Ben Huh, CEO of Cheezburger Network, explains how his crowd-sourced websites stay agile and creative.
Susy Jackson: Welcome to the HBR Ideacast from Harvard Business Review. I'm SUSY Jackson. With me today is Ben Huh, CEO of Cheezburger Network, home of the wildly popular humor websites, I Can Has Cheezburger? and Fail Blog. Ben, thanks so much for joining us today.
Ben Huh: Thank you for having me here.
Susy Jackson: There are about 40 websites in the Cheezburger Network today. But you started with just one, I Can Has Cheezburger? Tell me what you saw on a website that collected funny pictures of cats that led you to invest 10,000 of you own dollars and purchasing it.
Ben Huh: So initially, I have to say, I was looking for a job in the Silicon Valley or I had an opportunity to do this. I didn't really want to be working up the corporate ladder. I wanted to be an entrepreneur again, so I kind of seized this as an opportunity to do that. I don't think that running a cat picture website was really my first choice to be back to being an entrepreneur, but I think I was really in love with the community, and the aspect of humor.
Susy Jackson: Many people are familiar with your websites and are looking at them every day while at work. But can you explain to us more about what your business actually is?
Ben Huh: Yes, so the Cheezburger Networks is a collection of humor websites. And our humor websites actually are powered by the users themselves. So, we belong in this large category called user-generated content, which I think the most noticeable example is YouTube. So, on our sites, people actually can create content in terms of taking a photo and adding a caption, or uploading a photo or text or video to share it with their friends and among other people.
Our model is a little bit different from YouTube in that we allow users to submit content and they get actually published the specific sites that cater to a subject matter. So for example, I Can Has Cheezburger? actually features mostly cats with misspelled funny captions on them. Whereas Fail Blog is usually has the same caption, which is “Fail.” But Fail Blog traffics in the mistakes of human life kind of category, whereas it's completely different from I Can Has Cheezburger?
Susy Jackson: Your mission at Cheezburger Network is very simple, but specific, lofty, and kind of fantastic, actually. It's to make people happy for five minutes a day. Can you tell me how you came to have that mission and how much it really influences the work you do every day?
Ben Huh: I would love to take credit for the mission statement. But actually that come from our user feedback. Our users would actually email us and say, hey, you're my little happy go-to place when I'm at work and I'm stressed out. Or I come home from my workday and I really go here to make myself happy for a few minutes. And so we collected that user feedback and distilled it down to what it is that we're actually providing for them. Because we started out with a website that was already in existence, the company didn't really have a core mission. So we adopted this from our users. And that's where we want to make everyone happy for five minutes a day come from.
Susy Jackson: Several years ago, in a conference address, when you had eight websites, you said that you didn't think you'd ever get to a place where you'd have something like 50 websites. Can you tell me about your strategy then, and now, if it's changed?
Ben Huh: Yeah, I think one of the certain things in businesses is that you're going to be wrong. And that's clearly the case where we didn't realize the potential of what we're doing. So we initially started out with a handful websites around, we thought maybe would be animal-related, but I was thinking a little bit bigger. I was hoping that we would be more humor-related. I felt that the reason people went I Can Has Cheezburger? was because of the humor, not necessarily because of the cats. There's a combination of the two.
So when we started growing our network, it was trying to give people a playground they could play on. So if they wanted to talk about something that was food-related, we really should have something related to food. And in fact, when people started submitting content into our system, which is how the entire network works -- most of our content is user-generated-- the idea was that we could actually look at the inflow of content, see what's actually a pattern developing, and created a site around that. We run 40 some different websites, almost 50 sites, and we're constantly kind of re-evaluating the mix. And in fact we actually acquired a site recently that makes us a little bit stray beyond our UGC roots, which is called The Daily What.
Susy Jackson: Tell me why The Daily What is so different from the rest of the Network and why you decided to go in that direction.
Ben Huh: Yeah, so The Daily What's actually kind of unique in that it doesn't deal uniquely in user-generated content. In fact, we do get submission from our users. But it's what we call internet culture news. And internet culture to us is something actually quite a bit distinctive than popular culture. Popular culture, you have the music, you have TV, you have celebrity culture, and things like that. But internet culture takes a bunch of people who live basically on the internet, whose primary source of information is the internet, and develops a very of separate view of the world than how popular culture sees the world. Most people are familiar with internet culture because they've seen viral videos, where it gets passed from person to person, or because they've actually encountered one of them memes. Meme is spelled M-E-M-E. It's actually an idea virus that's passed from person to person.
Susy Jackson: So was it in some master plan to acquire something like The Daily What?
Ben Huh: Yeah, so The Daily What was kind of a happy accident. I found the site called The Daily What. It was relatively small at the time, but the editor on the site was actually doing a phenomenal job. And what we wanted to do was add that to our portfolio of sites. Even though it wasn't technically humor, we knew that our humor appealed to the internet culture crowd, and that The Daily What was really the CNN or the go-to news source for this crowd of people. And so when we actually brought him on aboard full time, the site actually grew. We were able to add traffic to it and there was a hugely beneficial relationship between them.
