Interview with Dina Kaplan
An Interview with Dina Kaplan Co-founder and Chief Operations Officer, blip.tv
Date: December 22, 2008
Dina Kaplan: blip.tv [music]
Lucy Sanders: Hi. This is Lucy Sanders. I'm the CEO of the National Center for Women & Information Technology or NCWIT and this interview is part of a series we've been running for a couple of years now in which we interview women who have started IT companies and we learn just fabulous lessons from these women. And we're very excited today to be interviewing Dina Kaplan. With me today is Larry Nelson on w3w3.com. Welcome, Larry.
Larry Nelson: Oh, I'm happy to be here. Believe me, I love the topic that we're going to be talking about.
Lucy: Well, and with us is Dina Kaplan. Dina has had a very interesting career all the way from being a news reporter and I know is our first interviewee who has won an Emmy Award.
Dina Kaplan: Oh, is that right? Oh, my. Thank you. Well, it's an honor to be here. So, thank you for having a good memory to have dug that up.
Lucy: Well, Dina is the CEO and co-founder of Blip TV which is a very interesting site and provides a valuable infrastructure for the video blogging community and has some very interesting episodes on there. I had fun watching 'Drinking with Bob.'
Dina: Actually, this is high brows weekend I have to say.
Lucy: Is this high brows you get?
Dina: I'm just teasing.
Lucy: Well, it's really a great site. So, welcome. We're really happy that you're here to share with us today about entrepreneurship.
Dina: Thank you, Lucy. And thank you, Larry. It's really great to chat with both of you.
Lucy: So, we really wanted to ask you first how did you first get into technology? What caused you to make that jump between being a TV news reporter and now you're founder of a technology company.
Dina: Right. It's a definite jump from the traditional media to the new media. I had worked at MTV News as an associate producer producing stories about the very early days of the Internet, about music and about politics. Then, as you mentioned, became an on-air TV reporter. And now, I'm definitely firmly in the new media world. So, I would say, first of all, that it's a big jump from the mindset of a traditional media person to a new media person. But, you'll notice that that word 'media' is still in both of those terms and I think that's very important to mention. We definitely at Blip.tv on TV view ourselves as a media company and I believe that for a lot of these new media companies, or digital media, whichever term you prefer, if the technology is good enough which, hopefully, it is, at a certain point, it feeds away and you think more about the media than the technology that enables it. If you go back a few decades, NBC, and CBS and all those broadcast networks that we now think of media companies, back in their early days, they were considered technology companies. So, I think we'll see that same transition happen with the new media companies. But, I will answer your question and I will say that it's incredibly rewarding to be at a new media company that's not betting on hits and banking on hits. And essentially, having the authority to give a green light or a red light to a project. So what Blip.tv is a very democratic network where anyone can upload a show and if it's good, the show will amass hundreds of thousands or, potentially, even millions of viewers and can also have the opportunity to make money as well. You're never going to have that type of democratic platform with a traditional TV network because just by their nature, they need to invest in hits, and bank on that and hope that something is really huge because there's a limited number of bandwidth over those airwaves. So, part of the reason that I jumped over to new media that it met with my values and my beliefs that anyone who's talented should have a chance to succeed and it shouldn't be up to one programming chief to decide what gets a green light and what does not.
Lucy: Well, it's a great value proposition for sure.
Larry: It certainly is. Dina, would you mind just giving us a quick differentiation between YouTube and Blip.tv.
Dina: Sure. Blip.tv is essentially a media company that has 3, 000 active shows on it. They are uploading an average of four new episodes a month, so about one new episode a week. And on that, we get overall for the whole mackerel of all of those shows, we've got 62 million video views a month and I should add that that goes up about 11% a month, month over month and has for the last twelve months straight. So, whereas YouTube has lots of great content, they have viral videos that may be a one off video that's funny or amusing, or it might be a trailer from a new film that's coming out. They might have some broadcast programming. They might some original shows. They have a huge and wonderful variety of clips. Blip.tv is much more like a television network that's on the Internet. So, the only thing that we have on Blip is original, serialized shows that have loyal and persistent audiences that are building up over time. And they have brand names. So, the people that are creating shows on Blip, many of them think of this as a business, not as just a hobby and it's a very different mindset than the mindset of someone that's just going to do one clip and hope it gets a lot of views, but really just do one thing.
