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(Yonhap Feature) Ben Huh: A big cheez in the world of memes

All Headlines 09:00 September 16, 2011

By Niels Footman
Contributing writer

SEOUL, Sept. 16 (Yonhap) -- Ben Huh is not your stereotypical Korean-American success story. Though hardworking parents, wrenching cultural change and education featured heavily in his path to success, a doctor's practice, say, or a partnership in a top law firm did not.

Instead, Huh chose a road that took him through personal ruin, a "street MBA" and then a fortune on the back of comedy cat pictures with wackily misspelled captions.

Thanks to a gamble four years ago on then-cult Web site I Can Has Cheezburger?, Huh is now CEO of the fast expanding Cheezburger company. Incorporating sites ranging from Totally Looks Like, which connects stars with their animal or cartoon lookalikes, to the wildly popular FAIL Blog, with its endless supply of faux pas, misspellings and Jackass-style mishaps, to the titular I Can Has Cheezburger?'s selection of cutesy cat shots, Cheezburger thrives on spotting internet "memes" and trends and turning them into Web sites that revolve around pictures, videos and other user-generated ephemera.

"We didn't really know what we were doing," Huh says of his decision to buy I Can Has Cheezburger? with the help of investors for a sum Wired magazine put in the neighborhood of US$2 million. "But at the time, it was the peak of the last economic growth period, and so everything looked a lot less risky."

At least with his Cheezburger venture, Huh was able to draw on some painfully learned experience. In 2000, with a newly gained journalism degree from Northwestern University in Illinois, Huh entered a world frothing with the exuberance of the first dotcom boom. The young graduate decided he wanted a piece of the action, and started his own analytics firm.

"It was bad!" he said in a telephone interview. "I made all the mistakes people told me I would. I raised too little money, I hired too many people too fast, I didn't have enough sales, I didn't have any revenues, and in 18 months the company folded and I was left with $40,000 of debt on my personal credit card."

Spending six years repenting this mistake -- and paying off his credit card bill -- Huh eventually tried his hand at internet entrepreneurship again with Cheezburger in 2007. Given the impending financial meltdown, Huh's timing could certainly have been better. But his earlier travails had taught him valuable lessons.

"You have to be disciplined, you have to be creative, you have to have the right people, you have to have trust in the people you hire -- all those things I learned from that one mistake, and that's what I wanted to replicate here."

They were apparently lessons well learned. Huh now sits at the helm of a major internet success, with a staff of 85, site sponsorships from the likes of American Express and a string of Cheezburger merchandise that includes two New York Times bestsellers.

Cheezburger's various sites draw 19 million unique visitors a month and, according to the company, generate ad revenues that have kept the company turning profits every quarter since the beginning of 2007. On the back of this success, Cheezburger secured $30 million in venture capital funding earlier this year.

It's all a long way from Huh's early years in Seoul, where he was raised by a father who worked in the construction industry and a mother who "had a bunch of odd jobs." At age 11, Huh and his family relocated to Seattle, in the United States, where Huh attended middle and high school, before going on to Northwestern University. He has, as yet, never returned to Korea. Though far from easy, Huh's upbringing provided him with a set of attributes that he believes were central to his subsequent success.

"I think the fact I grew up in a multicultural environment let me understand how people view culture and how content impacts the way culture works," he says. "Somebody who's born and raised here, they just kind of assume that's the way it is. Whereas for me, I have to think about it. Why does this work? Why is this culturally impactful?"

Seeing his parents' hard work and discipline, Huh says, was also crucial in shaping his world view.

"That focus on putting the family first not only colors my discipline and my drive to succeed, I think it colors my approach to the people I hire. And what I'm looking for is people who are focused on helping their team succeed."

The story of the self-sacrificing Korean emigrant parents is an oft-told and noble one. What, then, did they make of a son who having failed in business once, wanted to take another shot using a Web site devoted to zany cat pictures?

"Unlike a lot of my immigrant friends and their parents, my parents have never really pushed me to conform with the expectations of the Korean-American community here," Huh says. "They've always kind of encouraged me to be more entrepreneurial, to think on my own, and to fail on my own. And I think that's what's always helped me cultivate my self-confidence, that despite what people say, I know who I am."

This distinctly American-sounding ethos is not the only one Huh speaks of when referring to the influence of his adopted homeland. With no time for notions of "face," Huh says he encourages people at Cheezburger to take risks, and with that, to accept failure.

"I think America prefers the underdog, and the underdog is usually doing something that is going to be misunderstood for a while," Huh says. "Those two things I think were critical to me being who I am today in the United States that wouldn't have been available to me in Korea."

All of which raises the question in a country increasingly soul-searching over its inability to produce a homegrown Mark Zuckerberg or Steve Jobs: Would a wayward spirit like Huh have been able to thrive in Korea?

"The Korea I left is very, very different than the Korea I hear about," Huh says. "So from what I hear about Korea today, I think what I've done in the United States is just as possible in Korea. It's a more connected country, it's a country that inspires entrepreneurship, I think it's a relatively fair and honest economy, and it's situated in what is probably the most economically dynamic region in the world right now."

Whether or not Huh ever has the chance to put this theory to the test, he also believes that whatever the differences between the land of his birth and his adopted home, the requirements for entrepreneurs are the same everywhere.

"Make sure you do something you're passionate about, and don't be afraid to be misunderstood for a long period of time. Because that passion is going to help them through the dark days, and that passion is what's going to inspire other people to follow them."


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