How can a lifecaster who walks around with a camera on his hat, ends up creating multiple hit companies?
Justin Kan is the founder of JustinTV where they do real time online broadcasting. He then created SocialCam for instant mobile broadcasting and TwitchTV for watching and sharing videos of people playing games.
His latest startup says it can get you anything you want done for $25 an hour. If you want that, you go to Exec’s website and I actually used Exec to book Justin here today to do this interview.
Andrew: Three questions before I fire you up with another great interview.
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All right. Let’s get started.
Hey, everyone. I’m Andrew Warner. I’m the founder of Mixergy.com, home of the ambitious upstart. Over 700 entrepreneurs have been a part of this project, where I ask proven entrepreneurs to come here and tell their stories and help you learn from them so that you can build your own success story and hopefully come back here and do your own interview one day.
And in this interview, I want to find out how a life caster walks around with a camera on his hat, ends up creating multiple hit companies.
Justin Kan, who you see on your screen, is the founder of JustinTV where they do real time online broadcasting. He then created SocialCam for instant mobile broadcasting and TwitchTV for watching and sharing videos of people playing games.
His latest startup, which says it can get you anything you want done right now for $25 an hour. If you want that, you go to Exec and the website is IamExec.com and I actually used Exec to book Justin here today to do this interview.
And Justin, thanks for saying yes.
Justin: Awesome. Thanks for having me on the show. I’ve been a fan for a long time so it’s pretty exciting to get your request.
Andrew: Well, thank you.
So, I told you my vision for this interview was to just talk about the way you thought about the JustinTV product and the evolution of it and how it’s bond other products and you said no one’s done that before so I’m looking forward to talking to you about that.
But since you said you’re a fan of Mixergy and a fan of this kind of work in general, of learning from other entrepreneurs, I’m wondering if you were on the other side of this interview, watching this guy Justin tell a story, what would you want to know from Justin?
Justin: That’s a really good question. I think that, the thing that, the one pretty good thing that you should learn from my story, I mean it’s kind of, it might be cutting to the punchline too early, but it’s, the thing I think I can be an example of, is just really sticking with it and if you stay long enough on entrepreneurship, I think you will, and you’re smart, you will make something happen.
Because I don’t think we started with a particularly good idea, we didn’t really start from a great base or anything like that. It was just us trying out new things and eventually we found some things that worked. That was a real process of, I’ve been doing startups since 2004. It’s been 8 years so a lot of the things that you see popping up, maybe in the last couple of years, those are results of things I’ve learned over the past 8 years and I wouldn’t got to that point if it wasn’t for kind of sticking around and showing up every day.
Andrew: Actually, I don’t think you’re skipping to the punch line. I think you’re setting us up for a story of ups and downs and I want to hear about those ups and downs and how feeling your way around ended up getting you where you are today.
I noticed that you said on TechCrunch that, in fact here’s the quote, “There were many times when I came to the brink of packing it up and moving on from the company that bears my name.” You called it, I think, shameful.
When was the time that you were most, were you closest to giving up?
Justin: Well, it was actually probably before JustinTV so, before JustinTV we started a company that was in the very first class of white common air companies in 2005. Along with Redid [SP] with Steven Alexis [SP] and Sam Lute [SP], we had this company called Keeco [SP] it was a web calendar. Emmitt [SP] and I, my co-founder, Emmitt Shear [SP], and I had started this company in college actually, and then we got into the first class of white common air companies. And we built this calendar, it was basically like Google Calendar before Google Calendar came out, it wasn’t that innovative of an idea. It was just like, I think everyone saw Gmail, and said there should be a calendar for this. So we said the same thing and started hacking it up. We got into YC and that was a great experience, but then we worked on it for almost a year after that. It just kind of toiled away into obscurity, people didn’t really use it, and we didn’t really understand anything about how to build a sustainable company or how to look at what users are doing, and iterate based on what people actually like about the product. We also weren’t calendar users ourselves so it was like doing something for a segment we didn’t understand. There were a lot of low points, such as when Google Calendar came out. Over that summer I wanted to give up, move back to Seattle and get a real job.
Andrew: Really? It came to that point?
Justin: Yea, we were basically doing nothing and we weren’t very excited and very discouraged. We spent a year on it paying ourselves almost nothing with no traction. We built a pretty cool tech demo I guess.
Andrew: It was absolutely beautiful, it opened our eyes to what was coming and what was possible online that many of us didn’t realize existed. And then, I wouldn’t say you gave up on it, but you kind of did. You sold it on eBay, right?
Justin: We needed to get out of this current start up. So we decided to sell it on eBay. I had this idea, it was not an original idea, there was a previous start up that had sold on eBay for about $100,000. It was called Jux2 [SP], it was a search engine that searched Yahoo and Microsoft at the same time, or something similar to that. They sold themselves on eBay and I saw this about a year previous to this. Let’s try that. What’s the downside? We did it, and it actually sold for quite a bit more than we ever thought. The reserve price was about $50,000 because that would allow us to pay back our investors. It ended up selling for $250,000. I was super stoked, and after that we got a little breathing room and were thinking what was next.
