From busking to big business: how one founder brings the selling power of video to iPhones
No path to entrepreneurship is exactly alike, but there are certainly common threads. In the Valley, there's the 20-year-old Stanford drop-out who's been coding since he was 12. In New York, there's the former banker/fashion designer/editor/ad exec who's dropped out of his or her legacy business to disrupt it. In LA, it's the ex-Myspace guy riding the coattails of that resume line.
But the path taken by Matt Singer to start New Jersey-based Videolicious defies all the formulaic entrepreneur stereotypes. Unassuming with a quick smile, Singer describes his career playing violin in malls, hawking CDs on QVC, and striking deals with Paul McCartney as matter-of-factly as he explains his company's business model. He is the tech world's most unassuming hustler, and unlike the scores of wantrepreneurs who've overused and sucked any real meaning from that term, Singer has a legit business to back it up.
Videolicious is a platform for creating and editing quick, professional videos, and it compliments a powerful enterprise solution that does the same thing. It's backed by more than $2 million in venture capital and has been downloaded by hundreds of thousands of people.
The genesis of Videolicious starts at a shopping mall. Singer graduated from Yale with an "Intensive music" degree in 1998. A composer friend of his had the idea to busk in shopping malls, somehow convincing a few big shopping center chains to let them play their classical string music in malls around the country and sell CDs on a stand. Their team of three musicians and a seller could gross $10,000 in a day, Singer says. It was such a hit that they quickly expanded, hiring teams across the country. The malls let them do it until they realized how much money they were actually making, Singer says.
The classical CDs became so popular they were asked to sell albums on QVC. It worked, and Singer signed on to produce more segments for the shopping channel.
One of his first projects was wildly ambitious: A charity album for the American Cancer Society that featured Ray Charles, Paul McCartney, Billy Joel and the New York Symphony. He was able to wrangle the big names thanks in part to the fact that it was for charity, and in part because of a little hustle. He used a trick he calls "the full court press" to establish credibility with reps. He'd cold call and tell them he was sending a fax. Then he'd fax them to say he was sending a FedEx package. A FedEx package would then arrive, and he'd call to confirm they'd gotten it.
"The formality of it showed how serious I was," he said. Which is how he ended up getting Paul McCartney to play on an album for QVC. Called "Music of Hope," the it was the first album made by an indie label to ever hit number one on the classical Billboard charts.
It was a stunning lesson in the power of video as a sales medium. "You could make $20,000 a minute. A million dollars in a day," he says. And so he produced albums to sell on the channel for eight years, recruiting salespeople to go on air while he waited nervously off stage.
The high-stakes environment of live TV was a thrill that prepared Singer for the roller coaster ride of entrepreneurship, he says. "You would know within five seconds whether it was a smashing success or a complete failure," he says. He was in constant fear that a big news event would happen during his segment and wipe out all his sales. "If you have a complete failure, you're never asked back," he says. "If it happens to be a bad day for news, that inventory comes back to your garage."
He couldn't shake the thought that, if video is so powerful, why doesn't everyone do it? Some quick research gave him a simple answer: Video was expensive, time consuming and difficult. But that was in 2005. By 2007, with the rapid rise of YouTube, he was convinced he could figure out a way to make video into a more common marketing tool. "If we can make the production of business videos take a few minutes, then we could see things like a video for every product" on commerce sites, he says.
So he raised a $750,000 round of seed funding from some angel investors and Amazon to develop a desktop product for Fortune 500 retailers to use on their e-commerce sites. He turned it into a respectable business with thirty major retailers now using the company's enterprise solution, called VideoSku.
But when the iPhone 4 came out, he saw the opportunity to expand. Suddenly anyone could take a high quality video and upload it from their phone. Singer immediately built a mobile app called Videolicious, launching the first version of it last year. The initial iPhone app got 100,000 downloads. It validated the idea that people wanted an automated way to produce video -- beyond the corporations that could to buy heavyweight enterprise software.
After honing the feedback from version 1, Singer this year raised $1.4 million more from Amazon, Quotidian Ventures, Trestle Ventures, Ludlow Ventures, Venture51, Joanne Wilson and Howard Lindzon to launch a business platform for Videolicious. Version two is like a Salesforce for video, with desktop coordination, the ability to coordinate with teams, and the ability to integrate with the enterprise version.
It costs $5 a month or $60 a year, and has gained traction particularly with real estate brokers. They can make and send simple, professional videos that show off an apartment. It's quick enough that they can make personalized videos to send after showing someone a place, Singer says. "The only option is to spend thousands of dollars on videos. That leaves out the opportunity to make open house and neighborhood tours," he says.
It also has applications in customer service, where reps at companies like Warby Parker often explain issues to customers in personalized YouTube videos when 140 characters over Twitter is too short and impersonal. Videolicious recently integrated with Hootsuite to help social media marketers to use for instructional videos and testimonials. The eight-person company's revenue is now a mix between its enterprise solution and Videolicious, which is growing faster.
[Illustration courtesy swaim sketching]