huh says. “People sense that from you,”

In Australia there is often a perception that in order to make it big startups need to leave the country and head to Silicon Valley.

Huh says the key to stop Australian startups leaving the country is for them to make the most of the environment Australia has, citing tourism or natural resources as possible opportunities.

“If it can be done better elsewhere, go there. But if you’re passionate about being here, use something that is going to give you an advantage to being here so you can build the business on the advantage of being in Australia,” he says.

Huh says that making it easier for people to migrate to Australia would also encourage the startup scene here.

He says that like in Australia, programmers are in high demand in the US and businesses have dealt with the problem by importing labour “like crazy”.

“In fact, we’re pushing for a bill that allows any entrepreneur to set up shop in the United States and get a visa for doing so. We’re trying to make it easier and easier to poach people from all over the world,” he says.

Now that Cheezburger is into its sixth year of operation, Huh has proven that LOLcats are not just a short-term fad and that there's money to be made in cat memes.

Huh says the lasting nature of LOLcats is due to the ability of cats to convey human emotion. While dogs are either happy or sad, according to Huh, cats have a wider range of emotions.

“They can be mad, they can be upset, they can kind of not care, they can look evil but also good and they’re adorable. So you can use them as a canvas for the human emotion,” he says.

Huh says humans have been breeding cats for thousands of years to suit certain purposes — to fill our time with “love”.

“So every time we breed a cat we’re trying to make it better suited to our lives, so there’s actually no surprise that after 10,000 years of selective breeding we’ve got a really adorable and cute [animal],” he says.

“So we’ve forced upon ourselves this — I call them weapons of mass cuteness because we’ve bred them that way.”

Allergic to cats, Huh warns about the dangers of selectively breeding cats. He begins telling a story about a virus that around a third of the world’s population is apparently infected with that makes people want to serve the feline species.

“I swear to god – I’m not making this up! They put this virus in mice and mice had no fear of cats,” he deadpans.

Although mice being fearless of cats and humans being under the control of felines seems an unlikely connection, Huh looks as though his mind ticking is over … is there a meme in that somewhere?

Support is available for anyone who may be distressed by phoning Lifeline 13 11 14; Mensline 1300 789 978; Kids Helpline 1800 551 800 or visit beyondblue.org.au.

Follow Stephanie McDonald on Twitter: @stephmcdonald0

Follow Computerworld Australia on Twitter: @ComputerworldAU

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