So we thought that didn’t go that bad, maybe we can start something new. But even a month before this I was thinking about ways to do something else. One of the ideas that came out of that was Justin TV, which was an idea for a reality TV show. It wasn’t really a start up idea, it was more of a way to try to figure out how to entertain people. So I had been throwing that around. We had taken a trip to Paul Graham’s house and we had pitched another start up idea. He told us he didn’t like that one and asked what else we had. So I started telling him the idea about Justin TV, this new type of reality show. He said, “OK.” He started getting into it, and that’s how we got funded as a company.
Andrew: Why do you think he liked the idea of a guy walking around with a camera on him 24/7? It doesn’t seem like the typical [??] investment. They are more about software. What was it about the product, or about you, that made him say, “yes, let’s do it.”?
Justin: Well, I think he admired that we stuck it out all the way to some sort of conclusion.
Andrew: I see, so he thought you guys stick things out. You stuck it out before when he invested in you.
Andrew: He liked that kind of entrepreneur. He’s told me that if he sees and entrepreneur whose ideas he’s not crazy about but, he likes the entrepreneur, he’ll help shape it. Other entrepreneurs have told me that he shaped their idea and made it better.
Andrew: What was it about this idea?
Justin: He likes things that are ambitious and bold. Those are the things that are reflective of the founders, that they aren’t afraid to try something challenging and ambitious. I think that describes us a little bit. It’s probably 75 percent being naive and 25 percent being really ambitious. A lot of times that doesn’t work, but sometimes it does. When it does that can prove to be something very successful.
Andrew: So what was that bold vision?
Justin: For us we thought would this be a new form of entertainment that people would want to watch. Can we create many shows like this that people are going to watch instead of, like, traditional television. It turns out like a lot of that was extremely naive. It’s very hard to produce content. We didn’t really have a background in producing content and like probably anyone who had spent any time in Hollywood would be like ‘That is ridiculous. You are never going to produce anything like entertaining.
But we were just like, we didn’t know any better, so just said “Hey, we’ll try it out.”
Andrew: You should tell me about it. When it comes to producing content, I know how tough it is to produce it and then to make sure that people watch and to make sure there’s some integrity around it, too.
So yeah, I did see an interview on ETV from back in the day when you were still broadcasting live. The interviewer called you up, you happened to be on webcam and asked you what your vision was and you said, at that point, you said “I want to commoditize the hardware and give it to others.” And you had an idea for a “Sex and the City”-like TV show that followed a girl around New York City.
At what point did you switch from saying… how did hardware fit into this vision? Or when did it fit in?
Justin: The original idea was, like, this was in 2006 and there wasn’t really any way to broadcast video from, you know, mobily. The idea was that it would follow you around everywhere you went so, we re-dubbed this, like, computer that was attached an EVDO card with a hardware video encoder and external battery pack. It was basically this backpack that would let you broadcast over the cell phone, over cell phone EVDO, like, basically solid data.
And so, I built that, and then it was very hard to get it to be stable and to work well. That was our fourth co-founder, Kyle [??], built that backpack that up and so eventually, right before we launched it this show, we switched to just, like, commodity computer and an EVDO card and that worked much better.
We invested all this time in building this hardware solution because we though that would be necessary but actually a lot of people told us “Don’t invest -, that’s a waste of your time. Don’t do that.” They were right, it turns out.
Andrew: How did you figure out for yourself that they were right?
Justin: Well, we couldn’t get it to work stablely and then we couldn’t get this computer to work well enough so it was just like, it didn’t seem like something that we were going to be successful at after 6 month of banging our heads against the wall.
Andrew: I see.
You know, it’s no longer cool to say the word “pivot” so we will say shift. Let’s say shift.
Justin: We pivoted many, many times.
Andrew: OK, so we will stick with the word pivot. That was a pivot. Pivot from creating your own stuff, to allowing other people to create it. I guess that was the natural transition and then, you pivoted towards creating hardware. That didn’t work. You pivoted towards stable environment on the desktop, where people can broadcast. Is that right? Is that why you did it?
Justin: So basically, what happened was, we launched the show and it got a lot of press but it attracted a lot of users but the churn was really high, like, people weren’t actually watching the show for certain periods of time because, quite frankly, it was extremely boring so, for most of the time. There’ll be like 5 minutes of interesting that’s forever like 3 hours of boring content.
What we did was, we were pretty discouraged. We were like “What should we do? We could turn it into a..” Actually, at the outside we had never thought of that there would be a platform for anybody. We thought it would be like more of an editorially terrated platform, like a few TV channels or something like that.
Andrew: Like Endemol online, Endemol reality TV production company.
Justin: So we though like, we had never, people were always like “Hey, this is your plan all along, it’s to launch this platform for everybody.” and that was not the case at all.
We actually had to consciously decide “This isn’t working, producing content ourselves is not working. We need to…” After a month, that was pretty transparent. We needed to switch to something else. So the options were really like, creating our own CDN for live streaming content, creating our own platform for live streaming content. Those were probably the two things we considered, actually.
We decided to open up the platform and let anyone broadcast anything. And we took the hardware component out of that because the hardware, we had already kind of abandoned the hardware previously. So it was really anything that would produce a webcam stream, like, most people weren’t capable of doing it from mobile while they were walking around because of the hardware limitations. So mostly, it was people at their desktop computers.
