Ben Huh is a South Korean-American internet entrepreneur and the former CEO of The Cheezburger Network, which at its peak in 2010 received 375 million views a month across its 50 sites
Ben has his pulse on pop media and he tells us how he stays ahead of trends and turns a profit doing it.
→ How he stays ahead of trends and turns a profit doing it
→ How does he originally get involved with Cheezburger App
→ What’s the new thing that all the business gurus are doing
→ How different are things in his company as opposed to the people that are following the business gurus
→ How many years have left before saturated mobile
→ The Cheezburger Network’s peak in 2010 received 375 million views a month across its 50 sites
→ And a whole lot more
Bronson: Welcome to another episode of Growth Hacker TV. I’m Bronson Taylor and today I have been with us. Ben, thanks for coming on the program.
Ben: My pleasure. Thanks for having me.
Bronson: Yeah, this is going to be exciting because you are the CEO of Cheezburger Inc and it has a number of sites that I know people have heard of. I can’t Has Cheezburger Mean Base Fail Blog and a lot of other ones. And these sites receive hundreds of millions of views a year. And you’re also the founder of Circa, which is a new way to consume news. So you know a lot about growth, a lot about distribution, and just a lot about the Internet, really. So let’s start with I Can’t Has Cheezburger. It wasn’t your creation, but you were able to recognize that this site of cat photos might be the future of entertainment. I don’t think anybody else saw that. But first, tell me, how did you originally get involved with I Can Ask Cheezburger?
Ben: So I had this job I was living on in a suburb outside of Seattle, and I had this job and this fine job, but I really didn’t enjoy working there. So I actually decided that I wanted to go back to being an entrepreneur. I’d been entrepreneur once before. So when that opportunity came, I had a choice between going to work for a start up in the valley or going to actually run the site called I Can Cheezburger. So I actually ended up deciding to be my own boss again and actually raised a raised money from a bunch of investors to actually start a company. The company is wasn’t called Cheezburger, but it is called Cheezburger. We took the last word out of I can assure you we’re going to try the company name. And so we bought I Can Ask Cheezburger. We bought Fail Blog. We actually started meme based and bunch of other websites. So we actually had the turning this one asset of this cat picture Web site into a media network.
Bronson: All right. So what what is it that you knew that others didn’t that allowed you to look at a cat photo website and say, yes, that is the future of media and entertainment because no one else was seeing that.
Ben: You know, honestly, I can’t tell. I can’t say that I had some kind of genius that allowed me to see that it really was looking at the numbers dispassionately and saying, hey, actually, there’s a real business here. We knew that pretty close to getting pretty close to the revenue that they’re already generating, that it could pay off my salary or pretty close to it. And we ended up actually being profitable after the first quarter of our existence. So the numbers were pretty compelling. Now, the real risk there was, you know, was this a fad, right? And for me, that’s when you actually have to trust your gut. What we relied on wasn’t the asset that’s in the in the photo, which is cat pictures. What we actually relied on is what’s the macro? Macro trend is that the Internet is going to actually allow people to create content on their own and actually generate their own entertainment and participation driven entertainment is far more interesting than just sitting back and watching it leaseback.
Bronson: I gotcha. So the insight wasn’t cat photos are funny. The insight was that people are going to start generating their own entertainment in the future instead of always just taking in what the big media empires are giving to them. So I’ve heard you say before you.
Ben: Like cat photos are inherently funny.
Bronson: They are funny. I’ll give you.
Ben: That. That wasn’t in dispute.
Bronson: So, no, I totally agree with that. And I think that’s another great point that you’re able to look at the numbers of the business dispassionately as a business, because I think it’d be hard to get over the fact that it’s cat photos. But yeah, you looked at the numbers and said it’s a business. So that in and of itself, I’m sure there’s an insight there. Now, you talked about trends earlier, the trends of this user generated entertainment. And I’ve heard you say before that you actually enjoy reading fiction because it allows you to see the future instead of reading nonfiction, which is about the past. Explain that to me a little bit.
