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Techie leaves great job for one that's the cat's meow

Socially active Austinite heading west to work for humor sites, including I Can Has Cheezburger.

Omar L. Gallaga
ogallaga@statesman.com

Before our current age of YouTube celebrities and ever-present Internet access, it would seem like career suicide: giving up a job you love to work for a company that publishes funny photos of cats on the Web.

But Eugene Hsu, an Austin techie who grew up in Rochester, N.Y., is going from one geek dream job to another. He's leaving local online video game firm Challenge Games to join Cheezburger Network, a collection of more than 31 humor Web sites featuring silly cats (I Can Has Cheezburger?) funny failures (FAIL Blog) and even politics (Pundit Kitchen).

Improbably, the network began with a photo of a plaintive gray cat with the words, "I CAN HAS CHEEZBURGER?" and has morphed into a whole kind of pidgin English called "lolspeak" and a parent company called Pet Holdings Inc. whose sites collectively boast about a billion page views every few months. Yes, "billion."

"It took me two weeks to explain to my parents what the site was," says Hsu, over an orange juice and a cookie at Jo's Coffee on Second Street. The job change necessitates a move to Seattle; Hsu plans to move as soon as he sells his Austin house.

In the meantime, he's been dividing time between the two cities ever since he was offered the job by Todd Sawicki , a longtime friend who's now chief revenue officer at Cheezburger Network.

In late October, he got a call from Sawicki. "He said, 'I want you to quit your job today and come work for us on Monday.'"

At the time, Hsu had been working at Challenge Games for about a year. The video-game company makes social games like "Gridiron Live" and "Duels" that can be played on the Web, particularly on Facebook. He specialized in measuring the metrics of how much advertising and marketing money it costs to attract users to such games, how long the players stick around and whether the company can make enough from advertising and virtual goods to make such games successful.

Hsu's background is in business finance and strategy. He has an MBA from the University of Rochester and moved to Texas when he was hired by Dell Inc. as a brand manager. His duties involved measuring pricing and profitability, a skill he carried over to Challenge Games after he was laid off by Dell after three years. Hsu spent about six months between those jobs traveling, shooting photos and socializing. He was hooked on the virtual card game "Warstorm" when he was offered the job at Challenge.

"It's a dream job to work at a video-game company," Hsu said. "They had a good leadership team and strong funding."

But then Cheezburger came calling. It's hard to explain to those not in the know the exact appeal of this chain of Web sites. Most have the same format: pages and pages of user-submitted photos with goofy captions in white block text.

Example: An angry-looking orange cat stares through a window. Caption: "mom-in-law kitteh comes ovr unannownced."

You kinda had to be there. (You can see it for yourself at bit.ly/milkitteh.)

The Cheezburger Network staff and its many helpers comb through the thousands of submissions to pick the best to post on its various sites. The company mission, Hsu says, is to make people on the Web laugh for five minutes a day.

The audience was laughing for much longer than that when Ben Huh, the chief executive of Pet Holdings, spoke at South by Southwest Interactive two years ago. Among people who spend lots of time online, I Can Has Cheezburger and its sister sites have come to represent a kind of geek humor mind-set and the epitome of Internet memes - jokes or cultural moments that spread virally online. For some reason, many Internet memes seem to involve felines.

Hsu's new job will be to harness all those page views and turn them into cash for the company. He'll be working on new merchandise, like a T-shirt of the day the network is currently selling, as well as any virtual goods that might be sold in the future on the many Cheezburger sites.

Lately, he's been on the phone and using Skype to have face time with his new Seattle co-workers and to round up artists for these new projects.

Austin will lose Hsu, who has been active on the local social media scene. He's usually one of the first people to post photos from high-tech happy hours and Tweetups.

But, he hopes, the world will gain a few more laughs. "It's staff sitting there looking for the funniest stuff on the Web," he says.

So, losing a dream job for another isn't so bad. Hsu says that as tough as the decision to leave Texas and his video-game company was, one thing gave him lots of comfort as he made a choice.

"A friend told me, 'Is there really a wrong one?'"