Q&A: StubHub Founder Mixes Social Media, Video, Celebs on Spreecast
Water cooler chatter no longer takes place around an actual water cooler. In the digital age, people gather at their computer screens and hover around their smartphone cameras to discuss last night’s game or gush over their favorite celebrity.
Spreecast is capitalizing on that changing landscape, providing Web and mobile users with a space to catch up with friends or chat face to face with a group of British teen singers (One Direction has been known to make an appearance).
The social video platform is the brainchild of StubHub founder Jeff Fluhr (pictured). It launched less than two years ago and recently celebrated the launch of its iOS application. Users have the option of heading to the website or their iPhone to participate in new Spreecasts via video or text chatting, or find archived videos of Billy Ray Cyrus, Chris Colfer, and John Stamos, among others.
Spreecast is more than a breeding ground for celeb publicity, though. The service is used daily by major media publications like the LA Times and The Wall Street Journal, which publish Spreecast videos during breaking news events or to provide readers with a more visual experience.
Other companies like Viacom and Disney are also supporters of the site, which carries videos on everything from scrapbooking and sports to politics and travel. Notably, entertainment news outlet ExtraTV uses Spreecast to engage reality TV fans who have gathered in front of webcams to talk about The Bachelor and The X Factor.
PCMag recently caught up with Fluhr to talk about Spreecast, how it differs from Google+ Hangouts, and why it is so important to believe in yourself.
PCMag: Spreecast launched more than a decade after you launched StubHub. What inspired you to step into the social video world this time?
Jeff Fluhr: There were two different trends going on that I thought pointed to … a need for the product that we built.
First, the rise of social media — Facebook and Twitter being probably the most important platforms there. What became clear through the growth of those platforms is that people like to connect on the Internet. People like to stay connected with their friends and family and their loved ones; they also like to follow people they may not know but are interested in, like celebrities or journalists. That was made possible by Facebook and Twitter, and it was clear that that was a big deal.
In parallel to that, there’s been huge growth in video communications — Skype and iChat probably being the most important examples there, where people were primarily using video communication as a phone call replacement.
Those two things were both growing rapidly; the technology for the video was becoming more mature and more available. But yet there wasn’t really any intersection of those two Venn diagrams. Social media didn’t really involve video interaction, and in the video communication world, there wasn’t really any notion of more open, social interaction. It was sort of just this more private video phone call paradigm.
You could almost look at it as the evolution of the water cooler: People at the office gather around and talk about a reality TV show or a big basketball game or the elections. In many ways, that’s what people are doing on Spreecast, except it’s all virtual on the Internet, but it does leverage video technology.
PCM: Can you walk us through how to use Spreecast?
JF: I would bucket the usage into a few different categories. The first is as a journalism tool or editorial tool, to create conversation and dialogue around current events and news. Examples of folks using it: the LA Times, Wall Street Journal, The Blaze.
A second bucket is around entertainment. Broadly speaking, whether it’s music, movies, or television, people [are] using Spreecast to talk, oftentimes promoting entertainment content. The TV show Extra uses Spreecast a lot embedded on their website. For [reality shows] The Bachelor as well as The X Factor, [Extra has] an after-show. You could watch The Bachelor on TV, and right after, you could go to ExtraTV.com, and talk about it live.
We also have had a lot of celebrities on: Chris Colfer from Glee has come on to talk about different projects he’s working on, or John Stamos, or various bands and performing artists like Britney Spears or One Direction come on to engage with their fans. They’re either promoting projects they’re working on — promoting a new record, or TV show, or movie — or they’re engaging with their fans. You see a lot of celebrities using Facebook and Twitter to not only grow their fan base, but grow engagement and loyalty. A lot of those folks are now also experimenting with Spreecast to provide a new mechanism to interact face to face with their fans.
And then we have everybody else: Social media enthusiasts, people who are probably active on Facebook and Twitter, who like to talk about what’s happening in the world, and are on Spreecast, meeting new people and finding people with common interests, and creating discussion and dialogue.
PCM: How do you get the word out about celebrity Spreecasts?
JF: The bulk of the marketing and promotion will come from the user. John Stamos, when he was on, he tweeted out to all his followers that he was going on Spreecast. They’ll promote it in their social media; they may promote it in other mechanisms as well. We can promote it in our social footprint — on our Facebook page and our Twitter account, we can put links to it from our homepage and promote it from our homepage. We’ll augment their promotion, but in many of these cases, with the celebrities, it’s promoted by themselves.
In the case of the bigger media companies, like an LA Times, for example, who creates many Spreecasts every week and they use it as an editorial tool to talk about breaking news. You can go to the LATimes.com, and throughout the day, there’s generally more than one Spreecast. They’ll have their journalists on Spreecast talking about something. In those cases, it’s promoted almost exclusively by the LA Times; we generally won’t promote that type of content. It may show up on our homepage through our algorithm, but we generally won’t put a lot of additional promotional effort behind something like that, because it’s happening all the time.
