How can you make a living creating cat memes? UCLA grad Emily Huh and her husband Ben bought the weblog I Can Has Cheezburger in 2007 and built it into a humor empire. They boast two New York Times best sellers, 500 million page views per month and an additional 110 million video views.
Next, ICHC is set to be the subject of a new reality TV show on Bravo that will reveal the magic behind the meme. LOLwork premieres on Nov. 7 at 11pm Pacific and Eastern time on Bravo. Emily Huh, the editor in chief at ICHC and one of the stars of the show, spoke to us about how she made funny kitties her business and the sociology behind a successful meme.
How did you go from UCLA sociology major to editor-in-chief of I Can Has Cheezburger?
I first attended UCLA for business and econ. Then took a sociology class, loved it and switched. My parents were like, "OK. We don't know what our daughter is going to do in the future with this." But it led me down the path to cat websites and the sociology of what makes people laugh.
My husband Ben, our CEO, and I met in Chicago. He was running his first start-up, a technology consulting company. He learned a lot with his first business that helps him know what to do and what not to do with I Can Has Cheezburger.
I've always really loved pets. When we adopted our dog Nemo I became that crazy dog lady. We started a pet blog, which is how we connected with the creators of I Can Has Cheezburger. The site was started by a boyfriend (Eric Nakagawa) and girlfriend (Kari Unebasami) in Hawaii. We were really fascinated by it. How can they get all this traffic with just cat pictures? We wanted to help them out and they wanted to move on, so we said, "Let's see if we can make a viable company out of this." At first investors gave us pretty confused looks. Cat photos?
So how do you make money from cat photos?
Most of our revenue comes from advertising. We get a huge amount of hits per day. But a significant percentage comes from products: books, t-shirts, etc. We have two New York Times best sellers: How To Take Over the World and I Can Has Cheezburger. Ben had it in his head for a while to do a TV show. We talked to our agent and that's how the comedy reality series started.
You were a sociology major. From that perspective, can you break down what is so appealing about those darn cat memes?
Sure. First, it has to be universal, something you can connect to. Our most popular photos are cats complaining about work. Anytime there's a Monday caption about a bored, tired cat, it gets a ton of hits. We all connect to it. We've all felt that way at some point.
Second, it has to be simple and really easy to understand. You're not going to have that instant moment of gratitude and laughter if you need to read a novel to understand it.
Third, cute always works. If you can resist a cute kitty photo, there's something wrong with you.
Where do all your kitty pics and videos come from?
Users upload the pictures. We have a passionate fan base of 24 million people and we get about 5000 submissions a day. Everyone is trying to make their kitty famous.
Has anyone succeeded?
Yes, we actually have made several cats relatively famous. Do you remember the Surprised Kitten? That kitty and her mom got on Jay Leno because of that video.
What are your duties as Cheezburger editor-in-chief?
I'm in charge content, quality control and making sure everything is funny as well as company strategy and marketing. I also interact with the community and make sure they are happy and liking the pics. I'm in a lot of meetings or busy on my laptop, which is why I'm not in some episodes of the show as much. But Ben and I definitely have some featured drama coming up in the season.
What's it like working with your husband?
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It has pros and cons. We get to share something we love. We trust each other. But Ben is still my boss. If I make a mistake, I'm called out like any other employee. But ultimately we have a good attitude about it. If I'm having a bad day, I come home and say, "Ugh my boss was such a jerk today."
If you had to get a cat meme tattoo what would you choose? Which one really expresses you?
It's an old one that's been around since about 2007. It's a two-panel picture. A cat is trying to take a bite out of a birthday cake and it goes nom nom nom (that's the sound a cat makes when he's eating). In the second frame, the owner is taking the cake away. I just really connect with the sadness of the cat being taken away from something he wants to eat.