Ben Huh is the first to admit his company could easily have wound up on FAIL Blog. For the uninitiated, that’s his wildly popular website to which users submit photos and videos documenting such colossally stupid moves as writing a billboard partly in Braille and using a trash can as a bike helmet. Like the rest of the 20-odd websites Huh owns, FAIL Blog was added to his empire for no more specific reason, he says, than “Dude, I think it’s funny.”
These spellbindingly inane blogs were built with the kind of user-generated content that has made Facebook and YouTube tremendously popular. But unlike these bigger sites, Huh’s company has been in the black since its first quarter. Pet Holdings managed to haul in seven figures from advertising, licensing fees and merchandise sales during the first six months of this year, according to a report given to Huh’s investors. His advertising model is low rent; 30% of ads go for premium prices of up to $8 per 1,000 page views. The rest can sell for as little as 15Â¢ but legions of devoted followers pull in the necessary volume. In July, Huh’s sites attracted a total of 10.4 million unique visitors, many of whom logged on multiple times a day. His online success has even landed him speaking engagements in the venerable newsrooms of the Guardian and the New York Times. “There’s no way on the planet this should actually work,” Huh says of his business plan. “But it’s working.” What’s working, exactly, is a series of viral humor sites intended simply “to make people happy for five minutes a day,” as Huh puts it. Huh, 31, a journalist turned dotcom entrepreneur, was born in South Korea and moved to California when he was in his teens. He launched Pet Holdings in 2007 when angel investors helped him buy a new website called I Can Has Cheezburger, which is a compendium of “Lolcats,” laugh-out-loud feline photos captioned in “kitty pidgin,” or artfully misspelled imaginings of cats’ inner monologues. Huh discovered the site, which was started by two Hawaiian bloggers, when they linked to a photo on his personal blog. His site quickly buckled under the traffic, and he e-mailed to complain then figured there was money to be made in such a zealous online community. His other offerings now include Probably Bad News, which catalogs news bloopers, like the headline CHILDREN COOK & SERVE GRANDPARENTS. GraphJam invites users to create statistical commentaries on pop culture, like a pie chart estimating the proportion of e-mails that come from “Friends,” “MySpace” or, the largest category, “People Who Want Me to Have a Bigger Penis.” Speaking to the Times this year and echoing what he told the Guardian staff and some 1,000 techies at the 2008 Future of Web Apps Expo in London Huh said the key to making a site take off is connecting it to a cultural phenomenon. I Can Has Cheezburger, for instance, pokes fun at an oft-maligned, inscrutable household pet, appealing to cat lovers and others. FAIL Blog has helped popularize fail as both a noun and an exclamation, not to mention an easier-to-spell synonym for schadenfreude. Another site, This is Photobomb, gives a name to otherwise perfectly good photos spoiled by an interloper think streakers in the background of a wedding shot. “Everybody has seen it. Nobody knew what to call it,” says Huh. See the best social networking applications.
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