Ben Huh, CEO, Cheezburger Network
I was going to write about some of the many innovative companies in Seattle, but when a friend helped me set up an interview with Ben Huh (@BenHuh) fearless leader of I Can Has Cheezburger (ICHC) and other memes, my plans changed. So this piece is all about Ben Huh, the big cheese of a company that makes the world laugh. Questions are in bold.
23 July 2010 — Cheezburger Network, Seattle, WA
Everyone has already written everything imaginable about you and ICHC. So I'd like to show you a Dewar's profile and a Playboy bunny interview from 1983. These are the inspirations for how I want to talk with you. I thought this would be more fun. So, is that OK?
Dewar's Ad: Community Live Journal; Playmate interview, Sept. 1983 Playboy
So, basically, you’ll be like the Playboy playmate of the month.
First question—how do you pronounce your name?
It’s “Huh.” Some pronounce it "Hugh," but it’s “Huh.”
Do you mind telling me how old you are?
32 years old.
Thirty-two? I could be your mother! I mean, technically.
How would you describe your profession—like if you were at the airport and some guy asked what do you do for a living, what would you say?
I’m an Internet publisher. I also describe it as: We try to make people laugh five minutes a day.
You easily accomplish that, don’t you think?
Awesome. I hope so.
I first heard from about ICHC in the early years of Facebook. It was so random and funny—but I had no idea you were based in Seattle. Were you born here?
No, I was born in Seoul Korea.
How did you end up in the U.S.?
Long story, but in a round about way, we ended up in Hong Kong because my father had a job there. Then we moved to the states after that. Later, I went to college at Northwestern and that’s where I got a print journalism degree. Yes I was a writer, but I always wanted to have my own business.
Journalism writing wasn’t like literature, but I learned a lot about editing and writing from journalism school. When I graduated in ’99, I wanted to run a business and become an entrepreneur. So I worked for a dotcom for six months, then started my own company, and in 18 months it folded and died with the dotcom bust—terrible timing in the early 2000s.
But it didn’t stop you?
No. But I had a choice—either go back to school and get an MBA and rack up a bunch of debt, or go to work for a bunch of CEOs who founded companies themselves. I thought since I was completely broke, it was better to learn on the job. A requirement I had was that I would work only for a company in which I had direct contact with a CEO. So if I was going to work for someone, they’d have to be the CEO or I’d at least have to have to have regular communication with the CEO. Not a lot of CEOs would go for that—having a junior kid coming in demanding their time, but a few people did.
It wasn’t an internship?
No. It was a real job. I needed a real salary. I would do whatever. I started as a consultant to an Internet radio company. I did some marketing for another software company. I’d rise pretty quickly in the ranks. Eventually I came out here for a company that did touch screen software.
So that’s how you ended up in Seattle?
Yes. I spent two and a half years working on the east side [of Lake Washington] for a company that serviced Fortune 500 companies. It wasn’t all that interesting. I was making a six-figure salary—more money than I’d ever made, but B2B was completely boring.
So when this opportunity came along I said, OK, it sounds kind of crazy, but I’m going to quit my job and do this instead.
Six-figure salary—I hope you saved some money so you could do this?
My wife and I made a conscious effort to keep our expenses low. So we saved a lot of money.
Is she in this business?
Yeah, she’s the editor. She usually sits right there. [points to desk]
You really have logged a lot of miles to get here.
Yeah—I’ve been around the block.
The team at ICHC, working hard to make you laugh five minutes a day.
No kidding—OK, so let me ask you some of these silly questions.
I would say intelligence is the number one turn on. I think when people say they have a connection with someone, I think what they’re really saying is they share the same intellectual traits or wit that I have. That’s the kind of connection you form with someone else. It’s like when sense of humor or intellect don’t match, that’s when there’s a disconnection.
In the realm of intelligence, would you put sense of humor as a component of that?
Sense of humor is such a widely ranging thing. Being in the humor business, there are a lot of different kinds of humor and you can’t really say one is better than another. But I think intelligence leads to humility—the ability for one to laugh at oneself—and that is actually a very positive trait.
OK. What about turn offs?