Andrew: OK. By the way, I know why so many entrepreneurs and so many future entrepreneurs want to work with you and want to be interns at other Tech companies. To watch this stuff just happen day to day has got to just be eye-opening and more educational that a college education because you get to see how these decisions are made and you get to see the wrestling matches.
All right. So now, I see a little bit of how these decisions are made. I saw when you launched online at JustinTV where anyone can broadcast, it was time for you now to get people to broadcast. How did you get them to do it?
Justin: Well, we actually had this base of users who had come to the site for the original JustinTV show. And a lot of people had written in to us, “Hey, how can I put a stream up online?” because there wasn’t really any good way to do that. CDNs were really prohibitively expensive and the live streaming software that they had at the time with the version of Flash Media server, that’s a mess too that they had that didn’t work very well.
We actually built a lot of technology to support our stream on the back end, like server software, that we ended up making available on the platform for all these other people, in the way that YouTube did it for not live video, for archive video, where you could upload it and you didn’t have to think about hosting your video. That was the magic of YouTube. But we did basically the same thing for live streams. At the same time, there were a couple other people in space, but no one really had a product that was that great. We focused mostly for the next couple years on just building up the infrastructure to support the content.
Andrew: Because it was so easy to get users that it was the infrastructure that was more of a challenge than users?
Justin: Yeah. People wanted to stream stuff and people who wanted to do it would seek out solutions and we were one of the ones that worked really well. For us, scaling was a big bottleneck for us. I say that over the years, every year or two, I learned a different thing. The first couple years of Kiko, I probably learned just how to exist in the real world after college and we were not set up to be successful. We weren’t doing any of the things that it would take to be successful. I also learned a lot about building web apps. Then, the first couple years of JustinTV, I think we learned a lot about technically scaling. We took the site from zero to 30 million users in two years. So there was a lot of architectural stuff that we had to learn on the back end of that, just how to build a website, that scale. That was a learning curve for us because we had never done it before.
Andrew: And at that point, things are going well, or were there any moments there where you’re saying, “I’ve got to give up on this. This is just not right.”?
Justin: Every year. Once a year, I would say, it gets to the point, whatever project it is. It doesn’t matter how well it’s going. Everything is relative and you always think to yourself it could be better. It’s like the grass is always greener on the other side. It’s not going well enough. Every time, I tell myself, “If I just got an extra order of magnitude and growth. If we hit this revenue number. If we hit this growth. If it goes up a little bit then I’ll finally be satisfied.” We grew the site from zero to 100,000 users a month, 300,000 to 5 million to 10 million to 30 million. You always felt the same the week afterwards. You just return to this baseline. There would always be time every year that I was like, “Oh, I don’t think things are going well enough. I should be doing something else.” And I think the thing that made me stick with it was definitely just having a great set of co-founders that I was working with who, when you’re not feeling the most energetic about it, they’re ready to step up and help pull you through that.
Andrew: Can you give me an example of a time when you were in a slump and, because you had a co-founder who can talk openly with you, that you turned around? Be as open as possible about a time when you were vulnerable.
Justin: I remember there were lots of times when I would be like, “I don’t think we’re doing the right thing. This product is not working.” I can’t remember the specifics of what the discussion points were and they were pretty irrelevant in the scheme of things. But I remember we would drive back from Sand Hill Road unable to raise an investment and my co-founder, Michael, and I would be driving back. Mike was the CEO of JustinTV. Maybe this is in 2008, right before the market crash. We’d be having a discouraging conversation and he would be like, “Why don’t we just try this one thing,” because I was the product guy and he was the business guy and we had two other co-founders, Evan and Kyle, who were on the technology side. He would tell me, “Hey, why don’t you just take this approach. We should attack this product from this angle.”
At first I’d be like, “Oh, I don’t think that’s going to work.” Through the course of our discussion, over the hour long drive back, he would get me real excited, and when we’d roll up to the office, I’d be like, “I have a plan for how we’re going to attack this problem.” Just that process of talking to someone who is not as dejected as you, talking through a problem with someone who’s not as dejected as you are. That can really change your outlook in an hour. Conversations like that really helped me stick it through.
Andrew: Once you hit on Justin.tv, the place for live broadcasting on the Web, users came quickly, broadcasters came quickly, viewers participated and were watching. The challenge was keeping it up and to do that you needed money. Were there other challenges? Were you looking at some of your competition, at Ustream, at Stickam and saying those guys are really tearing it up. We’re going to fail unless we can beat them. Was anything else going on? Any other challenges?
Justin: We fought over, not fought over, but competed over a lot of things that we saw. I would say that one of the mistakes that I think we can learn from with Justin.tv in the beginning is that it grew out of this pivot right? We didn’t really have a vision for the pivot.
Once we were platformed it was more like YouTube is this big video site and we can just be like live YouTube and there wasn’t really like an understanding of what use cases it was especially excellent for, nor were we looking at that very much right? We weren’t like, hey this is great for gaming for example and this is what we should focus on.
We were just like, hey we want to be this platform for everything, so it wasn’t very vision driven and therefore we weren’t talking to the customer and saying we were building something for this specific audience. That actually was really detrimental because we then were like walking around all sorts of different things. At one point we were really into building an API for live video.
At another point we were really into trying to get celebrities to use it. I think Ustream were very consistently trying to work with celebrities and stuff like that. I don’t think that content is repeatable, so it’s not really good from a business model’s perspective, but at the time we weren’t even thinking about that.
