Rockpack has strong credentials and a good story to tell. Its founder, Sofia Fenichell, is a 45-year-old mother of two who works on the startup until 2am many nights, after she has put her kids to bed. After a career in advertising, and then in investment banking, including stints at Morgan Stanley, Merril Lynch, and UBS, the London-based Fenichell became an investor at a hedge fund. Then she started and sold a clean tech advisory business and decided she wanted to go in startups. She took a role as head of corporate development at State before realizing she could do this sort of thing herself.
Today, she launched Rockpack, a video curation and discovery app for the iPhone and iPad that’s backed by $2 million in funding from Qualcomm and former CEO of Apple EMEA Pascal Cagni, as well as a slew of high-profile advisors, including British racounter and actor Stephen Fry and Jamie Byng, the publisher of Canongate Books. The app’s launch partners include Warner Bros, Jamie Oliver, National Geographic, College Humor, and Universal Music.
But does Rockpack’s impressive start mean it’s going to succeed?
It’s far from clear. Rockpack is moving into a saturated space where many have already tried and failed. It will have to fight against well-funded and well-established video-discovery companies, including Telly, ShowYou, and Waywire, among many others. And at least one important social video figure has questioned the very philosophy that underlies Rockpack’s vision.
First, a quick rundown on Rockpack. The app provides a highly visual environment for curating and following video playlists gathered under “channels.” You can open it up and browse videos by categories (Sports, Comedy, News), brands (College Humor, HBO, NatGeo), or by channels created by people you’re interested in (friends, experts, celebrities). You subscribe to whatever channels catch your fancy, and whenever a video is added to the list – usually via YouTube – it appears as an update in your personal feed.
You can also create your own channels by searching for videos, or stumbling upon them, and tapping a “+” sign, in much the same way Flipboard allows you to “flip” articles you find into your personally curated magazine. You add a pretty “cover” image to your collection, and then you can share it via Twitter and Facebook. That cover image – which serves as a backdrop for your collection of videos – is no doubt key to Rockpack’s business model, which will likely involve a lot of branding.
Rockpack has prioritized its look and feel and attempted to make the process of channel creation as easy as possible. To a large extent, it has succeeded. Viewing, browsing, and curating videos via the app is intuitive and friction free.
Its challenge, however, will be in proving to the world that it needs to exist. In April, former YouTube product manager Hunter Walk wrote a blog post entitled “Why Video Discovery Startups All Fail.” Video discovery startups, he said, are “flawed products and even worse businesses” because “they don’t fit into a consumer’s mental model.” Consumers want context, not just collections, he argued, and are better served by websites that serve up video alongside community, editorial, and other content. “A bunch of three minute videos with varying quality, metadata and sources isn’t enough value, not when some blogger is already picking the best of these and adding content around them.”
At the same time, Walk argued, companies have a hard time monetizing other people’s video content. You can’t put another ad in the player, he noted, and, according to YouTube’s terms of service, a page has to have enough content to be interesting to the consumer even if the video is removed.
Rockpack might find some encouragement, however, in the pushback that Walk’s article got. Telly, for instance, responded by saying video discovery is a whole new game on mobile, where the likes of Instagram, Flipboard, and Twitter have proved that “low intent” discovery is important. In that context, search is de-emphasized, and personalized video feeds are useful. Telly wrote: “[A]s mobile video consumption continues to skyrocket it’s reasonable to presume that a few video-focused apps will figure out how to master low intent discovery and will rise to become the mainstream app for watching mobile videos every day.”
Meanwhile, Mark Hall, one of the founders of ShowYou, suggested that “discovery” is a problematic term that distorts what’s going on with the current media transformation. Devices like the iPad, he wrote, demand a rethink of how and where we’re entertained. “When we talk about tablets we talk about how they’re a replacement for PCs,” Hall said. “But they’re also replacing televisions. They’re portable screens we can carry around the house, from a comfy chair to our beds. We use our tablets in the evenings and the weekends, sometimes alongside our TV, sometimes as a replacement for it. And when we tune in on these devices, we don’t want to snack, we want to gorge.”
So perhaps, after all, we’re at just the start of the feast. In which case, Rockpack deserves a seat at the table. But it is still likely that more than a few of these new video discovery startups will die of starvation.