#TechThursday: Periscope CEO Kayvon Beykpour on the rise of the app, creative collaborations, and their direction for 2016
A Buro 24/7 exclusive
Irina Efremova sits down with Kayvon Beykpour to discuss technology start-ups, the importance of office culture, and what Periscope fans can look forward to this year
It's been just eight months since his app, which he created together with friend Joe Bernstein, launched, yet it's already been named App of the Year on the app store and garnered a staggering 10 million users, who tune in to see the world through the eyes of Ringo Starr, listen to Michelle Obama's address or go behind the scenes of Karl Lagerfeld's latest campaign. It's been embraced by the fashion industry — Tommy Hilfiger announced his new line on Periscope last NYFW and Carolina Herrera broadcast her entire show via the app. Just over a week ago it was announced that Periscope broadcasts will now autoplay within tweets — a move that will expand Periscope's reach to over a hundred million users.
The 27-year-old entrepreneur has a track record of launching successful start-ups: he sold his TerriblyClever and iStansford apps while still at university (Stanford), before beginning work on what would make him famous — Periscope. It's no surprise that social media behemoth Twitter eventually bought in for a rumoured US$100 million even before the app was launched.
Periscope originated in a hotel in downtown Istanbul, where Beykpour found himself stranded during the 2013 Taksim Square protests. Sitting in his room, he wished he could see real-time footage of the area so he knew whether it was safe to leave his hotel or not — surely one of the hundreds of people around was filming with their iPhone? Perhaps they were, but Beykpour realised there wasn't a platform to share such footage — and so a year of brainstorming, product iterations and investor scouting ensued.
How do you feel when you see the likes of Lady Gaga and Serena Williams using Periscope? It's surreal. Just yesterday Ice Cube and Kevin Hart were in the Twitter office in New York and they were Periscoping. My parents called me and left a voicemail saying: "Did you watch it? Did you see Ice Cube?" My parents have never even pronounced "Ice Cube" before! So, I watched it, and I thought to myself, "These guys are using something that we made!"
It's fascinating that so many people are interested in watching something like the Drummond Puddle for hours (recently a broadcast of a puddle from an English town went viral and attracted major media attention). What's so mesmerising about live broadcasts? I think the Drummond Puddle was closer to a meme than anything else, and we know how infatuated the internet can become with memes. Inherently people know there's nothing interesting about puddles, but someone took out their phone and pointed it at the puddle. Once you join the broadcast you go "Why is this happening?" So, you give yourself an extra couple of seconds just to make sure you aren't crazy and you aren't missing anything. Some people keep sharing the link because it's funny to trick other people into watching as well, and by the time the news organisations join in there are thousands watching. Someone brought a surf board, somebody delivered Domino's pizza to the puddle. Before you know it, 20,000 people are watching and it got out of control.
Obviously live streaming has been around for years and isn't new anymore. What are the advantages of Periscope when compared to TV? TV is passive, and you get what you get — entertaining and informative content, but with Periscope you can actually affect the experience. For example, I'm watching a German journalist cross over the border into Serbia and talk with Syrian refugees, I can ask questions and he can immediately respond. It's an interactive, two-way experience. One of the things we did to make it possible — we made it REALLY LIVE. On TV you get anywhere from 45 to 80 seconds of delay, but with Periscope it's two seconds.
How did Periscope become so huge in some countries? Were there special marketing activities underscoring those regions?
It's not marketing. Everything is organic. We don't have a perfect explanation of how it happened, but this is our best guess for what might have happened in Russia: There was a week where we had a number of important broadcasts from Russia happening one after another. In the course of just a few days, several users with a big following on Twitter went live on the app and attracted different audiences at the same time. They're all relatively young people who've heard about the app, tried it, and it somehow blew up from there. In addition, from the moment Periscope started becoming popular in Russia, it sparked a domino effect that rolled down to neighboring countries. You could study Apple's App Store charts and trace how the app emerged as a number one app in Russia, then Kazakhstan, and so on and so forth.