And the Internet audience really responded well. And I think what we're seeing is a migration of people who used to see mainstream media, mainstream popular culture, who are actually finally understanding what internet culture means. It used to be that, I think ten years ago, people primarily used the internet for transactions. Meaning, I'm going to buy an airline ticket or I'm going to look up a piece of information. Well, that's very transactional. That's what we call, I think, Internet 1.0. And Internet 2.0 is really defined by the idea that Internet, in and of itself, is the world. And that by consuming things that are important to the Internet culture crowd, we are actually expressing ourselves by blogging. We're using Twitter, or we're using the things that allow us to actually communicate and create culture through this specific medium.
Susy Jackson: I suspect that you are free to experiment a lot without risking too much damage to the brand. Can you talk to you about how you decide when something's going to be a success, and on the flipside, how you decide when something's failed?
Ben Huh: So we try to think about in terms of future potential for growth. And as sites grow, they usually tend to shed the initial core audience and then they acquire kind of a new one as it becomes more mainstream. So what we're looking for is, is there a potential for this site to continue to grow, or is it going to be stagnant in this one little area. And because we can only run so many websites, the idea is that we should be shedding one subject matter for something a little bit broader, a little bit bigger appeal.
Susy Jackson: Is there something in particular that you thought was going to be a wild success that didn't end up working?
Ben Huh: Yeah, actually there was an idea that I had, which was that panda bears, they are really cute, but they had an evil agenda, and that we should really tell people about the quote unquote evil agenda of panda bears. So we started this website and it was completely not a good idea. So there's an example of specific failure, but also we try to operationalize failure in our business. In other words, we understand that failure is a part of taking risk, and taking good positive risk is what a business is all about. Because without the risk. There really is no reward.
So when we actually talk about failure, we don't talk about it as an absolute dead end. We talk about as part of a process and in fact, we try to lower the cost of failure, so it costs us two weeks to launch a new website, generally speaking. And what we've done is we've tried to make that as streamlined as possible, so that we can take multiple chances.
And if you operationalize and lower the risk of failure, your employees will continue to take the chances. And we let them know, if you have a bad idea, or if you tried out on a bad idea, that's not something that's going to be damaging to your reputation or your career here. What really is going to be damaging is if you don't learn from your mistake, or if you don't take risk. And we see that as being a bigger problem than actually feeling itself.
Susy Jackson: What do you think that people in more traditional business can learn from LOLcats and from your success at Cheezburger Network?
Ben Huh: Well, I'd like to make sure that people understand that when employees take a five minute mental vacation at work, it actually make them more productive. Right? It's better than you know being stressed out and that depriving them of the creativity that they would have. I think, for one, letting your employees surf the Internet is really a great idea. And focus on the goal. Focus on the mission that your business is actually trying to achieve, and that usually rallies the employees together. The mission statement of our company could have been something very financial or very kind of specific to the organization.
We want to be the best humor network in the world or something like that. But that's not we went toward because we felt that our employees would rise to the challenge if we gave them a very lofty mission to shoot for. And it's not like we're trying to cure cancer. Right? We're not trying to get world peace by doing this, but we know that we're adding a really positive dimension to people's lives by coming to work every day. And that's a mission that we can all get behind.
Susy Jackson: Can you talk to me about your plans for the future? Do you think a year out, five years out?
Ben Huh: I actually don't. We try to keep ourselves very much limited to the immediate future. Because we've been wrong so many times. And sometimes I tell people, we're successful in many ways in spite of us, not because of us. We try to take ourselves a little less seriously. We try to plan in two weeks sprint. We use the agile process for product development.
And that means that we actually take a minimally viable product. In our case, we actually call it a minimally lovable product. We want it to be a little more special. And we release a feature every two weeks. And we call that -- in agile software, it's called a sprint. And we're only trying to plan about two sprints out, because anything beyond that is really subject to the market forces.
Susy Jackson: Is it hard to sell someone like a venture capitalist on your vision when you're only looking two weeks in advance?
Ben Huh: Yeah, I think it's a little bit unorthodox. I think that's kind of the basis of how we grew up. We were very much a reactionary company. We got started by buying a website. We didn't build it on our own. None of these are really our concepts. We're really using our user base to crowd source and understand what the market's wanting.
So, because of their reactionary mentality, I think venture capitalist are used to seeing a five years projection, and things like the market size, whereas we never wrote a business plan. We never had a market size study. I think everybody just realized that is a huge market and that this actually worth investing in. So for the VC investment that we raised through Foundry, Avalon, Madrona and SoftBank Capital, the idea was that they would invest in a historically proven model that we can scale up.
Susy Jackson: And all of your blogs in the Network follow the same business model, correct?
Ben Huh: Yeah, they all do. It's user generated content or highly curated content by one of our editors. And we sell advertising against it or turn it into merchandise. In fact, I Can Has Cheezburger? has had two New York Times Best-Sellers, which is pretty phenomenal, if you think about it, because it's a book that you can get online for free.
Yet it turns out that having that content in book form is actually really valuable, because you take it offline, and it's what we call bathroom reading. So, that's really kind of interesting. I was actually talking to somebody at The Onion and we had sent them a copy of our Fail Blog book, called Failed Nation. And he said, it is in the holiest place of holiest places at The Onion. I said, where is that? He says, it's in the bathroom.
Susy Jackson: That's fantastic Congratulations.
Ben Huh: Well, thanks.
Susy Jackson: Thank you so much, Ben. That was Ben Huh, CEO of Cheezburger Network. For more, go to HBR.org.