In 2000, journalist-turned-entrepreneur Ben Huh launched a startup with the hopes of it becoming the next big thing. After 18 months of blood and sweat and spending hundreds of thousands of dollars of investment money without significant success, Huh was forced to shut it all down. At 23-years-old, he was broke, lonely, depressed and a failure.
From there, Ben Huh spent a week in his room with the lights shut off. All of his thoughts about how to deal with his failure led to one thing: taking his own life.
Fortunately, for reasons even Ben can’t remember, something made him leave that room and return to working. In 2007, after years of working at several different companies, he connected with a group of angel investors in order to acquire The Cheezburger Network, a website that features pictures of cats and other animals paired with funny captions. After four years of immense growth, Huh called Brad Feld, one of the industry’s most prominent venture capitalists, and received an investment of $30 million. By that time, his company The Cheezburger Network had become a profitable multi-million dollar company by supplying the internet with cat memes. All of Cheezburger’s assets, which includes Fail Blog and Know Your Meme, reportedly receive well over 400 million combined pageviews per month.
Recently, we had the pleasure of catching up with Huh, the CEO of The Cheezburger Network, to discuss his outlook on success and how he recovered from his depression.
How many tries did it take you before you actually found success?
I guess it depends on how you define success. It’s really hard to kind of categorize all that. Even with Cheezburger, I don’t feel like we’ve been successful. We’ve had some success, but as an entity we are still trying to figure out how to accomplish our mission. And for me to get to this point, I’ve done one other startup back in 2000 and before that I tried to do a couple small things here and there in college.
Have you always looked at success as achieving greater goals in life and not merely having lots of money?
Money was always a component of success and never the entire thing. I think that when you are young and getting started, wise entrepreneurs who have been there before say, “It is the journey and not the destination.” But it takes years and lots of ups and downs to actually realize that. You realize that what makes you excited and happy about the future isn’t the current situation but how you perceive the horizon or how you see where you are headed. It is not where you are today that happiness comes from for a lot of us — it is actually where you think your life or your company is or where your career is headed.
After failing in your startup back in 2000, you had thoughts of suicide. How exactly did you get out of that slump?
It goes back to the idea of how you’ve changed your life with the progress you are making, not looking at where you are or the negative stuff that has happened in life. So for me to get out of that depression, I deferred to work. The idea is that I am able to build something, then there is a hope. If I’m able to create something, then there is a hope. Depression comes from the fact that we feel helpless. To get out of the mode of helplessness, you must then do something, even though it might be small, to get you out of that mindset.
Do you credit any mentors that helped you realize the notion?
Back then when I was going through that process, I didn’t really have any mentors. Now with Cheezburger, I’ve realized how important it is to have support structures and mentors, investors and people that you can actually go to and ask questions and for them to help you see the perspectives. But the first time around — and part of the reason for the depression — was that I wasn’t in a place where I could be mentored. I don’t think I would’ve been a good mentee.
Do you have any thoughts on Grumpy Cat making a hundred million of dollars?
I don’t know if the owner of Grumpy Cat really made a hundred million dollars and I don’t know where that number comes from, but I can tell you that in any industry the pop stars make the lion’s shares of all the profits. I don’t think the internet industry is an exception for that rule. Certainly, the internet industry, when it comes entertainment, will not only have celebrities — like traditional Hollywood — but also have media companies and platform enablers and other roles in which the leader in that category will take the lion’s share of all profits in that category. Grumpy Cat is an interesting phenomenon because it’s probably the biggest one since we’ve seen the lives of cat celebrities and celebrity cats in the internet. But I think it’s interesting that it happened and it’s gonna come from unexpected places.
Proper fact-checking has been a huge issue in the age of digital journalism. As a former journalist yourself, what is your assessment of the industry?
I don’t think the industry has really changed for better or worse in the last five years. I think what you have seen is human nature continuing to work its magical way. There are amazing stories with inspirations that are being promoted and that work. Then there are these flaws that show up up once in a while and people do terrible jobs. For example, Newsweek did a terrible job with the Satoshi Nakamoto story. People make errors, and especially news is a machine that is driven by human intuition and curiosity and if you fail to ask questions and be skeptical, then flaws like this can actually happen. Also, you think of Bernard Madoff and how long he has been able to make his ponzi scheme go on — the fact that these frauds happen isn’t a reflection of journalism but it is a reflection of human nature. Sometimes, journalists are fallible.
You are used to being scrappy and have built companies from your garage. What are the positives and negatives to bootstrapping versus having funding to play with?
I think what happens is that people who are used to operating in one model — let’s say being scrappy and learning how to manage expenses — once you actually feel like you have the money, then you actually change your habits. The thing that made you great sometimes becomes tossed away in the hopes of finding something new that will make you even greater. That’s a risk that you take. But as a startup, receiving funding shouldn’t change the way you think how to spend those resources.
What are things you see in young entrepreneurs that they just don’t seem to get?
I think the biggest challenge is that their entire self-worth and identity is tied up to the company that they are running. They can’t separate the fact that this is business and that there are successes and failures in this business and not assuming that they as a person who has succeeded or failed. I think it requires perspective and some time to recognize that there is a separation and that your job is to do well for the business and do the right thing for the business. Once you actually crowd the two, then you are the business and you actually end up making bad decisions for the company.
Any weakness that you personally struggle with even after all of the success?
I think I still struggle with making sure that I can delegate and yet hold my team responsible. I think that’s a really interesting fine art that you can never be really perfect at. You can continue to strive towards learning how to delegate and learning how to empower responsibilities and at that same time help them be better and hold them accountable for their goals. At this point I’ve learned how to be a non-micro-manager. I believe I can lead and inspire. I don’t need to be in the lead and I am learning how to trust the people I hire and let them get stuff done.