How The Owner Of “Fail Blog” And “I Can Has Cheezburger” Keeps Racking Up Wins – With Ben Huh

If you like this interview, you should tell your friends on Twitter using this link. –Andrew

Ben Huh came to Mixergy to talk about how he raised money to buy a blog about LOL cats, called “I Can Has Cheezburger,” and how he turned it into a growing publishing company that own over 20 sites, including Fail Blog and This is Photo Bomb. His network has over 11 million users and 218 million monthly page views.

I asked him how he did it and, more importantly, what YOU can learn about building a publishing company, based on his experience.

The FULL program


About Ben Huh

Ben Huh

Ben Huh is the CEO of Cheezburger Network, which owns a diversified portfolio of large user-generated communities, including I Can Has Cheezburger, I Has A Hot Dog, Fail Blog, Pundit Kitchen, and This Is Photobomb.

10 Lessons from this program

#1 Work for free

Ben discovered I Can Has Cheezburger, the cat photo site, by accident. It hotlinked to his blog and Ben realized how much traffic the site had. He told me, “I thought, Wait a second. If this nice guy is running such a large site, I should probably learn more from this guy.

“So I emailed him and I said, Hey, listen, I’ve got a background in user experience. What can I do to help you pro bono? So, we started our friendship online.”

#2 Expect users to be lazy

“That’s the word we use, but it’s not like they’re lazy because they’re stupid, they’re lazy because they’ve got a million better things they can do than visit your website.  So if you don’t make it easy for them, they’re not going to come back.”

#3 Respect the value of an established brand

Anyone can create a cat blog, so I asked Ben why he didn’t copy Cheezburger instead of raising money to buy it. He said, “The reason we decided to buy it was it had a brand, it had a community, and that was difficult to create. That would take some serious cache for me to create. And I wasn’t plugged into a community. We said if we were going to create a competitor, I don’t know that it’s going to be as big.  So it’s probably better worth buying something that has actual value instead of putting money into something that has zero value and hoping it succeeds.”

#4 Real business can get done over IM

I was surprised to hear that Ben made his deal to buy Cheezburger from the founder over instant messenger. “It wasn’t for sale.  And I had an IM chat with Eric, in which I offer him sums of money, and he would say no. We did this back and forth over IM, and we agreed to a deal over a chat.”

#5 To excite investors, make your story bigger

I asked Ben how he was able to raise money for a cat blog. He said, “I told them that it was more about humor than it was about cats. There is more to this than just a cat blog. And people show up here because it makes them happy. It makes them laugh. It’s about the world of humor and its at the foray into the world of humor blogging. And that there wasn’t really a big competitor out there in this space. That it was all fragmented and that we could actually aggregate more of these sites and we could grow a big humor empire.”

#6 If you want to be a CEO, get close to other CEOs

Ben knew he wanted to run his own business, so he was selective about the jobs he took. “One of the deals I made with myself, and this is a very difficult deal to make when you have no money.  I said, I will not take a job in which I do not have direct contact with the CEO….I need to learn from people who’ve done it successfully.  I need to learn the habits and patterns and the way they think.  So, the only job I would take was not in a big company, and if it was, I needed to be the guy who could go down to the CEO’s office and say, ‘Hey, can we talk?’  And if that’s not available, I wasn’t going to take that job.”

#7 When you buy a site, don’t touch it till you learn it

He sold his investors on a vision for how big he could turn this little publishing business, but Ben told me that after he bought it, “the first thing we did was to make a promise to do nothing for 30 days.  And I know that when you take over a site, you may have ideas about what you want it to do, the things you don’t like, but we decided that we were going to leave things alone. And what we learned was, how did Eric do things, and how do we replicate it as closely as possible?”

#8 Set a schedule so your audience knows what to expect

When I asked Ben about the first change he made to the business after buying it, I expected him to tell me about a major editorial or technological change. Instead he said, “We went to a rigid post schedule. It stopped being an arbitrary number of posts. We said, ‘We’re going to set a schedule. So, X number of posts on weekdays, N number on weekends.’ It seems like a pretty small change but it was impactful.”