Ben: Yeah. So fiction tells you about how the world could be. It’s forward looking. Whereas I think business books and things like that tend to be past looking. And I’m not advocating that you do one to the exclusion of the other. I think what people have to do is especially people who are in business, love business books and where where they’ve gotten that so far, it hasn’t gotten us very far. I think there’s some great business books out there, but what we do is we end up kind of taking a steering wheel and drinking it too far and too far to write. You know, we end up not making these smooth motions to drive our business forward, and I’m guilty of the same thing. So I prefer that we have a more balanced diet when it comes to comes to me.
Bronson: Yeah. So when you’re leading your businesses, you’re not necessarily thinking, you know, what’s the new thing that all the business gurus are doing? You’re just kind of looking at your business saying, What do we need to do? Is that fair or now?
Ben: That is absolutely right. I tend to be more of an inward looking CEO, although my job actually has me doing a lot of external stuff. I use that external data to say, What are we doing? What are we doing as a company? How is our culture? How is our momentum OHA employees doing? That’s what I’m really focused on.
Bronson: Because of that. How different are things in your company as opposed to the people that are following the business gurus? Does? Do you actually come to the same conclusion just on your own or does it look totally different?
Ben: You know, that’s that’s what’s fascinating about business. There’s no one right answer for everybody. I think there are principles and foundations that you can build your company on and those actually colored the decisions that you end up making. So for us, company culture is super important. We have a company culture that I think is really good. I would love it for it to be great. There are role models that I look up to, but their answers are not the same as my answers. I have to go find my own answers there.
Bronson: Yeah, that’s the heart of entrepreneurship. So I love that answer. You know, seeing these trends has really what’s allowed you to, you know, make profitable websites because you saw things that maybe others didn’t or a little bit earlier than others did. Is there any trends now that you and your team are really keeping an eye on as of this might be something? Let’s watch it unfold a little bit.
Ben: So I’ll tell you, the trend that’s been really interesting to us over the last two years, it’s been the rise of mobile. So I asked this question to people when I go to conferences and it usually kind of stumps them a little bit. A lot of entertainment is about filling the gap time all the time where we just want to be entertained and don’t want to do anything else or we’re just bored. So what did people do when you were lighting up at a coffee shop waiting for one of these? What do people do before smartphone?
Bronson: Talk to people? I don’t know.
Ben: I’m pretty sure you didn’t do that.
Bronson: Sit silently and awkwardly in line.
Ben: I stared at the back of people’s heads. Right now we’re filling all those times where we used to stare at the back of people’s heads with our mobile phone, and we use entertainment games and things like that to actually fill that time. That’s an amazing opportunity for upstarts like us because we’re not actually taking market share from existing things, like we’re not actually having to compete against a entrenched competitor with distribution channels and marketing. What we’re doing is finding time. When there was none, before we were actually creating an economy where there wasn’t any before.
Bronson: I got.
Ben: Real fascinating.
Bronson: Is that why that different formats are going to flourish? Because a 32nd format will work and a five minute format and a ten minute format and a ten hour format because the gaps are different sizes all throughout the day.
Ben: Yeah, I think you what you’re seeing is that we have to create different media products. The theory behind Cheezburger is actually the same thing as Circa. And so with Circa, I’m a co-founder there. Matt Gallagher is the CEO or some U.S. is our CTO. The three of us co-found the company together and the idea that was most media consumption in the future will happen on a mobile device. News is incredibly important. Part of that. Part of that experience. However, the products that have been created for consumption of news does not fit the way people use mobile devices. So how do we do that? How do we use push notifications? How do we reduce the ability for people to use social sharing and following? How do we actually create content that is visible and viewable? Understandable on a mobile device. It’s better than what’s, you know, long, huge articles. Yeah. And so we worked on that at Circa and the same thing was for Cheezburger. But We Cheezburger, we kind of stumbled across it with circa with a much clearer thesis because I’ve been spending years honing my craft at Uber.
Bronson: Yeah. Now, let me ask you this and maybe I’m wrong with the way I see this, but it seems like mobile apps in general, not the entertainment ones, but the ones about productivity and those kind of things. It almost seems like they’ve hit their, you know, their heyday. And now it’s really hard to get distribution and it’s really hard to get adoption. But entertainment, it seems like it’s on the rise. I mean, everyone’s still buried in Facebook all the time on Mobile. Is that the right way to see it or am I totally off there?