Turn offs…Playing fast and loose with the truth.
Lying is absolutely a turn off, but there’s a line that’s very close to lying that people don’t observe as lying, which is the fact that people kind of stretch the truth, they’re not honest with themselves, right? So like they just don’t—they think what they tell you—they don’t respect the other person enough to tell them the actual truth, or they want to look better to the other person or maybe they don’t think you would ever find out. That bothers me.
But if someone’s really good at that, you’d never know that they were doing it, right?
That’s right. That’s the problem with lying. It's that the moment you’ve become good at it, then you’ve fooled the world, and yourself as well.
I want to lead a life worth living.
Are you already doing that?
I’m doing it right now. I don’t know at the end of the day that I can say that yet—like that’s something you decide probably right before you’re dead.
Well, OK, hang on. I mean, you have your wife, you have this great business, you’re employing all these people, you’re making the world laugh…
This is a path. This isn’t the destination. I didn’t set out to employ all these people and make the world laugh and to become an influencer. You can be famous and live a life worth living—these are not mutually exclusive things. So at the end of the day I want to say yeah, that life was great. It was worth living. It was HARD. Nothing’s easy. Nothing GOOD is easy—but it’s worth doing.
But you do feel like you’re on the right track?
Oh, absolutely! I’m absolutely on the right track. But this is not…if this track ends and I jump to another track? It isn’t the end…like, that’s not why I did this, right?
Yeah, because you could sell this for X zillions of dollars to whomever
…and move on. But this didn’t define my life.
I like music with a little bit of soul and personality. I’m not talking about soul music, per se, but it’s like music that shows the passion of the person playing. I tend to like female vocalists.
Like right now, recently, Adele. She has a great voice—she can definitely emote through her voice, like I think that’s fantastic.
Do you have a favorite sport?
I do. Football.
When you say football, do you mean soccer?
No, American football.
So you’re a football fan. Who do you cheer for?
I am actually a 49ers fan.
I want to travel the world for a year. Just let go. Like me, my wife—go and spend 365 days out in the world.
I live in this weird alternate universe where people want to talk to me and people think what I’m doing is interesting, and I kinda want to be in a world where it just doesn’t matter. It doesn’t matter what I do for a living. I’m out there to see the world.
That’s why I was asking about telling someone you’re an Internet publisher because it doesn’t sound like anything the average person could relate to—which is kind of cool in a way because then people just start talking to you about whatever.
That’s absolutely correct.
Last book read, or your favorite book?
The book I’m reading currently is something called “ Switch.” Chip and Dan Heath are the authors. It’s a business book about how to effect change within an organization.
So non-fiction—do you read anything just for fun?
The last book I read for fun was “ Game Change.” It chronicled the last presidential election.
OK—It’s like, when you go to the beach, you’d be reading “Switch” or “Game Change?”
I don’t go to the beach. If I’m at the beach, it’s like I’m there to walk for a few minutes and then I’m going out and doing something else.
I don’t do the beach, either. I don’t understand people who just lay there for hours.
Me neither! I mean, I’m like, I’d rather go zip lining! Or getting lost in the woods! Or anything!
My favorite movie is “When Harry Met Sally.” When I first saw it I was young enough that the movie left an impression on me. And if I watch it now it feels a little old school, but it’s a cute movie—great dialog.
The last movie I saw in the theatre was Avatar because it was 3D. I thought it was well done. I really liked it. And I liked it as well before, when it was called Pocahontas. [laughs]
That’s cool. OK. So what do you do for hobbies?
I sail—a 28 footer or less is what I’m certified to captain.
What's your favorite color?
Orange? I saw somebody who was like your soulmate yesterday, walking down the street. I was like, MY GOD, look at all that orange. She was a showstopper.
But it has to be done in moderation. [Shows tip of his orange T-shirt under buttoned shirt]
What about your favorite food?
I’m a big fan of BBQ. Any kind of good meat roasted over a slow flame. I, like, go to Texas and I eat BBQ for the whole time I’m there. And I went to LA and ate Korean BBQ the whole time I was there. I go to NY and go to yakitori places—like three times while I’m there.
