I’m Ryan Hickman, co-founder of EPIC. We build and invest in AI companies. I love writing code too.
My partner and co-founder Tomer Dicturel and I had just sold a major license of technology we created that paired influencers with brands to do social media promotions. The space was red hot with people trying to crack how to help influencers earn through micro-endorsements. Apple said at WWDC that year “the future of TV is apps”. It was the rise of the cord cutters and the flood of Youtube’s Multi-channel-networks MCN. Youtube production costs were on the increase yet earnings steadily racing towards the bottom making it incredibly hard for YouTubers to earn a living. Quarter million views and a check for $0.05 didn’t bode well with many of the platform’s creators.
There it was, the opportunity of a lifetime. If we could use live video rather than professionally produced videos then creators wouldn’t have high costs making their content more profitable. Viewers don’t hold live broadcasts to the same quality standards as recorded ones. The creators could bring audiences that brands would love to pay to get in front of. It was perfect for us. With the excitement from this new idea, we talked through how we could validate it.
Hypothesis: Will brands pay for advertisements to appear on live video streams broadcasted by influencers?
So we set out to validate our idea. Between the two of us, we created a 7-day sprint. In the spirit of lean startup we needed to validate our hypothesis, testing what was the highest risk to our idea — will brands pay for ads placed on live video streams and find value in them for their business. We felt if we couldn’t prove that then success wouldn’t be realistic for the idea. Lean startup in its truest form.
In the spirit of lean startup we needed to validate our hypothesis, testing what was the highest risk — will brands pay for ads placed on live video streams and find value in them for their business.
The pressure of bootstrapping helped us discover the power of the web. We learned the cost of scale for consumer-facing technology, how to convey values and most of all the importance of community.
The Sprint: Validating our idea
Day 1 — The idea.
There were three crucial things we had to bring together. The technology, the influencer, and the brand sponsorship. Classic chicken and egg scenario — what comes first the influencer, technology or the brand. We discussed possible paths and felt the best order of influence was showing the tech to the influencer, signing them and then selling the ad space to the brand with the media opportunity secured.
The technology generally was easy; tracking metrics and serving ads were innate to us given the recent license we sold. Personally, live broadcasting had a special place for me. I had previously had experience in the live streaming space I was knowledgeable in the tech requirements. My first rodeo was in 2009 on a cool project I was hired by CMU to build. The project was called The Waffle Shop which was a performance art project live streamed nightly for a few years. It was great however it required me to be on standby each night as support. Streaming software wasn’t as evolved as it is today and the shop was using studio style video cameras to handle multi-camera switching via desktop software. We took that into consideration when planning how to execute the user experience for our product.
Waffle Shop: A Reality Show — Wikipedia
Waffle Shop: A Reality Show was a performance art project and restaurant in the East Liberty neighborhood of…
A few years later I had found a way to merge the live video streaming experience with live chat for a project called The Vault which was developed for Alicia Keys. The site was a fully curated secret treasure-trove where all of her unreleased content resided. Users could watch live performances, videos, diary entries, and listen to music. The best feature allowed fans to be alerted when she was live streaming. Hundreds of thousands of emails went out to fans inviting them to join the live stream and chat with Alicia Keys. It was amazing! The quality was unprecedented given we were using 4K cameras hardwired to a dedicated upstreaming box.
So we figured we could use these types of processes to deliver a live video streaming experience to users, we just needed a better way to upstream. Expensive cameras, large hardware rigs and support staff we’re obviously out of reach in such a short order of time. After doing research we concluded the hardware of the iPhone could do the job. If we build the app just for our influencer they could stream and then we could broadcast the video via the web for viewers to watch. In fact, we realized that by sending the link on social media when the influencer was streaming live would be a great way to pull in viewership. It was perfect — we didn’t need to create and battle test a consumer experience on a mobile app, we didn’t need to wait for apple submission approval and we didn’t have to map out a marketing plan to get app downloads…we were on our way.
We now had a clear path for the technology locked down to deliver a low friction experience for users. Next, we needed to brand it so we could create materials to professionally present what we were doing to get influencers buy-in. We juggled around a few names based on domains we could find. That was easier said than done.
After trying dozens of synonyms across different languages we landed on Makren which means “projector” in Hebrew. We wrote a vision statement aligning with our mission of delivering a way for creators to earn a living live streaming as we felt that was the key to market fit. We drafted up a one-sheet, made an app screenshot design and were ready for telling the influencer community what we were up to.
Next, we needed to identify the right influencer to help us validate what we were doing. We looked at the calendar of major upcoming events and seen the NBA draft was on the horizon. While I’m clueless when it comes to sports Tomer is not. He suggested we get in front of this event because it was going to be a popular discussion on social media. The popularity of the event on social media meant a lot more potential foot traffic discovering our link if an NBA player were to publish they were live streaming.