Ben: You know, I can’t tell you if you’re right or wrong, but I wouldn’t stop me from trying. Are you seeing the big demand for mailbox on iOS? And you can you can make an argument that desktop is not a growing industry. Right. That people have their apps and that’s it. But there is an opportunity to displace. In fact, I actually think what is happening is that people get really used to using their mobile phones and they’ll circle desk and use our phone because the experience of having something visceral in your hand that you can move around the interface is better, but there are many cases where using a phone for something isn’t very good and so people use their desktop. So I think there is some reshuffling and reprioritization of reprioritization of people’s behavior. And as that starts to happen, I think there’s continuously more opportunities being created for for people to create new tools.
Bronson: Yeah. How many years do we have left before we saturate mobile? I mean, are we at the beginning of a ten year run here or do we get like a year and a half left?
Ben: I think I think you’re looking at a first generation of mobile users you’re looking at. And so, you know, when I travel overseas, this is really fascinating to watch, especially if you go the developing countries, people don’t have laptops laptops but expensive the bulky they’re they’re likely to be stolen or broken. And so people don’t use laptops and their primary computing devices tend to be phones and they’re still mostly a feature phone. And so smartphones still haven’t gotten the penetration overseas. And those people will not use smartphones in concert with a desktop. It’ll be exclusively smartphones. So so that and that. Generation of behavior that we have not yet seen. Yeah, right. Is an entirely new market because they’re gonna have to do everything on portable devices without a keyboard, whereas we actually have this other thing we can fall back on. And so our behavior in developed countries are different. Now, what we’re seeing is that there’s this leapfrogging effect where developing countries will create a new standard, or they’ll figure out how to do something in their way. And then we’ll come back and say, hey, you know, that’s really interesting. Let’s build something that’s even better. Mm hmm. Right. And so you see this kind of cannibalization of previous behavior that happens as generations grow up based on the different technologies.
Bronson: Yeah. You know, I’ve heard it said before that whenever there’s a new media outlet like, you know, cable television, that someone has to figure out what type of things are supposed to be on that new media outlet. So MTV came along, it’s like, Oh, that’s what cable is. It’s not radio on TV, it’s MTV. And then the Internet comes along. It’s kind of figured out, you know, Oh, it’s I Can’t Ask Cheezburger. That’s the Internet. MTV was cable. I Can’t Have Cheezburger is the Internet. Do we have to figure out that same stuff for mobile now?
Ben: Yeah, actually. So I give the speech on a regular basis called the the form factor is the message, and it’s based on the same idea that actually you mentioned, which started out with this media theorist named Marshall McLuhan. He said the medium is the message. And the idea was that. Based on the content, based on the platform that you’re using to view the content, that the content actually tends to change to fit the platform. And therefore the messages that’s in the content tends to change from platform to platform. And so I’ve actually kind of updated that for the Internet age and where we’re looking at a device that can do many things. Marshall McLuhan Day You had have book for reading, TV for watching and radio for listening music, whereas today everything can do everything. And therefore, how do you actually make a distinction between 1.1 medium versus another? And what we’re seeing is that people are using their preference. It’s how does this device I spent my life and that that actually ended up ends up influencing what people actually create for those platforms.
Bronson: Yeah, it seems like it almost because people are so, you know, centered around themselves. Like you mentioned. It’s how it fits into their lifestyle. It almost seems like you have to offer everything on every platform and let them choose well.
Ben: So that’s an incredibly wasteful way to do it. Right? Right. So for a company like us with limited resources, we can’t do that. Maybe MTV and Viacom can figure out how to do that. But I would argue, actually, that’s not the best way to do it, because that that dilutes the brand and dilutes why people come to you. And you’re actually seeing brands like MTV having a really difficult time figuring out mobile, right? Because the incentive system is how do we put TV ads on television? And so I think you have a generation of companies like us that are trying to figure out what does mobile entertainment really mean? That is not gaming, that is not, you know, long form video. So how do we actually figure out how to entertain people? And it really comes down to individuals individualization mixing and social mixing and the culture of remixing. So all of that stuff is a set of ingredients that we’ve got to figure out how to put correctly.
