Meerkat’s founder explains his vision for the Internet’s favorite livestreaming app

Is this upstart livestreaming service the breakout hit of SXSW 2015?

Mar 1, 2020, 7:56 am*

Tech

 

Taylor Hatmaker

Meerkat is the hottest app you’ve never heard of and maybe never will. Like many buzz-magnet startups out of South by Southwest, Meerkat could either fizzle out in a flash or start a slow burn and build off the next great social platform. Meerkat’s CEO and co-founder Ben Rubin knows all that, but he doesn’t sound worried. 

Just days ago, Twitter infamously axed Meerkat’s connection to its social graph. But in a conversation at SXSW with Yahoo Tech’s David Pogue, Rubin had nothing but positive words about Twitter’s role in the growth of his app, answering questions on stage while casually holding his phone upright for an hour to Meerkat the whole thing.

Meerkat, now just 16 days old, has already just passed the 100,000 user mark—a quarter of the user base that Rubin’s last project built over its entire lifespan.

“Ten days ago we made the decision to focus the whole thing on Meerkat,” Rubin said. “This is the 16th day.” (Now, it’s the 17th.) The decision to come to SXSW was last-minute, but Meerkat seems right at home so far.

According to Rubin, the front-end experience was built in just eight weeks, but the backend—the part that enables Meerkat’s remarkably smooth streaming experience—was built over the course of two years. 

Rubin spoke a lot about leveraging what he called “habits,” the mostly unconscious ways in which we use a device. That’s why Meerkat is tuned for users to hold their phones vertically: it’s just more natural that way, says Rubin. “The devil is in the default.”

“Even though I am a huge believer in horizontal video, we are accustomed to holding the phone like that,” Rubin said. “In every consumer product, the default is the most important thing. To unlock the habit, you need to make it very easy for people to contribute.”

Meerkat is a mobile-only experience, and there’s a reason for that, said Rubin, who admitted that Meerkat’s non-mobile presence was “totally shitty” at the moment.

“I think that live video should be on the go,” Rubin said. Users “are able to contribute content on the go and consume it on the go. Snapchat, which is an amazing company, proved that.”

Unlike most social videos, Meerkat streams aren’t automatically stored anywhere after they end. Meerkat announces a livestream over Twitter as soon as a user initiates recording, but after it’s over, it vanishes, unless the user uploads it him- or herself.

Still, because streams are live experiences rather than arbitrarily self-destructing ones, Meerkat’s vibe feels very different than sharing videos on something like Snapchat.

“We wanted to make sure you control the video after it goes live,” Rubin said. “We decided not to let the content stay there.”

Rubin also said he wanted Meerkat to attract mainstream users, not just the tech-industry early adopters who are buzzing about it right now. He imagined it as a platform for people who “want to take just a little step out of [their] comfort zone.”

Rubin noted the fear and anxiety that accompanies posting video content online, and said he hoped Meerkat could address those psychological barriers where other apps have failed.

Rubin, who leads a team split between Tel Aviv and San Francisco, comes across as remarkably humble for a social startup founder—maybe even a little hostile to the venture-capital–crazed types who would usually be sitting in his seat. When Pogue suggested that he bought Rubin’s argument for giving users control of their video archive, Rubin responded dryly, “I’m not selling it.”

 Meerkat uses Twitter to connect users to each other and to broadcast their streams. The app states that reliance plainly: “Everything that happens on Meerkat happens on Twitter.” While Rubin expected that Twitter might not be pleased down the road with his app’s reliance on its social graph, he didn’t expect the crackdown to come so soon.

“We definitely knew that Twitter will be upset at some point,” Rubin said. “We didn’t know they were buying another company in the space.”

Three days ago, Twitter announced that it would buy Periscope, a livestreaming app with functionality very similar to Meerkat. But Rubin sees Twitter’s move into the space as a good sign, not a setback.

“In the next few weeks we’re going to be completely out of this thing,” he said. “Very soon we’ll introduce another way to find other users and recommend other users… [It’s] just a little slow down. It should prove how successful Meerkat had become.”

On stage at SXSW, Rubin’s explained how his background in architecture—and not programming—informs the way his company approaches building software.

“Architecture allows you to train your mind to think about something,” he said, “to start having a discussion…about why a door should be here and why this should be that height. We have the same discussion about product design.”

These architecture analogies explain Meerkat’s seemingly rock-solid backend. Rubin insists that the foundation of the product be sturdy—and from our experience on the app, it really is. 

“1,500 people can tune in in less than 2 seconds,” Rubin said. “We own all our tech. We own all of our media servers. We had two years to build the backend.” 

Meerkat’s secret recipe is the infrastructure supporting its HLS streams and H.264 formatting combined with a baked-in 10-second delay. According to Rubin, that’s Meerkat’s central compromise, and luckily for him and his team, it hasn’t noticeably weighed down the experience.

Meerkat is currently a team of 11, if you don’t count its irresistibly cute company mascot. Like most aspects of Meerkat, Rubin’s team put a lot of thought into the branding and logo before launching.

“[We] thought it was an interesting animal because [a meerkat] doesn’t take itself too seriously,” he said. “The brand will be mocking itself because every time something happens, everybody sticks their head out.”

With its two-week-old product building so much early momentum, that’s not a bad analogy for the way in which word about Meerkat seems to be spreading.

Photo by Taylor Hatmaker

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*First Published: Mar 16, 2015, 8:26 am