We were just like, hey how are we going to get more of this type of content, but then the next month we’d be like, oh no, we want to be an API, so we were very unfocused I think for a while and I think that was something that was not very efficient. It wasn’t very productive, so I think the first couple of years of Justin.tv was kind of learning how to scale and I think there was maybe a year in there that was really learning how to build up the founder skill sets, managing people and stuff like that.
After that there has been probably about 18 months of really focusing on a specific vision and executing it like specific product vision for a specific set of people and that’s kind of where the later stage comes in with Socialcam and Twitch.
Andrew: I see. And by the way, I see the camera just went from letterbox to square. There is some camera that does this, I can’t figure out why it does it or how it does it, but thankfully this show isn’t about design, it’s about the content, so we’re just going to let it slide.
I should’ve probably even mentioned in the beginning because people would’ve seen a letterbox video right up front that didn’t exactly fit in the screen and there it just changed again. So what you’re saying is, when you decided to allow anyone to broadcast from their computers you probably shouldn’t have said anyone could broadcast, you should’ve said yeah, anyone can do it, but what we really want are the Leo LaPortes of the world or the Andrew Warners of the world to create video, or gamers or whoever. Picked a narrow niche.
Justin: Picked a narrow niche.
Andrew: But if you had, there are all these people who are coming in and experimenting. If you had said we are aiming for gamers or we’re aiming for professional Web broadcasters then you would’ve basically been alienating all those other ones and not gotten the benefit of all the experiments that could eventually lead to you finding the golden result.
Justin: Yeah, that might be true, but for us I think that we weren’t building anything that was really excellent for one segment. We were building something that kind of worked for a large segment, but wasn’t really excellent. Maybe we didn’t know what that right thing to do was at the outset, but we could’ve experimented through a lot of things or opened up the platform and really analyzed what was working, but we didn’t even do that really.
We just kind of opened up the platform and just expected things to work, so I think that wasn’t a very good approach. We didn’t have the most streamlined approach.
Andrew: So Justin, if I understand you right, then what you’re saying is if you want to do a lot of experiments let people play with it, let them come up with what works, but you internally should be saying who are the guys who are the most value to us?
Justin: Exactly. Exactly.
Andrew: And every day looking for those guys and how do we get more of them? The rest will survive. We won’t look to nourish them with new features, but if it’s Leo LaPorte and Andrew who do regular programs who bring in huge audiences, how do we find more of them? How do we give them more tools to make them better and to get them bigger audiences or whatever they’re looking for?
Andrew: I see. OK, all right. And then you pivoted one more time.
Justin: Right, so at a certain point we hit a pretty big number with the platform but we didn’t think that, it was pretty clear that we weren’t focused enough to produce something that’s really, really valuable. That we thought was going to be super, super valuable. It was kind of clear that live video was the segment that was going to be just a segment of all video, it wasn’t going to surpass archive video. Maybe that’s probably obvious to people who’ve had a lot of experience with video content before, but I think in the beginning we were like, hey live video can be like the blue sky. It can be huge. It can be bigger than archive video.
So, we started working on some things internally, skunkworks and things, that we thought could be big. And those two categories were based on what we had seen working on sites. For the first time in the company’s history, this was like in 2010, we’d been operating for three years, for the first time we were like okay, what’s actually working? And how do we do more of that? And the two things we looked at were gaming, because the gaming category was something that has kind of taken off organically on the site, and mobile, because we saw this huge opportunity in content creation from the mobile phone. Instagram had just come out, and we said, hey, that could be something.
Basically, we had two teams internally working, you know, we divided off there was a set of people, a large set, working on just TV, and two smaller teams that were working on these mobile and gaming projects. Amid [SP], my cofounder, who’s our CTO at the time and is now the CEO, ran the gaming experimental group and I, myself and Michael worked on the mobile group. So gaming turned into basically, Twitch TV, which I’ll talk about a little more, and mobile eventually turned into Social Cam.
Andrew: Why didn’t you fit both of those within the Justin TV brand and within the Justin TV experience by, for example, saying, mobile will be the Justin TV app that will integrate with the website and gaming will be, I guess you did have a category for gaming, but gaming will be a micro site that also feeds data back to the main site. Why separate them out?
Justin: I think this time we really did it right. We didn’t start off with this bold plan to separate them off, we were iterating the things that we had. And through that process we realized, hey, it would be better as an independent property, we can do more with it. We’re not constrained by our old architecture. There are a few things that made it an inferior experience for mobile, for example, for it to be feeding into Justin TV. And eventually we decided, hey, we don’t even need to do live video. We should just do normal, recorded video because people don’t even know how to use live video from their phone. Or they don’t even know how to upload a normal video from their phone, why would they take the step to live video? So we build this new product, Socialcam, that was completely independent of Justin TV.
With the gaming site, it was actually, for 6 months, the just gaming category on Justin TV, we just exclusively worked on features for gaming with that team. And consistently we would get feedback, we would iterate based on that feedback, and we would roll those features out to the gaming category and we would see like, 15% active monthly growth in the category over and over, every month, for like 6 months until we realized, hey, it should be its own property.