PCM: Your service is different from something like Skype, which implies a relationship between the two people involved in the conversation. How does someone log onto Spreecast and find someone to talk to?
JF: Most people are discovering Spreecast content through someone they’re already following in social media or through a blog that they are interested in or through a media outlet. We do have our own site and you can obviously find a lot of our content there. There [are] a lot of people finding us in the embedded player or deep-linking directly to a Spreecast page right on Spreecast.com. That’s how a lot of the discovery happens. Once people are there, there’s a lot of sharing mechanisms that are built into that experience, so once you’re watching a Spreecast, you can share it on Facebook, you can share it on Twitter, you can share it on Google+. It’ll also get traffic from friends of the people who first discovered it.
PCM: Is there any limit to how long a video can be?
JF: There’s not a limit that we’ve put on it, so it doesn’t kick you off after a [period] of time. There was a Spreecast once that went on for four days. It definitely was a little challenging, for our back end, but it didn’t break. Most of the content generally ends up being between 20 minutes and an hour long. Sometimes we’ll have Spreecasts that are five minutes long, sometimes we’ll see Spreecasts that are two or three hours long. You can create clips as well; a two-minute or five-minute clip from a longer Spreecast [to share] on Facebook or Twitter.
PCM: Can anyone use this, from a business to some guy sitting on his couch?
JF: Anybody can use it; it’s sort of user generated. The same way anyone can post a video on YouTube, anybody can create a Spreecast. The user can decide to do a private or unlisted Spreecast; those will definitely not show up on our homepage. The only Spreecast you’ll ever see on the Spreecast homepage will be public Spreecasts of a certain popularity and a certain quality. Private and unlisted features are a whole different set of use cases. Some people use them almost as an alternative to Skype; you can do a private Spreecast with one other person, or you can have a small group private Spreecast for a business meeting.
PCM: What was your initial hope for what Spreecast would become?
JF: I basically felt like, as a human race, there’s a huge advantage to people talking face to face. Social media’s great, and they’ve had a really positive impact on our society and our culture. But one of the things that missing from that is the face-to-face interaction. A lot of kids, teenagers growing up in the last decade, have spent so much time on Facebook and Twitter and texting on their mobile devices that they’re in front of a screen and their mode of interaction is a lot of text-based interaction that doesn’t necessarily have that face-to-face human emotional connection that, frankly, we’ve had for the previous 5,000 years.
Up until the rise of social media in the past 10 years, when you said you were doing something social with someone, you were probably going out to dinner or going to a movie or watching TV with someone, in the same room, talking and interacting. That’s really the goal of what Spreecast is doing: It’s trying to bring people together for face-to-face interaction.
What we hope to become over time, and when we started the company what I set out to do was, any time there’s anything going on that’s timely and relevant — whether it’s on the international stage, like a hurricane or a tsunami that takes out a nuclear plant that creates a problem in Japan, or something much more local, like a kidnapping in New York City, [Spreecast wants to] create another format for people to talk about these things. It could be something very serious — how do we solve the Middle Eastern conflict in Israel and Palestine — or it could be something much more trivial, like who did better on The Bachelor last night? Just stuff that people like to talk about. [In five years, you should be able to] go to Spreecast, do a search on a keyword, and you’ll find six different conversations happening on the topic that you’re interested in.
PCM: How much of a threat to Spreecast is something like Google+, which serves as a social network and includes social video Hangouts?
JF: There are some big differences between Spreecast and Hangouts. The most important difference is that Hangouts is very silohed within Google+; you have to be a Google+ user to participate in Hangouts, you can only invite Google+ users. It gives it a limited universe of people who want to use it. Spreecast, on the other hand, is much more platform agnostic. We are much more compatible with Facebook and Twitter; [Google doesn't] want to be compatible with Facebook and Twitter because they’ve very competitive.
Spreecast is much more interactive for the viewers. Hangouts have certain people on camera interacting, and then everybody else is viewing it, through a YouTube player. That experience is completely passive; there’s nothing you can do. With Spreecast, there’s a whole bunch of stuff the viewers can do. If there’s 10,000 people watching a Spreecast, any of them can text chat, they can ask questions, they can make comments, they can be put onto the screen. All of these features are not available in Hangouts. You’re either in the Hangout, or you’re not.
PCM: StubHub and Spreecast seem like completely different products. How did you make the jump from selling tickets online to providing a social video platform?
JF: In many ways, I agree: It is different. Although, it’s still consumer Internet. We’re talking about Internet, Internet technologies, consumer experience, consumer product. If I went and started a car manufacturing company, that would be completely different. Or if I decided to launch a for-profit school for kids, that would be very different. This is different, but it’s still within consumer Internet. I think in some ways there is some crossover in skills, people, and network that is helpful in both the StubHub world and Spreecast world.