Lucy: Well, it's an exciting company. You have a lot of passion just like lots of entrepreneurs have which leads me to my next question. Why are you an entrepreneur? What about that makes you tick?
Dina: I have to say there is nothing better than calling up a show creator and saying, "Hey, you know what? This show that you have been toiling over and doing one new episode of every week for the past year," or for some people, even a few years, "Hey, we just brought in a sponsor for your show and you're not going to make money doing that." That is an incredibly rewarding feeling and, look, if we succeed at Blip.TV, which really just means that the shows are succeeding. We are hoping to create a new media and, in some ways, a true new media type which is that anyone who has talent, and an idea for a show, and a camcorder, or a digital camera, or a very well shooting cellphone can create a show that could be every bit as good as a show that you might see on broadcast television or on cable. So, I really fundamentally believe in what we're doing. It's exciting to be part of a team, and there are five founders of Blip, so I'm one of five founders. But, the only female founder, relevant in terms of the topic of this show to feel that we've created this and we built this up from nothing to having 62 million video views and we're sending out lots, and lots and lots of checks to content creators every month is an incredibly rewarding feeling. So, I absolutely love it and the other thing that I love, which is going to sound funny to you guys, but I like the idea of being part of the functioning New York economy and part of the functioning American economy. I love that we're hiring people. I look forward to even paying some taxes. It's a great feeling to be contributing value. To content creators, hopefully lots of entertaining content for millions and millions of viewers. And then, just to be part of the whole functioning economy and building value in that sense is something that I'm very proud of.
Larry: Dina, whether it be a mentor or someone who was a great role model for you, who is the person that probably influenced or supported you most in your career path.
Dina: The person that I think of first when you ask that question is Jerry Layborn. The first thing she did when I did not even know her, but I graduated from Wesleyan University. I'm not on the national board of Wesleyan. So, I'm involved in the school and a huge supporter of it. She didn't attend there. But, I believe it's her husband attended there and one of her kids attended there. So, I knew she had that connection. So, I emailed her out of the blue and said, "Hey Jerry. My name is Dina Kaplan. I'd love to work at MTV. I know that you're working at Nickelodeon, which is part of that ViaCom family. Would you maybe forward my resume to someone over at MTV News?" And without knowing me, she agreed to take a call, and then she agreed to take a meeting and she ended up getting me a job. Or, helping me, I should say, get a job at ViaCom and I'll never forget that. But then, just as importantly, or perhaps even more importantly, when Blip was starting, we were doing a number of small deals. We were bringing on some content creators, we were doing some distribution deals, we were syndicating content to iTunes, to blogging platforms such as Word Press, Type Pad and a few others. But, we had no revenue deals. So, I remembered this Jerry Layborn connection, she, at the time, was running Oxygen and I happened to be at a cocktail party that she was at. And someone at the party asked me, "Dina, I love to support women entrepreneurs. I know you're starting a young company. Who at this party would you like to meet?" And I said I'd like to meet Jerry Layborn. So, she walked me over. She said, "This is Dina Kaplan. She's starting a company that runs video on the web and you guys should talk." And Jerry said, "Can you come see me tomorrow?" I said, "Yes." She said, "Here's my number. Call me. I'll block off whatever time it is that you can come in." So, sure enough, she did and I came in the next day. And I pitched her on, essentially, enabling content that they needed for Oxygen that would've required some money from them. It was a big meeting for us. It was very important. We walked out of that meeting and she said, "We're going to close this deal. We are going to make sure you get some revenue for the company." And I envisioned my job as being - enabling the next generation of women who were working in media to take leadership roles. So, sure enough the deal closed. Sure enough, that deal enabled us to get a much bigger deal with CNN and eventually the whole Turner brand. And I am not sure that Blip.tv would have taken off if it were not for Jerry Layborn. So, I will always be grateful to her and her mentorship for the rest of my life.
Lucy: It really sounds like she gives a lot to entrepreneurs.
