Vizbee: Darren Feher’s Next Act
In these days of mobile and TV streaming, casting is a ubiquitous (thanks in large part to Apple AirPlay and Google Cast) but infrequently used technology. Casting typically means discovering audio or video on a mobile device and then sending it (casting it) to a nearby speaker or TV. The technology seems to be used more for audio than video, but if there’s one person who can make the video industry see a future in casting, it’s Darren Feher.
The video industry first learned Feher’s name a decade ago when he was the president and CEO of a little-known startup called Conviva, which promised to help streamers identify trouble spots ahead of time and avoid them. The company made quality a crucial issue for video providers and changed the way content owners think about disruptions. Feher spent nearly 4 years winging across the country selling Conviva, earning his United Global Services status one meeting at a time. But while Conviva went on to become a giant in the streaming space, it chose to do so without Feher.
After a short time off that saw Feher work with various boards and banks, he hit on his next big idea, or, rather, one of his former colleagues did. Prashanth Pappu had been the head of products for Conviva, and he left the company shortly before Feher did, settling at Unicorn Media as the SVP of product management. In 2014, that company was snapped up by Brightcove, which wasn’t a good fit for Pappu. During a meeting with Feher, he suggested that casting would emerge as a standard viewer behavior and wondered if someone could build a business around it. Seeing an opportunity, the two created Vizbee.
Throwing the Video Frisbee
The name “Vizbee” is a portmanteau for “video Frisbee,” and it describes the act of casting video to another screen. The big idea with Vizbee is offering casting as a B2B service. Rather than creating a consumer app that might never find an audience, Feher and Pappu chose to create technology that could be built into other companies’ apps. Here’s Feher with the pitch: “If you look at mobile video, it’s very mature. People know how to discover content, [and] they know how to install apps. Our data is there, advertising is targeted, but the problem is engagement sucks. People watch four minutes on a phone.
“By contrast, if you look at smart TVs, gaming consoles, [and] streaming devices, engagement is 10 times that. People are watching on average 40 minutes, maybe more. But that is problematic. The platforms are a fragment and there’s way too many of them. The refresh rates are not like phones: You have to support old platforms, people don’t know how to discover content, [and] marketing channels are broken. You can’t get a notification on Roku that there’s new content. You’ve got to scroll down, open the app, look, and see. Marketing is broken, discovery is broken, [and] distribution is broken.
“The basic principle for Vizbee was, ‘What if I don’t treat this as one platform and TV and a streaming device as another platform, but figure out a technological way to treat them as one platform?’”
Around this time, anyone hearing Feher’s pitch might start to waver and agree that casting could be a good basis for a business, but only if the interface is easy and the notifications are useful. But how does this make money? It’s not something viewers would pay for. No, but businesses would. Vizbee is purely B2B, and it helps businesses in multiple ways. First, when viewers discover content on their phone and cast it to their TV, they’ll watch longer, so more ads are viewed. Second, if viewers want to cast a publisher’s video to their TV but don’t have that publisher’s app installed, Vizbee will initiate an app download, which helps the publisher get on more devices. Third, the app offers new content recommendations, which keeps viewers coming back and watching more. It also bridges the publisher’s marketing channels— which push content to web and mobile—to the TV. And fourth, it lets the publisher sell more interesting ad units. Because the phone and TV are in sync, the publisher can sell mobile companion ads that interact with the TV ad. Those could be used to drive awareness or get the viewer to take an action, like visiting a site.
Besides all that, Vizbee is collecting consumer data, which Feher calls its home graph. When Vizbee is first used in a home, it scans the Wi-Fi and determines which streaming devices are on that network, as well as what apps each one has installed. That means it connects mobile ID numbers with TV devices in a household, creating data that can be used in ad targeting. The company already has a dataset that includes 60 million households.
