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Founder and CEO Ben Rubin explains the livestreaming company’s extreme makeover on Recode Media.
Three years ago, the mobile livestreaming app Meerkat was the app of South By Southwest in Austin, Texas. But this year at SXSW, Meerkat’s founder Ben Rubin was happy just hanging out.
On the latest episode of Recode Media with Peter Kafka, Rubin reflected on why, just months after SXSW 2015, he pivoted the Meerkat team away from livestreaming into a different product, HouseParty. For starters, the splashy debut was not as carefully orchestrated as it may have seemed at the time.
“Two weeks before the conference, people were already streaming and talking about ‘Meerkat at South By,’” Rubin said. “But it was just me, a chubby guy with a yellow t-shirt that didn’t even know he was going to South By four days before that.”
The mobile broadcasting model — later mimicked by Facebook Live, Facebook-owned Instagram and Twitter-owned Periscope, among others — wasn’t good for making “meaningful connections,” Rubin noted.
“The amount of people who can make meaningful live content on a daily basis is very, very few,” he said.
Although Meerkat attracted millions of users, the company noticed that they would broadcast once or twice and then peace out — so, Meerkat became HouseParty, which lets multiple friends video chat with each other simultaneously (think FaceTime, but for groups). Rubin characterized that decision as a “pivot from courage,” rather than a “pivot from fear.”
“The pivots from fear always come too late, and three months before you run out of money,” he said. “A pivot from courage is the one where everybody’s shaking in the chairs in the board meeting. Everyone was afraid because I was this crazy guy who’d just raised $ 12 million.”
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On the new podcast, Rubin said the thing he cares most about HouseParty creating is a sense of “presence” among the app’s users — a technological fascimilie of hanging out in the same room with other people, including not-close friends. Half of the app’s users are under the age of 24.
“Everybody has two or three friends who they can FaceTime at any minute, out of the blue,” he said. “But there’s another 20 people who, ‘It’s gonna be weird if Peter FaceTimes me out of the blue, why should I answer this?’ With HouseParty, it’s actually okay to say ‘I’m around’ and for your friends to opt in, and their friends can join in.”
“That’s one of the beautiful things about the internet, the ability to have connections that you otherwise would not have,” Rubin added. “Everything became flattened into a two-dimensional feed. A real dialogue between people is bringing back empathy that I think we’ve been missing.”
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