Different cities have different types of good BBQ they do well. Like you go to LA and get Korean BBQ; you go to NY and that’s the closest you’re going to get to Japan; and you go to Texas to get Texas BBQ. My wife is vegetarian. [laughs] Maybe that’s why I like it, but she likes the salads when we go out.
Do you like Seattle?
You know, I’ve grown to like it more.
You’ve GROWN to like it? That doesn’t sound good.
The weather is brutal.
The last city I lived in was Chicago. It’s a mega-city with lots of stuff to do. And here, I’ve been working a lot. I’ve been trying to grow my social circle a little bit more. We travel a lot so we’ll be here just 6 weekends this summer. I know more people in Seattle than I ever did in Chicago because of business and because of what I do, but personally, it was a lot harder to put down roots in Seattle. Like, we just bought a condo.
I’ve always heard people come here and people are so friendly but it’s impossible to make friends here.
There’s a little bit of stand-offishness. And now that we’re married, we hang out with each other a lot so there’s less incentive to make new friends.
Oh, is that new?
We got married in 2006
If you were on a dating service filling out a survey, how would you briefly describe yourself?
I’m a go getter who likes to take time out to laugh.
OK—so no long walks on beach, drinking wine, like the typical, “loves Labrador retrievers?” and stuff like that?
I do all of the above, but that’s not how I’d define myself.
Were you a funny or weird kid?
I was neither. Just a normal, nerdy, geeky over achiever.
When did you start using computers?
I first started programming when I was in the third grade. I’m not a programmer. It was a special program at the time in Korea—maybe 1986? Computers were really expensive. The school I went to had an allotment of 12 computers that the government provided. You had to take a test to get into the after-school program in which they would teach you how to do basic programming. I was in that program. That was my first exposure—very, very early in a country that had very few computers.
Are you a US citizen now or are you here on a permanent visa?
It’s funny you mention that. I’m actually taking my citizenship test on Monday.
Really? That’s exciting!
But it’s so easy, though. I mean, I went to high school here!
You did? Where did you go?
Cordova High School, near Sacramento—one of the suburbs of Sacramento. The city is called Rancho Cordova.
So have you been to any of your reunions?
No reunions. Not interested. High school was awkward. It wasn’t the greatest experience. And my high school wasn’t that great and didn’t prepare me for life very well.
I remember going to Northwestern and going to my first philosophy class and there were kids who had gone to Exeter and prep schools and they had read ALL the books in my philosophy class and I’m sitting there going, how do you pronounce “Goethe?” I was like, so unprepared.
Did your parents want you to do something else with your life?
They actually never really pushed me one way or the other. That was pretty unusual about my parents. The first generation of family tends to push toward a professional career, but they didn’t. They were really supportive of me going to journalism school.
Typical routine? When do you roll into the office and leave?
10 o’clock in the morning until 8 p.m.
OK, so you roll in at 10 o’clock and leave at 8. What do you when you get home?
We eat, and then we work.
So you guys are both like total geeks then?
Yeah. We’re kind of very… ambitious. I like it a lot.
Most amusing thing that’s happened since this phenomenon began?
In the book, Game Change—at the height of Palin mania, one of Obama’s advisors [Valerie Jarrett] receives an email with a picture of Obama at the podium pointing with a caption that says, “Chill the fuck out. I got this.” And she shows it to Obama, and Obama says, “That’s what I’ve been telling you all along—I got this. Don’t worry about Sarah Palin. I got this.”
That photo was from our site.
I was literally in New York reading the book at three in the morning and I was like, OH, MY GOD. I recognized it and the caption because we posted it and it went completely viral. And it landed on Obama’s desk.
That’s really insane!
It was awesome. It’s like we are a footnote of a footnote of a footnote of history.
My last question: Do you dream in color?
Ben in front of Cheezburger Network world headquarters, Seattle, WA
Special thanks to Larry Asher (@SVCSeattle), of the School of Visual Concepts, for helping me set up this interview; Pulitzer Prize-winning photographer, Jerry Gay, for shooting this gig; and David Horsfall for taking time to review this piece.