On August 26, 2015 a video app called Hyper was launched into the App Store. It showed nothing but a selection of ten videos. That was it. Ten videos that we, filmmakers at heart, deemed “worth watching” on that day, followed by a new top ten list the following day, and the day after that…
Our mission was simple: everyday, more videos are uploaded to the internet than each of us can consume in our entire lifetime. How could you ever find those gems worthy of your time? The truly meaningful videos that make you happy, that stick in your memory — as opposed to the clickbait, the quick and cheap productions that algorithms favor way too often in your social feeds. Hyper was built to separate the signal from the noise: with proprietary scouting technology and, more importantly, a dedicated team of human curators.
Created by filmmakers, designers and developers in Berlin, Hyper paired highly selective video curation with immersive and frictionless design. The result was a beautifully stylized, thoughtfully curated daily video magazine, covering the worlds of tech, culture, style and beyond — a quality source of information, inspiration and entertainment. Focusing on unique storytelling, journalistic impact and visual language, Hyper brought a strict quality-first approach to online video. It’s a concept that we feel is still utterly missing in our online and social media lives to this day.
David vs Goliath
Hyper was a David vs Goliath story from the beginning. Competing not only with YouTube and other established video platforms, but also with Silicon Valley veterans and big-ass media conglomerates who were simultaneously ramping up to get into the game of mobile video. Former Hulu CEO Jason Kilar had just raised 130 million dollars for his mobile-first (and today defunct) YouTube competitor, Vessel. Major cable companies were allocating vast war chests of resources with the same goal, paying hundreds of millions on design agencies, developer arsenals, and exclusive content deals. None of which our group of independent filmmakers and first time founders from Berlin could match in any material way. We didn’t have the connections or the funding — heck, we didn’t even have much experience in mobile tech or startup. But we believed in the power of a dedicated team with a mission, and we believed that small is beautiful.
Small Is Beautiful
And so, when Watchable (Comcast), Go90 (Verizon), Vessel, and Hyper all launched within one long summer of 2015, it was Hyper that excelled in the one category that truly mattered to us: User Love! Our first app version was the only video app in the App Store at the time with a straight 5-star user rating, based on hundreds of reviews. At one point our office walls were entirely plastered with printouts of feedback from users, raving about just how much they loved the product and how it was making their lives more pleasurable. Meanwhile, our competitors were busy doing damage control from sub-par product execution and unclear value propositions, appeasing frustrated fans of their newly-signed content creators, or sending test-notifications to their entire customer base. Hyper had nothing but smooth rollouts, platform after platform (iPad first, followed by Apple TV and iPhone). Our product was simple, elegant and easy to maintain. People “got” it, and if there was a problem, our team was lean (read: small) enough to fix it within a day. We had a really good start. And the press loved us. Small was indeed beautiful.
The Startup Phase
The week after we launched on iPhone, Hyper was officially named “Best New App” in over 100 countries, followed by multiple critical “Best of the Year” awards (including Apple’s annual top 10 list, twice). We grew a seven-figure userbase without spending any marketing dollars. Leading up to this we had worked diligently to secure offline partnerships with a plethora of America’s premium video brands. This would make Hyper videos available anywhere — even without internet — a cornerstone of our vision to “fix” mobile video. By that time we had also partnered with the amazing team at Mic in an acquisition deal that made us part of the larger news operation of the millennial news publisher. This was a tremendous opportunity to reach the next level with the support and synergy of a fast-growth media brand and a world-class team that, based on their quality video output, we had already loved and cooperated with before. So far we had done everything right, and it looked like we were ready to shift from startup to growth phase.