Dina: She is incredibly supportive of women. She's wonderful person and all that I can hope for is the opportunity to pay that forward to many other women who are coming up behind all of us.
Lucy: Well, that gets me to the next question around advice to young people around entrepreneurship. If you were sitting here with a young person and giving them some amount of wisdom about entrepreneurship, what would you say to them?
Dina: I think that the most important thing is two key bits of advice. One of which is to just do it. If you have an idea for a company, you should not belabor the thinking about whether you should jump into this or not for years on end and ponder every possible scenario. There's something to be said for just getting started and I am definitely putting my money where my mouth is, or however that expression goes, because once we had the idea for Blip, we literally launched the company three days later which brings me to the second point of advice, which is that it's very important to build your business by getting feedback from your customers. So, we launched Blip. Our product was not great when started and we knew that it wouldn't be. But, what we did do was identify thought leaders in the audience that we were seeking to grow from which was content creators; people producing original web shows of which there were about five to ten when we started. But, we sought out the best ones and we asked for their advice and said, "What should we do, and what do you need and how can we help solve problems for you?" And we just iterated the product. At that point, we were doing new releases every two weeks. So, we learned from them. It was very much of a grassroots, bottom up development rather than saying, "OK. We thought about this for five years. Here's the product. Take it or leave it." So, I'd say start, and then iterate and constantly listen to people and learn from them. Larry: Dina, with all the things that you've been through and everything else, what would you say is probably the toughest thing that you had to do in your career? Dina: I think the toughest thing is figuring out time management and figuring out how to balance your priorities. I should mention that one of the tough things should not be questions about values. I think that, as an entrepreneur, you have opportunities to make very short term moves that would be greatly, say, financially beneficial to your company or greatly drive up your number of users. But if, in any way shape or form, anything you do ever compromises your ethics, that should not even be a consideration. So, we are so proud of the way that we are running this company to try to, just essentially, say, "All we're doing is supporting shows." So, we have no goals for ourselves for Blip other than trying to make life easier for really talented producers on the web. So, that makes a lot of decisions really easy. In terms of the tough scenarios, it's just trying to prioritize your time and trying to stay in very, very close touch with your customers, and just always being really humble and really knowing that you're never going to have all the answers. Whatever it is that you're looking at, there's someone out there, there's a group of people that know that area of expertise incredibly well because they're doing it all the time and you're probably doing 50 different things. So, as much as you can engage the experts in every aspect of your business and continue to learn from them, listen a lot and not talk too much, then I think you'll be in pretty good shape.
Lucy: What personal characteristics do you have that you think make you a successful entrepreneur?
Dina: I think one of the things is listening and engaging people. As an entrepreneur, you have this tendency to just put your head down and work, and work something like 18 or 19 hours a day. You have all of these things that require your time at the office whether it's setting up your P&L or getting the whole pro formas projected out for the next ten years correct, to getting all your bills paid, making sure the product works. All of these things that require you to be in the office. But I believe it's as important to be out within the community that you're serving so go out, go to cocktail parties that are related to your space, go to tech meetups and video meetups. Those are some social elements that are important to our community. And then in terms of advertisers, go to advertising meetups, take every meeting that you can with advertisers when you're just beginning to bring in revenue from brands and from agencies. Another part of our world is distributors. So we need to spend time with iTunes and find out what's important to them, and the folks at AOL Video and Yahoo Video, and all of the other great video destination sites. So I have a tendency to be pretty social and to enjoy engaging in dinner parties and cocktail parties, and just spending a lot of time listening to people. And I think that that's very valuable to your business. It's going to be valuable when you want to raise money - it's much easier to raise money from people you know than to make cold calls - and it's also going to be valuable when you do business development deals. I will say that almost every startup will be part of an ecosystem. It's very hard for a startup to just exist on its own. So for us the early players in that ecosystem were WordPress, Typepad, Flickr, iTunes, a number of other distribution platforms and then also content creators. And we had to get out there. We had to hang out with them. We had to be in a position where those folks trusted us both personally and also trusted our product. So I think the inclination to engage with people and learn from them is a helpful aspect when you're starting a company up.