Vizbee allows users to cast videos to their TVs from inside OTT apps
User privacy laws don’t phase Feher, because all of Vizbee’s data-gathering is done with explicit user consent. The California Consumer Privacy Act (CCPA)—a series of tough privacy regulations that go into effect Jan. 1, 2020—says that any consumer data collection has to be driven by a valid business reason and has to have explicit user consent. Vizbee has both. What’s more, users are always in charge of that data. Because users get access to Vizbee’s service through their phones, they can always go into their phone settings and uncheck the option to allow ad tracking. Their device is then purged from the Vizbee graph.
“Most of third party-data providers don’t actually have a one-on-one relationship with the actual end user,” Feher says. “They’re collecting cloud calls from third-party ad servers or cookie data networks, but they can’t reach back to that user. Explicitly, when the user says, ‘I want to know what you have on me and I want to opt in and opt out’—which is what the law will say—we have that.”
Despite its low profile, Vizbee is well-funded and growing. It’s held two fundraising rounds so far, and its seed round was primarily made up of financial venture capitalists. Then, in early 2018, it held a strategic Series A round that was led by Turner. All totaled, the company has raised about $8.5 million. The first year was about bootstrapping it, Feher says. It was about proving the concept and raising seed funding based on the reactions of media execs. The second year was about building out an enterprise platform and launching with Vizbee’s first set of customers.
Vizbee’s low profile extends to its office, which is so far a WeWork space in midtown Manhattan. The company counts 12 employees total, so it has a little growing to do before Feher thinks it makes financial sense to rent an office.
From Blazer to Hoodie
As Feher’s employment has changed, so has the man himself. He’s still the same West Point grad and natural leader, but he’s letting the right side of his brain play a little more. Anyone who knew him from Conviva probably only saw him in his uniform blue blazer, blue Oxford shirt, and khakis. Today’s Feher comes to the office in a black hoodie, has tattoos on his forearms, and wears beaded jewelry. He’s been through a few things, he says, including a failed attempt to save his marriage. Now, he sings and plays guitar in a few bands in Connecticut (including one with a couple of West Point buddies) and practices yoga every morning. “That’s age, life. You’ll get through stuff. But I’m in a good place,” he says.
Vizbee seems to be taking off, so maybe Feher will have to get that blue blazer pressed soon. It’s integrated into apps from TNT, TBS, and CNN. Use the CNN app to cast a video to a TV, and you’re using Vizbee. The company has worked with the PGA Championship, CBS Sports, and MGM’s Epix, and it just launched on Discovery’s MotorTrend. And that doesn’t include a variety of smaller brands. The publishing industry is in a state of experimentation and growth. Vizbee is trying to grow along with it.
Viewers have to be taught that they can cast videos, but when prompted, they show strong conversion. Up to 50% of the time, Feher says, when mobile viewers are told they can watch a video on a TV and then are shown a list of available sets, they decide to cast. The idea is gaining traction, he believes.
For its next step, Vizbee is focusing on user conversion, experimenting with ways to get more people to cast and download connected apps. It’s also refining its home graph, making sure that it meets all the privacy regs, and building what it calls a CMP—Compliance Management Platform—into the system, which ensures that users are able to delete their data even from partner websites.
“I don’t want to be in front of Congress answering why I’m tracking and targeting people like Zuckerberg,” Feher says. “What we’re going to do is every 30 days we’re going to take any of our subscribers and we’re going to present them a reconsent.”
Feher has his own entrepreneurial ambitions, and he’s looking beyond Vizbee. He’s no longer a United Global Services member, but he’s busy making plans nonetheless. “We have a real opportunity that if we can execute well and continue to get to scale and be a foundational part of these major streaming services, we could participate or help almost every marketing and advertising transaction for OTT. To me, that’s a very big business. I don’t know that we’ll make it that far, but we’ll see,” Feher says. “I like to incubate and build technologies that have an opportunity to be at the forefront of changing industry dynamics. And so we’ll see what the next one is.”
[This article first appeared in the November/December issue of Streaming Media magazine as "Streaming Spotlight: Darren Feher's Next Act."]