When it comes to risk-taking, Ben Huh is after a particular feeling: “Your brain is screaming at you and it’s saying, ‘You’re going to die.'"
Huh has good reason to like risk. His multimillion-dollar gamble on a satirical cat picture website in 2007 spawned the world’s first meme empire, one that fetches half a billion page views a month. He had the vision that a photo of a cat with a whimsical, grammatically incorrect caption was something far more: a new kind of entertainment for the Internet age.
“Disney started out with a mouse,” Huh said. “I started with a cat.”
I Can Has Cheezburger serves up LOLCats, possibly the most successful meme of all time. His 50 websites, including Fail Blog, The Daily What and Know Your Meme, dish up all sorts of viral foolery. Huh won’t say what it’s all worth, but in 2011, the 36-year-old South Korean–born entrepreneur asked a venture capitalist for $30 million, and admits that the company is now worth more than the investment.
“We’re a place that you go to get your five minutes of happiness,” Huh explained.
And in 2011 he expanded into the five minutes of information business. With his well-received news app Circa, Huh hopes to redefine the way we read news on our tablets and phones.
A privileged life
Huh is the archetype of a high-stakes Internet entrepreneur, with a love for the adrenaline-dosed activities that gather dust on other people’s bucket lists. He freely philosophizes on the need to seize life, and took America Tonight for a high-speed joyride to demonstrate.
“There’s nothing wrong with wrecking your car,” he explained. “That’s what insurance is for.”
Then it was on to a record shop where vinyl offers Huh another metaphor for the good life.
“You put on a record, you have 20 minutes per side, and if you do anything else in those 20 minutes, you’re going to miss the music,” he said. “I want to experience things in their truest way.”
Huh admits that running a wildly successful website conglomerate can have a stirring effect on the brain.
“Part of the weirdness of being a CEO of an Internet company is that you become more eccentric the longer you do it,” he said. “Because people don’t tell you no. You get to do pretty much whatever you want. It’s a privileged life.”
But his life isn’t all cliff jumping and slow jazz. Huh’s commitment to entrepreneurship has another side: pain. The man is plenty bruised.
“What’s hard is making your own luck over and over and over again.”
When he was 22, Huh founded his first venture, Raydium, a software analytics company. Eighteen months later, it folded.
“I lost half a million dollars of other people’s money,” he said. “Actually, it was more than half a million dollars, like $1.75 million.”
Broke and crushed by self-doubt, Huh went back to his apartment and spent a week cut off and in darkness. He said he seriously considered suicide.
“The word ‘terrible’ doesn’t begin to describe,” he said. “You are at your lowest low and then you feel like the world just ended and that nothing is worth living for.”
He eventually shook the thoughts of killing himself, took a new job and went on with his life. Years later, in November 2011, the well-known young entrepreneur Ilya Zhitomirskiy, who was co-building an alternative to Facebook, killed himself at the age of 22.
A couple weeks later, Huh described on his blog his own brush with darkness. It was a eulogy for Zhitomirskiy from “a long line of entrepreneurs who suffered alone and quietly under our own self-doubt.”
“Suicide and depression is one of those things that is rarely talked about,” Huh told America Tonight. “And the more you make it acceptable to talk about it, the fewer people will take their own lives.”
From that experience, Huh learned not to equate his identity with the success of his company. Before he asked for $30 million in investment in the Cheezburger Network, Huh wrote on his blog that he thought long and hard about losing every penny of that money. He decided that was OK.
“Failure and risk (is) something entrepreneurs understand well, and learn to manage,” he wrote. “However, death isn’t an option, it’s an inevitability. And before I die, I want to take as many swings at the fence as I can.”
‘A sliver of your time’
Last summer, Huh had another setback, when he laid off one-third of his Cheezburger staff. It was a decision he described as “absolutely painful.” But Huh is ultimately a businessman, one astute enough to turn a healthy profit off of crowd-sourced content — a feat that has eluded giants like YouTube.
“We are a startup … meaning there is a runway that runs out,” he said. “You’ve got to take off, meaning you’ve got to become profitable or you’ve got to find another investment to extend that runway. Or you’ve got to find a way to reduce the amount of burn.”
And while Huh is a wildly successful pioneer, a collection of funny, crowd-sourced pictures is a fragile business model.
“If you think about it, anybody can start a cat photo business. Anybody,” he said. “There’s no barrier to entry, and if you think about the business, we’re in the entertainment business. We are competing with everybody and anybody trying to take a sliver of your time.”
So, the Northwestern journalism graduate chose to enter another industry that isn’t known for easy profits: digital news.
It seemed an odd career swerve for a merchant of memes. But just as Huh saw LOLCats as a new kind of digital-age entertainment, he believed there should be an equivalent for digital-age journalism. Huh wrote a seering essay about how online journalism was simply shoehorned into the same news delivery methods we’d been using for a century.
"You are, in many ways, being influenced by the device that you are using to communicate," Huh said. "A device is not tied to a format.’
There’s a bevy of mobile news apps, but Huh's Circa is one of the more radical ones. It employs journalists to break news down into easily digestible bites, with the option for users to “follow” a breaking news story. The app learns what a reader knows about a story and sends customized alerts. It was considered something of a coup in the journalism world, and symbolic of the changing tides, when Circa tapped Reuters’ social media editor to be its editor-in-chief last May.
Huh calls this approach to news “guerilla warfare.”
“We allow you to choose how you’ll be updated on and what story, instead of just getting a mass alert saying this happened,” he explained. “I think it is almost poetry that people like me, who are not in news, get to actually stake a claim, and say we have the ability to change something that’s been around for hundreds of years.”
Not being in an industry has never stopped Huh from wanting to disrupt it.
“I do not have a cat. I’m allergic to cats,” Huh said. “You don’t even need to be a cat owner to actually do this. What you do need is to understand what your customers want. That’s business.”