After eight years as the founder and CEO of the Cheezburger Network, Ben Huh stepped down last July and embarked on a year-long, 37-country trip around the world. Now the “Internet famous” entrepreneur is back in Seattle for one last summer before heading off on another adventure — a move to San Francisco.
Huh mentioned the move in recent social media posts and in an essay he shared this month on Medium, and we caught up with the well-known entrepreneur who made Internet cat photos a worldwide sensation to learn more about why he’s leaving Seattle after all of these years.
“Every chapter comes to an end, and our time in Seattle will be over after one last summer,” Huh wrote. “Then we’ll start a new chapter in San Francisco. I don’t know what I will do next. I do not know if I can contribute to progress. But I can try.”
In an interview with GeekWire on Thursday, Huh shed a bit more light on what he’s up to now, what he hopes to accomplish in the Bay Area, and why it will be hard to leave a Seattle scene in which he was a fixture, thanks to the rise of I Can Has Cheezburger and its companion comedy websites. The 9-year-old comedy network that he started, and later raised piles of venture capital, was sold earlier this year to an Israeli media company.
“It’ll probably be tech,” Huh said about what’s next. “I’m still looking for high-growth opportunities. I’m not gonna go do what other people are doing. Hopefully I’ll find a new niche.”
His plan is to head down to San Francisco in mid-September, and for the six to 12 months after that, Huh said he is going to be in “deep beginner learning mode.”
“The idea is to ask the stupid questions, like, ‘Why is it done this way?’ … ‘Why is any industry the way it is?'” Huh said. “And see if I can arrive from a naive but fresh perspective and really learn what the opportunities are in whichever industry.”
He said whether or not he took that same approach when creating Cheezburger, it wasn’t deliberate.
“One of the things I used to say is, ‘No one told me I couldn’t build a media company from cat pictures,'” Huh said. “And so I’m essentially formalizing that into a methodology. This is not my own methodology, this is something that a lot of people have used and talked about. So, I’m gonna try that — approach something from a beginner’s eye and say, ‘Why is it done this way? How could it be different? How could it be easier?’ and see if I can actually make a difference doing that.”
Huh — a Northwestern University-trained journalist who also previously co-founded the news app Circa — envisions building something that scales and something “that actually has potential to make a lot people’s lives easier so that they’ll love the product or the service that we’ve created.”
In his post on Medium, it’s clear that Huh was moved deeply by what he saw on the seven continents he visited. He cozied up to a baby panda bear in China and kayaked alongside humpback whales in Antarctica.
The people and places he and his wife saw and interacted with served as more than just subjects for Facebook photo posts. And Huh seems to want whatever he does next to serve some sort of greater good.
I am here to discover truths. To be curious. To be open to being wrong. To listen without passing judgement. I am here to be present. To live an aware life. To live fearlessly. To experience, not consume. I am here to connect positively. To fill those around me with the hope of the future, the joy of the now, with honesty from my past.
Huh, who was born in Korea, spent most of his high school years in Sacramento, Calif. He laughs when asked if his wife is excited about moving to San Francisco.
“Uh, no. She’s not excited about it,” Huh said. “She loves it here. I love it here. What an amazing city. And we’ve been here during the time where it’s really been transformed to an even more amazing city, and we have lots of friends. She was talking about one of the things we love about Seattle is that we know so many people in so many different industries — we know musicians, chefs, architects, artists — and that community that we know is super fascinating and really interesting.”
Leaving all of that is exactly the mindset that brought Huh to Seattle in the first place.
“That’s how I got to Seattle,” Huh said. “I was in Chicago for 10 years and I felt that in order for me to change, not just the trajectory of my life, in order for me to change and find new perspective, the fastest and the best way to do it is just to physically change my environment.”
Huh said it’ll be very hard to leave Seattle, and he hopes he and his wife can build a similar community of friends in San Francisco.
On Thursday he was headed to Paine Field, north of Seattle. While he’s had his pilot’s license for about two years, he’s two weeks into getting his instrument rating, which will allow him to fly in low visibility in clouds, land in bad weather and so forth.
During his travels, Huh was able to co-pilot a four-seat aircraft with a friend in New Zealand. He and his wife also ended up being the only passengers on a 12-passenger Cessna Caravan in which the pilot let Huh sit up front with him and they flew together. “That was awesome, in the middle of nowhere Africa.”
On Instagram he posted another image of himself during a training flight in Poulsbo, Wash., and in the caption says he hopes to “move down to SF a better and safer pilot.”
With his eye on the distance between San Francisco and Seattle, Huh said a flight between the two cities takes about 8 hours in a Cessna.
He noted that he recently updated a bucket list which he keeps online. “Buy a (fast) aircraft” is listed among nine current life goals.
The first item on the list? “Build a business (again).”