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Published 27 March 2013 12:17, Updated 10 April 2013 07:42
Online media entrepreneur Ben Huh says his initial pitch to investors went like this: ‘I would like to start a media company by buying a cat picture website. Can you give me $2.25 million.’ Photo: Dell
It’s a story journalists have heard many times. The rise of the citizen journalist, equipped with a high-resolution camera, a blog and an opinion, is one day going to put media companies out of business. There are two difficulties with this: content quality is often lacking; and media companies play a valuable role in distilling what’s out there for time-poor consumers.
Still, digital entrepreneur Ben Huh with his Cheezburger Network has gone further than most in creating a series of highly popular websites filled almost entirely with user-generated content. Cheezburger’s distinctive and hilarious anecdotes on blogs like I Can Has Cheezburger and FAILblog, often involve cute animals. They regularly go viral on social networks and evoke muffled laughter as they circulate around offices. The Cheezburger Network receives 375 million page views a month across its sites.
Huh is evolving the concept. Without external advertising, his company has evolved into a blog network with 50,000 blog sites. Now he wants to create a social platform that makes it easier for users to create and share humour, on any topic from hacked “wet floor” signs to smashed mobile phone screens to ducks with an aspiration to take over the world.
“This is a generational problem we have to solve,” Huh tells BRW. “It’s incredibly easy to create, but it’s incredibly hard to edit. So that’s where our value comes in. The world is awash with content. Our job is to pick what content is good for what person.”
This is a generational problem we have to solve. It’s incredibly easy to create, but it’s incredibly hard to edit.
“We started our life as a cat picture website. Then we became a blog network. Now we want to become a human platform. The idea is that we believe everybody has a sense of humour that deserves an audience. We want to create an environment where people can be expressive, where people can be creative.”
Huh is in Sydney this week to promote a campaign by Dell. His company has achieved amazing growth in viewers and popularity, but monetising the concept is another challenge altogether. He bought the fledgling I Can Has website in January 2007 from a company in Hawaii, then later bought the FAILblog and started a series of other blogs like The Daily What, Know Your Meme and Memebase.
He secured $US2.25 million in funding from angel investors, purportedly with the pitch: “I would like to start a media company by buying a cat picture website. Can you give me $2.25 million.”
He says he had to convince them to look past the cute animals to see the potential behind his idea.
“You have to realise this is not just about the cats,” Huh says. “There’s actually a really cool model here in that the public and the users generate the content, and you as a destination generate the traffic and sell ads against it.”
The concept quickly evolved. “Initially we were wondering whether this was a humour website or a pet website,” Huh says. “I remember having to make that choice, to say we’re here to make people laugh, we’re not just about pets, and that was actually a key strategic decision for us.”
Huh does not disclose revenue, but it comes entirely from ads placed on his websites. Content comes from 15,000 submissions a day, and his employed staff of 75 help filter it, handle the back-end technology and market the company’s potential to advertisers. He admits it is a challenge to turn the model into a lucrative cash flow.
“From an average revenue-per-user perspective, we do pretty poorly because our advertising doesn’t bring in a large amount of money,” Huh says. “But because we have such a large base to begin with, even doing a poor job of generating revenue per user allows us to make money.”
Because we have such a large base . . . even doing a poor job of generating revenue per user allows us to make money.
He’s working on growing the concept – with corporate-sponsored pages, for example. Since the site was opened to bloggers last year, 50,000 people have created their own platforms to share quirky photos. Companies like Adobe have it to engage with their users through humour, and have paid Cheezburger to curate and promote the content. Adobe’s “back to school” campaign involved memes that complain about college life.
“They didn’t have to say, buy Photoshop,” Huh says. “All they said was ‘hey we know you’re going back to college, if you want to be creative, here are some creative examples’. There were no rules other than, I just want to relate to you and remind you that we are here.
“Sometimes the very overt messaging turns people off – especially this current generation of kids who have been marketed to their whole lives. They turn blind to the idea of advertising. Yet if you look at their Twitter screen, you see glowing praises about their new laptop. They do things like that, where on one hand they say ‘I hate commercialism’, while on the other hand they’re basically creating free ads.”
Next comes the app on Facebook where users can create and spread videos, photos and other humorous anecdotes.
“Let’s say you added it to your favourites,” Huh says. “You’re not just adding that to your favourites, you’re now re-publishing that for a world audience who can appreciate your sense of humour. How do we help you do more of that and let your friends discover that? That is a problem we will have to solve.”