The power of Twitter probably played a key role in Periscope's success. How big do you expect the app's growth to be following its recent integration with Twitter feeds?
It's going to be really significant. Up until January 12, people who'd watch you when you went live were mostly limited to the people who had the app on their iPhone or Android device. That might mean a viewership of tens of millions of people, but as it turns out, Twitter has a reach that stretches far beyond what we have thus far.
How did the deal with Twitter come about? We had no interest in selling, and we certainly didn't reach out to anyone ourselves. You just can't reach out to a company and suggest the arrangement that we have: "Hey, we'd like to have this perfect situation where you buy our company, but we run our own business." It worked out because it's a symbiotic relationship. We were just in a really fortunate place where very early Twitter believed in what we were doing and wanted us to continue running it separately. At the same time we depend on Twitter for many things: legal professionals, we leverage the communications team, machine learning experts that are working on a lot of really sophisticated technology (otherwise, we'd need to hire those people ourselves!).
Periscope had to deal with several rights infringement claims after users broadcast the Game of Thrones premiere — what have you learnt this past year? There's no single big lesson, but rather a ton of different things that we've learned already. Firstly, the importance of just pursuing what we care about with conviction. I think that we are building something that people love to use and it's gaining traction and sometimes in the process of doing that feathers are ruffled. If they weren't, then it was probably not that interesting of an idea anyway. Another important lesson is communicating with these organisations, and I think in those communications we found that we can actually form really healthy relationships. A lot of folks that might on paper feel like Periscope is not coming in peace or is a threat or whatever, are now great users of our product.
Every successful start-up has its own culture. What is it like to work at Periscope? It's chill, and, by the way, our dogs here are a calming force. We have three dogs: Scotch is what we call the Chief Canine Officer — he's the most responsible dog around here. We've got some interns — Pablo sitting over there has also got a dog Lolo. It's a great environment. Of course, not without sleepless nights — say, when we launch things like the Twitter integration on Tuesday, the night before we left the office at 5pm to take a nap at home and came back at 10pm. There were probably six of us who stayed awake all night just because we wanted to be up for the launch: we pressed the button around midnight, and people in Europe started seeing the integration. I remember at 2am we were making eggs, sausages and eating pizza downstairs in the kitchen.
How did Periscope end up in an office that looks more like a designer's loft studio?
We got very lucky. All of the furniture you see here for the most part was inherited from the office's previous owners. We do care about every detail, right from what's in our fridge to the chairs we sit on. If you are going to spend that much time in some place, you want to make it comfortable. Loving where you work is one of those things that causes an engineer or designer to say: "I just want to work on making this product better right now because I feel comfortable where I am and I care."
Which Periscope broadcasts do you watch yourself and who do you follow? Hundreds of people! Some of my favorites: I keep bringing up the German journalist — Paul Ronzheimer from BILD magazine, an incredible journalist and storyteller who spends a lot of time covering an important topic of the refugee crisis. Then Mark Stone — a journalist for Sky News who lives in Belgium and is also an incredible broadcaster. In terms of entertainment: Jamie Foxx and Kevin Hart just know how to entertain an audience even when talking about the silliest things ever.
How will Periscope surprise its users in 2016?
We announced recently that we have hit 100 million broadcasts from the last 8 months, and when you have that much content, discovery of the best broadcasts out there becomes really important, and we are definitely focusing on it. We're also looking at tools for creators — there's nothing to watch if people aren't creating, so the more tools users are armed with, the more we can encourage people to broadcast and broadcast for longer. At the moment, you basically have two tools that you can control — your voice and camera. We think there are certainly other levers we can provide you with, and yes, there are a few things coming very soon in that department. You'll also see us working on more interesting collaborations with Twitter; what we've just launched is an important start to that.
Which three words would you use to describe your past year if you were writing a #2015In3Words tweet?
[Laughing] I'd say surreal, special, and sleepless.