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Leadership: At Cheezburger Network, users take the lead

Or, how grammatically challenged cats pull in a seven-figure income.

By Staff Writer / November 29, 2011

Ben Huh runs a network of more than 50 websites and a team of 87 employees. All the content used on the sites is user-generated – with a little encouragement.

Taylor Weidman/The Christian Science Monitor

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Who would have thought that grammatically deficient cats could be big business?

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The Internet has long trafficked in photos of kooky pets, but few have capitalized on them as successfully as the Cheezburger Network. The company started with a simple gag: a photo of a goofy gray cat, mouth agape, with the superimposed caption, "I can has cheezburger?"

The joke exploded. Teens, housewives, and grandparents now upload their own cat photos, add intentionally misspelled captions, and share their creations millions of times over. The Cheezburger Network has grown to include more than 50 websites, featuring everything from examples of computer auto-correction gone wrong to photos of real signs written in comically poor English. This mix of charm and sarcasm, with a touch of schadenfreude, pulls in 18.7 million people a month.

But the company doesn't hire writers, photographers, or comedians. All the images and jokes – all the reasons for visiting the Cheezburger Network – come from the audience. In this very Internet-age dynamic, leadership, according to Cheezburger CEO Ben Huh, comes from setting the tone and then getting out of the way.

"For us, the trend has been turning more and more of the company over to the users," says Mr. Huh. "I think what we're going to see is more companies trusting the user. And that is something that I find very much in parallel to being a leader in my company."

The network runs somewhat like an online newspaper. As new images roll in, Huh's editors select the best and publish them in the appropriate sections. These regular updates run alongside ads, which bring in much of Cheezburger's seven-figure annual revenue.

That money pays for Huh's 87-person team of editors and programmers but not the people who actually create the content. Without frequent, quality contributions from the community, the company would quickly evaporate.

That's why Huh stresses the importance of building a great playground but then letting the people decide how to enjoy it. Of course, this requires a lot of trust in the users. Few places bring out the dark side of schoolyard behavior quite like the Internet. But Huh compares this faith in the users with his faith in his employees.

"If you trust your employees, you have to give them leeway on their interpretation of your vision," he says. "The same actually goes for our community as well, which is, I expect that our community will put the best interests of the community at heart – that they will act within social norms. And if that is actually the case, than we should give them more tools so that they can make that happen."

The network receives 12,000 to 15,000 submissions a day. Of those, maybe 10 to 12 percent are funny enough for the home page, says Lisa Kacerosky, one of Cheezburger's senior editors. They regularly toss aside inside jokes and offensive humor. But the most unfortunate kind of reject, she says, are legitimately hilarious submissions attached to crummy or poorly edited photographs. While Cheezburger can't do much about blurry images, the company has built several online tools to make creating a joke as easy as possible.

For example, Ms. Kacerosky recalls one of the first big gags to emerge after she was hired two years ago. During the 2009 MTV Video Music Awards, rapper Kanye West stormed the stage during Taylor Swift's acceptance speech, grabbed the microphone away from her, and declared that Beyoncé should have won the award for Best Female Video. For the next few weeks, the Web brimmed with jokes about Mr. West's audacity.

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