Bronson: Yeah, no, it seems like you guys are figuring that out and it seems like the tumblers of the world are figuring that out. And it’s those companies are kind of on the forefront. They’re letting you blog and remix and be a part of the content itself and the generation of it. Now, let me ask you about kind of the growth of I Can’t Ask Cheezburger, because like you said, you saw it as a business. And I believe when you bought the site, I think I read that somewhere. It might be reputable. I don’t know that it had around 500,000 monthly visitors. Yeah, at its height. How many monthly visitors or yearly visitors have the site gotten to? Just so we have an idea of the business growth from acquisition to, you know, at its high point.
Ben: Yeah. So when, when I bought the website, I can Ask Cheezburger, it was doing about half a million views per month and then it started growing. And I actually don’t remember off the top of my head how big it got, but it was several times. It was an order of magnitude larger by the time, you know, we started actually building other websites and things like that. So, you know, we bought Fail Blog, we launched Mean Base, you know, we launched Facebook, we acquired another meme. So the Network of Cheezburger became much larger than I Can has. And I think right now I can has only accounts for a single digit percentage of our traffic. So we’re actually it’s kind of right we started the whole you know, I’d like to think that we started the whole cat litter trend, but that’s also part of the business. It’s it’s actually just we are really in the general entertainment business for Internet users at this point. And it’s you know, at this point, I think we’re doing several hundred million impressions or close to a billion impressions because ghost page metrics don’t even that’s not even what we measure anymore, right? Because of mobile, it’s difficult to measure, basically. So I think we’re doing several hundred million post impressions every single month.
Bronson: Yeah. And you mentioned all the things you’ve kind of networked out to. You know, you got the fail blog and the meme based, some acquired, some bought and some, you know, created yourself, you know, how do you know when you’re, you know, not focusing as opposed to making good business decisions because the original thing is now single digit compared to the rest of it. So obviously it was the right decision for you. And sometimes when I start something new, I feel a little bit of guilt, like, am I being a bad entrepreneur? How do you balance that?
Ben: You know, I actually look at the pace of innovation. Pace of innovation as a measure of focus. So focus is impossible. Sorry, pace of innovation is impossible without focus. And so when I see my team continue to innovate and move the product in a really rapid way, I know that we are focused, right? So lack of focus doesn’t allow innovation to occur, but having focus isn’t the sole reason that innovation occurs. And so there’s other ingredients like a clear vision, you know, and removing distractions, having a great organization, all that stuff is required to have a rapid pace of innovation to find that product market fit. And so I’m watching actually our team develop a brand new mobile app for our site. So, so we actually have multiple branded. So we were house of brands we had failed blog mean days I can has no you’re mean and what we’re doing is we’re consulting it down to really two core brands that you can actually use to access everything else and know you mean and Cheezburger gives you access to everything else that’s in our network. No. You mean because it’s such a repository of knowledge and it’s actually a really important place for the Internet to go figure out how means and viral phenomena occur. Cheezburger Because it’s an entertainment destination that you want to use to actually have fun. And so the Cheezburger app that we’re developing right now allows you to access I Can has failed blog meme based. You know everything else that we’ve done on the site, geek universe, all that. And so when we actually go out and build a platform for that, we have to think holistically. Okay, it’s for multiple sites. How do we let people pick and choose? How do we let people customize their experience? Because we know that the average user visits four sites. Right? And so we’ve actually learned all the stuff and we’re building a product based on that. And that product is, you know, heads and shoulders better than what we have out there. Yeah, that tells me that we’re focused, right? Because people know what the direction is and they seem to be heading towards that at a very rapid pace.
Bronson: Yeah. Now, the site’s grown a lot. You know, all the sites have grown a lot since you’ve acquired them. Created them? Is it because you were early in a trend that was going to grow no matter what, and you could have done nothing and still have these 100 million views like we talked about? Or were there very practical, specific things you actually did to move the needle on growth?
