LONDON--On Thursday afternoon at the Future of Web Apps conference, I had to make a choice: Was I going to blog about a talk hosted by Six Apart engineer David Recordon, talking about the "open social Web," or a talk by Ben Huh, the "Chief Cheezburger" of goofy "lolcat" meme site ICanHasCheezburger.com?
Recordon's talk would invariably be an insightful look into issues like OpenID and OpenSocial, which have faded from the headlines in recent months but are still a hot topic in the developer community. But the talk could prove to be code-heavy given the fact that the average FOWA attendee is a seasoned developer. As for Huh, listening to someone talk about pictures of cats would seem a little bit silly given the broader issues we're all facing. But as conference organizers reminded the FOWA attendees earlier in the day, Huh has actually built a successful business with his network of geeky entertainment sites.
So I opted for the cheezburgers. We could all use some levity these days.
Indeed, Huh, who has admitted that he is allergic to cats, provided a shortened version of the wacky story about how he arrived at the helm of I Can Has Cheezburger--because he was sick of his job, was telling a friend via instant message that he loved I Can Has Cheezburger, and the friend in question said, "So why don't you buy it?" He then convinced investors early last year to give him the money to buy the site from creators Eric Nakagawa and Kari Unebasami.
"That investment pitch sounds like nothing you've ever heard before," he said, but later said that the company has been "profitable since day one." They pull in 4 million page views per day, totaled 105 million views in the month of September, and make up a full 10 percent of blog host WordPress.com's traffic.
Huh's role at I Can Has Cheezburger, he explained, is running it like a smart and efficient business, which he says has allowed it to stay on top of things and not bleed through cash. His philosophy, rooted in the core principles of simplicity and obviousness, stands in pretty stark contrast to Web 2.0 outlets that have been all about APIs, platform strategies, widgets, Ajax, and what-have-you. Content syndication? Huh's idea of that is sticking a small I Can Has Cheezburger logo on all images uploaded to the site, providing an HTML embed code, and letting visitors do whatever they want with them.
Most important, he said, was building up community features to keep people coming back. Instead of catering to a small pack of rabid and hardcore users, he suggested working on the second and third tiers because they're much bigger. "Focus on the casual base, which is a really large percentage of users, who maybe visit once a week, once a month," he suggested to the developers in the audience. "You want to convert them so that they become fans. They grow your community."
He had a few more helpful hints: it's a worthwhile investment to buy the misspelled versions of your Web site name (you'd be amazed at how many people can't spell), but it's not a worthwhile investment to offer to pay contributors (the infrastructure is hell). Don't waste money building something in-house if it already exists for your use--i.e. commenting systems. Instead of paying for a slick design, pay to keep those servers up and running.
Above all, Huh told the FOWA audience to keep things simple, citing the "experiential difference" of Google beating Yahoo initially by just putting a search box on a mostly-blank page. "Technology people have a tendency to make simple problems incredibly complicated," he said--and that includes goals. I Can Has Cheezburger's goal is that "we want you to be happy for 5 minutes every day," he said. "That's a pretty low bar."
And I Can Has Cheezburger sister site FailBlog, he said, is really catching on in the face of financial turmoil.