During the months following the launch craze we focused quietly and obsessively on improving our key metrics. We became really smart at integrating more advanced analytics to understand our users, and we A/B tested and optimized all kinds of different conversion points. We didn’t shy away from radically changing our core UI, if necessary, in order to give users more videos to watch every day. We developed customization tech on top of our curation funnel, to create personalized editions of hand-selected videos for each user. And we made progress fast. Within just four months, the time users spent in the app increased by 300%. The average user now spent over 20 minutes on each Hyper session. Massive! And even more: people seemed to genuinely enjoy our video selection. Instead of users skimming through the content, our video completion rates ranged, depending on platform, from 62% to 80%! Compared to Facebook, where a 3-second auto-playing video was counted as “watched”, the vast majority of our users actually finished the videos they started watching. It seemed that our concept of quality over quantity was bearing fruit. It seemed that Hyper was a real alternative. Something that users really wanted.
Retention Is a B****
But with every new achievement of in-app engagement came the realization that one key metric — arguably the most important one — seemed to be set in stone: Retention. It was not that our retention numbers were horrible. A day-one retention of 21% to 27% (depending on platform) was a good start by any means (the industry average for iOS entertainment apps is half of that). But no matter what we did, and no matter the positive impact of any given new feature on other metrics, our retention numbers didn’t move one bit. While users showed above-average results while they were active, the same was not true for re-activating them. We simply could not convince enough users to change their old routines.
In hindsight the problems we encountered showed one of the most common difficulties when trying to build up a daily active user base in an already saturated market: you can only grow by stealing away users from your competition. This means you need to change your users’ daily routines. And even if your product is perceived as superior to others in some regard, individual routine changes will only happen if your product is actually 10 times better than your best competitor — a widely cited startup insight by now. With much conviction, we’d say that we were maybe 5 times better for a specific use case: discovering high quality videos. That’s a lot! But it simply wasn’t enough to change people’s routines at scale — our very loyal core user base notwithstanding. On a sidenote to other developers: if the above is the situation you find yourself in, even the smartest notification strategy is not gonna save you. Putting your efforts here too early is the wrong focus. We learned that the hard way.
At the same time, and while we were figuring out our next moves, Big Data-driven content delivery algorithms were getting smarter by the minute to grab and keep users’ attention, and to get them literally addicted to a specific platform. All content out there is ultimately competing for the same limited mindshare. And this arms race of the attention economy, lead by the Facebooks and Buzzfeeds of the world, is what every aspiring content platform or provider is up against. Which is fine, unless the objective of this race is at odds with your core mission. Remember: our mission was to serve you videos that are worthy of your time. So while we ramped up with more analytics and smarter tech to compete, we constantly had to strike a balance between optimizing for “time spent” on the one hand, and our commitment to quality — or what others have called “time well spent” — on the other hand. Trying to mitigate, we ultimately got stuck in no man’s land: staying all-in on quality meant being too niche, but relentlessly optimizing for clicks meant competing on YouTube and Facebook turf. The former didn’t allow us the meaningful growth rate and scale we set out to achieve. The latter did not put us in a position where we could offer a real alternative to our users.
That’s why, on May 31st 2017, Hyper is shutting down.
So Long and Thanks for All the Fish!
We thank everyone who went with us on this adventure and without whom we wouldn’t have gotten as far as we did: Our incredibly supportive investors and advisors. Our content partners who were bold enough to think outside the box with us. The many, many supporters across the industry we had the honor of connecting with and who helped in so many ways: with an intro, a piece of advice, or just by asking the right question at the right time. We thank the great team at Microsoft Accelerator who taught us so much about starting a startup, and the amazing people at Apple for allowing us to push the envelope. A very personal thanks to each and all of our team members in Berlin for their hard work and high spirits throughout each curve of the rollercoaster ride. And a very special thanks to the insanely talented team at Mic for being great friends and a super smart, fun and inspiring group of people to work with. Keep up the amazing things you’re doing!
Last but not least, we want to thank all our loyal users for sticking with us and for showing so much love and support, but also for your critique and feedback. You kept us going and helped us become better! Stay tuned for what’s next.
So, What Is Next?
After some long-postponed traveling time, the Hyper founder team will be back to the proverbial garage by the end of the summer. You’ll hear from us. In the meantime, feel free to reach out if you want to discuss any ideas or projects.
Markus Gilles, Jonas Brandau, Andreas Pursian, Mathias Sauvestre
Founders of Hyper