Tomer knew everyone in professional sports. I mean EVERYONE. I used to kid at the fact there was always a newly signed gifts coming to the office from a professional sports star. He ran a successful financial planning business which had many high net worth professional sports players as clients. So it made perfect sense to get our media kit in front of them and their agents to explore the possibilities with those players as influencers.
We called it a day. We had a name, domain, media kit, general app design and most importantly a plan to bring this thing to life.
Day 2 — Create the prototype. I’ve been building software for almost 20 years. One thing that I learned is that it takes time. With our aggressive schedule time wasn’t something on our side so rather than spin up an IDE to write code. I went online and found some open source software I could invest an hour into testing, validating and knowing works. It was more important to deliver the experience rather than deliver code.
The first software I found was terrible and didn’t do the job. Then I came across KickFlip. It was exactly what was needed for the job. I downloaded it, customized it’s the color, logo and linked the backend to a web service. Boom 💥. We had a prototype.
The first version of Makren wasn’t the prettiest, but what mattered was that it worked. I clicked the camera icon to go live and streamed content to a URL. When I was done the generated thumbnail was displayed in a feed for me to replay in that app or via the URL in the browser. I uploaded the app to testflight and sent it to Tomer. We played with it a few hours uncovering the limits and made a checklist so we could guide influencers with technical support if needed.
We designed the end user viewing experience to be as simple as possible. Logo header, username, live video, and an advertisement. There wasn’t much development necessary. We simply needed to seamlessly serve the video without buffering or crashing.
Day 3 — Getting Feedback. Full of excitement Tomer shipped the app off to a list of agents and players that he thought would be the most interested in the opportunity. They were pumped! We instantly were getting return calls. With such a high response, we had to boil down who would be the best to stream particularly because their social following was going to be the largest driver of viewership during this test. Interestingly we observed another problem influencers had where they were known on the court/field but didn’t have a huge following on social media.
The feedback was all positive. The simplicity of use is what made the testers the most excited. The ability to watch the streams without downloading an app on the web or mobile (iOS&android) made their agents even more excited. Easier access meant a larger audience. Larger audience meant greater exposure and potential for greater earning potential.
This was important to learn as it applied to our hypothesis.
Day 4 — Getting out there & securing talent. With great feedback and a product, we could demo Tomer started to speak to some NBA talent. This was an advantage we had given Tomer’s relationships.
Many more players wanted to stream than we could provide tech support for so we had to narrow down to the most influential. After analyzing the social data of the most interested NBA players and negotiating with their agents on a price point to do a short stream during the draft, we secured Ty Lawson and Trey Burke.
Our data showed us the estimated amount of traffic that would be generated based on the historic click performance of links on these players social channels. With that data, we could better predict viewership. We figured we would need that so it was clear to a potential brand advertiser on what they would get out of the promotion.
Wow! It wasn’t even the end of day 4 and everything we were envisioning was coming to life. This was so incredible.
Day 5 — Get Brand. At this point, we had everything we needed to get a brand on board. At first, we thought let’s just throw Google display ads on the site. When we did the math, there wasn’t going to be enough traffic. In fact, we would be contradicting our hypothesis as Google display ads were how Youtubers were paid — and Youtubers were upset with how little they were earning. We needed a brand that would pay us a premium for an exclusive experience. Tomer packaged up what we had and did some outreach to a few companies.
The brands were excited. A hurdle for them was seeing REAL metrics vs predicted estimates. That was a learning point we took to memory. By days end we had secured a brand who sent us a $5,000 check to sponsor the banner that would display at the bottom of the live video streams.
At this point the only thing left to do was launch and confirm with the brand they found value in the promotion.
Day 6 — Launch. The energy levels were at an all-time high. We did a few test runs with the players in advance to ensure everything worked. We tested the ads and made sure we could measure the click and view through traffic. Everything was working as expected. 1 part tech, 1 part brand, 1 part influencer and 10 part luck.
The draft lasts for several hours and we didn’t have a designated time for when or how often the players were going to stream. So we pulled up our machines and waited. I remember hitting refresh on the analytics every 20 seconds.
Tomer got a text from Ty’s agent “bout to go live”. It was on! Ty was live in his home with a few of his friends smoking a hooka. Almost instantly 200 people joined the stream and were watching. 210, 260, 350…The number was climbing fast. All the rain dancing for luck must have worked. Ty was traded to another team and his reaction was captured live! We couldn’t have asked for anything more magical. Press picked it up, Twitter picked it up… it was everywhere. Ty Lawson’s reaction was taking us viral. There was a vine that we saw go over 1,000,000 loops. The sports fans loved getting to see content like this live.
