ReadWriteBuilders is a series of interviews with developers, designers and other architects of the programmable future.
Ustream founder and CEO Brad Hunstable initially created his livestream video platform for a very niche market, and in the seven years since its launch, has seen the online video site explode to momentous proportions all around the world.
Hunstable, a West Point graduate, entered the Army in 2001. The Texas native observed that those in the military deployed across the world were missing some of the most important events in their lives—birthdays, soccer games, or just seeing the faces of their friends and families. For Hunstable, whose younger brother was in a rock band, it was witnessing one of his sibling’s concerts.
That desire to build a video solution that could help people experience events around the world birthed Ustream, a video streaming service launched in 2007 and based in San Francisco that helps everyone from big businesses to the everyman broadcast live video online.
The first few years of Ustream’s life were laser-focused on content creators, media companies, and citizen journalism. The livestreaming company now caters to businesses, who more and more try to emulate media companies, and aids in video for enterprise use.
Today, a large section of Ustream’s clients are companies that use the product to livestream internally and also to their own customers, managing high-profile events like Lady Gaga concerts, the Playstation 4 launch, and music festival Outside Lands.
But when talking livestream video, Hunstable seems more enthusiastic about those recording events in areas like Ukraine or Ferguson, Missouri. Video relays passion better than any other medium, Hunstable tells me. And it’s his goal to get everyone involved.
ReadWrite: What were you like growing up? Was video an area you knew you wanted to go into?
Brad Hunstable: I was definitely more of a hacker as a kid. As a pre-teen, I coded and built a Bulletin Board Service (BBS – the Internet before there was an Internet) in Texas. Individuals around the country were able to call into my computer to download files, share photos, play games and chat. It was very much like today’s modern Internet. Terms such as Gopher, MUDs, Usenet and Sysops were commonplace.
This was the early days of consumer tech. It certainly was not “cool” to be a programmer back then and the many times I was called ”geek” were not terms of endearment.
RW: Did Ustream start small or was there funding from the get go?
BH: The original funding came from angel investors, Ross Perot Jr. being the first. This initial capital allowed us to build out the original engineering team and get a prototype product to market in the customer’s hands. Once we showed traction, we were lucky enough to have an amazing venture capital firm, DCM (based in Silicon Valley) take a bet on Ustream.
RW: Can you tell me what Ustream is like today?
BH: Ustream is one of the largest video solutions on the Web, and we are primarily focused on enterprises. We want to help businesses communicate more effectively with their two most important constituents— customers and their employees.
What’s interesting today is that a lot of companies—like TechCrunch, Cisco, Salesforce, Sony—they all act like media companies. Today everyone is a content creator, not just us as individuals but companies as well. So we work with media companies, and we really want to be the video layer across enterprise.
RW: Livestreaming has recently come into the media forefront with Amazon’s acquisition of livestream video gaming site, Twitch. What does this mean for the current state of livestream video?
BH: It’s really hot, and it’s growing really fast.
At Ustream we surpassed, earlier in the summer, our 2 billionth viewer hour consumed since we started the company. The curves look amazing, even on the business side. In the last year alone, in business, we had one billion hours of live video content, and that’s going to grow to 3 billion by 2017.
Business videos could be a webinar, or a CEO inspiring a company through live communication from video, which is something that I do for our offices. I do them live, I take call-in guests. I treat it just like a media company.
Video is reaching a point where it’s really becoming a foundation piece of the Internet. By 2017, according to Cisco, it will be 55% of the Internet’s traffic. It’s incredible. We did a Sony Playstation 4 launch a couple months ago, and it was 2% of the Internet’s traffic.
RW: How does Ustream set to differentiate themselves from YouTube or other livestream competitors?
BH: Ustream is the leader in video that focuses on our platform as a business solution, rather than a consumer-driven vehicle. Our bandwidth and streaming capabilities also differentiate us from others in the space, allowing Ustream to broadcast major events to a global audience.
RW: How do you make money?
BH: Our old model was more advertising based. We realized quickly that the better monetization path was going to be SaaS, software-as-a-service.
Take the most recent Apple event. I tried to watch it. It was really unfortunate, but that’s a perfect example of a company acting like a media company, trying to do the technology themselves, and it doesn’t work. Most companies don’t want to do it themselves. Solutions companies like ours can solve that. Some of our broadcasts can have millions and millions of people tune in and watching simultaneously.
Getting The President On Board And Going To Mars
BH: t’s not just a video getting a bunch of views, we’re talking live, simultaneous number of viewers. Some of them are in gaming, some of them are corporate in nature. We have really robust technology to pull that off, and that’s our solution.
RW: How did the bigger name sponsored events come about?
BH: Some of our biggest events include the Sony Playstation 4 launch (which received 8 million viewers), Verizon-sponsored Lady Gaga concert, Apple iPhone 5 launch and Dreamforce (from Salesforce, one of the largest broadcasters on Ustream) to President Obama’s presidential victory speech.
The process to get high-profile customers takes time. When you are a startup, you have no brand or reputation. The way to overcome this is by building an amazing product that customers need and begin knocking on doors, sometimes literally, to find those early adopters willing to take a chance. Success then breeds success, which brings you closer to higher profile opportunities.
RW: What are some of your best moments and accomplishments since starting Ustream?
BH: More people watched live the landing of the Mars Curiosity rover on Ustream than all of CNN and MSNBC combined. I think in many regions we nearly broke the Internet.
But there were many other broadcasts that demonstrated the power of Ustream, from President Obama’s Presidential Victory Speech and Charlie Sheen’s Tiger Blood streams, to many streams from the Arab Spring. In addition, 50 million people tuned in to watch coverage of the 2011 Japanese Earthquake on Ustream.
We also started a non-profit called Ustream for Change. As we’ve moved towards enterprise, what I’ve realized is that our platform could still be used as a force for good.
This non-profit is where we donate our platform, energy, time, and training to people who are doing really powerful things and who need the video to do it. Hundreds of thousands of dollars were donated to citizen journalists in Ukraine.
We just announced a group that helps wounded soldiers get back on their feet. I think Ustream can be a mission driven company. What we have is so powerful—we can help with Internet freedom, emerging democracies, stability around the world. I think we have a moral obligation to do that.
RW: What’s next for you and Ustream?
BH: I’m a big believer that there’s going to be a company that can be a video layer across enterprise. Everything I’m doing today in terms of our product is really about helping businesses be more transparent to their customers, more transparent to their employees. We help them use video to build those relationships.
The thing about video, it’s so powerful. It’s the only medium in the world that can build such a strong connection—that’s why the Ice Bucket Challenge worked. That’s why KONY 2012 worked. That’s why Jony Ive is in a room, apparently an all white room, and he talks so passionately about the product. Video can really relay that passion better than any medium, better than Twitter, better than photos. It is so powerful.
In our mission, we want to bring that same thing to companies, to help them get more customers, and help them inspire employees to do good work. On the side we do really cool things like Ustream for change, which is continuing to have a major impact in the world.
At one of the recent conferences we were at, one of the guys from Ukraine saw our logo and came up to us and said, you don’t realize the impact you’ve had on our country. In Syria, they would put the Ustream logo on their phones and hold it up. It would show that they were broadcasting live, and then others would walk away and leave them alone because they saw that logo.
Photos courtesy of Brad Hunstable