#9 Don’t buy one when you can buy two

I don’t have a great sound bite to quote for you on this point, but I thought it was interesting to learn that when Ben bought Cheezburger, he asked the site’s founder to build and sell him a second site about dogs. Ben’s goal was to grow the business to multiple sites and this was a reliable way to double his holdings quickly.

#10 Start small and cheap

When Ben launches a site today, most of the technology behind is the same free software that’s available to anybody. He uses WordPress with an off-the-shelf theme. Then he grows the site based on feedback from the community. When I asked him what advice he’d give you, my reader, he said, “I think a lot of people kind of get this idea of big dreams, and they immediately want to go to a big dream, but you got to think small, you got to win that little battle. And once you win that little battle, then you can win a slightly bigger battle, and then so on and so on and so on.”

Transcript

This is a raw transcript. Want to edit it? Click here.

Full program includes

– Listen to how Ben got his confidence back up after his previous company failed. This is an issue that everyone in business has to deal with, so be sure to catch that section.

– Learn from the way Ben’s company researches, launches and evaluates each site it creates. They’re launching a couple of sites a month right now, so they’re learning fast.

– See how Ben subtly stands out at events. If you read The 48 Laws of Power by Robert Greene, you’ll really appreciate the significance of this little move.

Suggested comments

– As always, please rate my interview. Did I get you useful information? Was this an inspiring story? Any suggestions for improvement?

– I edited this interview myself. How did the video and audio come out?

– I listed 10 things I learned from this program. What did YOU take away from it?

Share

  • http://twitter.com/jordanbrown jordanbrown

    Andrew I cant tell you how much these interviews are helping me as I strive to follow in these guys foot steps. Really thank you so much!! Question: I see your library that is stacked high in books, Whats the number one business/self help book you would recommend?

  • http://twitter.com/jordanbrown jordanbrown

    Andrew I cant tell you how much these interviews are helping me as I strive to follow in these guys foot steps. Really thank you so much!! Question: I see your library that is stacked high in books, Whats the number one business/self help book you would recommend?

  • http://www.openmindrequired.com/blog Joanne of Open Mind Required

    How very cool to find out about the people behind I Can Has Cheeseburger. Your last two interviews have been wonderful, and I'll pay you the highest compliment by copying you. I've got my first interview lined up; I'm just waiting for my laptop. Gonna win some little battles.

    Your site is great, Andrew. It's so nice to be able to connect with other entrepreneurs.

  • http://kirstenwinkler.com KirstenWinkler

    I totally agree. This is definitely one of, if not the best, interview on Mixergy. Awesome guy, awesome story, huge inspiration!

  • http://www.patric-schmid.de patrics

    Seems like a fun guy with his cats.

    What often confused me were statements about wether to launch small – or directly aim for an international market. Since every founder has another “masterplan” to do things.

    I think what i just realized is: “small” does not mean “local” & “big does not mean “international”
    What “small” really means is “focus on a single service/function which works” and not get overwhelmed with other feature-ideas.

    Andrew, Ben, thanks a lot for this interview!

  • http://twitter.com/blackysky Ricky

    it's crazy how they spin a simple blog into a humor empire… on top of that the idea is so simple…

  • http://twitter.com/blackysky Ricky

    it's crazy how they spin a simple blog into a humor empire… on top of that the idea is so simple…

  • Lang

    I just found this site. I'm so glad that you are doing this. I've always wondered about the people behind the scenes, how they got started and what they did to succeed. I've also been on several of Ben's sites, thinking that they were just copycats and not knowing that they were all created by the same person. Very interesting. Your site gives me “inspiraction.” It's a word that I use for when something inspires someone so much that they actually take action. :)

    Lang

  • Lang

    I just found this site. I'm so glad that you are doing this. I've always wondered about the people behind the scenes, how they got started and what they did to succeed. I've also been on several of Ben's sites, thinking that they were just copycats and not knowing that they were all created by the same person. Very interesting. Your site gives me “inspiraction.” It's a word that I use for when something inspires someone so much that they actually take action. :)

