CINDY ELLEN RUSSELL / CRUSSELL@STARBULLETIN.COM
Honolulu residents Eric Nakagawa and Kari Unebasami created the icanhascheezburger.com
Web site that features user-submitted photos of cats (and other animals) with entertaining captions written by readers. The site became so popular that the two friends were able to quit their day jobs, publish a site-related book, sell the site and start a new venture. The entrepreneurs are pictured in The Cat House at the Hawaiian Humane Society.
Hawaii entrepreneurs sitting in catbird seat
An online joke turns friends into successful entrepreneurs with icanhascheezburger.com
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Creators of the internationally known Web site of funny cat pictures - icanhascheezburger.com -are Honolulu residents who started the site as an inside joke.
It turned into a $2 million business deal.
Honolulu friends Eric Nakagawa and Kari Unebasami, now rock stars in some tech circles, will debut a book based on the Web site on Oct. 7 in the U.S. and U.K., and have turned the accidental enterprise into a profit and a new business.
The cheezburger site grew profitable in a short time to the point that Nakagawa was able to quit his day job as a software programmer and consultant. That is almost unheard of for most bloggers.
Unebasami later quit her editing job as well.
Out of concern for pet-loving cheezburger visitors, they linked to another Web site featuring news on the contaminated pet food scare and "melted" its server.
It was then they were introduced to Seattle-based businessman Ben Huh, who wound up buying the online enterprise that had been sapping the energy and hours from the partners' days.
Nakagawa and Unebasami have started another company, FTW R&D LLC, focused on developing positive, fun Web sites - but they'll also have some book signings to do here and on the mainland starting next month.
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Faces have launched a thousand ships in story and have been "grown accustomed to" in song, but one face enabled two Honolulu-based worker-bees to quit their day jobs and become millionaire entrepreneurs.
Understanding the lingo | A brief, nonalphabetized glossary of lolspeak and slang:
Photo of a cat with a misspelled caption, usually funny or cute.
» Loldog: As above, but canine.
» Fail: The moment intentions go awry, as seen on "America's Funniest Home Videos" on TV and now online at failblog.org and other sites.
» Epic: Of large proportion. Used to describe a positive or negative result, such as epic fail.
» O hai: A salutation, "Oh hi!"
» Nom nom nom: The sound a lolcat or loldog, bunneh or lolrus makes when eating, usually voraciously.
» Kthxbai: OK, thank you and good-bye.
Eric Nakagawa and Kari Unebasami built an empire from a cat's face and a bad day.
A goofy picture of a cat captioned, "I can has cheezburger?" was the foundation of their wildly popular Web site - icanhascheezburger.com.
So-called Happy Cat also graces the cover of their book, "I Can Has Cheezburger? A LOLcat Colleckshun," due out nationwide and in the U.K. on Oct. 7.
LOL means laughing out loud, which people find themselves doing, viewing icanhascheezburger's animals, mostly cats - hence the term LOLcats.
It started in January of last year when Nakagawa told Unebasami of his tough day at the office. He was a software programmer and consultant for a company he declined to name.
She, Web editor for PacificBasin Communications LLC, sent him pictures of Happy Cat and others from her collection.
He "literally laughed out loud," he said.
Nakagawa immediately registered the Internet domain icanhascheezburger.com and posted Happy Cat as a joke. He only intended to post the one image, originally taken for a Russian cat food ad, "but within a few minutes of discussion we put up a blog," he said.
COURTESY GOTHAM BOOKS
Professor Happy Cat, the face upon which the cheezburger empire was built, graces the cover of a new book by icanhascheezburger.com
founders Eric Nakagawa and Kari Unebasami. The book will debut at major and independent booksellers in the U.S. and U.K. on Oct. 7.
Soon there were more photos, captioned as if the "kittehs" (kitties) were speaking.
The images are known as memes. Princeton University's WordNet lexicon defines a meme as an idea, value, or behavior conveyed through non-genetic means - as by conversation, or electronically.
Neither partner claims to have started the animal-picture meme craze. The images already were online, Nakagawa said.
What they did, was aggregate them in one place and tag them by keywords or other characteristics to make them searchable.
They also encouraged community-building and propagation of the funny lolspeak language by inviting viewer comments and eventually, user-captioned photos.
CINDY ELLEN RUSSELL / CRUSSELL@STARBULLETIN.COM
Kari Unebasami, above, co-created the icanhascheezburger.com
Web site that ultimately was sold for $2 million. Her co-creator, Eric Nakagawa, said their story proves "you don't have to go to San Francisco to be a success." Above, Unebasami caresses a kitten in The Cat House at the Hawaiian Humane Society.
"Soon enough the language exploded into use," he said.
Unebasami added, "People would respond to the pictures with the same language ... they wanted to talk in this silly language."
They experimented with funny and cute images to see which drew the best responses, as well as different animals, including bunnehs (bunnies) and a lolrus (walrus). One caption had the lolrus lamenting his stolen bukkit (bucket).
People were "willing to send in money in order for the lolrus to get his bukkit back," she said.
New images were posted at key times of day to enrich a visitor's experience, such as mornings, lunch breaks and evenings.
