Despite his feline allergy and early setbacks, Ben Huh has landed on his feet, writes Valerie Khoo.
Ben Huh is an entrepreneur whose websites have gained cult-like status around the world. And it all started with a simple website full of cute cats with funny captions.
Huh is chief executive of the Cheezburger Network, a business that runs about 50 sites at any one time, all based on humour. Along with the original cat site I Can Has Cheezburger?, the other sites include This is a Photobomb and Totally Looks Like.
When Huh was a boy, he didn't expect to grow up to run one of the biggest cat picture websites in the world. After being born in South Korea, he moved to Hong Kong with his parents at the age of 10 and then to the US at 14. He went on to study journalism at university. After graduating in 1999, Huh worked for cars.com for five months before taking the plunge to create his own business, a web analytics company.
He first boot-strapped his business, then raised money from family and friends, followed by angel investors. In total, he raised about $250,000 and was looking for another round of funding when the dotcom bubble burst. He couldn't raise another round of financing. "It folded because I didn't really know what I was doing," he says. "When I first started out, someone said to me, 'You will not raise enough capital and you will not work on your product enough.' I thought, 'That's not going to be me. I'm different.' But they were right."
Huh then spent the next seven years working for other entrepreneurs so that he could learn about running a business. During this time, he started a blog for his dog "just for fun". However, one of the visitors to his blog was Eric Nakagawa, who had created a website based on cat photos. They became "internet friends". Nakagawa's then girlfriend had emailed him a funny photo of a cat with the caption: "I can has cheezburger?"
"Eric thought it was hilarious and he created this website sort of as a shrine to this cat," Huh says.
Nakagawa simply began adding photos with funny captions to the site. Few people would have predicted that it would grow so much in popularity that it would pay him the equivalent of a full-time salary within eight months. But by then Nakagawa was getting tired of running the site and welcomed a chance to exit. Neither he nor his girlfriend even had a cat.
What they did have was a website that ran at a low cost because it was based on user-generated content. That is, people would send in pictures of cats, with funny captions. By then, Huh realised he could turn Nakagawa's ideas into a business. So in September 2007, after raising $2.25 million in angel investment, Huh bought the site. When Huh finally received his funding, he didn't go on a spending spree renting fancy offices and hiring new staff. For the first four months, he worked on his own.
"I did absolutely everything. I wanted to know that whatever we were doing was going to pay for itself. Having money was no excuse to spend it. At the time, my big vision was just to stay alive: to make enough money to live and be a profitable business so that we could operate the next day."
At the time, Huh manually sifted through the 500 or so submissions of funny cat photos that people would send in each day. Today, that number has grown to 15,000.
Huh's overall team has grown to about 80 people. It's a far cry from the days when he was a solo operator uploading cat photos on his own. However, his initial angel funding of $2.25 million only went so far. Huh raised $30 million in January 2010, and another $5 million at the beginning of 2013. "We will probably need more funding, but we have a chance to be profitable this year," Huh says.
Huh admits there can be huge challenges associated with running what looks like a fun and quirky business, particularly when it comes to adapting to the needs of a growing company. "Your business continues to morph and change as you come across different inflexion points. A company that's 12 people operates nothing like a company that's 25 people. And then when you get to 50 people you have to reinvent the wheel again because you've never experienced what it's like to run a company of that size before."
Huh and his team recently featured in a six-episode series that has been screened on Foxtel, LOLwork, a reality TV show based on life working at the Cheezburger Network. It was filmed in 2012. "We've always been looking for a Hollywood connection," Huh says. "As we grew larger we wondered how far our appeal could go. Could we reach new audiences through Hollywood? There was interest in this, but we didn't know how to make it happen."
The irony is that while Huh is the unwitting king of cat websites and all things feline, he is actually allergic to cats. "My eyes water, I puff up. If I don't wash my hands straight away it can get really bad."