Lucy: Absolutely, and you know with all the interviews we've done, I think this is the first time someone has answered this question this way.
Lucy: And it's a very important observation.
Larry: Yes, and obviously meeting Jerry Labon at one of these networking events, cocktail parties, I think that was a fine example.
Dina: Yeah, I mean that was a huge turning point. And if I think about other very crucially important deals that we made for Blip early on, we did a pretty early partnership with Google AdSense for Video which is their video ad product. And that relationship was forged through someone that I met at a conference, sitting at a big lunch room around an eight person table. And we struck up a conversation, and it took a few months to close that deal but we ended up closing that deal which was lucrative for Google, I'm not going to say hugely lucrative, we're a small blip on their radar screen at this point, but it was a beneficial relationship for them. I think they actually tested that product on Blip before they did on YouTube. And it was incredibly important for us. If I look back to almost ever early business development deal that we did, it was through someone that I or someone else from Blip met at a conference, or at a digital media meetup, or at a digital media party, et cetera. So it is definitely important to be a part of the ecosystem that you're in. And then I'll add, you also clearly need to spend time on the product, and you need to spend some time in the office as well.
Larry: And that's a fact. Dina, you've already accomplished a great deal. Here you've got Blip.tv, 62 million viewers per month and that number is growing constantly. What's next for you?
Dina: So the next thing for us is to vastly expand our distribution platform. So we have this belief at Blip that every show created for the web has what's called a total potential audience, and you are never going to reach that total potential audience on one site. Why is that? That's because a music lover in Britain may only want to watch their video on Bebo, so we have to get our videos to Bebo.com. And someone that's old school Internet user may only want to go to AOL Video, so it's very important for us to make our content available on AOL. Other people just love their MySpace of Facebook pages, so we need to make our content available there. So what you'll see in 2009 is Blip.tv announcing a number of significant distribution deals to get our content into every nook and cranny of the web, and then some places off the web as well. We've already announced deals with Tivo, with Sony Bravia and with Fios, but we'll have some other deals as well. The second thing that we are going to focus on in 2009 is making things a little bit easier for advertisers to "buy" web video content. Right now it's very difficult for them to make buys because they need to come up with one type of creative for one side, a different type of creative for Blip, a third type of creative for another publisher. So we're going to be working with a number of other video destination sites and a number of the top web show creators such as Michael Eisner's team out in LA called Tornante, DECA Group which does this great show called "Boing Boing," another show called "Project Lore," "Momversation," and others. 60Frames and other key producers such as those to figure out, how we can come up with standards so that it's much easier for advertisers to make buys across multiple shows, on multiple platforms. And then there are some other tools that we are going to be collaborating with other folks in our ecosystem on to essentially streamline the whole system of buying for advertisers.
Lucy: That's going to be a busy year.
Larry: Boy, I'll say.
Lucy: And we really do appreciate your time. This has been really a great company. And I wrote myself a little note here that you are democratizing TV. [laughs]
Dina: No, that's exactly right. I mean if you really wanted to have a show on the air in the past - I mean a big show that has say, millions of viewers to it - you'd have to knock on the doors of NBC or Bravo or Sony Studios and just pray that you would get a deal. Now, you can just do the show and you can build up huge viewership for it and you can make money too, and do all of that not having a boss, not having a network chief telling you what to say or how to wear your hair. So I think that's an incredibly exciting thing for us and for talented show creators. But I think it's a little bit of a nervous time for the traditional networks in trying to think, how we compete with the massive content that's on a platform like Blip.
Lucy: Well I have an idea for a show: "I Love Lucy." [laughs]
Lucy: That's just a little joke. I'm sure someone took that one already.
Larry: I love it. Well one of the things that I really appreciate is the fact of what you're doing. Pat and I, we have had w3w3.com talk radio for 10 years now, and things sure have changed over that time.
Lucy: Yes, they have. Thank you, Dina, so much.
Dina: Thank you, thank you for your time. It was wonderful to chat with both of you.
Larry: By the way, you listeners out there, make sure you pass this interview along to others that you think would be interested. They can listen to it on...
Larry: And w3w3.com.
Lucy: Thank you, and thank you Dina.
Dina: Thank you. [music]