Andrew: What are some of the decisions you made within the gaming category before it went to Justin that you were make because you started to really pay attention to that audience?
Justin: That was sort of asking them, hey, what do the gaming broadcasters want? They said, hey, we want to make some money so we can actually continue doing this as a full time thing, or part time income for us. So we started rolling out a test partner program, allow people to make some money off the content. We also rolled out a feature that lets you have multiple bit rates, the viewer can watch the live stream in multiple bit rates. And that’s a technology that no one else had created and the reason gamers wanted that was because gamers want to broadcast at the 1080p resolution, right? Then you see the game detail.
But a lot of people who have inferior internet connections can’t actually watch that. So you have the best of both worlds with this live transcoding by allowing people to watch it in whatever bit rate works for them, but the broadcast will send it in the maximal resolution. And that’s something we didn’t know, we just had to find out by asking the broadcasters who were broadcasting gaming related content, what do they want? And for those in the audience who don’t really know about gaming content, because it is a very specific protocol. It’s basically people playing video games and broadcasting that content, maybe playing competitive games with each other.
Andrew: It’s amazing that that’s such a successful category, but it is. I guess there are people who watch on YouTube, they watch on your site, on Twitch. They’re just watching gamers, why?
Justin: Well, I think there’s a lot of people who have grown up with gaming. People who are my age and younger they played Xbox and Playstation as much as they play football or soccer and now there’s something like 170 million gamers in the U.S. that play 13 hours or more a month.
There’s lots and lots of people who are playing triple A titles, hardcore games, console games, PC games and those people want to watch content. They want to watch walkthroughs, they want to watch reviews, but there’s this growing trend of competitive gaming. We actually hit that right at the right time.
When Starcraft II came there was this trend of people watching competitive Starcraft games and we’ve seen that grow every month consistently on our site and off of it because there’s this kind of new trend of this new spectator sport around these boards. In some ways it was almost like we were at the right place at the right time because we had gotten that opportunity because we stuck with it for years.
Andrew: I’m looking at a question here from Cora that your co-founder Emmett answered about what’s happening to Justin.tv or why Justin.tv became TwitchTV? He says, there’s no deep answer here. We started the TwitchTV site because gaming was a big enough deal it deserved its own home and the obvious thing to do was create it.
We had so much positive feedback from the community, so much demand for gaming-specific features we knew we needed a place we could make that vision a reality. It’s definitely a strategic fit and that we’re focusing more and more resources on gaming over time. Anytime you focus on a vertical that impacts your strategy. So it seems like from that answer that Justin.tv then gets de-emphasized and less resources as the other two properties get more, right?
Justin: Yeah, so as we found this vision around Twitch, it’s such an easy category because it was clear who we were serving right? We’re serving the gaming broadcasters and viewers and so by having that vision, saying Twitch is a gaming property, we’re a gaming media company and we’re going to try to figure out how to produce features that are going to make it easier for people to produce gaming content and to consume it and interact around it.
For us that was like such a huge momentum and energy in the company that was created by just simply saying this is what we are. I’m a big, big believer in having a vision for what you’re doing and why you’re here and I think that the energy that was effused because of that was so powerful that we were like, hey this is what we want to do. This is what we want to focus on as a company.
Andrew: What happens to this other property though that’s successful on its own? Is it painful to let that success go? Because I’m noticing programs that have lots of viewers are now down to very view if any viewers because of this change.
Justin: On Justin.tv?
Andrew: Justin.tv, excuse me.
Justin: I think that is a big strategic decision for us and it was made over the course of many, many months, like 8 months probably and it was just that Twitch’s success is continually growing. It’s a vertical that we could see was growing in the outside of ourselves, so the industry is growing as a whole and it’s something that’s easily monetizable because there’s a clear demographic. With Justin.tv there wasn’t.
There was always a mix of everything, so for us it just made sense. It was a little bit painful, but it’s no longer a focus in the company. We still have dedicated staff working on Justin.tv, but Twitch and Justin.tv and the main focus is on Twitch. Now Emmett who was really the one who had the product vision around Twitch maybe 8 months ago stepped up to be the CEO of the company and he’s been doing a great job of that.
It’s been really awesome to watch. It’s been a transition for us in the past year, 2011, it was a big transition for us, but it was something that I think really benefited the company and we were excited to see at the end of the day.
Andrew: Well that’s a gutsy move. You’re basically saying we have this product that other people would consider successful. We’re going to give that up or give up any upside in it because we’re going to double down on these properties that do work. Most people wouldn’t have. Most people would’ve said I’m not going to move because I think I can make Justin.tv work, or they would’ve said I’ll hold onto Justin.tv and grow it just in case, but you’re saying no, you can’t do that.
Justin: Yeah, I don’t think you can focus as a company on multiple things at once. Which is why, we actually spun Social Cam off. What we had done, was initially what we first said we are going to work on these two categories internally. With Twitch we set mile stones. We said if we hit these active users mile stone for both and there are four scenarios, it both hit the milestones, and its great. If only one dose and we only work on that and if neither do, then we are just going to try this again with some other ideas.
