THREE YEARS AGO, Ben Huh didn’t know what a meme was. Heck, he didn’t even know how to pronounce the word. (Hint: rhymes with team.) Then the Queen Anne tech junky bought I Can Has Cheezburger—the insanely popular online scratching post built around crazy cat pics with absurdist, pidgin-English captions—and learned the power of infectious Internet phenomena. Since then he’s expanded his empire to nearly 50 similarly zeitgeisty sites, hosted two Cheezburger nights at Safeco Field for feline-loving fans, and turned a healthy profit off of web-based time wasters. In October he’ll release Teh Itteh Bitteh Book of Kittehs, a photographic compendium of kittens gone wild. We can has more?
We’re not a site for cool people.
There’s no scientific method to this. You have to trust your gut. If we don’t find something funny, if we don’t think it will work, there’s no point in trying.
We had this video of a turtle that was trying to have sexual relations with a pair of boots. I guess steel-toed boots look vaguely like a turtle if you’re a turtle. So the little dude goes up to it and gets on top and starts making this high-pitched noise. It was horrific and kind of sad and funny at the same time. So then we’re like, “Is this a thing?” That’s the saying here: “Is this a thing?” And yeah, it’s a thing, but we don’t want to set up a site for something like that.
What most people consider wasting time is my business. So when I’m wasting time, I may be getting ideas for the next site.
I don’t know what I’m not supposed to be doing, so I don’t ask the questions that would limit us. It’s like, “What do you mean you can’t turn a cat-picture site into a business? Who told you that?” I think that’s the brashness of ignorance.
Most of the investors said, “I don’t get it, but clearly the numbers make sense here.” I think it’s like buying GM stock. I might not like General Motors cars. Maybe I like a different make of cars. But at the end of the day, if I buy GM stock, I’m doing it on numbers. I’m doing it on faith in the business.
The Internet is jacked into my brain. So when I go offline, I go offline. I try to sail and get out on the water. Or I take my Jeep out to the backwoods and see if I can not die.
I remember the very first Cheezburger night with the Mariners. I got a call, and they said, “You’ve sold more than a thousand tickets.” I was like, “Holy crap.” I was hoping for 300. And in those moments, it’s like, “Wow, that’s a lot of people who love what we do.”
All humor is fleeting. A joke lasts a very brief moment. That feeling of happiness, that break, that laughter comes for a very few moments.
In high school I was voted the most ambitious. I always wanted to do something. I wanted to create. I wanted to build. I wanted to work with my hands. If I was born in the 1830s, I’d be a gold miner in California. For our generation, Internet technology is the gold rush.
I try to avoid being cool or hip. Maybe it’s a reaction to my time in high school when I wasn’t one of the most popular kids. I was always one of the nerds. Big surprise.
Occasionally I’m recognized on the street. I think the white glasses help. I’m described as Internet famous, not actually famous. Actually famous is where you go out and people are taking pictures of you as you walk down the street. That’s celebrity. Internet famous, you’re known for something and your celebrity is confined mostly to that Internet-culture crowd. So there’s an easier connection. There’s less layers of filter that you go through, and people find you very accessible.
We don’t do this because we’re highly rational people. Most people who leave solid jobs to start a highly risky technology business to which they will devote all of their waking hours are irrational. If any entrepreneur tells you that it was a rational decision, that’s bullshit. Because unless you’re emotionally invested in the process, you’re not going to make that switch.
I had a job offer from a startup in the Valley, but I wanted to be my own boss. I could go for a very respectable career trajectory as a project manager or run a cat-picture site and end my career right there. So this could have either been career suicide or not. And my epitaph would say, “Had great potential but made a stupid move. And therefore, he was poor for the rest of his life.”
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