    Lang

  • Lang

    I just found this site. I'm so glad that you are doing this. I've always wondered about the people behind the scenes, how they got started and what they did to succeed. I've also been on several of Ben's sites, thinking that they were just copycats and not knowing that they were all created by the same person. Very interesting. Your site gives me “inspiraction.” It's a word that I use for when something inspires someone so much that they actually take action. :)

    Lang

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  • http://ibizme.wordpress.com/ michael tejada

    hey that was a great show, first time i see and i like it! im a big fan of this week in startups, so thats how i heard about you. great job, thanks.

  • http://twitter.com/promedia Vincent Sparreboom

    Another great one, it keeps getting better. Great interview! I liked the the “focus on small” part. Gives me a lot to think about.

  • dylanmankey

    Andrew, I really enjoyed this interview. Your sound levels were a little low on the intro/outro (I had my head pressed into my macbook and I was starting to get funny looks :). Other than that I loved hearing from Ben. I'm just starting down the road of entrepreneurship (okay, I'm barely out the front door), but I expect I'll be watching many of your interviews in the next couple of weeks!

  • drexebo

    Fantastic! Thank you, Andrew. 5 Cheezburgers! Would watch again!

  • http://www.danielzarick.com Daniel Zarick

    I've seen very few interviews with entrepreneurs as great as this one. Thanks a ton Andrew and Ben. I especially loved the branding philosophy with the glasses. Brilliant.

    Also, I think the most important thing Ben talked about was community. He bought Cheezburger for the community, and that was it. Without the community it was worth nothing. Far too many people focus on everything else but building a passionate userbase that cares about what they do, and flat out trusts them.

    Last night I got to talk to Chris Kaskie, COO of Pitchfork Media, and his biggest point was also about community. Pitchfork is absolutely nothing without their readers, followers, and festival attendees (all the same people, by the way). He made sure to stress that they do not, and will never, do anything that would compromise the trust or dedication of that community.

    If you are working on building a consumer business, you better be thinking about how to build a community around your brand. Products, services, and companies come and go… but communities will stick together and follow one another.

  • lordkev

    I totally agree with Jordan. I've been trying to absorb everything I can from your site and have gained a ton of knowledge so far. I'm just starting up my first “real” business with a coworker and we just got our LLC established. You've been a great resource and I can't thank you enough!

    P.S. – Although I've tweeted a couple times about Mixergy you finally convinced me in this interview that I should start commenting!

  • http://twitter.com/omfericit David Nagy

    ooooh, dude!
    THANK YOU! THANK YOU!
    this is exactly what I wanted to hear no… at the beggining of my new journey :)
    it sounds like “my story” :D … I'm just starting it, but I can see the finish line :)

  • glassy

    I think the important thing to learn hear, is that sometimes no branding is the best branding. After the first buy it would have been fetal to brand everything as part of the cheezburger-network. It is really impressing how this worked out.

    And oh for the glasses, this was something I noticed the first time. Good trademark. Certainly better than blue suits.

  • concours

    great article Andrew, I've lost your url a while ago, thanks to hacker news, I just found it back. Great ressource to learn.

  • http://utkemonster.com/ utkemonster

    Great story about the highs and lows of entreprenurship. Best Points IMO:

    1) how this guy truly failed, and came back strong years later
    2) how he leveraged his personal connections for success
    3) Don't worry about making the next facebook, just start small and become the king of your own domain
    4) Icanhaz, what a simply/silly idea. Twitter may get the publicity, but Icanhaz is flying stealth to dominate
    5) The secret for digg and social media he wouldent tell….I want to know, anyone really know? If so Private message me!

    great work,

    -David

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  • http://www.MemberCon.com Tim Bourquin – MemberCon.com

    The idea of launching your site with the cheapest tools possible until the idea proves itself is excellent. I constantly have to keep myself in check because I want to instantly launch a great site with great functionality before learning if even feature #1 will take off.

    Glad to see another entrepreneur confirming my thoughts.

