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20 Questions With Ben Huh, Founder of Cheezburger

The man behind the LOLcats phenomenon shares his first business idea, what he learned from his worst boss and why he hopes Momofuku’s David Chang will invite him to dinner.

Kathleen Davis

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Ben-Huh

It could be argued that Ben Huh, 35, has changed the lexicon of the internet. The founder and CEO of Cheezburger acquired the I Can Has Cheezburger? site in 2007 and has transformed it into a media company that now includes more than 50 online humour sites, including FAIL Blog, The Daily What and Cheezburger, that generate more than 400 million page views every month.

Related: The Guy Who’s Made Millions on LOL Online Cat Pics

The Cheezburger brand has also released five books and was the focus of Bravo’s 2012 LOLwork reality television series. Huh is also a co-founder of Circa, on online journalism startup.

Huh has been credited with bringing making the meme mainstream, has been featured in The New York Times, Wired and Time and has addressed crowds at South by Southwest and the Web 2.0 Summit. But it hasn’t been all smooth sailing for the internet culture king; Huh cut about 35 percent of its staff (24 employees) earlier this year amid lagging ad revenue as audiences have begun to favor mobile over desktop.

We asked Huh a series of 20 questions ranging from silly to serious in an effort to provide greater insight into the creative mind of this innovative and interesting entrepreneur. What follows is an edited version of the interview.

1. When you were a kid what did you want to be when you grew up?

When I was a little kid, younger than 10 years old, I wanted to be an architect. I wanted to make buildings.

2. What was your first business idea and what did you do with it?

When I was 14, I advertised a typing service around the apartment complex I was living in. I had one very nice gentleman who took me up on the offer and tipped me very generously; he owed me less than $10 and he gave me a $20 bill.

3. What do you wish you knew before you started your first business?

My first actual money-earning business was when I was in college in Chicago in 1997. I was 19 and I created a front-end web development company. I sent out an email to every one of the department heads at Northwestern University and said “I don’t think that your website is all that great – let me fix it.” I basically started with an insult, even though I didn’t mean it that way, but I ended up winning over two clients.

I didn’t know this, but polarising marketing creates strong responses good or bad and you can actually use that to your advantage. I wish I knew how to put myself in the shoes of my customers – the first thing you do as a bad marketer is say here’s who I am and what I can do. I got lucky.

4. What did you learn from your biggest failure?

That it’s OK to fail. I had a startup in 2000 and it folded 18 months later. It was a train wreck; it was the worst time of my life. It’s a pretty difficult road back. The thing that needed to be repaired the most wasn’t my finances – even though they were pretty terrible – it was my self-confidence. During that time I struggled with thoughts of suicide and I didn’t leave my house for two weeks. It was a pretty terrible moment. It starts with having something to live for; I needed someone who depended on me to do something.

5. What did you learn from the worst boss you ever had?

I had a terrible boss that was phenomenally good at recruiting talented people, but he was a tyrant — he would storm in your office and scream at you. He paid generously for the right to be an asshole, so people put up with him, but it didn’t last.

I learned that that’s one way to run a business, but there is a cost to being an asshole, and it’s not just financial. The costs were so culturally terrifying for the company — no one respected him or trusted him.

Related: Grumpy Cat and the Thriving Cat Meme Marketplace

6. What is the strangest or most unexpected marketing experiment you ever did? 

For South by Southwest in 2011, we partnered with Friskies. They flew out a master cheese carver from Wisconsin, and he carved several life-sized LOLcats out of cheese. It’s really hard to get noticed at South by Southwest because it’s so big, but we broke into the top 20 most mentioned brands because of this one event. People were lining up to take photos.

7. How do you know you’ve found a star hire?

A lot of reference checks. A lot of smart people know how they appear and they know how to sell themselves, so using reference checks and people that you know in common and asking them for an honest confidential opinion is a super good way to know how someone will perform.

8. How do you use social media (how much, what sites, on what devices)?

Social media is like salt: you have to use a little bit on everything. It’s become a fabric of how the internet works – it is everything that we do. I’m constantly on; I mostly use Twitter. I try to think my audience and that we are giving them what they would find fascinating. Eighty percent is for your audience and 20 percent for yourself.