With Twitch we blew away the mile stones. It was like boom, boom, boom every month. We were pretty amazed, actually and with Social Cam, we got there but it was clear that the infrastructure was divergent from what we had built at Justin TV. Over the summer it came time to decide what do we want to do? Summer of 2011, we were like, well we’ve seen such energy from Focus. Having Focus only one project can exist within the company. We decided to spin Socialcam off as it’s own company. We actually moved the team to a different office, and then we’ve just completed that transaction a couple of months ago and now Social Cam is its own start-up.
It just went through Y-Combinator and its actually going gain-busters. They just released them. Socialcam version IV, which is really awesome. They let you edit, do a lot of editing around of your video, add music, you can put a title in it. It makes it really easy to create an awesome looking video on your iPhone.
Andrew: I wrote a note here to come back and ask you why Social Cam would need Y-Combinator considering they kind of went through it and it already has connections in traction. But let’s go back to talking to customers. I can see that someone who’s watching this interview would say, “Hey you know what? My company doesn’t have as much focus as it should, and I’m seeing form Justin; the need to focus in on a specific set of users who are doing well. But how do I know what features they want? How do I know what they want me to build into it?” So let me ask you, how did you talk to your customers at Twitch TV to figure out, “Hey this is what these guys want this is how we can make this site so special to them that it anticipates their needs before they even have it, before they even their needs.”
Justin: Emmit, really was the one who champion that process in the company and I think really change the trajectory because of it. What he said, he was like, “We’re going to talk to our broadcasters and going to set up phone interviews with them, and ask them what they like about our service and how can we improve it? What they don’t like? What they want? What are their goals?” He would take that and compile, he’d talked to five, ten people every week, pile it in a spread sheet. Say here’s the product changes that we’ll solve these people problems or improve the experience for them.
He just did that for months, months and months. It was consistent it was amazing because we had never, we were always very unfocused and we would try one set of features then move on to a different set for a different audience or whatever. But this was consistently working over time on a specific-, just service a specific set of users. That is what really worked. That’s what worked over time. That’s what he did.
Andrew: He’s had consistent set of questions, with those users.
Andrew: How do you get the users to say yes to talking to you?
Justin: It’s not that hard. People want to be listened to. It really isn’t that hard at all. All you have to do is just reach out and say, “Hey how can we talk to you? How can we set somebody up to talk to you?” If you have to just offer to pay them $25.00 or whatever. I mean, people, what I think in general, people want to be heard.
Andrew: Did you need to pay them, or did you just shoot any. . .
Justin: No, we never paid them. We just shot people emails. They were surprisingly, most people on the internet are not listen to you, by anybody. I think people are receptive to having their voices heard. Especially if they’re going to turn Duke [SP]. A lot of our early karma that we got from the gaming community was from this process. We would send someone an email, “Hey what features do you want to improve your experience?” They would say, “OK here is the list.” Then we would build them in like a week, and they’d be amazed. That was huge, and they would spread it in the community. They would say, “These guys are serious about serving the gaming to gamers.” That was a huge for us in terms of getting points with the community.
Another thing we did was we really focused on our community around Twitch. We have a community team, that we call our Net-debt Team. Those guys are at all of the gaming conferences, all the pro-gaming tournaments, we send someone almost to every event. They are out there helping with their broadcast. Asking how we can be better? Getting feedback, and that’s just carrying on that tradition of like talking to our users and finding out how we can better serve them. That’s made us successful to this degree, I guess. Twitch itself, it was…or the gaming content on Justin.tv in December of 2010 was probably about a million uniques a month. In June of 2011 it was 8 million. Last month it was 16 million.
Justin: It has just grown a massive amount. I think we have a lot of headroom. YouTube gaming is the number two category. There’s probably a lot…there’s hundreds of millions of people who watch gaming content on the Internet. So, I think there’s a lot of room to grow, but we’ve grown the properly a massive way just by having a great community focus, knowing who we serve and just iterating the product based on serving those people better.
Andrew: By the way, do you at Exec make phone calls on a regular basis to clients?
Justin: Absolutely. So, with Exec, which is my new startup, started in January, and all we focus on is serving the customers better. So, we look at ever piece of feedback that comes in, every rating and say, “How could this have gone better?” Every week we have a meeting with all hands that says, “What are the common threads that we could do better for our customers?”
So, Exec, as mentioned earlier in the program, we’ll find someone to do your job or Aaron within ten minutes for a flat rate of $25 an hour. It’s only in San Francisco right now. It’s kind of like your real time, for jobs or errands, and our goal with Exec is really to make things easy for you as a customer, to like make it easy to outsource something that you don’t want to do, you want taken car of. We’ll just make sure that that happens.
Andrew: Within ten minutes, there’s others in the space that do this, but it depends on when the job gets taken and you negotiate a time and price with the person, and it’s a random person that’s doing it here. You guys seem to hire these people directly>
Justin: Yeah. We vetted all these people, and we put them through a multi-stage interview process. So, they [inaudible]. Are you still there?
Andrew: I can still see you, so it’s all good.
Justin: I think my Google calendar is popping up with notifications or whatever. So, what we do is we interview these people. We put them through a multi-step process. We background check them. We vet them. We only hire people that we’re excited about, that we think would be great personal assistants. They’re on deck in San Francisco. They’re capable, they’ll pick up your jobs in real time. So, if you’re like, hey, I want someone to deliver a team lunch right now from In-N-Out, you don’t have to worry about negotiating a rate or selecting someone who is going to be able to do it.