  • http://www.twitter.com/kriscobbaert k

    oh wow, great interview, probably the best ever. Thank you.

  • http://twitter.com/gioiam Michael Gioia

    Hey Andrew,
    Another great interview, I was hooked immediately when Ben was talking about his first failed startup and how he was in debt but refused to give up; very inspiring. Also, I was thinking I liked those glasses the whole time haha and Ben's last words of advice were great. I think that should be your closing question in all of these interviews from here on out.
    Thanks again,
    Mike

  • http://www.bestwebimage.com/ BWI

    I saw Ben at SF's WordCamp in 2008. He had some great input on viral marketing.

  • http://www.make-a-great-website.com/ Jacob Godwin

    Excellent information. The economy has many people down (myself included) and seeing how others achieve success is a much needed boost in confidence.

    This is especially helpful knowing that Ben has faced failure before himself.

  • http://www.attictees.com Ryan Gonzales

    Andrew, great interview. I love how such a simple idea can turn into a successful business. So many successful companies we see now are created by a community, it makes me wonder what the next set of companies will build their business model around.

    I recently graduated from college and I consider most of these interviews my continued education about business and how entrepreneurs start their companies. Its nice to know I can continue to learn so much just by coming to this site and listening.

  • http://mixergy.com AndrewWarner

    Hard to recommend a single book without knowing what you're looking for.

    What I can tell you is that — for me — nothing comes before Dale Carnegie's How to Win Friends and Influence People.

    I was a jerk before I read that book. I used to think that's how successful businesspeople needed to behave. Carnegie opened my eyes to a new way of relating to people and the world.

  • http://mixergy.com AndrewWarner

    Thanks. Looking forward to helping you do interviews.

  • http://mixergy.com AndrewWarner

    Thanks. I felt that way as I recorded it. I can often feel when an interview is going to be one of my best.

  • http://mixergy.com AndrewWarner

    Think big, start small.

  • http://mixergy.com AndrewWarner

    Isn't it? It's a amazing that there's such a big business to be built around funny pictures.

  • http://mixergy.com AndrewWarner

    I'm always curious about the people behind big sites too.

  • http://mixergy.com AndrewWarner

    I'm very grateful to Jason Calacanis for giving me exposure on his show. It helps me connect with people like you. Glad you're here.

  • http://mixergy.com AndrewWarner

    Thanks Vincent. Great philosophy.

  • http://mixergy.com AndrewWarner

    Argg. Thanks. I wonder if there's a video editing program that makes it easier to balance the audio.

  • http://mixergy.com AndrewWarner

    Me too. As I edited it, I kept wanting to listen to the whole program again.

  • http://kirstenwinkler.com KirstenWinkler

    Very true! I have the same feeling during mine.

  • http://mixergy.com AndrewWarner

    Seth Godin & I talked about that here:
    http://mixergy.com/tribes-seth/

  • http://mixergy.com AndrewWarner

    Glad you're commenting.

    Here's another suggestion. If you hear an interview here with someone who really inspires you, send them an email. I met Seth Godin after sending him short thank you notes when something he wrote inspired me.

  • http://mixergy.com AndrewWarner

    Wasn't Ben's description of entrepreneurs spot on? I wanted to include it in my text notes, but wasn't sure how to do it justice.

  • http://mixergy.com AndrewWarner

    I'm really grateful to him for talking about the glasses. It's kind of a personal thing that I would understand if he kept to himself. But I got a lot of value out of hearing about that.

  • http://mixergy.com AndrewWarner

    I love HN. It's my favorite news site.

  • http://mixergy.com AndrewWarner

    You just gave me a great reason to hit the “like” button in the comments. Great list.

  • http://mixergy.com AndrewWarner

    Thanks Tim. You're really cranking out the programs on your site lately. Love it.

  • http://mixergy.com AndrewWarner

    That's what I like to hear!

  • http://mixergy.com AndrewWarner

    He hooked me in with that too, especially how open he was about the importance of maintaining confidence after that.

