Editor’s note: Traction Watch is a new column focused obsessively on growth, and is a companion to the DEMO Traction conference series, which brings together high-growth startups with high-potential customers. Companies can apply here to showcase, or those similarly obsessed can register here to attend. Meerkat CEO Ben Rubin will be speaking.
Live video streaming has exploded in the past week as the next big “thing.” Will it maintain its traction—or become the next Viddy?
Recently, Twitter introduced Periscope, an app that lets you broadcast live video from your iOS device -- real-time video ‘selfies,’ in essence -- to followers. Twitter acquired Periscope for a reported $100 million in January. The app had been in development for more than a year and enjoyed a high-profile beta program, with celebs such as Jimmy Fallon and Al Roker sharing live video streams.
Periscope popped up in the iTunes App Store a week after competitor Meerkat’s buzzy SXSW debut, which generated second-coming media headlines (The Verge: “How Meerkat conquered all at SXSW”). Meerkat is also an iOS app for streamlng live video and sharing it on Twitter.
Not to be outdone by Twitter, Life On Air, Meerkat’s developer, announced on Thursday it had raised around $14 million in funding so far, led by Greylock Partners and including a variety of individual investors that include actor Jared Leto and YouTube cofounder Chad Hurley. Then on Friday, Meerkat released an update to its app with all sorts of new features.
Periscope and Meerkat are already being hailed as the future of news reporting, brand marketing, and more. Clearly, both are gaining traction, with “Meerkasting” already a word and Periscope being lauded as “the best livestreaming video app yet” (Engadget).
But we’ve seen this movie before, with some of Meerkat and Periscope’s predecessors gaining -- and then losing -- traction.
YouNow is a quirky site/app currently popular with teens, who live-stream video of themselves sleeping (hashtag: #sleepingsquad), talking, and generally doing what teens do. The developer, BNow Inc., started off with $500K, raised about $2 million more through two additional funding rounds, and received about $7 million more in funding last year, according to Re/code.
Then there are traditional live streaming services such as Ustream, Livestream, and the now-defunct Justin.tv. All three launched in 2007 with desktop-oriented webcam streaming. Ustream has raised a total of $60 million across 5 rounds of funding. Livestream, which enables users to watch or broadcast live events, made headlines in 2008 when the Foo Fighters played their first Internet-only live concert via Livestream. Livestream (the company) received a total of $14.7 million in four funding rounds from Gannett.
Justin.tv was a pioneer in online ‘lifecasting.’ Developed by Justin Kan and partners, it debuted in 2007 as a constant video feed of Kan’s life. It later expanded into a platform for other users. The startup raised an undisclosed amount in seed funding followed by an $8 million series A funding round in 2007. In 2014, Justin.tv shut down so that its parent company, rebranded as Twitch Interactive, could focus on its other live streaming video platform Twitch.tv -- which Amazon subsequently acquired for $970 million.
Another offshoot from Justin.tv was Socialcam, a mobile video-sharing app started by former Justin.tv CEO Michael Seibel. Socialcam raised an undisclosed amount in funding in 2012 from a group of angel investors that included Laurene Powell Jobs and Ashton Kutcher. In July 2012, Socialcam, which had been Facebook’s top app, was acquired by AutoDesk for $60 million. Though still available, Socialcam’s popularity faded after Twitter’s six-second video capture/sharing app, Vine, debuted in 2013.
There are other mobile live video streaming apps as well. For instance, Camio (aka CamioCam), by Camiolog, turns your smartphone or tablet into a surveillance camera and also offers live video streaming. The developer has raised $1.6 million in seed funding. But the focus is more utilitarian than social.
Then there was Viddy, once hailed as ‘Instagram for video,’ which had as many as 50 million users during its peak. The developer raised $30 million in May 2012. But the service shut down in December 2014 after losing “large amounts of traffic following a change to Facebook’s highly-influential algorithm,” according to TechCrunch. The release of Vine as well as Instagram’s ability to shoot and share video made matters even worse.
Given the spotty track record thus far of livestreaming and mobile video apps, is there anything to suggest that it is going to be different this time? Well, yes.
It could be that these apps have come along at just the right moment. The combination of ubiquitous mobile phones with HD cameras, wireless broadband, and Twitter as an instant distribution network for media give apps like Meerkat and Periscope a huge boost right out of the gate. As Chris Sacca, founder and chairman of Lowercase Capital, summed it up for The New York Times: “All of a sudden, the world’s pockets are full of good cameras and good screens with good data plans and good social platforms to let everyone know you’re broadcasting.”
But challenges loom. For one: Is there room for both Meerkat and Periscope? It’s too early to declare a winner, but the race is on to create an entirely new network built on mobile live video. Twitter is trying to recreate the success it had with Vine, but this time with Periscope. Meanwhile, Meerkat is building on its first-mover momentum. While the two apps seem almost identical today, they could very easily move in different directions with divergent sets of features (public vs. private, live vs. archived). Periscope’s deep ties to Twitter is definitely perceived as an advantage, but what if Meerkat was able to leverage Facebook and start livestreaming there?
Other questions: Will consumers already using Instagram, Facebook, Twitter, and Pinterest make room in their lives and on their home screens for yet another social app? And after the novelty wears off, will they grow tired of livestreaming itself?
The ongoing selfie stick craze may provide a clue. It’s still going strong -- even Beyonce uses a selfie stick. But there’s already a selfie stick backlash brewing, as critics find them obnoxious and potentially dangerous (some people have died while taking selfies) and a potential violation of privacy for passersby -- a concern that’s already been raised about livestreaming video apps. Or do we as humans need to communicate visually, and is live video the next logical step in our communications evolution?
It all boils down to whether anyone else is listening. Everyone can now be a broadcaster, and everyone has a built-in audience -- even if it’s just their friends. That audience is theirs to lose -- or expand.