Wednesday, June 30, 2010
Interview with Tom Grasty, Stroome
Story by Benjamin F. Kuo
Last week, Los Angeles-based Stroome (www.stroome.com), a new startup originally spawned out of a project at the USC Annenberg School of Communications, won $200,000 in the 2010 Knight News Challenge. The Knight News Challenge is a contest which highlights digital news experiments and technology, and is closely watched by those in the news industry. Interested to hear more about how the company came about--and why it has been getting some attention for its efforts--we spoke with Tom Grasty, co-founder of the company.
Tell us the story behind Stroome and how it came about?
Tom Grasty: Essentially, we started off as a graduate school project at USC. We grew out of an interesting use case. My partner is a documentarian and reports for the New York Times, Time, and Newsweek, and was given a story to write about for the New York Times, about the sounds that fish make, for their Science section. It ran in April of 2008. We got lots of traction on the web, and the story was picked up in many places. Because of that, her editors asked her to create a video component for the story. In her process of creating that video component, through lost Fedex packages, all of the time spent to come up with the final edit, and all the research that needed to be done, she determined that there seemed to be a real need for a collaborative place where people could come together and create conent. The idea emerged from that real life pain in the market, and as we like to say, we've grown incrementally from there. Our first success we kind of backed into, with the New School in New York. They wanted to use the platform we had developed in a class called Mashup Culture. They wanted to use it for the students' final project, and we got the sense that there was a marketplace need for this. A few months later, we won the USC New Venture Competition. From a business standpoint, we saw there was a legitimate path to profitability in it, and then we ended up winning the Audience Award for the Online News Association. Most recently, we picked up the Knight Grant last week, which has been, to date, the biggest validation of all.
There are lots of video sharing and editing sites and services--what's the key difference here, and what have people found is the most interesting thing here?
Tom Grasty: There are, as I like to say, no shortage of online video editing platforms, online video editors, or social networking sites, even though there are fewer online editors now than eighteen months ago. What we are doing is unique and different, because, in our knowledge, there is no one else doing it. We've taken the video editing process from a silo event, where someone uploads content, edits it on their computer, by themselves--to something we've exploded across the social web, which allows people to collaborate and work together on content. They can contribute content, contribute their edits, remix video, work together as groups, and then send that content across the web to Facebook, YouTube, MySpace, or their own website. No one is really offering that kind of collaborative solution yet. It's a unique selling proposition that people respond to.
Why the interest in this collaboration and remixing?
Tom Grasty: We looked around at lots of companies, and saw that many startups failed because they reached too far, too fast. They saw the brass ring, and they try to get it immediately out of the gate. Our go-to-market strategy is closer to Facebook. We saw that we had traction in the journalism and news organization marketplace, so we concentrated on that area. We licensed our product to USC Annenberg as a teaching tool in the classroom. We've been in discussions with news organizations to use the platform, including with large organizations and journalism sites. From that beachhead, we plan to grow it out and we're finding we're already starting to get traction with all sorts of people, ranging from musicians and students, to sports enthusiasts and travelers, to activitists. Basically, it's anyone with a point of view that wants to find other people with that point of view, to work together to create content.
It's quite interesting to see the background here from the journalism area, as you rarely see startups from that field.
Tom Grasty: Although my partner does have a strong journalism background, my background, even though I was in journalism school and we met at USC Annenberg, is a little broader. It's in advertising, public relations, and for the last fifteen years, television. I was a development executive and independent producer. Where my partners saw real tangible needs for this in journalism, what I was speaking to was the notion that where we'd gotten to at this point with digital technology, is people absolutely want to create, circumvent, and distribute your own content on your own terms. I found that, as an independent producer, that is a very powerful notion. I hadn't grown up around that, I hadn't evolved in that environment. I knew that was going to be the next huge growth industry in the content business, and we've started to see that come to fruition. We both came from different industries, but there was the similar connection that the web is tearing down silo walls, and that people want to collaborate and distribute their work across the web.
We've heard it's difficult to get over the hurdle from an idea to implementation with non-technical founders. Were you able to get over that technology hurdle?
Tom Grasty: The short answer is yes, only because we had to figure out fast because we started in the classroom, and had a very defined amount of time to create a prototype. We were fortunate that we were able to find third party developers, who were not only technically proficient in building the product, but were also passionate about building the product. If those two hadn't merged, we wouldn't have gotten the first prototype out of the garage. We were asking people to do what lots of startups ask, which is for our vendors to go beyond the typical call of duty. We're now in an interesting position in that we've gotten our first customers, and gotten validation and recognition, and we're beginning to see where the technology is emerging, with HTML5, streaming, and other ancillary technology. Those all influence what we're trying to do, and we'll be building and baking that into our current offering in the future.
So what's next?
Tom Grasty: We are taking our product, which is in the early public beta stage, and building it out into a highly scalable production model. We hope to have that to market within six months. As we are doing the product development, we are working on strategic business development relationships, so we can leverage the platform. It seems to have lots of applications we weren't aware of when we first created it.
What sort of applications are those?
Tom Grasty: For example, we hadn't originally conceived using it as a white label product for corporate branding. We've been seeing lots of interest from very large organizations, who are coming to us and asking us to develop it into a branding application. That's a very different direction, which we're aggressively looking at.
Good luck, and thanks for the interview!