Iterating on feedback
We pulled off everything we needed to validate expect one thing. The feedback that was most important to us knowing the brand found value in the effort. After waiting a week the brand reached back out to us to share their excitement in the promotion. They told us their call centers had a spike in activity and that they would be excited to run a campaign with us again.
The momentum lasted several days. Press reached out to us to learn what we were doing. It was incredible to have so much interest. There was a lot of feedback. Some wondered if we would make our own app, others said they love our vision just not such much the name. Ideas were flying everywhere. We made a list of all the feedback and ranked it so we could tackle the most pressing things that could make the greatest impact on the business.
First — the brand name, Makren. People were having trouble saying it and that was a problem. We were torn as we didn’t know if we should keep the name which we established brand equity in or if we should take on a new name while the product is still young. We also had to consider the changes to the technology, web, marketing materials and more.
We reached out to our network and asked a friend who worked on the branding and marketing at Apple, Nike, Android, and many other Fortune 100 companies. He brainstormed for a few days and continued throwing ideas over the fence. He would text them to us and I would give them a rating:
There were some horrible names. In the middle of the night one evening he sent us a deck for a concept he called “Mevee”. He didn’t pressure test it via text like the others. For this, he made a whole story. The thought was Mee(tee)vee. He had this amazing idea for people to use a peace sign as a way to acknowledge the community when users stream. The moment we opened that PDF Mevee was born. We fell in love with the brand. How universal it was to use this peace sign to represent unifying people.
The original mevee logo used the yellowish-green from Makren. We quickly started playing with ideas around color and updated our brand materials. We were ready to take on another use case to prove our business was viable.
Proving Market Fit
By this time competitor apps, MeerKat and Periscope joined the space. They were growing rapidly. They were consumer-facing native apps that allowed anyone to go live and stream video. Meerkat had the backing of the music industry and Periscope had the backing of Twitter. While competition proves there is a market on someone else’s dime, it also makes it harder for you to introduce your product to those same users. There was a bit of panic but we were steadfast in our vision — which was something the competition wasn’t focused on.
While we wanted to push the product web-first the feedback guided us to mobile. According to research from the Chrome team at Google and others, people spend more time on mobile apps than they do on mobile websites. In fact, apps account for 90%+ of time spent on mobile. On the other hand, we debated on the browser, in the browser, people visit new websites they find, explore links from existing apps, and browse content without the barrier of installing an app. We concluded that we would prioritize the web because it’s easier for an unknown startup to reach users for the first time with a web presence vs a native presence. And we that we would enhance the experience natively in an app.
We were getting frequent calls from other players who wanted to live stream to earn what we started calling a micro-endorsement. Calls from NBA players eventually turned into calls from actors, celebrities and people from other industries. In our analysis, we felt that launching streams during major events proved successful to us. One of the calls we received was from a VH-1 reality star for the show LAHH, which at that time was VH-1’s most popular show. In fact, it was the highest rated show on cable averaging 3 million viewers each episode.
The opportunity was clearly a win. One of the most popular characters on the show wanted to stream live during the commercial breaks of the season finale. She wanted to give her real-time reaction with fans while at her home with several cast member cameos. We ran down our checklist and seen it was clearly a win. She had over a million fans on her social media channels.
She tried periscope however she considered herself a small fish in a big sea of other creators who were dominating the platform. This made it hard for her to get even 100 people in her live broadcasts. Something we observed was the only way to watch the streams on those platforms was via the apps. Which meant there was a specific community who had to go through specific hoops to experience the broadcasts.
We saw an opportunity in highlighting the fact that the app is only required to broadcast. In fact, we still didn’t have a consumer-facing app. Our app was specific for influencers only to broadcast.
So we took our new Mevee brand and on Aug 31 we went live during the highest rated LAHH season finale. We expected somewhere around 5,000 people to join the stream. Boy were we wrong…
She went live and we watched the numbers grow. Almost instantly there were a few hundred people in the stream. She tweeted during the first commercial break and we saw an insane amount of traffic. 10…20…30…40…60,000 people all tuned in watching live AT THE SAME TIME!
In this test, we used to display ads from a premium network to see what the revenue would look like. We felt it was important so we can increase the fill on our network inventory. It would have been hard to only sell 30% of our traffic and completely make zero on the other traffic. If our vision was to deliver those earnings then we needed to find ways to maximize revenue potential.
We were being very strict about focusing our limited resources on validating the product-market-fit. We had to be very attentive to the market signals so we set acceptance criteria we could measure at each step in order to properly validate our ideas.
