The creator of Justin.tv, Twitch, and Partner at Y-Combinator shares his experiences and thoughts on entrepreneurship in a chat with e27
At a relatively tender age of 33, Justin Kan has had quite an illustrious career. He has built four companies: Kiko Software Inc., Exec, Drop, and the most renowned of them all, live streaming platform Justin.tv/Twitch.
That said, it was not all plain-sailing. Like any entrepreneur worth his/her salt, Kan has passed through the trial by fire and come out with well-worn battle scars.
In a Reddit AMA (Ask Me Anything) session held last year, he recalled: “I literally wanted to quit my startups every year I was working on them. Every year for nine years.”
“When most of my friends would be posting the awesome trips they were taking, BBQs they were having, and other fun shit they were doing on Facebook, I remember sitting at my computer in the dark thinking ‘WTF am I working so hard on this thing that is only kind of working?!’,” he added.
Thankfully, his long-suffering and persistent attitude has reaped massive dividends. Not only has he emerged as a well-respected entrepreneur, but he is also a partner at leading US-based startup incubator Y-Combinator. Among its distinguished alumni include tech heavyweights Airbnb, Dropbox, Stripe, Zenefits and Reddit.
e27 caught up with him to have a candid chat about his entrepreneurial experiences as well as gather valuable takeaways for entrepreneurs still hustling in the field.
Selling his first startup
For a fresh graduate armed with a degree in physics and philosophy from Yale University, building a tech startup may seem like an unusual career move (but then again, how do you define what is ‘usual’ for philosophy majors?).
It was in 2004 (the same year Facebook began life in a university dorm) when Kan started work his first tech product, Kiko, a precursor to the Google Calendar – a month before, in fact.
Based around a drag and drop function to schedule events, it may seem simplistic now. But, for its time, it was a new idea — it was pushing boundaries.
Unfortunately, Kiko was quickly overshadowed when Google launched its own version. In part, due to Google’s massive resources, and in another part, the inexperience of the Kiko team.
“We weren’t very good at understanding what users wanted in calendars, because we weren’t ‘calendar’ users ourselves,” says Kan.
So, what did these young upstarts do? Abandon the project? Seek out and pitch to big IT companies to buy them off?
Well, it got bought out alright, but on the most unlikeliest platform to buy Internet companies – eBay.
“We were just college students and not very good entrepreneurs, and just wanted to get out of it [Kiko] so we auctioned it off on eBay. One week went by with no offers. Then we had a bid for US$50,000, the next morning we had US$85,000. It eventually hit US$280,000, so we were pretty stoked,” he says.
Also Read: Entrepreneurs, how do you handle setbacks?
Tackling another nascent space
Hot off the acquisition, Kan set his eyes — and camera — on an area that was gripping the media world by storm – reality tv.
Justin.tv, launched in 2006, was the first incarnation of a web-enabled reality tv platform. It featured Kan attached a webcam to his head to document his daily life and stream it live across the web.
While that was definitely a novel and groundbreaking idea at that point, inexperience was still a major hurdle to cross. Also, they were novice entrepreneurs, not celebrities or entertainers.
“So Justin.tv was launched, but people found it boring,” says Kan.
But the team received another feedback that would lead them on the trail to a goldmine: Users wanted to know how to create their own live streams.
“The lightbulb went off, and we said ‘Okay, let’s open it to everyone’. It will be like a video site like YouTube where anyone can broadcast live. We had all sorts of content like live podcasts, or people using the webcam to create a social experience. The site grew and grew and eventually it hit 30 million users.”
The real game-changer was, however, the live streaming of computer games.
“After we pivoted, Starcraft 2 [a real-time strategy game] had just launched. People wanted to watch videos on Starcraft 2. We started recruiting broadcasters to our platform, and that became twitch.tv,” says Kan.
To provide some context, the first Starcraft game was the leading e-sports game in the world. In South Korea, professional Starcraft gamers are regarded as celebrities, receiving endorsements from big brands such as Razr.
Since the sequel’s release in 2010, gamers competing in its professional tournaments and leagues have been awarded over US$18.8 million in prize money.
Twitch.tv also had the advantage of being the ‘first mover’.
“There were other live gaming sites that came but didn’t last long. We were the first — and had the biggest numbers, it is the networking effect. It was really hard for new entrants to crack in.”
Recipe for success
A combination of being a savvy early adopter, as well as possessing the will and the limberness to push on and pivot fast, has made Kan a thought leader in the tech startup space.
“Talk to your customers, figure out what they need, build, then test as much as possible until you find out what is working right,” he says to aspiring entrepreneurs.
Recalling back to his twitch.tv days again, he reiterates the importance of networking.
“At twitch.tv, we were really focussed on talking to the customers [computer game broadcasters] to make sure they liked the site. We had a whole team dedicated for network development, they went to the broadcasters, as well as help other users come onboard the community.”
Pivoting and iteration are crucial; it’s important not to become too attached to your initial vision.
Kan says letting go off Justin.tv was easy.
“It wasn’t hard, I don’t look back. The exciting thing about technology is what you can make in the future, it’s not about what you can make in the past. I think the world is always changing, tech cycles move so quickly, changes are going to come about much faster. You really need to have the mindset that you are building the future and not working on the past.”
For entrepreneurs who are still on the grind and struggling, Kan advices them not to worry as it is part and parcel of the journey.
“There’s going to be ups and downs. You just need to make sure that they stay focussed, don’t do many things at once, build something your customers like and eventually you will make it,” he says.
“It’s important to have good Co-Founders too. An entrepreneur’s life is like a roller coaster. When you are down and your Co-Founders help keep you motivated. They can be a sounding board, and share some of the burden of the stress,” he adds.
And if you eventually fail or have just sold off your company, Kan says advices that you step back and not dive into another so quickly.
“You will need to take a break definitely as it would help you keep an open mind to fresh ideas,” says Kan.
For now, Kan is done being an entrepreneur, at least for awhile.
“I always get a startup fatigue, that’s why I’m an investor now. People think investors is hard, but no, it’s very easy. You don’t do any of the work, you just give the money. Evaluating startups is not that hard. Being an investor is like a dream job. I would definitely recommend it,” he quips.
Well, thank you sir, I know where my next job will be.
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