9. What do you admire most about your mom or dad?

My mom who has a high school education has always been tenacious. She never gives up, she will suffer through whatever needs to get done. She has an amazing work ethic.

10. What’s your favorite book and why do you love it?

It changes all the time, but I try to read fiction. Being in business you get a lot of business book recommendations, but fiction gives you a clear sense of what the future could be instead of what has happened in the past.

LOL-Cats-Blinds-ben-Huh

11. How do you find inspiration?

By talking to other really smart people who have personal views on my industry or something related to my industry, or even something totally different — and it’s like “holy crap — this is a side of the universe that I’ve never seen before.”

12. What was the best piece of advice you ever received?

I can’t remember who told me this, but I think it’s a paraphrasing of a quote: “You are never as good as you think you are, and you are never as bad as people say you are.” For someone who is out in the public a lot, that phase is something that I think about all the time. It means, keep your ego in check, and it’s easy to tear someone down without even thinking about it.

13. What’s your productivity secret?

It’s about doing the important, not the urgent, which was advice from Stephen Covey’s 7 Habits of Highly Effective People. I think writing it down helps you see what’s important.

14. How do you cope with nerves before public speaking?

I don’t think about of who the audience is, I treat every audience exactly the same. I don’t care if it’s the president or a class of kindergarteners – the level of importance does not matter. It makes every situation normal. I once had to present in front of a bunch of investors who had just heard from a Nobel Laureate who was trying to cure cancer, and I was up next talking about funny things on the internet. But if you think about that stuff it will trick you. I tell myself this is normal, you are just telling a story – and if you are telling a story about something you care about you’ll do a good job.

20 Questions With Ben Huh, Founder of Cheezburger Media
An example of the “invisible x” meme on Cheezburger’s “Know Your Meme” website

15. What’s your favourite quote?

Fred Wilson, co-founder of Union Square Ventures, a New York City-based venture capital firm, wrote a blog post on what it takes to be a great CEO, and he talks about the core three things you have to do well:

1. Recruit and retain the best people.
2. Make sure you never run out of money.
3. Make sure you have a clear vision that you articulate to all the stakeholders.

16. What is your biggest pet peeve?

When I was younger I had more pet peeves, but as I get older I’m more tolerant. I don’t have many now. Those things don’t really matter — that person, who you find annoying, is just trying to accomplish things, they have complex needs and challenges, and there is probably stuff that’s going on in their lives that you can’t see that’s causing them to act that way, and that’s OK.

17. What’s your favorite vacation spot?

Hawaii. I know it’s kind of cheesy because it’s so popular, and I didn’t know what the big deal was before I went, but it is paradise.

20 Questions With Ben Huh, Founder of Cheezburger Media
An example of the popular LOLcat meme from I Can Has Cheezburger

18. What do you think is the most important innovation of your lifetime?

It has to be the internet — the ability to connect every human brain with every other human brain.

19. Who would you most like to have dinner with?

People might say Warren Buffett, but I’m a foodie, so David Chang – he’s the chef and founder of chef/founder of Momofuku. I think chefs are artists, and dining with a chef would be a rare moment where you would get to see an artist in action. He lives in New York, so there’s a chance he’ll read this and invite me to dinner.

20. What was your favorite class in college/high school?

The most useful class is an accounting class I took in high school. It’s been phenomenally helpful in business.

Kathleen Davis is an associate editor at Entrepreneur.com. Previously, she has worked as an editor at Howcast.com, WomansDay.com and Popular Photography magazine. Her freelance work has appeared in AAA New York, American Photo, Popular Science, and Time Out New York magazines. She is also a registered Vinyasa yoga teacher. She lives in Brooklyn, N.Y.

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Nhlanhla Dlamini Not Only Has Guts, But Grit – In Spades

An alumnus of WBS and Harvard Business School, Nhlanhla Dlamini did some soul searching when he was doing his MBA at Harvard, and knew that the corporate ladder, although tempting, was simply not going to be enough.

Wits Business School

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It takes guts to venture into entrepreneurship. And when you’re in a ‘cushy’ job with a top global auditing firm who are grooming you for partnership, it takes even more guts.