Ben: You know, I think I’m a lucky beneficiary of a rising tide that floats all boats. So you can’t there’s nothing better than a rising tide. Look, let’s face it. There’s nothing we could have done about it. We were at the right place at the right time. So that’s one thing. The other thing I did was I continued to actually reduce the cost of failure. So when we first got started, we had one website called Cheezburger. And Eric talked about the code that one of the co-founders of Cheezburger, he actually we contracted with him to build of the site for dogs. And so he built that. And so we ended up acquiring that with the site as well. That’s a little, little known story. But so and then after that, Eric rolled off to other stuff. And so I had two sites. When we first got started in the first few months after that, we ended up with a few experiments of working on political staff, working on graph and chart related means. So we had four sites and so and then we started kind of rolling in and I realized that we were able to launch a new website every two months. That’s not bad, right? Every two months. But if you look about think about it in a year, if you launch a new website every two months, you launch six websites. That’s not a lot. That’s not a lot of iteration and testing because you just assume that the majority of them will fail and not be profitable. So I ended up excuse me, I ended up actually going back and rethinking how we did that. So our engineering team, our product team and I sat down and said, I don’t want to launch a new website every two months. I want to launch a new website every two weeks, figure out how to do that. And so they came back and said, We can’t do it on our existing platform. We’re just going to use WordPress and crank out websites. And we can actually do that every two weeks because it doesn’t have the overhead, all the technology that we do. But we can’t it doesn’t work the same as the ones that we have now. So we’ll have to actually kind of dumb it down like you can’t have our brand. And also part of you says that’s unacceptable. Here we are. We’re a company here. But I had to let that go because the pace of innovation is far more important than getting all those I’s dotted and piece crossed. And so we ended up actually creating spinning up an entire new team within our company. We call it the farm team. And their job was to launch a new website every two weeks. I got six websites a year to 26 websites.
Bronson: You can go back and you can add your brand to the ones that work.
Ben: That’s right.
Bronson: So it’s a win win.
Ben: That’s right. And we ended up paying a lot of costs after that because of integration and things like that. But we as a company would not have existed had we not shrunk the cost of failure. And so what happens to the mentality of people working on websites is if I do this and it fails and I spent two months on it, well, there goes my job. Mm hmm. If I do this and it failed, I only spent two weeks on it. That’s not a problem. Yeah, right. You just keep doing it. So it’s not even just time, it’s that the mentality and attitude of people who work there completely changed.
Bronson: Yeah. You know, it’s great because it seems like the great entrepreneurs, they actually have a process for innovation. Innovation isn’t just hire great people and hope they come up with great ideas. It’s hiring people and introduce them to a process that allows them to innovate like clockwork. Is that fair?
Ben: Yeah. I think part of the part of the joy and the charm of being an entrepreneur in this environment is that you are the agent of chaos right then. So you bring in really great people, right? Super talented, super experience. They know what they’re doing. They come to your company and what do you do? You support them because you hire them for who they are. But you have to ask them for something that challenges the way they used to think about the world. Yeah. You didn’t hire them to do exactly what they did at the last company. You want something for them. You want them to do something that is right for your company. And you must introduce what is constructive chaos. That is not the standard we live by. We must rate raise this to a higher standard. You hear that a lot, but it’s true. So for us, you know, when we hired our VP of product and our new product manager and, you know, we built a rebuilt our engineering team from the ground up, we basically ask ourselves, asks, ask ourselves, what are the ingredients that are necessary for us to actually win in this world of mobile because we know we. My feeling is that entertainment will settle somewhere around 70 to 80% of its traffic coming from mobile devices in the next two years. Wow. Yeah. You know, we’re now almost 60% mobile. Therefore, we are a mobile company. Yeah. What does that mean? Because we start out on desktop, we have to change the culture and identity of who we are. So we have to leadership has to introduce and believe in the chaos that they’re creating.
Bronson: I love that phrase. Constructive chaos. I’m gonna start using that one. All right. So let me ask you about circa a little bit. Circa is lesser known because it’s not a meme thing. It’s not a, you know, an I can’t Has Cheezburger cat photo. But I think it’s as important just because of what it does. So tell us a little about Circle. What is it?
Ben: So it’s a news consumption application for a mobile lifestyle. The idea here is that mobile isn’t just a device for circa. It’s it’s that people actually are living their lives through their mobile phones. And so how do you bring news to people who are spending most of the time on mobile phones? And what’s fascinating is that that attitude has allowed Sircar to actually win teenage news readers. I want to tell you how rare that is that you didn’t know existed. Yeah. Yeah. So that’s kind of the running joke, right? It’s like these millennials are going to read news, right? That’s not true. That was actually a panel, I think, in New York around media. And actually somebody asked the teams, like, what do you guys read? You know, what are you guys used to read news? And they’re like, nothing. And then one teen said, Yeah, you suck. And then just like our jaws hit the floor. Right. It wasn’t the intent. But because that experience is so efficient and so customizable and just so native to mobile platforms that kids are using it.
