This morning, Cheezburger Network, the Internet content publishing firm behind I Can Has Cheezburger?, FAIL blog, and a network of other similar Internet meme sites, just announced it had hired a new CFO. To catch up to what the firm's up to, we chatted with founder Ben Huh. (Photo courtesy Eugene Hsu)
Before we talk about the business, did you ever get an apology from Meg Whitman about stealing the use of FAIL blog?
Ben Huh: No, none so far. Just a "Sorry, we'll edit that out" would have been nice. It wasn't so much stealing we were complaining about, because we don't own the concept of a "fail", and the site exists as a result of the generosity of our community. Our stance is that they faked the fail, and used the screenshot, which put words into the mouth of our community. Our community starting asking us "When did you start taking sides?" and "When did you get into politics?"--which is what we're complaining about. It seems highly unethical. If you did that to the New York Times, you wouldn't be able to get away with it. And, although we're not really a journalistic enterprise, we have the same kind of community and a reputation we'd like to uphold.
Back to the business, it seems like awareness of your network is everywhere now--which is strange for a network of sites based on internet subculture. Why the interest in your sites now?
Ben Huh: I think it's the notion that people can take control of their own entertainment. It's a relatively new internet phenomenon, powered by the notion that people are spending more time on their laptop than in front of their TV, that it's the device that is closest to you and gives you the most pleasure. People are finding that they can be an active participant in creating entertainment.
Did you ever imagine LOLcats and the other sites would become so popular?
Ben Huh: When we first started, I had no idea it would be so powerful. I certainly didn't know that we'd be at the forefront of the transition of how people perceive content and media.
How many sites do you have in the network now?
Ben Huh: We have around 50 sites now.
That's a lot of sites--how fast are you creating sites nowadays?
Ben Huh: For the last year, we've been creating one every week or week-and-a-half. It's been at a pretty rapid clip. Part of that is to experiment with what works, and what doesn't. As we've found stuff that does work, we're concentrating on improving the number of posts, and continuing to grow our existing properties. We're probably going to slow down on new launches and come up with ideas for enhancing the experience across the network.
There's some debate in the industry on whether you build up a supersite, or try to build up individual properties. Can you talk about your decision there, and how you manage such a wide network of sites?
Ben Huh: We've actually been able to do both. We have both a handful of supersites, and sites in the network. What it's really about, is finding the community, and finding the cultural zeitgeist. We're also really investing a lot into video, and adding more videos to our sites.
Ben Huh: We've seen an enormous impact from our video program. That's really become hallmark of FAIL blog, and we want to continue to make it more successful.
Has it been difficult is it to build traffic to your new sites?
Ben Huh: For us, it's been relatively easy. We've already got a stable of sites to draw traffic from, and it's an incremental additive to bring in new people. It's a snowball that keeps rolling.
Can you talk a bit about how things are going as you expand beyond Internet advertising, to the books and merchandising?
Ben Huh: That's a pretty fast growing side of our business. We've published five books, with three more on the way. We've got a T-shirt a day program, plus our regular store. We realized that eventually, somebody was going to do this. Although we own the brand, we don't own the meme, so anyone could do it. So, why not make sure they get the level of quality they deserve, so we got into the game and did that.
Finally, what's behind your recent hires?
Ben Huh: For me, I am trying to remove myself from the day-to-day role in the business. I'll keep people accountable and work on strategy, but we keep getting talent and hiring senior managers, to fill that day-to-day role.