by Elizabeth Eun (a hoomin.)
Photos courtesy of the Cheezburger Network
Ben Huh may just be one of the most popular guys on the internet, except no one really knows his name—just his brand. But that doesn’t really matter, since Huh, the undisputed king of memes, is sitting pretty as the CEO of a company that literally runs on stupid: Cheezburger Network, the 3-year-old, Seattle-based parent company of a chain of humor websites that include “I Can Has Cheezburger?” (better known as “LOLcats”), “I Has a Hotdog!” (“LOLdogs”), “FAIL Blog” and “Engrish Funny.”
All those photos of screwy animals with weird and grammatically challenged “kitty pidgin” slogans that you’ve probably re-tweeted and posted on Facebook? You can thank the Cheezburger Network, except they’d probably just thank you right back; the sites are almost entirely fueled by fans, many of whom are probably logging on right now to LO-freakin-L in their cubicles. People submit photos for free, with or without text written in “lolspeak” (the company’s self-invented lexicon) or add capshuns (captions) to an archive of available pictures. Anyone can vote, upload or create “lolz.” The result: an internet phenomenon powered by a global penchant for cute animals and misspelled, if not moronic, sentences.
To put things in a greater context, a small staff culls through around 15,000 daily user submissions for the most LOL-worthy photos and publishes around one percent on the sites. That small percent is viewed by more than 375 million people per month, and is the reason the company makes some real moneyz off the strange world that is the internet.
The concept is so simple, its popularity is almost maddening. Who knew that capshunned kitteh photos could make one an internet sensation, and more importantly, filthy rich? (The company does not disclose its net worth, but we can assume the ads and merchandise rake in some serious cash.) But according to this Northwestern-schooled CEO, the überinteractive sites are all about “making people happy for five minutes a day. People need a mental vacation, and we want to provide it for them.”
Huh, 33, shares more about his cyber ventures—which includes working with his wife Emily, and the search for evil pandas. And did we mention? They have a dog named Nemo because Huh is allergic to cats. Oh, the ironeez.
C’mon, your Asian parents must hate the fact that you’ve made a career out of broken English. I think my parents are very happy to see me succeed. That said, I know this is an oddball career for a Korean American. But it would be nice to see more of us get into the media business and step out from behind the spotlight. I actually came from Korea when I was 14, but people assume that I was born here. It’s almost a cultural abnormality because someone who came here when he was 14 shouldn’t really know that much about American culture.
What was your reaction when your sites blew up? Actually, [our popularity] was very gradual. There wasn’t this huge day where everyone found out about the sites, so I didn’t really notice how big we were getting until I was looking around the office and I was like, “Hey, we’re kind of full. We need to get more office space.”
You seem to know what will be funny before it’s funny. How do you use that to boost your enterprise? For us, it’s about consistency. We want to be that place where people can come every day and find something they’ll enjoy.
Any reader feedback that’s stood out? One woman emailed us and wrote, “I go to your site every day and I print out the photos and I take them to my grandmother, who’s in the hospital recovering from cancer. I show her these pictures, and we laugh together.”
Aw. Any crazy fan stories? The Seattle Mariners contacted us and said they would provide a special section, throw a little party and make tickets cheap, and if we could get 400 people out, they would have me throw the first pitch of the game. We ended up selling 1,200 tickets!
So you got to pitch?! Actually, I had my wife throw out the first pitch.
That’s sweet. How is it working with your wife? My wife is the one who actually runs the whole thing! It’s both a blessing and a pain. It’s really hard to leave work behind when you get home, so that’s the challenge. But otherwise it’s really great.
You have a dog as well, right? Has he made an appearance on the sites? Yep, he’s a poodle mix of some kind. But he’s never made an appearance. His ego would get way too large.
Any failed sites?We had one called “Pandaganda,” like propaganda but with pandas. We thought, “Hey, all these people love panda bears, but we’re pretty sure there’s a side of panda bears that’s evil,” so we tried to find evil photos of panda bears… Sometimes, the ideas just don’t work.
Favorite site? The one that I started with. It’s the one I save for the end of the day because it’s the one that makes me smile the most, and that’s icanhascheezburger.com.
According to the Cheezburger Network, a LOLcat “iz a piksure of a kitteh wif a funny caption. LOLcats r frm the internets.”
How to write in LOLspeak:
Replace any ‘s’ with a ‘z’ and spell like a teenager whose primary form of communication is texting. Example: “i has the nu issoo of koreamz!”
The Itteh Bitteh Book of Kittehs: A LOLcat Guide 2 Kittens is out now.