COURTESY GOTHAM BOOKS
This unsuccessful attempt to drink from the glass in the LOLcat Colleckshun book is also the sort of image that might be found at failblog.org, a cheezburger sister-site depicting photos and videos during the moment that intentions go awry.
They had no idea it would virtually snowball into a wildly popular Web destination featured in national publications including the Wall Street Journal, Time and BusinessWeek, as well as online musings frequented by tech-savvy readers.
They tried to reply to the flood of photo submissions.
"I could do 1,000 e-mails," Nakagawa said, "and it would take until 3 or 4 in the morning, but we were getting two- to three-thousand a day."
Foreseeing a large server bill, advertising was added. It didn't make much at first, but traffic skyrocketed and revenue followed to the point that Nakagawa was able to quit his day job in May.
COURTESY GOTHAM BOOKS
This photo is one of one million cheezburger Web site images authors Eric Nakagawa and Kari Unebasami had to filter through for the book. They had to secure permission for each image published. The pages also feature art work by local illustrators Kenta Nemoto and Liane Uesato.
Merchandise was added and order fulfillment took even more time.
"I was at his apartment a few nights a week," packaging shipments, Unebasami said.
Nakagawa's family was enlisted to help, but that still meant driving to his mother's house in Ewa Beach for drop-off and pickup. They were spending $100 a day on postage.
"The problem was, every step we took, it was successful, but it increased our workload," he said. They were running out of hours in the day.
They considered hiring help, but were not confident they could find the right person and did not want the rigmarole of becoming employers.
During last spring's pet food contamination crisis, icanhascheezburger linked to a site covering the topic to serve pet lovers.
Traffic to the other site "melted the server," Nakagawa said, but the misfortune connected them to its owner, Seattle-based businessman Ben Huh.
COURTESY GOTHAM BOOKS
LOLcats speak LOLspeak, a sort of baby-talk language that is found on several Web sites, including a LOLspeak primer. People wanting to post and caption photos on the cheezburger family of Web sites can study up so other site visitors won't say, "LOLspeak, ur doin' it wrong."
It is said a picture is worth a thousand words, but Happy Cat and his siblings were worth $2 million, which Huh and his investors paid for the site, Time magazine reported.
It was sold last September, and when Huh's crew took over, Nakagawa and Unebasami had time to build long-planned sister-site ihasahotdog.com, focused on goggies (doggies).
Unebasami quit her day job in October.
Huh has acquired or started more humor sites linked on the cheezburger page, including one called Failblog.org. Despite the sale, the three are still a team, Nakagawa said.
Cheezburger's popularity drew literary agents' attention. They connected with Kate McKean and scored a book deal in January.
Six or seven other publishers were bidding and "we won the auction," said Patrick Mulligan, editor of the Gotham Books imprint of Penguin Group (USA) Inc.
Web site-based books are increasingly popular, despite the "old myth that people won't buy something they've already read online."
The "Stuff White People Like" site also spurred a heated auction for publishing rights and "that book's been a bestseller," said Mulligan.
An online essay collection-turned-book, "I Hope They Serve Beer in Hell," has sold close to half-a million units.
Gotham published a Chuck Norris book after the online pop culture storm of jokes about his varied prowess.
Norris sued, sales spiked and after the initial 15,000-book press run, Mulligan believes it is in its 11th printing.
Icanhascheezburger.com "was by far the hottest thing out there and it's still pretty gigantic," garnering about 12 million unique visitors a month, he said.
The initial printing was 75,000 books, "a pretty healthy number for a first run."
Cat books "sell like crazy."
Bad Cat, published by Workman Publishing Co., has pictures of cats being naughty, and "has sold a million copies," Mulligan said.
Stuff on My Cat, by Chronicle Books, has pictures of things such as bagels resting atop cats and "has sold pretty well, too."
It was both cheezburger's online allure and cat book sales stats that drew Gotham. However, Mulligan has a hard time characterizing the book.
When you try to explain that they are pictures of cats with misspelled captions from the cat's point of view, "it doesn't make sense until you see it and realize that it's kind of brilliant."
Local illustrators Kenta Nemoto and Liane Uesato were hired to work on the book, for which Nakagawa and Unebasami had 1 million images to weed through.
It will be available at Barnes & Noble, Borders and independent booksellers.
Icanhascheezburger.com will start promoting the book this week, but presales have been under way for weeks at sites including Nakagawa and Unebasami's lulzftw.com.
Lulz is a new iteration of LOL and FTW means for the win, keyed off their new company.
FTW R&D LLC is developing "positive, fun Web sites and technology," he said.
Now rock stars in geekdom, the two never made a big deal about being from Hawaii.
One reason was to keep a firewall between business out there and home turf, where they can stay low key.
Another, Unebasami said, is that some elitists make snarky comments like, "you have the Internet in Hawaii?"
However, they know and appreciate that local folks will be stoked for the success of Nakagawa, a Radford High graduate and Unebasami, a Pearl City High alum.
Their story proves "you don't have to go to San Francisco to be a success," Nakagawa said.
"I think local kids forget that there are people doing interesting (work) here in the isles and that they too can make it big if they focus, work hard and hit on a good patch of timing."