All you have to do is put your job into our iPhone app or in our website, IamExec.com and they’ll pick up the job and do it right then.
Andrew: Yeah. I can see using it for something like…I’m about to go into a meeting, and I just spilled something on my shirt. Can you either get me a new shirt, or can you get me one of those Tide sticks that removes the stain or hides it. That’s the kind of thing where I’m really hungry for lunch and the place I want doesn’t deliver. Can you go over there and pick up what I need or I’ve got to say thank you to Justin, and I can’t find a way to do it. Why don’t you go to the burrito stand he talked about and get him a burrito and deliver it to him. That’s the kind of stuff that could happen.
Andrew: And so, did you create this because it seems like… Well, actually why didn’t you stay with the two new properties that spun off of Justin instead of creating Exec?
Justin: So, what happens is we spun Socialcam off, and my co-founder, Michael, was super excited about the product. It was his idea, actually. When we started working on mobile, he had said, “Hey, mobile is going to be a big opportunity. We should pursue it. And so, he wanted to spin it off, and it made sense for one person to go and be in charge of that product.
When it came time to do it, he did it and that was a smart move. Likewise, for Twitch. Emmitt [SP] should be the CEO because it was his product vision that had really made it successful. So, that made perfect sense to me as well. Then, we had also built up this management team around Twitch that was really, really talented. We have a COO, Kevin Lynn, who does all the partnerships and makes all the content creators feel like they’re as important as they are, which is like, very important. He’s really done an amazing job of building our brand within the gaming industry and broadcaster community, just by being out there weekend after weekend, talking to people, making sure that they have a great experience with the site.
So, it wasn’t appropriate for me to come in and say, “Hey, I can do this better.” We’ve been doing this for eight months, but I should run all the partnerships, or something like that. At the same time we had also hired a CRO. Jonathan Simpson, who’s actually the founder of IGN. Someone with deep games industry experience.
We had this management team that was killing it for Twitch and I said, “Hey, it’s running without me.” I’m probably contributing eight hours of good ideas a week. I can compress that to a smaller amount of time and then work on something else.
At the same time I had been thinking about this idea for Exec [sp] pretty much nonstop since August. I decided, “Hey, I’m going to jump off and try it.”
Andrew: I want to ask you two questions about Socialcam, and then ask you about how you took what you learned from previous businesses and brought it into Exec. The first of the two questions is, when you launched Socialcam, it was time to think about the few features that are essential and not get hung up in the ones that are just nice to have. What were those features and how did you know which ones to come out with?
Justin: With Socialcam it’s very much experimentation. There are lots and lots of A/B testing. There’s rolling out features. Seeing what people like and killing it if they don’t like it. I think that it’s very, very much like ideating [?] feature ideas and rolling them out. Testing them and then doing something else.
Andrew: For example, what’s an idea that you thought would do well, but you had to kill it because the testing showed it wasn’t good?
Justin: There was this activity feed that we had that we rolled out very early. It turns out don’t want to look at a video feed and an activity feed. There should be just one feed. Because it’s kind of like how Facebook used to have the newest feed and the newest and popular, right?
No one ever clicked on newest. Users will use whatever the default is. They combined it into one thing. It’s a similar situation for us.
Andrew: OK. The other question that I put off until now is, why go through, why accommodate her again for Socialcam? I know you talked about it before and there have been articles written about it, but I thought that Y Combinator is good for money. You guys didn’t need the money at Socialcam or it’s good for connections and product development.
You guys already knew product development and you already had connections.
Justin: I think that there’s a couple things. Both Socialcam and Exec have gone through YC for this recent batch. It just ended yesterday, actually.
I think the reason that we did that is because YC DNA is great to having the initial seed of your company. It’s all about moving quickly and iterating a product for users and not doing anything else. Don’t worry about partnerships. Don’t worry about figuring out how to make as much revenue, from day one, as possible. Don’t worry about pitching VC’s or raising money. Just worry about the product and building something that people actually love and will use over and over again.
Both Socialcam and Exec had co-founders that had not been through YC and going through that process for them is a huge, huge benefit. It’s also, with YC, I’m a part time partner now. The YC people, like the partners, are people that I want involved in our company from day one. They’re incredibly smart, incredibly motivating, and being around them is a huge, huge boon to the company.
One small example is, with Exec, we were sitting around having office hours with a couple of the partners, including Paul Bouvite [sp], and we were moving really quickly. We got the idea and started coding in January and two weeks later we had launched a beta test in San Francisco.
I remember mid-February or maybe at the end of January, Paul Bouvite’s like, “Hey are you sure you’re moving fast enough?” I was like, “Are you kidding me?”
That was the seed inspiration for us. We need to iterate this even faster. It was extremely motivational for me.
Andrew: What could you have done to go even faster than the time that you just did it? I mean we’re talking about days.
Justin: For us, let’s figure out how we can streamline. Parallelize things even more. Let’s make our division of labor even clearer. Those things were extremely useful for us.
It’s all about cutting out things that you don’t need to do right now and focusing on the things that you do need to do. That helped a lot.
Andrew: Who’s the specific target, for Exec, that you’re going after? We’ve talked about, with Justin, that you wished that you had that clear vision of who they were. Who are they now?