Going into market
We were 2 for 2 in our validation exercise. Influencers were paid, streams were broadcasted, users could watch and brands were paying for placements. Now we needed to make a decision on how to scale. How would we support more brands, more influencers, and more streams.
Meerkat was having internal problems and it looked like they were headed to an end. Periscope was becoming a household name and talks of Facebook creating a solution was lingering. So we had to position our message the right way to be different and provide clear value to the community.
Mevee — The live-first video platform for capturing, streaming, sharing and monetizing video.
We knew that gaining market share was going to be a tall order and after talking with the community we realized our best foot forward was to stick to our guns and help these creators make a living from live-streaming.
We had a lot of ideas and needed to prioritize them to focus. We used a business model canvas to capture the ideas in a format that would allow the most critical needs of the business to survive.
Putting the company out into the market was hard. The date kept shifting because of Apple’s approval processing being so vague. “In Review” went from 1 day to 15. We had finally gotten our approval so we knew we could commit.
We spent days hand curating a list of people who were top YouTubers, users on Periscope, Twitter and bloggers sending personal messages to each of them inviting them to the digital launch of MeVee. It perhaps was the best thing we could have ever done. Quickly we learned that relationships were the edge we needed to win over our competitors’ extremely loyal user base. So we engrained that into our thinking and company culture. We had some interviews lined up for press and some super users ready to go live who had already been using the beta daily.
While the ease of distribution and expansion with web was so obvious, in order for us to get users who were live streaming every day we had to deliver the app-first experience. This was something they were used to doing on other platforms. This way the barrier to entry was lower for them.
Committing to the developing a consumer app where the community had expectations from existing apps was an undertaking. While the core technology was clear there was supporting technology and process needed that wasn’t so clear:
- PubSub for real time chat and user interaction (giving stars)
- Security provisions to prevent data leakage and hacks
- Analytics SDKs to fully measure user behavior
- App store conversation tracking SDKs
I remember clicking “release to the app store”. It was such a wonderful feeling. All the hard work rolling up to this moment.
Once the app was available in the app store we saw people from all over the world jumping on to test it out. Over the first few days, every user literally watched every stream. Once we passed 10,000 users that simply was no longer possible to do. From 21 users to 50,000 users in just a few short weeks.
The love was unreal. Internation Business Times and Wall Street Journal were covering our launch. Even New York Times gave us a front-page exclusive naming us as the App of CES.
This Live-Streaming App Carries Banners and Video Ads
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The traffic was up and we wanted to keep it that way. While celebrities would pull in streams they wouldn’t really help churn. When celebrities would stream they didn’t engage the community well which resulted in poor retention.
We identified a group that did improve churn because of how engaging they were both in their content and on the content of other users. We referred to them as streamers. Once we realized their importance we zeroed in on techniques to engage them. Surprisingly enough the intimacy of the live streams made in person meetups a huge success. Additionally making ourselves available in other live streaming apps such as Blab really helped. The community saw we were out to achieve our mission. Oh, how I missed Blab.
While new features seemed like the promised land what mattered more was the community. For them, competitive differentiation didn’t matter. What mattered was exposure. We had a keen ability to really capture user feedback. There were days where Tomer would do back to back 30-minute calls with users from dawn to dusk. Users cared more about their personal exposure. They wanted to know how they could increase their following count and viewership during live broadcasts.
In fact we found ourselves removing features and complexity to make it easier for first time users to discover new content — the communities content. There was a lot of pressure from the press and potential investors to differentiate ourselves through new features. When building social apps or any apps that center around a community I strongly advise weighting their feedback with higher priority.
The cooking community wanted aprons, we got them aprons. The well-traveled streamers wanted portable chargers to prevent their phones from dying, we got them mevee battery packs. Fostering community is everything.
What was next
With even more growth on the horizon, we realized we needed to raise dollars in order to sustain. We needed more team members, marketing and money to cover the costs of streaming live video (hint… it’s not cheap) — so we began fundraising. Our offices were in times square at the time so VC’s and family offices were visiting us there. The problem was we decided to raise money the same time Facebook getting into the live space was no longer a rumor.
On the way to our offices, VCs were bombarded with advertisements for Facebook Live. The first question at our meetings was, “How are you going to compete with Facebook?”. While our answer was strong it was clear that the market was threatened for newer or smaller companies like ours.
Without the funding, we needed we had to slowly wind down operations. It was an EPIC run.
Hopefully, this article helps makers reframe their approach to ideation, testing and launching new products. As a hacker, student or maker it’s fun to experience new ideas and launch concepts fast; however, starting those projects isn’t always about writing code. You can often achieve more success with a value-first based approach.