Learning, Launching and Everything In Between — An Interview with Uri Haramati

credit: Digital Marketing Conference

I sat with Uri Haramati (Co-Founder and Former Head of Product @ Life on Air, the company behind Meerkat and Houseparty) to learn more about learning, entrepreneurship and how watching hours of live video makes you a great product manager. To hear more from Uri, come to Elevation Academy’s Coding Bootcamp Demo Day! RSVP here.

As a financial consultant turned entrepreneur and Head of Product of two wildly successful live streaming apps (Meerkat & Houseparty), Uri Haramati has been on one wild ride, to say the least.

After founding a startup, he joined Ben Rubin and Itai Danino to co-found Yevvo, a live video streaming app. Keeping with their vision to connect people through live video, the trio closed Yevvo and went on to launch Air and two subsequent products: Meerkat and Houseparty.

“It was pretty crazy. All three of us had never done something like this before. Ben never ran a company or raised money, Itai had never coded a video mobile app and I had never managed a product team or an R&D team. We learned everything on the go.”

Meerkat, the company’s live-streaming app, became an overnight sensation. Built in 8 weeks, it soared to 1 million users and climbed to the top of Product Hunt. “At first when you see the hockey stick [of growth], it’s surreal. It was the craziest hype over a startup that I had ever seen. Everyone was using it. And the crazy thing is that we didn’t do any PR or marketing. Everything worked by default. It was simple and it just worked for our users.”

However, after Twitter blocked the app from accessing its social graph, Meerkat slowly died down. But the team didn’t give up on their vision.

In 2016 they secretly launched Houseparty, a group video chat app. Houseparty has since become one of the most popular mobile apps in the US. In just under a month the app reached 1 million daily active users and was one of the top ten ranked apps in the US app store with zero spent on traffic acquisition or PR. Even Meerkat didn’t make it that far.

So how does one navigate, and most importantly learn, from such a wild startup ride?

You can hear it straight from Uri:

Why did you choose entrepreneurship?

It started with the urge to do something for myself and build something from scratch. I had many ideas, but I didn’t know enough about the tech space.

This is where learning came in. While freelancing as a financial consultant, I spent every second of my free time learning about the tech industry before starting my own startup, Skedook. I read many blogs by entrepreneurs and industry leaders. I watched startup pitches and talked to friends in the industry. I learned a bit of coding, as well as the details of web and mobile design and UI/UX and the different approaches and methods to product management. I was (and still am) very interested in understanding how things work.

You’ve had a pretty wild ride (3 big pivots), what did you learn, and how did it help you make each subsequent product better?

While we pivoted a lot, the vision has always been the same: to connect people in real time.

This really helped, because with every product we were able to learn more and more about the live video space. And this gave us an edge and eventually led to Houseparty’s success.

For example, with Yevvo we learned a lot about the different types of users who used live video streaming. We learned that there are two main types of users: 1) the celebrities — those that want to share content with as many people as they can, and 2) other users — people who want to share moments with friends. These users require different approaches and we quickly realized that building a product for both of them was too much.

This was the main learning — that we needed to build a product for one type of user, not both.

So we decided to make a big decision and close Yevvo in order to focus on Air, a product that would cater to the ‘other users.’

The way I see it, closing Yevvo was the first bold decision we took. I learned a lot from it, mainly that once you understand that life goes on (after taking such a bold decision) then other company decisions seem much smaller. You start to understand that only bold and risky decisions can lead to huge success.

You also realize the limits of data. While we try to be as data driven as we can, it’s important to find a balance, especially in the early stages, between gut feelings and user data. It’s hard to confront the results when you have real data, but sometimes the data is not enough to make decisions. And sometimes radical changes are hard to validate, but you do them anyways.

If we had tried to optimize Yevvo, we would have never created Meerkat. If we had tried to optimize Meerkat, we would have never created Houseparty.

Therefore, giant leaps in success and learning can only come from giant leaps within the company or product. And in one of the most competitive and hyped spaces in tech (video streaming) a startup can’t survive without taking giant leaps.

Launching Meerkat was another huge learning curve for all of us. While working on Air, we started building Meerkat (an app for the ‘celebrity users’) as a side project, an experiment to see how ‘gamification’ features work and to test the asynchronous behavior of scheduling an upcoming stream. Once we decided Meerkat was a side project, it was easier to make decisions. Because if it doesn’t work, it’s ok, it’s just a side project.

I also learned that once you take the bold decision (closing Yevvo or launching Meerkat as a side project) then you must switch gears to ‘just doing it.’

At this stage the goal is to try many things and to learn from every mistake. It’s to iterate smaller and smaller instead of spending so much time discussing and forming ideas. To experiment, learn and move on.

And it worked. From the beginning we were able to move fast and do a lot of innovative things, such as integrating with GoPro and Facebook Pages, creating a saved streams library, using hashtags and offering live polls, and opening up a public API — which is very unique to a consumer startup at such an early stage.