Justin: I think it’s people who have a little bit of disposable income, who value their time, and they’re willing to make the tradeoff between exchanging money to save themselves from mental and physical effort. The way I see it, existing platforms, like Craigslist or something, you’re training your physical [??], your training mental energy. You’re spending mental energy because there are so many hurdles to get through to save yourself from physical effort. I want our customers to be able to exchange money to save themselves from physical and mental effort.
We have a lot of early tech-entrepreneurs, people who are engineers, and people who are in technology using the product. We have a lot of people using it for business reasons. They have a good sense of what the value of their time is, so they are willing to trade off $25 an hour to save themselves from having to run across town and deliver a letter, or something like that.
That’s the target demographic. We talk to those people all the time, we ask them, “How can we make this process easier for you?” “How can we reduce the things that are barriers for you?”
Andrew: What’s one thing that you learned from that?
Justin: I’ll give you simple example. Why do we have a map? When you use Exec, you see a map. If you go to your iPhone now for example, you’ll see a location of where I am. Which isn’t particularly relevant in a remote interview, but let’s say your job was, “Hey, can someone go to Trader Joe’s and pick up groceries for my dinner tonight, bring them back to my house and put them in the fridge?”
We added this map because we realized people were saying “Hey, how do I.” I want to know where my exec is in their work, like if it’s a delivery or pick up or something. I want to know how far along they are, but I don’t want the overhead of having to communicate directly be texting or calling them. That seems intrusive, it’s seems micro-managy, so we built this passive way for you to understand what’s going on in your job. One thing we realized from user feedback is people were like “Hey.” We didn’t have that. The very first version was a very lean start up. It was just a text area, and it would text somebody. You’d enter what you wanted in the text area and it would send a text message to someone.
Andrew: They would say something like, “I want to deliver flowers to my wife and I can’t tell if the guy’s delivered it yet, is he on the way, what’s going on?” You show it to them on the map.
Justin: Exactly. That’s just one small thing that we’ve done based on user feedback to make the process as seamless as possible.
Andrew: I remember interviewing Paul Buhide [SP] once and he said, if I got it right, “Essentially, ask user’s for their problems, and you come up with solutions.” If you ask them for solutions, they’re going to come up with convoluted solutions that don’t recognize what the problem was that they’re trying to solve. What have you learned about talking to customers and figuring out what to build based on their feedback?
Justin: We basically will try to find the common threads and things that have not gone as well as they could have with jobs. In the beginning, I literally asked every single user, “What is your feedback?’ For the first hundred, I think I asked, “What is your feedback on the job? How did it go? How could we have done that better?” Now’s there’s enough that I can’t do that for every single user. We look at the aggregate, and try to draw the common thread . . . “How can we improve this?” There are certain types of jobs where we’ll have to manually intervene or something like that. For those types were trying to figure out how we can write the software so we don’t have to intervene. That’s one way that we do it.
Andrew: You and I met because I posted this job on Exec. You filled the job, and it was cool to see the text messages giving me updates and to see the process work. That’s not really the use for the app. We’re looking for people to want to use it to send flowers, to have their shoes shined, or to pick up groceries. Why are you doing this and how effective has it gone for you?
Justin: It’s doing great. Growth is really great in San Francisco. I think it’s just figuring out how to scale it. The reason I wanted to do Exec was because I think it’s a really interesting hack. You can create something where computers dispatch humans, and it’s pretty fun to build this online to offline business. That was something I was really interested in. Before Exec I had looked at a bunch of online/offline businesses. It’s just something new to me, I’m always trying to learn.
Andrew: How is this promotion going for you?
Justin: The promotion is basically “Rent time.” With a founder. You can rent time with me, T-con [SP] from [??] . . .
Andrew: Alexis Ohanian from . . .
Justin: . . . Reddit, Matt Brezina from Sincerely. It’s actually gone crazy. We have maybe 50 or 60 people signed up, and I’m not sure how we’re going to fill all the requests.
Andrew: These are 50 or 60 people who signed up to get advice from entrepreneurs, to get mentorship from them. Are you doing it because you want those 50 to 60 users on Exec, that’s the goal?
Justin: I think we want people to know about Exec. Those 50 or 60 users, that’s great. Just having more people know about our platform is what we really wanted to do. It’s going great. Hopefully we’ll be able to fill many of the requests. I’m not sure if we are going to get to all the users who might . . .
Andrew: Maybe, this could be a way of reaching everyone who wasn’t able to get time with you, or didn’t even know that Exec was offering this promotion.
Justin: Exactly. That would be awesome.
Andrew: One final question, I see that you’ve got to run. DC, I know that you’re probably going to end up going to New York, but I’ve been living in DC temporarily and, man, I love this city for things like Exec because, it’s a small area, tightly packed with lots of people, easy to get around using bikes and motorcycles. What do you think of DC as a place for people to launch?
Justin: I think it’s probably a great place for services like this. It’s somewhere we definitely want to be. I don’t really have a timeline for ourselves but, we want to be everywhere and DC is one of the higher on the list.
Andrew: The website is iamexec.com, and I hope you use it to grab groceries, and maybe use it to send something nice to Justin as a way of saying thank you for doing this interview. Justin, thank you.
Justin: Andrew, thanks a lot for having me.
Andrew: You bet. Thank you all for being a part of it. Bye.