Nhlanhla Dlamini not only has guts, but grit – in spades.

An alumnus of WBS and Harvard Business School, Nhlanhla did some soul searching when he was doing his MBA at Harvard, and knew that the corporate ladder, although tempting, was simply not going to be enough.

“I started thinking, ‘what is the best thing I can do with my life?’”, recalls Nhlanhla. “I always felt a pressing need to get involved in lowering the unemployment rate in South Africa.  It’s a notoriously difficult space, but entrepreneurship is the real engine of job creation and I felt compelled to rise to the challenge.”

When he left his job at McKinsey in March 2015, Nhlanhla decided to explore the agricultural sector – having no idea what product or what part of the value chain he would end up in. He spent until December that year exploring the agri-food sector, gaining as much understanding as he could about the entire industry by talking to famers, co-ops, agricultural associations and various other stakeholders.

Related: 10 Young Entrepreneurs Under 30 Share Their Start-Up Secrets

“I wanted to export products to the US and I looked at tree nuts, blueberries, dairy products or meat. Because of stringent FDA regulations, meat wasn’t an option – but a friend of mine from WBS days suggested meat in the form of pet food.”

And so Maneli Pets was born, and Nhlanhla moved his fledgling business into a factory, which he re-purposed for meat processing, in October 2016. By June 2017, he had started operations with 30 employees on board, and by September he had 50 employees.

Maneli Pets

What makes Maneli different from other US-bound pet food products in an already saturated market? The answer is high protein meat from animals that are unique to South Africa.

“I discovered a market for the off-cuts of meat  from specialist butcheries – so crocodile, warthog, ostrich etc,” Nhlanhla explains. “The result is a very high quality, high protein pet snack with a difference – and US pet owners are willing to pay for the best they can get.”

Under the brand name ‘Roam’, Maneli Pets products are exported to a pet food wholesaler in Boston, US, owned by the family of Nhlanhla’s former WBS classmate, who had planted the seed of the idea in the first place.  Nhlanhla is now preparing to launch the products under another brand name for distribution in South Africa and export to the EU.

But pet food is only the start. Maneli Pets is an offshoot of the Maneli Group, a diversified food company which is looking ooking to build further businesses in the green energy sector, while boosting black entrepreneurship.

According to a City Press report, South Africa has relatively few black-owned food production businesses, which is why government is actively promoting agro-processing and the manufacturing sector in general to spur economic growth.

Nhlanhla has worked tirelessly to secure government funding, and was thrilled to obtain R26 million from the Industrial Development Corporation (IDC). Just last month, he received the news that Maneli Pets had been awarded grant funding of R12.5 million from the Department of Trade and Industry’s Black Industrialists Scheme (BIS).

Nhlanhla, who was also a Rhodes scholar at Oxford University, considers his PDM at WBS a “superb” way of preparing a student for the real world of work. “The group dynamics was an essential learning experience in terms of delivering on a mandate with a group with entirely different skill sets.”

Related: Edward Moshole Founder Of Chem-Fresh Started With R68 And Turned It Into A R25 Million Business

Describing himself as a “passionate and active WBS alumnus”, Nlhanhla still stays in regular contact with a core group from his PDM class, proving that one of the enduring benefits of a PDM (and an MBA) is the opportunity to connect and network with like-minded people and form life-long friendships.

Apart from what he learnt in the Entrepreneurship Management module of the PDM, such as the pillars of entrepreneurship, macro trend support and financing an idea, Nhlanhla considers the keys to success are threefold: Recognising the value of a social network, tenacity – and just a little luck!

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See Will.i.am And Malcolm Gladwell Live In South Africa

The BCX Disrupt Summit has gathered some of the world’s most innovative and disruptive thinkers to guide you and your business into the future.

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See Will.i.am And Malcolm Gladwell Live In South Africa

As one of the largest technology players in South Africa, BCX embraces disruption. As an organisation, one of its primary focuses is to move its customers into the future, not just with products and services, but a shift in mindset as well.

What tools and ideas do we need to embrace today to be ahead of the curve tomorrow? With this in mind, BCX has partnered with BrainFarm to launch the inaugural BCX Disrupt Summit.