  • http://mixergy.com AndrewWarner

    He's a great speaker because he's funny and packs his talks with useful info.

  • http://mixergy.com AndrewWarner

    Failure is something that comes up again and again in my interviews. It's amazing how many entrepreneurs have had big failures in their past. And I'm proud that they see my interviews as a safe place to talk about those experiences.

  • http://mixergy.com AndrewWarner

    That's my goal Ryan. Thanks!

  • http://jaytillery.com/ Jay Tillery

    I think everyone is born an Entrepreneur until they fall into the 9-5 working for someone else loop.

  • http://twitter.com/jordanbrown jordanbrown

    Ah yes I have read that, that is a great book! The principles taught in that book are so priceless!

    Do you know of any great books on internet entrepreneurship?

  • kgn

    Thank you ever so much. Great …”aproachable” interview..

    My concern was to only launch a website when it expressed only the very best in the very best way from the get go……..this “simple and small” could just turn out to be the best “motivator” and “fear-releaser” I've come across for a while.

    Thank you to all involved.

    (PS One thought: a bit ecco-ey at times re your request for audio feedback – but I got it all, all the same)

  • http://www.nelsondewitt.com Nelson de Witt

    Andrew another great interview. I watched this one live and really enjoyed it. He had some really great points about starting small and working your way up.

    These interviews keep getting better. As Gary Vaynerchuk says you are really crushing it!

    I had an idea for someone you should interview. Eric Ryan from Method would be an amazing interview to do about branding. I herd this interview back in 06 and its one of my all time favorites. http://www.businessweek.com/mediacenter/podcast

    Sorry I don't have any contact to him but maybe someone else does. Just an idea.

  • Luigi Ferguson

    Funny enough, I've been at my job for a little over 3 years and am leaving to start my own business. Don't have a name, but I have an idea and that's enough to get me where I think I need to go.

    Focusing on the community instead of pushing it inward is big.

    Andrew – have you ever thought about doing these interviews in venues like “Inside the actor's studio” and charge people to come view it live and then network afterwards?

  • http://twitter.com/KevenDones Keven

    Dead on, Start small and extremely simple.

  • Adrian (NJ)

    Andrew, those 10 take-aways are golden. Thanks for putting them out there.

  • http://mixergy.com AndrewWarner

    I'm getting married this week, so I'm taking time away from email.

    If you need to reach me, please email me after Monday, Oct 19th.

    –Andrew

  • loumindar

    Another terrific interview. Thanks, Andrew. Ben is an inspiring guy. Even his failures are inspiring.

  • http://www.icanhasmotivation.com/ James

    GREAT video! Makes me feel like I can turn my website into a network like his… Which I probably could if I had the passion to… sadly I do not. But if I ever get back into it I'll be using what I've learned in this video!

  • http://twitter.com/BorisChu Boris Chu

    Andrew, I really liked this interview a lot since it showed a business failing to finding the will to close it without declaring bankruptcy and then continuing to find his passion, eventually succeeding. I want to share that I am currently working a “dead-end job” with me being the only employee in the “companies” and I didn't really appreciate it because my mindset was still in the stages of graduate college and then get a really good job with lots of promotions, but the job lets me work with a “CEO” of the businesses and it really helped me to understand myself. So here I am on this site learning more about the roads to entrepreneurship!

  • http://www.desmoines-businesslawyer.com/ Des Moines business lawyer

    Great to see how a website so simple can gain a great amount of success. Love hearing stories like this one!

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  • pyjammez

    I definitely liked this interview! I started my blog http://www.icanhasmotivation.com when I saw Icanhascheezburger! Except I was more interested in the motivational pictures… Sadly, I cannot figure out how to make it as popular as the cheezburger. :( From a million page views a month I manage to make $5 per week LOL

  • pyjammez

    I definitely liked this interview! I started my blog http://www.icanhasmotivation.com when I saw Icanhascheezburger! Except I was more interested in the motivational pictures… Sadly, I cannot figure out how to make it as popular as the cheezburger. :( From a million page views a month I manage to make $5 per week LOL

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