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How Wez Made Millionz Wit Dis Foto

Two entrepreneurs turn a quirky culture of creating misspelled captions for cat photos into one of the most popular Web sites. Lessons about commerce in the 21st century

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Too often, companies try to use the customer. “That’s the wrong attitude,” Chen says. “They [the companies] want to get a benefit out of it rather than focusing on what they can offer to the customer.” ICanHasCheezburger.com shows what can happen when you are successful, Chen says. “If you manage your crowd correctly, you can unleash creativity and build loyalty.”

 Huh says an important factor is to remember that people want to express themselves, but they are also asking for you to filter the massive amount of information out there. People are overwhelmed with information and a lack of time. What a successful company does, whether it be a magazine or a local retail store or even a bank, is do the research for you and provide you with the information you need and then allow you to participate in further discussion. The key today is still building trust, but trust includes people having a voice in the endeavor or business.

Huh adds that there were a number of LOLcats Web sites before ICanHas Cheezburger, but they simply posted every picture without a filtering system.

 That’s what Unebasami and Nakagawa did, they filtered the photos so people could quickly see the best and then let community members interact. “We spend an enormous amount of time on making sure our community is taken care of,” he says. “You have to make sure your community is taken care of.”

CAT’S MEOW: While ICanHasCheezburger.com might sound ridiculous, the amount of Web traffic it receives is worthy of taking notice. In fact, esteemed publications such as The Wall Street Journal and Business Week are among ones that covered the Web site in pieces that heralded the new commerce opportunities online.

 

 Howz Deh Did It

 Unebasami and Nakagawa emphasize they had set out to have fun, not necessarily make money. Nakagawa seems to believe that almost everyone has a business idea — something that might, in fact, work.

 But while everyone might be able to do something, few, if any, can do what the two founders did. Perhaps most significantly, they have the technical know-how to create and manage the Web site – skills they picked up largely on their own. Also, they hit on a subject they loved, that others quickly – virally – came to love, too.

LOLcats had already existed on the Internet for some time, and Unebasami had been collecting ones she liked, just for fun. “It was hard to find good ones,” she says. Interestingly, prior to the fateful “I Can Has Cheezburger?” cat, Nakagawa didn’t seem to think they were funny, she says. The transition for him and really the public in general was when the site became about expressing personal humor and not about cats. (It should be noted that neither one owns a cat, though Unebasami does own a rabbit.)

Another key to their success is the pair’s flexibility and responsiveness. They constantly updated and reinvented the site by adding features and moving things around. Astonishingly, they were determined to personally respond to every email or submission. “Sometimes, like if I put an ad front and center, people would get mad,” Nakagawa says. “But I would explain to them, ‘Hey, I need to pay my bills.’” That kind of dialogue with users is critical to community development. Huh says, “You can’t just build and expect them to come.”

Today, Huh, with Unebasami and Nakagawa as advisors, has expanded the site to a series of sites that range from dogs to politics and celebrities with the same functionality and principles. You take photos and write funny captions. Then you vote.  “We are not looking to fragment audiences. We are looking for new audiences,” he says. So far it is working, with dog photos taking off in a similar trajectory to cats. He has 15 people working on the series of sites.

Unebasami and Nakagawa are focusing on promoting a book spinoff from the original ICanHasCheezburger Web site and discussing new ventures. They are also attending Web conferences where, going by their real names, they have become Internet celebrities for hard core Webophiles. Yes, Unebasami and Nakagawa are now fondly known as the founders of that quirky cat Web site. But it hasn’t gone to their heads.

They are still just two local entrepreneurs.

 “It was for fun,” says Unebasami. “Then it got popular and we had to adjust to that.”

 

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Hawaii Business,November