“The BCXDisrupt Summit is a platform for South African innovators and businesses to learn from and be inspired by some of the greatest examples of possibility in the world,” says Dean Carlson, founder and CEO of BrainFarm, the event organisers.

A gathering of minds

The BCXDisrupt Summit is bringing some of the world’s greatest minds together under one roof for two days. The speaker line-up includes will.i.am, Malcolm Gladwell, Rapelang Rabana and Nick Goldman and topics covered will range from where technology is heading, to how playing games can extend your life expectancy by up to ten years.

will.i.am

will.i.am

Seven-time Grammy award winning hip hop artist will.i.am is also a significant player in the tech and entrepreneurial space, as well as a philanthropist. He was a partner in Beats Electronics, which was sold to Apple for $3 billion in 2014. “When will.i.am was 16 years old, music was where it was at,” says Dean.

“And so, he focused on building a music career, and creating products for that industry. Today he’s learning to code, because that’s where it’s at. He’s got an unparalleled handle on where the world is moving to, and so many insights to share.”

Dean has built BrainFarm on a portfolio of incredible local and international speakers, each of whom he’s seen live. “I regularly attend international conferences to get a sense of which speakers and idea-shapers I’d like to bring to South Africa,” he explains.

“will.i.am is one of those global shapers whose ideas take everything to the next level. To get maximum value from him for our delegates, we’ve chosen an interview set-up instead of a key-note talk. Local tech expert Aki Anastasiou will be interviewing him, and the audience will be able to ask questions as well. This will give us an opportunity to localise will.i.am’s knowledge and ideas.”

Related: 10 Young Entrepreneurs Under 30 Share Their Start-Up Secrets

Malcolm Gladwell

Malcolm Gladwell

Author of five New York Times bestsellers, including David and Goliath and Outliers Gladwell is well known for introducing the concept of the 10 000-hour rule, which states anyone can become an expert in anything given enough time and practice. Dean first brought Malcolm Gladwell to South Africa in 2009.

“When I dropped him off at the airport, Malcolm signed his book for me with the words ‘Please invite me back,” says Dean.

“We’ve tried to bring him out a few times since then, but the timing hasn’t worked out. This was the ideal summit for Malcolm’s ideas, and this time, the timing worked.”

Having seen Malcolm in action many times over the years, Dean knows that he’s a speaker that always leaves his audiences wanting more. And so, the BrainFarm team thought about the best way give their delegates exactly that.

“Malcolm has developed a masterclass for the second day of the Summit that will focus on what makes a person successful, both in life and business. He’ll be unpacking tools our delegates can use to personally drive success.”

Nick Goldman

Nick Goldman

Nick is that rare breed of academic who is also an engaging and entertaining speaker. A UK-based mathematician and genome scientist, Nick is passionate about how we can store and preserve digital data.

“If you want to feed your brain, Nick is the person who will do that for you. His team recently coded five documents of historical significance onto a strand of DNA,” says Dean.

Each day, what we thought was possible changes. What does the future look like, and are you ready for it?

Related: 10 Inspirational African Entrepreneurs

Marieme Jamme

Marieme Jamme

Born in Senegal and sold into sex slavery, Marieme Jamme refused to accept the lot life had given her, and instead taught herself to code. It was a skill that enabled her to change her conditions and life. Today, through her latest venture, iamtheCODE, she has one giant, global goal: To teach one million women and girls to code by 2013.

“Marieme has a consultancy that helps tech companies get a foothold into Africa, the Middle east, Latin America and Asia, and she’s also focused on her mission to help other women and girls escape their fates by learning to code,” says Dean. “She’s one of the most interesting and inspiring people I’ve ever come accross.”

Sipho Maseko

Sipho Maseko

Heralded as the controversial CEO and saviour of Telkom, Sipho has helped the company rack up gains of 150%, making Telkom one of the best performing companies on the JSE. “A major focus of Telkom is getting businesses across Africa ready for tomorrow’s customers,” says Dean.

“To be ready for tomorrow’s customers though, you need to know who they are, and have a sense of what the future will bring.”

Jane McGonigal

Jane McGonigal

A game designer, Futurist and New York Times best-selling author, Jane’s TED Talk, The Game That Can Give You Ten Extra Years of Life, has over six million views to date.