Bronson: Yeah. So what would be different about Circa as opposed to going to the mobile CNN website? What is going to make it friendly and mobile and useful?
Ben: Yeah, so so that’s a great question. If you look at any other news application for mobile, what they’re doing is taking the thing that they created for TV or desktop and just trying to shove it into the small form factor. And so their priority is about how do you feed all of this crap into this tiny little device? Right. And it’s really difficult to do that. And we as adults are used to reading that format. And so we’re actually we don’t even know that we’re, you know, in that environment. But what circa does is we atomized content. In other words, news is made up of very simple things about location, time, events, quotes, facts, figures, formula, photos, videos, right? It’s actually it’s an assembly of these ingredients in a specific way. And what you know, I went to journalism school, so I know this. Journalists are paid to not only gather those facts, but also create a narrative out of it. Right. And so there’s there’s gather facts to confirm information really difficult to do and then try to be right. Mm hmm. Right. And I remember this quote from my journalism instructor, and he was one of those, you know, hard and, you know, jaded kind of fellows. And he said, you know, you guys are in journalism school because all of you are afraid to get a job as a writer because you can’t easily get a job as a journalist. So you’re just a bunch of failed writers. I just that was really funny, but it’s great that the narrative part is what makes the product a little bit different. For Saga, we do create a narrative, but it is not the job of the single writer to tell you a story. For us, the story is being told by what is actually happening and we can actually put you a little bit closer to the facts, quotes, maps, images by actually creating a format called randomization. And so here’s what happens. Let’s say Ferguson riots, right? That’s happening right now. Something happens and, you know, breaking news and you go to like, you know, NBC News or CNN or anybody else and they’ll have this big red banner across the top, this breaking news, something something happen or let’s say Malaysia Airlines got shot, shot over Ukraine. You know, Malaysian Airlines plane shot down somewhere over Ukraine. What are they asking you to do after they see that headline? What will you do? So there’s there’s nothing if there’s no news that basically says, look at all this information, we know nothing, go away. Okay. I got to see what it is.
Bronson: Breaking news. We have breaking news.
Ben: We’re breaking news. We know nothing. Thank you. Yeah, I’m back later with Circa because you can follow specific stories. Individual stories, not topics, not people, but specific stories. Mm hmm. When you see that headline, you can actually. And what if you click that follow button? The next time there’s an update, we push that update to the people who are following that story.
Bronson: And the update could be any piece of that formula. Another quote, another date, another event, another piece of truth that’s been verified. Not a piece of narrative for me to fill. You know, put another story in your mind.
Ben: Yeah, because the alternative is you actually go to the news website and they would have a new updated paragraph at the top, and everything else is exactly the same. The background is the same, all the stuff that you’ve already read and halfway down the story, you’re like, I read this before. Yeah. What’s new? It’s hard to know what’s new. And sometimes I’ll just change the headline for the same story and you end up reading it twice and going. I just wasted my time.
Bronson: Yeah. And it seems like now you get to supply your own narrative based on how you think these things might fit together. I always have, and it’s almost like the user generated inside of I Can Cheezburger. Let them create the entertainment. Let them have the narrative piece of the news. Is that fair?
Ben: That is absolutely correct. In fact, the kernel of idea about atomization actually came from Cheezburger. So we actually and she’s like a woman redeveloping our platform. We said, look, we think that the world of content should be made up of atoms that are actually portable and remix of all. How do we actually create a platform that supports that? And so whether building a software to do it and then I actually apply that concept to news and I met up with Matt and wound up, you know, leading the company. So that kernel of atomization is super important to us because we think that atomization allows not only the human beings to create a narrative that’s interesting to them and personalize it for them. But it allows the machine to understand what was the motivation of the human being as read.
Bronson: Or have it correctly.
Ben: That’s right. Now, yeah, just tagging categorization sorting, actually relating one point to another, because what happens in remixing is, hey, there’s a blank, blank image, and all these memes were created from it. Mm hmm. How do we know that they all tie up to the same source? How do we know that it is the same meme?
