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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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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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25 Of The Most Successful Business Ideas In South Africa

Find out who’s making waves in numerous industries and how they managed to differentiate themselves in local and international industries.

Nicole Crampton

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“Disruption is all about risk-taking, trusting your intuition, and rejecting the way things are supposed to be. Disruption goes way beyond advertising, it forces you to think about where you want your brand to go and how to get there,” says Richard Branson.

South Africa has its fair share of innovative and disruptive businesses taking both local and international industries by storm. From cutting edge space technology to reimagined logistics, and innovative business models, here are 25 of the most successful business ideas in South Africa:

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Colin Timmis Says ‘Position Yourself For Success By Starting With The Numbers’

People pay first who they feel pressure from, so people will pay you when they feel pressure from you.

CEOwise

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Entrepreneur Colin Timmis founded South Africa’s first cloud accounting practice in 2011, Real Time Accounting. Then, a few years after being appointed as South Africa’s first Xero partner Colin became Xero Country Manager South Africa. Xero is the emerging global leader of online accounting software that connects small businesses to their advisors and other services.

Related: Pat Pillai On How He’s Helped Over 5000 Entrepreneurs Using 3 Key Steps

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Two 20 Year Olds Reshape Entrepreneur Landscape With New Social Investment Platform

The Merge vision is to become the ‘go to’, digital meeting place for entrepreneurs and investors, and to truly make a difference in the world.

Merge Connect

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It’s no secret that finding the right investor for your venture is a challenge that most entrepreneurs face. The current process of finding investment is one that is outdated, and limits entrepreneurs due to a lack of time, and network that is needed to find the right investor. But, this doesn’t have to be the case in today’s digital society, says Zander Matthee and Brandon Bate, co-founders of Merge.

“By making the Internet the middleman, we are able to connect with each other much simpler and faster than before” was Zander’s response. “We have taken advantage of this, and have created a digital meeting place for entrepreneurs and investors” added Brandon.

Merge is a social platform that connects entrepreneurs and investors. It aims to simplify, refine and accelerate the process of finding investment for entrepreneurs, and the process of finding investment opportunities for investors. From idea to developed, the platform allows entrepreneurs to present a brief outline of their venture to a network of all investor types. While doing this, entrepreneurs are able to browse through, and connect with investor profiles that suit their requirements.

Related: 8 Codes Of Success That Helped Priven Reddy of Kagiso Interactive Media Achieve A Networth Of Over R4 Billion

From Private Investors to Venture Capital, and everything in between, Merge allows all investor types to join. Investors have the opportunity to personalise their feed to suit their investment preferences, and will be able to connect with innovative businesses – that are looking for investment – at their fingertips. Only once there is a mutual interest in each other, are users able to enter a secure private chat where they can discuss further and share documents under the protection of a digital NDA.

The two boys became good friends during their time in high school at St Stithians Boys College. However, it was only in their last year, 2016, that they decided to pursue their dreams and create the platform. They didn’t know how to code, so rather ironically, they needed some form of investment to get the platform off the ground.

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“We knew we had a mountain to climb, but we believed in our vision and that we were really trying to make a difference, and if we could get others to see that, they would be onboard.” said Zander.

Related: Lessons From The Rich And Famous: Manage Your Money Like Oprah To Avoid Going Into Debt Like Nicholas Cage

Chris Peters is one of these individuals that bought into their vision, and became Merge’s first investor. As a successful entrepreneur and part time investor , Chris saw how much value the platform could bring to all entrepreneurs and investors alike. His marketing and strategic background gave him insight into how Merge could play a vital role in a lucrative space, Brand involvement.

“Entrepreneurship and SME development are two key factors that drive economic growth in developing countries like South Africa. That is why brands are currently getting involved, and looking to support entrepreneurs through various means. We have built a platform that allows these brands to successfully market, and execute on the programmes they have created to assist entrepreneurs.” said Chris

Merge was created to assist all entrepreneurs and investors in finding exactly what they are looking for, regardless of age, race, sex, financial position or social status. That is why anybody can sign-up as an entrepreneur. As long as you are determined and willing to work for your dreams. For too long has the investor space been seen as an “elite club for the select few”, and Merge is here to change that. Whether you’ve gotten your bonus at the end of the year and looking for new investment opportunities, or are an active investor, you can sign-up. Whether you’re currently working, or a retired industry leader, you can join as a mentor.

Their vision is to become the ‘go to’, digital meeting place for entrepreneurs and investors, and to truly make a difference in the world.

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