Ben Huh is not funny.
The 35-year-old creator of the Cheezburger humor sites is sharp-witted, smart as a whip, and amazingly articulate about everything from the hipsterism of SXSW, where we met for this interview, to the elaborate workings of website management and user experience data.
No, the only thing noticeably funny about the FAILBlog, Know Your Meme and I Can Has Cheezburger CEO, who recently launched Cheezburger En Espanol, are his oversized white-rimmed glasses that hide a kind face that you’d expect to be a class clown, not the successful CEO of a moneymaking content site (yes, it is possible) and visionary for all things funny on the web.
Born in South Korea and raised in a suburb of Sacramento with English as a second language, Huh studied journalism at Northwestern, but upon graduation decided he didn’t want the life of a writer/reporter.
“Why do I want to be on the outside watching versus actually doing it?,” Huh tells SUCCESS.
It was 1999 and Huh felt called to the dot-coms. “It was like the New World. We didn’t know anything about it, but it was changing and it was awesome,” he says.
Huh acquired his first blog in 2007, I Can Has Cheezburger?, and eventually grew his network to 50 sites with a global audience of approximately 20 million unique monthly visitors. Since 2001, Huh had been writing his own blog about living in Seattle with his wife, then-girlfriend Emily, and his dog. His first entry, “This is my first new day. The first day I am spending without knowing the next step in my life. God help me.” To read the years of blog posts by the then-unknown Internet entrepreneur is to understand how Ben Huh became the person he is today. In this Q&A, SUCCESS asks Huh to reflect on his role as an entrepreneur and the lessons he’s learned along the way.
S: As an entrepreneur, you are called to do a little bit of everything. What are you best at?
BH: If you are the entrepreneur, you have choices about how you want to make your business and your role in it. In the early days I was really good at execution, small-scale execution: testing new ideas, being creative, seeing if it works, working with a small group of people. As my company grew, I developed a new skill-set of being a marketer, visionary, whatever you want to call it. That did not give me a lot of time for the inside management, so I brought on a chief operating officer and president of the company. Now I do the things that I love, which is to convince people that Cheezburger is a place they want to work or advertise in.
S: What lessons did you learn in creating your business that made you realize you are bad at something?
BH: I have become the cat that I am posting on my site, chasing the red laser. I get distracted and like things that are moving. I’m really bad at focusing. I am not like ‘Ooh shiny,’ but I am close to it. You become the thing that you have created.
S: What is the best piece of advice that you have ever received?
BH: Somebody told me, you are never as good as you think you are and you are never as bad as they say you are. It keeps you grounded and gives you perspective about your role in the business and the world. You didn’t will this into existence as much as you would like to believe. You’re not that talented. But on a bad day you’re not that bad either.
S: What is the worst advice you’ve been given?
BH: Nobody has asked me that before. This is not the worst, but it is dangerous advice out of context. “Go with your gut.” Completely valid in many cases, but completely a trap. There are times when you want to use your gut feeling. When you recognize that you are being bombarded with too much data, then go with your gut. But if you need to go find data and you have insufficient data, do not trust your gut. Get facts.
S: What do you know now that you wish you knew then?
BH: They tell you that it is a marathon, not a sprint. If you run a marathon, you always start out too fast. I love the overnight success three years in the making. You toil, toil, toil away and you figure out little things, until over time they add up and you get a breakthrough. There isn’t just one thing that gets you the breakthrough. Over a long period of time and with a little bit of luck, you arrive at that amazing “overnight success.”
S: Are you a patient person?
BH: Absolutely not.
S: How do you manage to be patient and be that overnight success three years in the making?
BH: That is a really good question and not something I have come to terms with. I am not patient, I am really impatient, but I have come to trust my team and the people I have hired. That is the only thing that stops me going crazy.
S: What is the one thing that makes you happy?
BH: That is a really good question. Consistent progress. Not one amazing day, but a series of days where we are a little bit better than yesterday. That is the marathon. I am trying to be that guy that I want to be.