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Once Just a Site With Funny Cat Pictures, and Now a Web Empire

Three years ago Ben Huh visited a blog devoted to silly cat pictures — and saw vast potential.

The original "I Can Has Cheezburger?" cat image that started it all.
Source: icanhascheezburger.com
The original "I Can Has Cheezburger?" cat image that started it all.

Mr. Huh, a 32-year-old entrepreneur, first became aware of I Can Has Cheezburger, which pairs photos of cats with quirky captions, after it linked to his own pet blog. His site immediately crumbled under the resulting wave of visitors.

Sensing an Internet phenomenon, Mr. Huh solicited financing from investors and forked over $10,000 of his own savings to buy the Web site from the two Hawaiian bloggers who started it.

“It was a white-knuckle decision,” he said. “I knew that the first site was funny, but could we duplicate that success?”

Mr. Huh has since found that the appetite for oddball Internet humor is insatiable.

Traffic to the Cheezburger blog has ballooned over the last three years, encouraging Mr. Huh to expand his unlikely Web empire to include 53 sites, all fueled by submissions from readers. In May, what is now known as the Cheezburger Network attracted a record 16 million unique visitors, according to the Web analytics firm Quantcast.

A more recent success for the company is a site called Fail Blog, which chronicles disastrous mishaps and general stupidity in photos and video. The network’s smaller sites include Daily Squee, with pictures of cute animals, and There I Fixed It, for photos of bad repair jobs.

Mr. Huh said his company, which makes most of its money from Web advertising, has been profitable since Day 1.

“Then again, it was just me and Emily in the beginning,” he said referring to his wife, who also works at the company. Cheezburger now has more than 40 employees and has not sought additional investment.

As the company has grown, so have the opportunities to make money, said Todd Sawicki, the company’s chief revenue officer.

“Only 1 percent of what gets submitted goes on the Web site,” he said. “The rest we can turn into T-shirts, books and other content that the audience loves.”

This year alone, Mr. Sawicki said, the company will generate a seven-figure sum from advertising, licensing fees and merchandise sales.

The company has published five books based on its blogs, one of which, a collection of the cats-with-misspelled-captions images known as Lolcats, hovered on the New York Times list of miscellaneous paperback best sellers for 13 weeks. Three more books are in production, along with a line of greeting cards and desktop calendars.

One secret to the company’s success is the way it taps into the Internet zeitgeist. It seeks clues to what is funny right now by monitoring the Web for themes bubbling up on community forums, blogs and video sites. Then it spins off new sites devoted to the latest online humor fads.

“Cheezburger figures out what’s starting to get popular and then harvests the humor from the chaff,” said Kenyatta Cheese, one of the creators of a popular Web video series called “Know Your Meme” that documents viral online phenomena, known as memes. “Things like Lolcats and Fail are easy to make, easy to spread and hit on an emotional level that crosses a lot of traditional boundaries.”

Most of the material the company posts is created by readers, who can Photoshop a funny caption onto an image or remix a popular video in minutes and submit it to one of the Cheezburger sites for consideration. The company says that each day it receives more than 18,000 submissions from readers.

Joe Olk, 28, is one of two dozen staff members who spend their days deliberating over exactly what makes something laugh-out-loud worthy.

Skimming through images on a computer monitor in the company’s spacious office in downtown Seattle, Mr. Olk paused over one photograph of a neon sign advertising services described as “Internet Massage.” “Now that is just weird,” he says with a snicker. “But also funny.” And with a click, it is posted online.

Employees do not check to see whether the person submitting content actually owns it before they put it on a company site, but they will remove it if they receive a complaint after the fact. The company says that before it puts an image into a book or calendar, it does seek permission from its creator, who might receive a free book or T-shirt.

Submissions that are funny but don’t fit into any of the current blog themes can inspire new blogs. For example, after noticing an influx of photos featuring comically bad knock-off toys and other products, the company decided there were enough to warrant a new site, which is slated to be introduced in the next week or two.

The tricky part, said Kiki Kane, 36, who oversees new site development for the network, is gauging whether an Internet trend has legs. She aims to introduce a new blog every week.

“We’re constantly monitoring the Web for new memes,” she said. “Those bits of cultural shorthand, inside jokes that you get right away just by seeing a visual image.”

Not every new site is a hit. One called Pandaganda, which collected images of pandas looking comically evil and sinister, fizzled after a few weeks, so Mr. Huh pulled the plug. “We kill about 20 percent of all the sites we start,” he said.

The idea of quickly tailoring a blog network to satisfy the fickle tastes of a Web-savvy audience, generating new sites to capitalize on a viral sensation and dropping the ones that don’t catch on, is what convinced Geoff Entress, a noted angel investor in the Seattle area, to help Mr. Huh purchase the original company.

“Being flexible and able to change as the environment changes is a huge asset to a consumer Web site,” said Mr. Entress, who has backed more than 35 local start-ups, including an online community for booklovers called Shelfari that was eventually bought by Amazon.

“The risk wasn’t that people wouldn’t like the product,” he said. “We already had the numbers showing they did. The risk was whether or not we could prove this was more than a fad.”

If the wacky cats are a fad, they are one that has had surprising staying power, as shown by a recent Cheezburger happy-hour event at Safeco Field before a Seattle Mariners game.

More than 1,000 fans turned up to listen to cat-themed songs blasted over the loudspeakers, snack on miniature cheeseburgers, slurp from plastic cups of beer and pose for pictures with Mr. Huh.

Tess Mattos, a 41-year-old knitting instructor who traveled up from Portland, Ore., for the event, said she had been a fan of the network’s flagship site for three years.

“It’s just a good, simple break from real life,” she said, adjusting the pair of sequined cat ears she was wearing. “It’s clever, but not mean-spirited.”

“People think we’re weird,” she quipped. “But have you seen the fans of ‘Twilight?’ ”

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