Eric Nakagawa, a software developer in Hawaii, posted a single photo of a fat, smiling cat he found on the Internet, with the caption, "I can has cheezburger?" in January, 2007, at a Web site he created. It was supposed to be a joke. Soon after he posted a few more images in the same vein: cute cats with funny captions written in a silly, invented hybrid of Internet shorthand and baby-talk. Then he turned the site into a blog, so that visitors could comment on the postings. What happened after that would have been hard for anyone to predict.
"We just thought, O.K., they're funny,"Nakagawa says. "Suddenly we started getting hits. I was like, where are these coming from?"
An Accidental Entrepreneur
He saw traffic on the blog, I Can Has Cheezburger, which he runs with his partner, "Tofuburger" (she refuses to disclose her real name) double each month: 375,000 hits in March, 750,000 in April, 1.5 million in May. Cheezburger now gets 500,000 page views a day from between 100,000 and 200,000 unique visitors, according to Nakagawa. The cheapest ad costs $500 for a week. The most expensive goes for nearly $4,000. Nakagawa, an accidental entrepreneur who saw his successful business materialize out of the ether, quit his programming job at the end of May: "It made more sense to do this and see how big it could get."
Cheezburger's story is unusual in the upper reaches of the blogosphere in that the time between launching and reaching a critical mass of readers who sustain the site is so compressed. But many of the most popular bloggers have similar tales of starting out with a niche idea—an inside joke, a particular obsession—and watching it explode. Of course, most blogs linger in obscurity and are read by only a handful of people, and few ever reach the level Cheezburger has. What about a blog like Cheezburger lets it break away from the pack?
The initial appeal of the blog may have been a fluke, but its growth since then has been part of a tightly controlled experiment to help answer that question. Nakagawa and his partner constantly tweak the site to see what draws readers and what leaves them cold.
"We basically have a playground where people keep coming to play, so we're trying to create new games all the time,"Nakagawa says.
Building a Community
To drive traffic, they try to time their new posts with when people are most likely to be reading: in the mornings, on their lunch breaks, or in the evenings. Early on, when Nakagawa saw the site getting 1,000 page views a day, he added a widget that allows visitors to rate each post on a scale of one to five cheeseburgers. That helped boost traffic to 2,000.
Readers don't just rate or comment on the posts. They create them. Cheezburger depends on its fans to submit pictures, write funny captions, and send them in. Nakagawa has built a tool to let readers select a ready-made photo or upload their own, add and position captions, choose font styles, and submit a finished product. Any visitor can vote on the submissions, and the most popular ones make it to the main page. The function saves Nakagawa from having to find funny captions for photos, and it creates a lasting bond with readers.
That kind of interaction helps make I Can Has Cheezburger as much a community as a blog. A post by one user will inspire another to play off the theme, forming a narrative. "It's like you're creating a story supplied by people in the community, and then the people in the community supply the next part of the story,"Nakagawa says.
From Inside Joke to Job
The idea of building a community around content supplied by users sustains several top blogs, and most put the idea of community ahead of making money. For Heather Cocks and Jessica Morgan, who lampoon celebrity fashion on their blog, Go Fug Yourself, the fact that ad sales on their blog now pay their salaries has not changed what they set out to do from Day One: have fun. "It was one of these inside jokes that we thought was going to just stay an inside joke,"says Cocks.
Part of it has to do with the nature of the medium: Blogging creates a direct connection between authors and readers, a conversation with distinct voices carried out in comments and e-mails and other blogs. Nakagawa wants to see how big that conversation—not to mention his business—can get. "It's kind of like, how far can you take it?" he says.
To see a slide show on how top bloggers earn money, click here.
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