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Big Omaha – Ben Huh: ‘Things that excite us are things that would make other people cringe’

Beh Huh delivers the opening speech at Big Omaha 2011. Photo by Malone & Company from Silicon Prairie News on Flickr

The mission of the Cheezburger Network, according to its CEO, Ben Huh, is a straightforward one: “Make everyone in the world happy for five minutes a day.” In delivering the opening speech of Big Omaha 2011, Huh certainly achieved that aim himself, providing a blend of humor and motivation in telling his story. A handful of the highlights: 

His interest in communication

Though Huh grew up in Seoul, Korea and English isn’t his first language, he gravitated toward a trade that relied heavily on English: journalism. Huh earned a degree at Northwestern’s renowned Medill School of Journalism. “I got a degree in a language I didn’t speak because I felt something in the power of media that attracted me.”’

His criteria for a job that would help him grow 

Saddled with debt after college, Huh couldn’t afford to go the traditional MBA route, so he decided to pursue what he called a “street MBA.” In order to do that, he established a rule regarding jobs: “No matter how low the salary,” Huh pledged, “I only want to work for a company where I can have a direct connection to the founding CEO.”

The weird way entrepreneurs are wired

Huh said many of the decisions he’s made in his career would give most folks pause. He gave up a six-figure salary “to start this cat picture website.” But that’s the way entrepreneurs operate. “Things that excite us are things that would make other people cringe,” he said. “But that’s why I think we make great entrepreneurs.”

Traditional media vs.user-generated and other Internet-enabled content

“Internet culture,” Huh said, “will produce the rockstars of tomorrow.” Because of the modes in which we communicate today, someone could unwittingly create something that will become immensely popular. Users have jumped over the velvet ropes that once separated them from the the tools needed to produce widely consumed content. And that shows in their level of production.

“Users create more content in one day than the media does in a single year,” Huh said. “Think about that for a second … all the stuff you upload is all media, and there’s some quality stuff out there.”

The thinking that only a select few can produce quality content has been turned on its head, and Huh has built his humor empire thanks to that. “Crap,” he said, “is now gold.”

The importance of passion

One of the primary strengths of a model like Huh’s that relies on user-generated content is that it mines people’s deep passions, which, once upon a time, had no outlet. The Cheezburger Network is not alone in succeeding with that approach. Many of the world’s hottest companies — Google, Twitter and Facebook, for instance — don’t produce any of their own content. The ability those companies possess to harness the passion of a focused group of users, Huh said, is more important than any number of traditional indicators for business success. 

“The startup world is littered with people who believe there’s a market for what they do yet couldn’t drive the passion,” Huh said. He continued: “How can we get that small group of passionate people to play in this sandbox? Because if we can do that, we don’t have to worry about marketing.”

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