And what about Houseparty?

When we first started working on Houseparty we didn’t tell anyone about it. The technology was very different than Meerkat and there were a lot of question marks with regards to how the product works and should work. However, we wanted to get user feedback as soon as possible, so we decided to release it quietly with a different name and focus on iterating as fast as we can, as much as we can.

What really helped is that in 2016 the App Store shortened its review process from weeks to 1–2 days. This was huge. It changed the way we worked. We started releasing six versions a month, which made us really flexible.

The anonymity gave us a lot of freedom to make mistakes. It made it easier to move fast, test new features and experiment quickly without spending endless meetings deciding what’s next and how to work things out.

What do you think makes Houseparty so successful?

Houseparty started with this metaphor. We thought of a real house party. At a real house party you know more or less who will be there, but you may be surprised. There aren’t any random people, you can see everyone. You can start talking to a friend, and they may be talking to other friends and you’ll join them and talk to whoever is there. And this is how the product was built.

And this is the magic with Houseparty. The auto-join feature makes it so everyone is talking together, there is chaos together. No one is higher than anyone else, everyone participates and no one owns the show.

Having such a strong metaphor makes it easier to align product features. For example, when we thought about creating different ‘groups (for family or friends)’ it was easy to go back to the metaphor and then veto that because there are no such groups in a real house party, instead everyone is mixed together.

How did you create a product-centric company?

One way is by changing the way we build teams. We specifically build teams that integrate product and dev people together. This way the team can go from ideation to execution on their own.

I strongly believe that the only way to build great technological products is by having developers and product managers working closely together. Developers know the system better than anyone — they know what can be changed quickly, what can tweaked and what can’t. This makes it much easier for a product manager to move faster in smaller steps to validate ideas and see what’s working and what isn’t. build a minimum viable product.

Another way we cultivate a product-centric culture is by learning from our employees. We open product ideation to everyone. Everyone can offer a new idea for a feature, or anything else, (using Slack or in meetings) and there’s no filter or negative feedback.

We also share a lot of data with company. This is part of our data driven culture. For every feature that is released we provide data on user behavior (# of users, feature retention, etc.) 12 hours, 24 hours and a week after launch. This allows both the developer and product manager to know, in real time, what’s working and what isn’t and move fast to change it.

As a Product Manager, how did you keep learning about your users?

As a product person working on video apps, I had the huge benefit of being able to actually see my users using the app, in real time. So that’s what I did. I learned by watching users use the app, introduce others to the app, etc. For example, with Yevvo, I was the top video viewer among all users. At some point I even started talking to my users directly using live streaming.

With Meerkat, we took this to the next level. We made it a priority to be constantly interacting with Meerkat users and the community. We created Slack channels for power users and our team members met with power users face to face. We also shared a lot of this with the team, things like who are users are, what are they streaming, interesting things happening on a Meerkat stream and more. We also had a live video stream in our office showing Meerkat user broadcasts. Houseparty was a bit harder because all the video streams are private. But we did share a lot of user stories and welcomed any feedback that anyone would hear or see from any source. We also sat next to users and filmed them onboarding and interacting with the app.

Second is being a data freak. I’m all about measurement, learning and understanding user patterns, what makes them stay, what makes them leave and why they are dropping. This has been a huge learning curve for us a company: going from a culture of data to a company that makes decisions based on data.

How did you establish a culture of learning?

Culture is something that is always being formed. I think a big part of our culture has to do with executing quickly. When we decide on something we do it on the spot.

We can talk about ‘closing Yevvo’, but once we decide, we close it. Instantly. Same for when we killed AIR and Meerkat took off.

When we need to make dramatic changes in the organization, we focus on deciding and executing on the spot. Not stretching them out or doing anything partially.

This makes it easier for everyone to embrace experimentation. It’s about understanding that we will always have to make decisions in an uncertain environment. That’s how it’s going to be. So if we know that the environment and the result will always be uncertain, then we know that we just need to do it. To do it and learn from it. If we don’t keep making decisions and learning from them, then we’ll always remain in uncertainty.

After so many changes, what keeps you going?

I love building things, especially things that affect people and how they interact with the world. I also love the uncertainty of building something and not knowing what will come of it. You know what you want to do, but you don’t know if it’s going to work.

You have a vision, you want to to do something, and you want to reach it. And when you’re building a company, you’re creating everything — the company, culture, processes, etc, from scratch. Each with their own challenges. This is something very fulfilling and it’s what keeps me moving forward. I love creating something that is meaningful, something that changes behavior and creates real value for people.

What are you most proud of?

Professionally: Building products that really transformed the industry of live streaming.

Personally — Building a company that was able to move fast and react quickly.

What do you want to learn next?

The thing I didn’t learn in my previous companies: how to scale a company from 30 to 100 employees. This is a very different challenge and something I’m very excited to learn. This is the next thing.

To hear more from Uri, come to Elevation Academy’s Coding Bootcamp Demo Day! RSVP here.