Lashes’s efforts with feline fame began in 2009, when he paired with his family friend and professional artist Charlie Schmidt, creator of Keyboard Cat. Originally recorded in 1984, the video shows Schmidt’s cat Fatso wearing a small blue T-shirt and playing a keyboard. Schmidt posted the video on YouTube in 2007, but it didn’t go viral until 2009, when 22-year-old Brad O’Farrell created a Keyboard Cat mash-up with a guy falling down an escalator in a wheelchair. Unsure how to handle the attention, Schmidt approached Lashes.
“I saw it as a musician,” Lashes says. “Of course Keyboard Cat needs a manager, the same way any band needs a manager. Keyboard Cat can’t be his own hype man.” Lashes looked at the video and immediately saw merchandising and advertising opportunities. Together Schmidt and Lashes developed a long list of things they could do for Keyboard Cat, like setting up the song for publishing, arranging ads on YouTube, negotiating legitimate T-shirt and merchandise deals, creating new videos, and keeping the channel updated with new content. Their efforts were successful. Keyboard Cat boasts an animatronic toy, appears in a Starburst commercial, and is rumored to be making an appearance in Grumpy Cat’s movie, and the video played at the VMAs. But their greatest feat is Keyboard Cat’s Wonderful Pistachios television commercial, which ran nationally for the past three years.
Over time, Lashes met other people who had pop-culture phenomena fall in their laps. As he began working with new clients, protecting them from accidentally signing over their rights to shysters offering bad deals with cheap T-shirt companies became an increasingly important part of his job.
“These people are all getting fucked all the time,” says Kia Kamran, an intellectual-property lawyer who works with Lashes. “When these things go viral, all these people start flocking, and it’s so funny to hear the same song and dance from people trying to offer us what they believe is a good deal. But it’s the same exact thing that happened 30 years ago; they want to acquire the rights and go do what they want.”
Lashes set himself up as a fiduciary, meaning he’s legally bound to work in his clients’ best interests, and he takes a rate comparable to that of music managers, about 20 percent of earnings. After Keyboard Cat, he picked up Nyan Cat, a cartoon graphic by artist Christopher Torres, and together they got products into Toys ’R’ Us and opened a pop-up store in New York. Soon after Nyan Cat, Lashes quit his day job.
Now he offers a one-stop shop for A-list memes. He strategizes careers, brainstorms content, and offers access to Kamran, whose other clients include Mike Tyson. To negotiate Grumpy Cat’s movie deal, Lashes linked with Al Hassas, a manager and producer who specializes in music and entertainment deals, and brought in one of Peter Jackson’s lawyers.
Lashes says he talks to new clients all the time, but he insists he doesn’t really scout. “I just naturally live in this space,” he explains. He looks for memes that he enjoys in the same way he enjoys his favorite brands—Star Wars, the Muppets, Pee-wee Herman, properties that feel original, classic, and cool. “I never wanted to be an ambulance chaser calling everyone with a million hits. I wanted to be really focused on the ones that I thought had a timeless quality to them,” he says. “The merchandise is part of getting closer to the brands, but they are a brand because their No. 1 thing before making money is making people happy.”
Later that afternoon, as we creep down Santa Monica Boulevard in a white stretch limo—Lashes’s idea—to the book tour’s next stop, it becomes clear that credit for Grumpy Cat’s success is also due largely to the efforts of the Bundesens themselves, particularly Bryan Bundesen, Tabatha’s brother. A technician for Time Warner Cable from Galion, Ohio, Bryan first posted the picture of his sister’s cat on Reddit when he was visiting her in Arizona in September 2012. It featured what would become her signature look—heavy lids and a downturned mouth that seems to call bullshit on anything put in front of it. The photo racked up a million and a half views within the first 36 hours. Accused of Photoshopping the image, Bryan posted a video that was equally explosive.
He soon started talking to T-shirt and apparel producers. A nationally syndicated article on Tardar Sauce followed, then the first of several morning-show appearances. By December, the Bundesens had linked up with Lashes, who contacted them through YouTube.
“It was a lot to absorb all at once,” Bryan remembers. “But Ben is good at networking, and he’s been able to help us in those areas that I was unfamiliar with.”