BEST OF THE WEB: Meet the hottest web company that started as a joke

Justin Kan didn’t expect the police to break down his door after creating a start-up dedicated to documenting his life minute-by-minute. But that’s exactly what happened in 2007.

After Kan started Justin.TV, a web series he launched with his three roommates dedicated to documenting his life, he encountered a visit from the police that was actually filmed and eventually put online. It wasn’t planned.

Turns out, it was a prank. Viewers of the streaming web series were messing with Kan and his roommates – they even called fire trucks to Kan’s building over the next few nights.

It was a rough start to what has become one of the more interesting models on the internet – one that has earned the company millions in monthly visitors – and in funding as well. The site is a streaming service – anyone can upload a stream of anything, and people can watch.

This has led to anything from play throughs of videogames to full-blown independent web series. If it streams, it’s on Justin.TV.

At only 28, Kan has been through a lot: He’s finished the Y Combinator program; his company has been forced to answer to a Congressional committee over web piracy; and he has built one of the web’s hottest start-ups.

The history of the company has been profiled in this extensive feature over at Fast Company. And, as it describes, this start-up has been forced to change its model dramatically as the company has grown. What began as a type of social experiment – Kan wore a camera everywhere during the early days of self-documentation – has become a type of social network.

Investor Paul Graham put up some seed money for the company, attracted by the weird idea.

“We were going to enable this new form of reality TV based on streaming people’s lives 24/7, and that was going to be the business. We were going to be reality TV moguls,” co-founder Emmett Shear tells Fast Company, in a lengthy profile.

Graham himself said “the ultimate plan” for the business would be to “replace television”. Big words.

As the traffic came rolling in, Justin.TV has been forced to change its model to suit the huge number of views. The business slowly turned from a reality series into a place where people could upload their own videos.

Essentially, Kan said he wanted to “democratise live video”. The only problem was democracy opted for piracy.

Feeds of pirated sports games started showing up on the site in 2008 and 2009. CEO Michael Seibel was taken before a US congressional committee to explain the company’s stance, saying it removed pirated material when it could but didn’t manually monitor the site.

That would create “an unfair expectation”, he argued.

But there was another niche the company could tap into, Kan said – video games. Users had started showing off live streams of video games – something Kan himself said he didn’t understand.

“Anytime you say to yourself, ‘Really, people want to do blank?’–that means you’ve discovered something,” Graham says.

This part of the company has blown up so much it’s launched a new gaming site called TwitchTV, with 17 million unique visitors a month. It streams live gaming events – a model that’s failed on television, but has found a home online.

Although Kan has stepped away from the company for now, Shear heads up Twitch – and the two are still roommates.

Justin.TV is an example of how nimble a business can be when responding to customer demands online, which move at a dizzying pace. Although Kan may have just walked into an opportunity through a bit of fun, it’s ended up creating one of the most interesting – and flexible – start-ups on the web.

Apple and Google battle over maps technology

When Apple announced its own home-grown Maps app last week at WWDC, it became clear the gap between itself and Google continues to grow. With Android on the rise, Apple wants less and less to do with its former Maps partner.

As this piece on The New York Times points out, the real question is whether Apple can create a maps service that’s just as good as Google’s extensive, detailed option.

There are still plenty of questions as to what Apple is doing. Is it prioritising function over form, or does it just want to make sure no one gets their hands on Google’s product as easily as before?

But as Creative Strategies analyst Ben Bajarin explains, this could easily hit Google’s pocketbook if Apple gains some traction.

“Being in maps and getting that data affects Google’s revenue from things like sponsored links, and it affects search quality,” he said.

“People could move from saying ‘Google it’ to ‘Ask Siri’.”

…and speaking of Apple vs Google

Here’s a good piece on Search Engine Land about how Apple is making its attack on Google in a more subtle way than all-out war.

As it points out, Google Search is still a key product for Apple, and not one they’re going to get rid of anytime soon.

“There’s an excellent chance that if Apple switched the default search in Safari on iOS to Bing, people would freak out asking where Google was. Sure, they could change the default.”

“But it would still put Apple in the uncomfortable position of having to explain why it chose not the best search engine to use as a default but rather one based on competition issues. That’s not something you want to do, when you’re a company known for creating great products that keep the user in mind.”

Could Twitter donations change the 2012 election?

The United States is gearing up for an election year. Last time, it was all about Facebook and how social media could change the voters’ minds. This time, Twitter will be centre stage more than ever before.

Over at Mashable, there’s a fascinating piece on how Twitter donations could help decide the outcome of the election. Twitter ecommerce platform Chirpify has created a new app to help users donate money to their candidates via tweet.

“We believe there’s power in individual donations and that we have a platform that can enable that over social media,” Chirpify chief executive Chris Teso told Mashable.

“We now enable politicians to receive donations directly in the stream on Twitter. It’s what we call ‘conversational commerce.’”

This particular approach may not get off the ground quickly, but it represents just how important Twitter will be leading up to November – both for the candidates and the voting public.

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