Bronson: Yeah. And so it seems like with this atomization inside, you know, you’ve done it with entertainment and now you’re doing it with news. Could you do it with almost anything? I mean, there’s atomization. You know, here software is eating the world. I can totally imagine atomization being the world only because everything is going mobile where it needs to be atomized.
Ben: Yeah, yeah, I think it can. So, I mean, just just thinking about this interview for a second, right. So this interview has a very specific structure question and answer, and each question and each answer actually can be atomized. So if you’re able to actually say the machines can actually let’s say YouTube could do closed captioning actually correctly. And actually what you’re saying, you can actually say questions about open market. Right. And you can actually now take Q&A for each outbound marketing question and answer and actually create an entire corpus of that question that people can look at. I’m an up marketer. I only want to know stuff about marketing. How do I do that on your platform?
Bronson: Yeah. No, I think it’s genius. I mean, when I think about what is growth hacker TV 2.0 look like, that’s actually what comes to my mind is a list of text questions that you click on, On and Up Pops the interview for that segment and just this really atomized, you know, way of doing it. So I think you’re right. I mean, I think it can be applied to a lot of different industries. How much opportunity did you think there is for entrepreneurs that want to change news? Consumption is news. Something worth thinking about right now still or is circa here now you need to go do something else.
Ben: Well, for me, you know, I’m all in on this one approach. We think that mobile, especially for a millennial, and there’s a huge generation gap. I mean, like, you know, I grew up in years, you know, on TV and that’s kind of how I got to where I am. But, you know, I was an early adopter to, you know, how news was published on the Internet. And it was something that actually drove me to the point I’m going. But mobile is the next generation. And then beyond that, we’ll have to figure out something else. But right now, you know, I’m all into figuring out a mobile based approach that is unique and different. And this idea called atomization actually begets far more interesting ideas about how data should be structured, the news in general. So, yeah, you know, one of the point formats, one of the atom formats inside Circa is a thing called quote, right? But as the content of something somebody said and it has a name and a title and all the metadata related to it. Sure. What that allows us to do is actually refer create a database of knowledge about what anybody has said. And so eventually, I think they’re building this now in the new countermeasure system in CERCA, where you can actually look up a person’s name and they’ll tell you every quote they’ve ever said.
Bronson: That’s amazing.
Ben: Right. So the atomization has a humongous benefit. Yeah. Right. So so in Cheezburger, one of the things that we’re trying to create is what I call the mean graph, the idea that somebody can actually take an image and remix it and, you know, maybe they change the words, maybe they change the image, maybe basically Photoshop something in there. But we want to be able to see how the genesis got started and how it ended up branching out into other areas. And so no, you mean does that manually in a very anthropological way. But we want. Give them the data to actually see how does this happen in real time.
Bronson: Yeah. So was circa how hard has it been to grow a mobile app that is about news as opposed to a website that is about cat photos? It seems like the growth curves there would be very, very different and it seems like circle would be much harder to grow. Is that the case?
Ben: I think what you have here is a case of a longer term product. I think news is something that where you have to earn people’s trust. Right. So you don’t. Not only do you have to have to have to create content that’s actually valid, viable and actually interesting. But you also have to create this trust between the news organization because circa is something that actually took a hatchet, actually has editors whose job is to go write the content that we consume, not just, you know, create a mobile product that that you can automate the content creation. And so there’s all these kind of complex layering of of issues that come with, you know, do I trust you as a news source? Yeah. That that allows them to kind of build momentum over the long term. Whereas on Cheezburger, the viral curve looks very different. It’s a big spike, you know, big drop. And you have to kind of keep adding the spikes together over, over again because things happen and then they disappear. Whereas with news, especially with a follow model, you see this growth line, right? They’re building momentum on the long term.
Bronson: Yeah. So you mentioned the meme curve there. So let me ask a question about memes for a second. It seems like viral marketing and memes kind of go hand in hand. You’re wanting something to get massive distribution really fast and then it will drop off. It’s not going to stay there forever. I want to ask you, what do the best memes have in common so that maybe as marketers, we can learn from them? What is the the you know, what is a great meme made of.