Related: The 10 Strangest Secrets About Millionaires

Rapelang Rabana

Rapelang Rabana

Local tech-star Rapelang Rabana is the CEO and founder of Rekindle Learning, a company she has positioned at the crest of a rapidly rising online community across Africa.

Her mission: To deliver learning in bite-sized chunks across the continent.

Ian Russel

Ian Russel

CEO of BCX. BCX has invested millions in computer programming education so that young people from all social and economic backgrounds have the opportunity to become programmers at no cost to them.

Lars Silberbauer

Lars Silberbauer

When Lars joined LEGO as Senior Global Director of Social Media and Video, the company didn’t even have a Facebook page.

“Today LEGO has well over 12 million followers on Facebook and more than three million on YouTube where they’ve just knocked up five billion lifetime views,” says Dean.

“The big idea behind their social media campaigns is to leave the thinking to their fans. Lars understands the creative power of the crowd, and what harnessing that power can do for your business.”

Related: 8 Things Exceptional Thinkers Do Every Day

Bringing it all together

Dean Carlson

Dean Carlson

“We focus on projects that excite us, and that will change the perceptions and world views of our delegates,” says Dean. “We’ve partnered with BCX to put together an incredible event that will leave you inspired, amazed and driven to change your life and organisation – with the tools to do so.”

To find out more about the BCX Disrupt Summit or to book a seat, visit https://www.bcxdisrupt.com/

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The Youngest Body20 Franchise Owners Share Their Success Story

Brothers Stiaan and CW Pieterse believe that if you love what you do, success will automatically follow. That’s why they’ve invested in a brand that works for them — to show other people that there’s an answer to the enemy of fitness: The time-crunch.

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“I’m glad we chose Body20. I wouldn’t want to be their competitor,” says Body20 Montana owner Stiaan Pieterse. He and his brother CW, who runs Body20 Brooklyn, invested in the franchise two years ago after the amazing results they experienced as clients.

“Both Stiaan and I love to work out,” says CW. “We were clients of Body20 and couldn’t get enough of it. We were looking for a professional change and saw the brand as our ideal opportunity. It’s changed our lives and we’ve never looked back.”

Related: How Body20 Moves Their Franchisees In The Direction Of Success

Out of the ordinary

As fitness fanatics, Stiaan and CW, also known as the Brooklyn Brothers within the franchise, saw potential in the Body20 concept that gave them results equivalent to a workout of four hours minimum in the gym, in just 20 minutes. “I could not let this opportunity slip through my hands; I had to be part of it,” says Stiaan, a mechanical engineer by profession.

“To train someone in only 20 minutes and get the results in only a fraction of the time, that’s what excites me and motivates me to get up in the morning.”

Two years in, Stiaan and his brother — who studied chartered accountancy — are happy franchisees with the brand they describe as strong, firm and exceptional. This is largely thanks to the support they each receive as store owners. The constant training they receive for self-improvement as well as for their trainers is a benefit they both beam about.

“This is not one of those companies where you are seen as a number. At Body20 you’re seen as a true shareholder and owner in the brand as a whole,” says CW.

On the up and up

As two of Body20’s youngest franchisees, the brothers aren’t afraid of the challenge of owning and running two locations, but it’s passion for people and results that has seen their businesses succeed. “I love what I do and that excites me,” says Stiaan.

Related: Healthy Body20 Franchise Leads To Happy Hearts

“That excitement turns into passion and that only drives me more and more. Since being part of Body20 I have not worked a day in my life.”

Of course, it helps having a capable and equally passionate team, including head office. Both CW and Stiaan laud the 24-hour support received from MD Bertus Albertse, Franchise Relations Manager Shaun Bruin and his team who are always available to communicate.

“From the second I’ve been part of the brand I’ve grown exponentially, learnt something new every day,” says Stiaan. “With the support of the brand, the easy business model and a little elbow grease, it’s almost impossible for you not to make a success of it.”


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Enquire about your very own Body20 studio today.

Or Download the Franchise Info pack and join one of our exclusive Franchise Presentations: www.body20.co.za/key-activations/

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