When I sold StubHub to eBay [in 2007], I took off a few years; I was doing a few different things, including angel investing in small companies [and] startups, and I was spending time with my family, and decompressing from the StubHub experience, which was seven years and … a lot of work. I really enjoyed that time off. But I always knew that I wanted to start another company. I was looking for the right opportunity, and trying to find something that I could get excited about that I thought could get big and could address a need.
When I started looking at the trends I described earlier, around social media and video communication, that’s when I started saying, hey, there’s an opportunity here to create a video-based platform to connect people around video-based conversation. I got excited about that. I started researching the different players out there, from the Skypes to the iChats, and other players in and around video or social media. Started to formulate the business plan for Spreecast.
PCM: What’s next for Spreecast? What do you expect the company to do in the next five years?
JF: This year, for us, is largely about mobile and monetization. We’re spending a lot of time getting our mobile app ready and getting our mobile experience ready for the in-browser experience. We’re spending a lot of time on monetization — like our pay-per-view feature, which we launched a couple of weeks ago, where you can now charge people to access your Spreecast; we collect the money on your behalf and keep a percentage for ourselves. Monetization and mobile are the two 2013 initiatives.
In terms of going into 2014 and beyond, I think it’s going to be a lot about growing the user base and growing the revenue. We’ll still be spending a lot of time on making the product better and improving the functionality. But we’ll shift more of our resources and focus to: How do we take it from X to 10X in terms of usage? How do we make it easier and faster and more attainable and more approachable by a larger group of people?
PCM: Do you think the world of video communication will change drastically in the next decade?
JF: I think as it relates to that — that sort of interactive video, where people are interactive face to face— I think there is a lot of change happening right now; we’re in the midst of a big, technological change.
The driver there has been the ability to do this in the browser. Skype and iChat are both software you install on the computer; install an application and run that application. There’s a lot more ability to access the hardware and camera. When you’re doing something right in the Web browser, though, some of that’s not available to you. Browsers are getting much more advanced, [as are] the quality of the audio and video in the browser. And the quality gap that currently exists between say, Skype, and a browser-based experience … is closing over time.
Five years from now I think that gap will essentially be gone. Things like Skype will not be an application that you have to launch separately on your computer, it’s all going to be in the browser. That’s the big thing that’s happening, and we’re already in the browser. The pace of innovation and the pace of technological change is rapid right now. It’s getting better and better and better in the browser.
PCM: What advice do you have for people trying to break into the app-building field? Having gone through the process twice now, are there are particular lessons learned?
JF: The biggest [lesson] that I have given to people who are trying to start companies is that you have to kind of go with your gut. People are going to tell you it’s not going to work, it’s not a good idea; there’s going to be conflicting advice. You’re going to have to get over that if you want to actually get going. You’re going to have to move forward regardless of people’s skepticism.
That doesn’t mean every idea is good when people tell you they’re bad, it doesn’t mean you’re going to succeed. It just means that there’s going to be someone who will tell you that it’s not going to work. You’ve got to believe in yourself and believe in what you’re trying to do enough to be able to move beyond the naysayers.
PCM: In March, you were named one of the San Francisco Business Times‘ 40 Under 40. What was that experience like?
JF: I was really proud; I was really happy about that. It was a really nice honor. It’s more than just Internet entrepreneurs. Even though San Francisco is such a place that’s overflowing with Internet entrepreneurs, there were probably only five or 10 Internet entrepreneurs [on the list], and the other 30-plus people were from various walks of life — medical field, healthcare, government, people who have done impressive things in other fields. I think it was kind of cool to be part of that group and to be recognized in that way. I still believe that we have a lot to prove still at Spreecast; we’re kind of in the beginnings. StubHub is 13 years old. Spreecast is only 16 months old. We’ve got a lot of work to do. I prefer to keep all the praise or the awards in check because I feel like we still have a lot to prove, as far as Spreecast is concerned, before we deserve that recognition.
You sold StubHub to eBay in 2007. What is it like for you to see how your company has grown since then? Is it odd knowing that someone else has their hands on it now?
JF: I think they’ve done a really good job with it. There are still people there who I know, who were friends of mine or who I worked with while I was there. Not many, but a couple people. I hear from them how it’s going. It makes me proud to see that it’s doing well, to see that there’s competition in the ticketing space. I personally get really excited about starting companies and building things. Whether it’s StubHub or Spreecast or getting involved in other startups, I think it’s fun. It’s rewarding. It’s challenging. It’s intellectually stimulating. It’s something that keeps my attention, keeps me busy. I love it.
Interview edited for length.
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- Songza co-creator Elias Roman
- Rdio co-founder Drew Larner and CEO Carter Adamson
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- Kickstarter co-founder Yancey Strickler
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By Stephanie Mlot, PCMag