Please You Download It
I’m Ben Huh. I am the founder and CEO of the entertainment company Cheezburger. We started this company in 2007 and helped popularize
cat photos online when we bought I Can Has Cheezburger?. We now run dozens of humor and meme sites. And today we released an iOS app. As proud as I am of this moment, this story is not a yet-another-app kind of announcement.
I want to tell you the entire story of how this app came to be, with all the guts and gore. Though the app itself was designed to entertain you, much of its development was anything but. Yet I believe that the story of this product is the universal story of entrepreneurship. To me, this release is my redemption.
Entrepreneurs usually share only the happy, proud announcement of a new product. We sweep aside the failures that hounded us along the way, as if we believe that a celebration is no time for honesty. Yet every new product has a painful history.
Cheezburger started in 2007 as a scrappy one-man start-up in my apartment to buy websites—starting with ICHC. A couple months later the roster started to grow, and the team moved the office to a tiny room in Seattle. We expanded by buying or building meme-related websites, such as Know Your Meme and FAIL Blog.
We kept adding and expanding until we had assembled an empire of humor sites. We were lean but resourceful, and we were good at testing new ideas. We grew quickly.
In 2011 Cheezburger raised a jaw-dropping $30 million in our first venture investment. With that money, Cheezburger kicked off a cottage industry of meme sites and an age of massive venture rounds in media. We raised the investment money on my vision: build a place where everyone can express their sense of humor. Instead of simply publishing new material, we would run a platform full of remixing features that would let users seamlessly express their own funny ideas.
Yet as the money poured in, I lost my way. I ended up wasting three years of my life and millions of dollars. Only in the last four months did we actually start building this new app.
In a nutshell, we didn’t know what we were doing. We had been profitable for years, selling ads, t-shirts, books and even a reality show on Bravo. But having investment money in the bank was new for us. More important, so was the process of transforming ourselves from a team that built and acquired Wordpress sites to a company that produced a full-on content platform. We tripled our headcount.
After cashing out our original investors, however, our $30 million had dwindled to just $4 million. That figure is small by venture capital standards, but for a company that was used to duct tape and folding chairs, we felt like we were swimming in cash. We were turning into a confused, money-losing mess.
A few months into our hiring binge in 2011, I had a discussion with our then-CTO:
Me: “How’s the pace of our product releases?”
CTO: “We’re so busy hiring, we aren’t actually shipping anything.”
I was speechless.
There are moments when a CEO should forcefully step in and reset employees’ priorities. The whole reason for the hiring was to ship new features and improvements more swiftly, especially given our ultra-competitive, fast-paced industry. If we aren’t shipping code, we might as well be tossing hundred dollar bills into a bonfire. Imagine if an airline said, “we’re so busy buying new planes, we’ve decided to cancel all our flights.”
Instead of intervening, I made excuses for my team: Revenues were still growing at a record rate. The pause was temporary. The people who got us this far would carry us to the next level. We’d make up for it once everyone was hired.
After months of delays, in 2012 we moved all our sites onto our own platform, but users hated it. They complained that it lacked many of the features they had grown accustomed to. The disagreements with my team escalated. My top executives were either fired or pushed out. The team that got me here was not going to get me there.
In late 2012, I hired a new chief revenue officer, Amber Dunn, whom I had poached from our neighbor, AllRecipes. She was talented, respected and beloved by everyone who worked with her.
And she had terminal ovarian cancer.
Her cancer was never a secret. I hired her knowing that she was under regular treatments, and at the time, she was living a normal life with the cancer under control. She helped me assemble a new team and we regrouped. Amber outlined a strategy for building a media company instead of a platform for sharing and remixing funny images. She wanted us to play to our strengths: our users were loyal, we had tons of traffic and we had millions of dollars in revenue and new investment. We would focus on building up our existing sites and selling ads on them instead.
As I listened to Amber’s proposal, I reminded myself that I had already botched one chance at creating a humor platform. Maybe I was wrong. So I took a chance on her idea. I even sold the change in direction to my board of directors.
My dream of building a place where anyone
could become a comedy master would have to wait.
We kicked off 2013 with high expectations. We hired several experienced media people. We built out a stellar ad sales team in several cities. We were back in investment mode, but this time with a plan.
Then Amber ended up in the hospital. Her cancer had come back with a vengeance. The company returned to chaos. I had plenty of energy, enthusiasm and product ideas, but the other half—knowing how to execute on the media strategy and ad sales— was missing. In April, we laid off a third of the company, including Amber, who laid herself off while she was still in the hospital. We took care of her exit and made her happy. But nothing can make you feel good about the fact that you just laid off a terminally ill mom in the hospital.
Amber Dunn passed away a few months later, leaving behind her husband and young daughter. To this day, I often wonder if I am responsible for shortening her life.