Ben: You know, a great be a great meme, I think has two components. One is a visual exploitation. So in other words, you see an image and it actually exemplifies an emotion or a moment or some some zeitgeist that everybody kind of feels. So, you know, the image has to have that identifiable quality, right? So you see like pepper spray, for example. Right? Like that moment of watching a cop pepper spray, people who are just sitting on the ground. It’s an iconic image about, you know, that moment that was happening in time. Grumpy Cat, right? Like it’s a sad cat, like a depressed cat, even though cats don’t have anything to be depressed about. But we know that about cats. Mm hmm. And then the second component here is that every meme requires a Seinfeld in, like, everyday quality. What we are looking for is extraordinary stories. These are not stories about something that we can’t relate to or that are really kind of out there. They’re really stories about us. Those captions are about things that we can relate to in our everyday life.
Bronson: I love that. I’ve never heard anybody say that, and I don’t know if you’ve said that other places. I’m sure you have. But visual exploitation and then a Seinfeld everyday quality. That is the joke, not some bigger than life scenario. And I even think about the commercials on TV that are just hilarious to me and they have both those qualities. Like, I’m looking at it and I’m visually arrested or something being exploited visually, but then what’s happening is not outlandish. You know, that’s like the the Volkswagen, you know, the kid that, you know, thinks he’s Darth Vader. It’s like, I can see my kid doing that and. Yeah, I love it.
Ben: Yeah, it’s relatable. What? What what I think humor does is that it tells a a truth without using the words to describe the truth. Mm hmm. Right. And so.
Bronson: Comedians do.
Ben: Yeah, I think that’s what’s great about comedy, is that it’s it’s it’s a piece of art that says, I’m going to tell you something that is almost universal that we can all relate to. But I’m going to do it in a non-obvious way. Yeah, right. So Darth Vader in the Volkswagen ad is a great example of here’s what children do, here’s what they match, here’s how my imagination works. But I’m not going to talk about imagination. Right. I’m going to try something completely different and just tell you something that you can see yourself doing or see your kids do.
Bronson: Yeah. You know, it’s funny, there is some relationship between comedy and truth and even marketing and truth. And if you can push truth far enough in the right way, you end up with something hilarious.
Ben: Yeah, actually, that’s actually what I’ve sketch for South by Southwest next year is. Oh, really? Yeah. Is humor more powerful than truth today? Because we’re more driven by a world in which entertainment is a requirement of a communication process.
Bronson: Comedy Central is where I get more political news than CNN. I mean, there’s there’s a reason.
Ben: Well, you’re probably a liberal, then.
Bronson: Well, well, I said CNN, not MSNBC or Fox. I mean, I’m trying to stay in the middle here.
Ben: It’s right now. We’ve got we’ve got a bit of a partizan problem when it comes to college news, but I’m pretty sure. I’m sure they’ll figure it out.
Bronson: Yeah, we’ll see. Well, I don’t know if they’ll figure that out. I it’s hard to imagine Fox being funny, but we’ll see.
Ben: Yeah. Yeah.
Bronson: Oh, this has been great. Ben, I got one last question for you. Is the question always in the interviews with, which is what’s the best advice you have for any startup that’s trying to grow?
Ben: So I think. This question gets asked me a lot just because of the nature of the business that I am. But I’m in this I can we do something viral for our our product. And what I look at is, look, if you’re doing something very social and you want to be able to kind of exploit what Facebook has to offer or Twitter has to offer and figure out how to actually create a traffic generation machine and kind of an algorithm hack that actually lets you gain followers or grow users. That’s one thing. But if you’re asking me if we can create a viral phenomenon to actually like drive the marketing of our product, my answer is no, not because you can’t do it just because it’s not your core business. And when you are three, four or five people working together to create a product, that is not a good use of your time. And so I know plenty of startups that’s actually tried to do that against my advice, and usually they end up coming back and saying it kind of worked but didn’t really do anything for our business.
Bronson: Yeah, well, they don’t have the ability to run the experiments that you do, launching a new site every two weeks to find the one thing that actually catches on. They have to put all the years, you know, one thing and hope it works.
Ben: Yeah, they have to they have to build value into their product. And we do what we do because that is our product, not because it’s marketing. Right.
Bronson: So you are the meme. Well, Ben, thank you so much for coming on growth of TV. This has been an awesome interview.
Ben: Thank you very much.
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