The “Lessons Learned” series kicked off at The Junction with a captivating talk from Uri Haramati, one of the people behind Meerkat’s success story.
When building and managing your startup, it’s always good to get advice from people who’ve been there and succeeded. We were honored to host Uri Haramati, Co-Founder and Head of Product at Meerkat, for a talk at The Junction, and hear his story, which revolves around the many adjustments, and pivots entrepreneurs need to go through.
Meerkat was founded in 2012 (as Yevvo) at The Junction, Israel’s first accelerator program, where the founders met. It is a livestreaming app that became an overnight success, attracting huge names to the platform, such as Jimmy Kimmel, U2, Tony Hawk and Jared Leto, who also invested in the company.
The company raised a total of $17.5 million to date, in four financing rounds, with participation from high-profile investors such as Comcast Ventures, Greylock Partners and Aleph. In 2015, they were considered the breakout app of SxSW, and were set to be the next big thing in social media. However, with Twitter’s acquisition of Periscope and Facebook introducing its own live-video service, Meerkat is currently pivoting. Meerkat did not mention in which direction they were looking to pivot, but recent news tells us they are behind the recent launch and success of Houseparty, an app that lets you host video calls with friends.
First seeds of live streaming
Taking a break from the current pivot, Haramati shared the tale of finding the right product-market fit, achieving overnight success (after years of hard work), and competing with the giants of the tech world.
Meerkat didn’t start as Meerkat right away. At first, it was Yevvo, a livestreaming app founded by Haramati and his two Co-Founders, Ben Rubin and Itai Danino. Their seed investment came after The Junction’s demo-day, attracting investors such as Eden Shochat (co-founder of Face.com), Ron Gura (former head of eBay Israel, VP Innovation at WeWork), Eyal Gura (Co-founder of Zebra Medical), and Gigi Levy (co-founder of NFX).
However, after raising seed financing, they realized that their product could have more focus in regards to the users they were trying to attain. “We tried to learn as much as we can about the users”, said Haramati, “how they behave, what (makes them keep using the app), what brought them to the app to begin with, and who are the types of users that stay – what retains them.”
Up in the Air and down again
After examining their user base, the team at Yevvo realized that they have two types of users: Those who want to broadcast to the world and those who want to broadcast to their friends – and that if they really want to deliver a great product, they would have to focus on just one type of user. “We decided to start from scratch,” said Haramati, “that was a very tough decision.”
And so, Yevvo pivoted, and started to develop an app focused on livestreaming by people who wish to share their lives with their friends, and not the general public. “We started a very long process of rebranding and creating a new product,” he says. After many days of research and discussion, they decided to call their new app Air, and encourage their users to share it with their friends. However, just three months after the launch, the team saw that they are not gaining enough traction and decided to take it off the air.
Future plans for live broadcasting
After not achieving the traction they were hoping for, they decided to adopt a different approach: Developing apps quickly, in three to four month cycles, and moving on after each one. One of the things they realized, after dealing with live videos, is that social media in general is not synchronic. “On social media, you don’t do something that relates to the future, you don’t say ‘I’m gonna do that,’” said Haramati, “you talk about now or about the past.”
This led them to add some sort of “future functionality” to their next app: The ability to schedule a live broadcast within the next 24 hours. Haramati says that Meerkat CEO Ben Rubin wanted to create an app that would be as simple as possible, an app that has only two functions: Go live, or schedule a broadcast. “From that point on, everything looked different,” he says.
“Meerkat was an experiment,” said Haramati, “the goal was to see how scheduled streams behave.” Following this experimental approach, the team started a straightforward process of trial and error: Test a feature, keep it if you like it, discard it if you don’t. In accordance with that, the specs for Meerkat were written in three day and the apps itself was developed in one month. “The way Meerkat was developed was totally not ‘by the book,’” said Haramati.
It’s (not always) a numbers game
Gathering and analyzing data was a major part of the creation of Meerkat. However, a prominent move was to actually go against the data, and focus on users’ Twitter social graphs, “when you’re so focused on data, it’s hard to do something innovative. Extreme innovation doesn’t come from that,” said Haramati. The reasoning behind this “don’t lean too much on the data” approach was the fact that there was no way to anticipate how scheduled streams using the Twitter social graph would behave. “Until this day I’m trying to balance the boat and see that we’re not too much into the numbers.”
Another unique aspect of presenting Meerkat to the world, according to Haramati, was presenting it as a utility, rather than as an abstract vision. Haramati used Slack’s tagline (“a messaging app for teams”) as an example of how the simplest approach could convey an app’s functionality perfectly. That is the reason that Meerkat’s tagline was ”tweet live video.”
A taboo on taboos
The last piece of advice Haramati left the audience with was on the topic of Taboos. First he explained how many successful apps used taboos as a way of differentiating themselves from competitors. With Twitter it was the 140 character limit and with Instagram it was the square-only format for photos.
And yet, as Haramati pointed out, Instagram no longer has its limitation and Twitter will also soon get rid of the character limit – this might serve as evidence that, while taboos may serve as a differentiating factor, they might also damage the user experience. Yevvo and Air also had a specific Taboo: They didn’t allow vertical video. However, Haramati explained that by allowing Meerkat users to take vertical videos, the usability of the app greatly increased, since people are used to holding their phones vertically – and that might have been one of the keys to its popularity.
Meerkat has changed quite a bit from its original form as Yevvo, and with Facebook and Twitter now having their own live video utilities, it is pivoting yet again. There has been plenty of speculation that Meerkat is behind the popular Houseparty app, but we are still waiting on confirmation from their end that this holds true. Regardless of what turn the Meerkat team takes next, there’s no doubt that there’s a great deal an entrepreneur could learn from its story of constantly adapting and finding the right functions and attitude to make a successful app.
If you’re an entrepreneur, and want to make your dream a reality at The Junction, please apply here – and maybe in a few years it’ll be you talking to crowd as a graduate of the program.