The Cheezburger story could have ended there. After the layoffs, some talented employees left. Thankfully, many stayed. Morale was terrible. I was miserable. At the urging of one of my investors, Brad Feld, I started seeing a CEO coach.
Coaches don’t make you feel better. That’s not their job. They help you see yourself better. It’s one thing to feel like you’ve fucked it all up, but there’s no substitute for saying it out loud. I was sitting on my then-coach Jerry Colonna’s couch in New York, admitting my deepest fears for the first time to another person. And to myself.
“I’m not sure what to do.”
“I may not be the right CEO for my company.”
“Maybe I killed Amber.”
To understand my fear, I had to give in to it. I let the fear consume me.
I realized I was drowning in loss—regret over my botched attempt at building my platform, guilt over wasting my investors’ money, anxiety over what my role might have been in Amber’s decline. I had difficulty viewing my company objectively.
Yet it slowly dawned on me that whatever was happening inside the company didn’t change the fact that millions of people still loved us. We continued to make people all over the world happy everyday. My loss of direction was just a temporary setback. But in order to keep it temporary, I couldn’t mope around. I had to pierce the veil of my own disappointment.
When my first start-up failed, in 2001, I struggled with depression and thoughts of suicide. Things may have looked bad in 2013, but I had promised myself that I would not return to that same dark, helpless place. For many entrepreneurs, life and business are the same thing—a dangerous yet alluring corruption of the ego. If you really believe that you and your business are one, business failure destroys you, and success rewards you infinitely. But no outcome warrants such sacrifice.
I started to tease apart my two identities first by embracing my own failure. I discussed the layoffs publicly. A public failure is embarrassing and isolating. You become the target of an endless stream of negativity.
Acquaintances and strangers alike call you a crook, a fraud, a robber baron. You become a scapegoat for all the world’s economic, moral and social wrongs.
Once you publicly disclose a failure, you only really have one choice: move on. I considered resigning but decided against it. I felt that learning to persevere and righting my wrongs was the least I could to do for my investors and employees.
For the third time, I assembled a new team. I went back to the idea of building Cheezburger into a platform that helps everyone express their own sense of humor. In September 2013, I hired Scott Moore to be President and COO. Yet returning to my initial vision was hard. First, I had to go back to my investors to raise even more money. Then I had to convince the existing team that, no, really, the platform idea was worth pursuing after all, and yes, I am a trustworthy leader. We had to recruit new executives who also saw the potential. And this time I had to delegate better. Not easy.
I’m not telling you all this to win your pity. I made this choice and I love it. I am grateful to live in a country where entrepreneurs get a chance to turn their visions, with some luck, into reality. In my America, investors give millions of dollars to immigrants like me to make funny apps, though years of toil and uncertainty may follow. At the end of every story, you either redeem yourself or keep trying.
Throughout my struggles, I watched, listened, and refined what has become my media thesis for a mobile-first world. I co-founded Circa, a journalism company with Matt Galligan and Arsenio Santos, which became the first test of my thesis. This new Cheezburger app is the flesh and blood of my battle-worn ideas, applied to entertainment. The underlying philosophy of this app emerges from the lessons I learned in the last three years as a CEO:
- Consumption is learning.
Almost everything I have learned as an entrepreneur has come from seeing the work of others. Similarly, we want users to be inspired by the flood of humor we deliver every day. Users can view a single feed of all their friends’ profiles and favorite sites from the Cheezburger network—our sites and our users are treated as equals. By consuming lots of content with ease, people will actually learn how to make others laugh.
- Remixing is cooperation.
Every idea should be open to criticism and cooperation. To be creative, we must incorporate other people’s ideas into our own—I learned this myself as I became better at delegating at work. In the app, we embody this principle by letting users remix any image or GIF with one tap. We let our friends influence us, and we influence our friends. The remix is a beautiful, evolving, communal animal and we embrace it.
- Friction kills. Speed wins.
Friction wears down dreams. Speed is a huge advantage in any business. We and our users want to go from idea to launch as quickly as possible. We need to get out of their way so they can do whatever they want with the content in the app, even if what they do isn’t in our company’s best interest.
To the outside world, much of tech entrepreneurship today looks like a few simple features wrapped in a handful of megabytes. You might sometimes hear about the grand vision behind a project. Rarely do you learn the whole sordid story. Having shared this personal journey, I hope you’ll humor me when I say that this app is the embodiment of the future I want—a funnier, happier place for everyone.
Though elements of their initial vision often fail or get ignored, entrepreneurs bleed for the moment of when a product finally enters the world. After three years of bleeding, Brad told me, “You can stop paying your penance now.”
This yet-another-app-release is my redemption, made possible by the hard work of everyone at Cheezburger. I am very proud of them, but there must be more to come. All I want to do is build more apps and do more releases. No one can promise you success. All I can do is keep trying.