As my column before the Thanksgiving holiday, I wanted to share a story about a company that is successful by "making everyone happy for 5 minutes a day." At the recent Web 2.0 Expo in New York City, I got a chance to interview Ben Huh, CEO of CheezBurger network and Pet Holdings, Inc(company name was officially changed). You know, the folks who make http://icanhascheezburger.com/, the site with the silly pictures of LOL* cats , the Fail Blog http://failblog.org/ (a top 10 YouTube channel) and other sites where you can spend minutes or hours laughing and clicking 'next.' (It might be a site you hope your boss doesn't see on your screen when he walks by.)
And yet, you could tell the boss they improve morale. Huh told me the company motto about making everyone happy "is a crowd sourced philosophy- it came from the users sending email saying the site cheers them up. They turned that into our mission." That's fitting considering that users create the content and make each other happy. "It's their world, we're just helping them," said Huh.
So, as we're all laughing, Huh and his Pet Holdings Inc.Cheezburger Network are laughing all the way to the bank. With nearly 50 million page views a month (self reported for the network), and over 1 million unique visitors for ICanHasCheezeburger.com (according to Compete.com statistics), the network has some serious revenue potential. (Pet Holdings is privately held and do not disclose earnings).
What lead to the growth of this site? Huh had been part of a failed DotCom startup, and had spent time after that working with other CEOs and entrepreneurs trying to learn what made businesses successful. He knew of the Cheezburger site started by Eric Nakagawa and several others, and was brought in to help as it grew in popularity. He raised money to buy the site outright via an angel investor in Seattle. Once he bought the site he did one thing: Nothing. "I thought, don't screw it up. Don't change anything, run it the same way. I inherited a site generating revenue, so the trick was not to put it in the red."
As the network of sites grew, Huh has added people, always making sure the revenue pays for the new hires. While people still perceive them as "2 guys in pajamas in their mom's basement," today Pet Holdings Inc. has 26 employees and full time contractors.
"Believe it or not, spending less than you earn is hard. The 'If I build it they will come' inclination is very strong," said Huh. Growth is mostly organic -they purchased a few sites, but majority of them they built themselves. As the network grew larger, they were able to launch more sites, more frequently. Each new site is like a niche cable network, with a different audience and revenue based on their interests. Typically, the new ideas come from the users telling them what sites to build — and contributing all the material. "We get more that 10 thousand submissions of content per day," said an amazed Huh.
Some of that content has been republished as best selling books. The I Can Has Cheezburger book is currently 17th in Humor and 8th in Cats, Dogs and Animals on Amazon, 1 year after publication. Two new books have recently been released.
Failure, he told me, IS an option. "If you fail hard, you can't get back up again, and you've destroyed opportunity. If you make small mistakes that you learn from, you can adapt. A good entrepreneur isn't supposed to 'not screw up' but to find out what works.
Ben's favorite humor site? "It's still I Can Has Cheezburger. I save it to the end of the day, when I'm tired, and I savor it. The creativity of the users is fascinating and so unexpected." And the ultimate irony for this humorous LOL Cat entrepreneur? He doesn't have any cats - he's allergic to them.
How can your business grow by making people happy? Discuss in the comments below.
HOWARD GREENSTEIN is a social media strategist and evangelist, and president of the Harbrooke Group, which specializes in helping companies communicate with their customers using the latest Web technologies. @HowardGr