Justin Kan, the ‘Justin’ behind ‘Justin.tv’, captured by Kimberly White
The opportunity to speak with Justin came up, and I took it without hesitation.
One of the stars of Silicon Valley’s early startup culture, Kan has defied odds and put together master class teams that have gone on to succeed beyond anyone’s estimations.
An enigma in the best sense of the word, Kan has a complex and intriguing personality. He is extremely adept with business and technology, and open about exploring his own purpose in life, through meditation and other methodologies.
We started by talking about his first failure, Kiko, and why that made him grow as a person and establish confidence to take on further ideas and dreams. This interview was originally intended to be used for part of The Revolution.
Going back to 2004, maybe 2005, what was your mind state going into your first startup [Kiko]?
It was pretty early; startups weren’t really much of a thing back then. As college students, we didn’t know much about startups at all. We were just building something that people would use. We tried it, and although we built something that wasn’t used as much, it led up to Y Combinator which was a good start.
Following Kiko, you start Justin TV (JTV). What was the end goal there, why did you think a video streaming website was something you wanted to dive into?
We started Justin TV because we wanted to make a live reality [television] show. Although it was a business, we didn’t envision it being something huge like that; we just started it because it was an interesting idea for us.
After showing it to some people, they became interested in how they could contribute to creating live video content. That’s when we had the idea to make it into a platform, you know?
There’s this piece of lore which gets thrown around in different ways regarding the genesis of JTV where you physically put a laptop in your backpack, and started walking around with a webcam either taped to a stick or worn on your head. What’s the full story?
Yeah, that was sort of our idea, and we also got a few other people to create content. We called it lifecasting. I guess the idea came from when we were selling Kiko, which we ended up selling on Ebay. When we were brainstorming how to sell it, we had all of these conversations about ways we could pivot it.
That’s when I suggested that we should create sort of this audio live chat, which had conversations. That eventually turned into the idea of a video broadcast, which turned into the idea of JTV. It kind of morphed into this more crazy idea.
You needed to create more revenue, and Emmett [Shear] suggested focusing on gaming, which at the time, was a small niche making up barely 3% of all traffic on JTV. Did you share this vision, or were you on the fence about this subculture of video game streaming slowly gaining steam?
I don’t even think Emmett knew that it would blow up as it did; I think it was just content that he enjoyed watching. StarCraft II had just come out and he really liked the StarCraft content. I was pro-pivoting towards it [gaming], while our other co-founders were pretty skeptical. I don’t think any of us knew this would be huge, you know? It was a learning experience for all of us. Thinking that we just built something people really liked.
What are your thoughts on that? On how large livestreaming has become, even within the last decade.
I think it’s pretty wild, right? Not just gaming, but all the different platforms and how they’ve become such a big thing. YouTube, Instagram, others. It’s cool to be at the forefront of it.
Now, let’s talk about the acquisition of Twitch by Amazon for a second; you had signatures in escrow for the deal to go through, and there you are at Burning Man 2014, waking up in a puddle to your friend informing you the deal went through. What were your feelings in that moment?
It’s cool. It wears off, though; pretty quickly, actually. It was cool to have that initial feeling of “Oh my god, it actually happened!”
It felt like an accomplishment, something that we’d worked on for so long; a journey. At that time, it also felt like the world started to recognize what we were creating, which was nice.
You’ve experienced large amounts of stress while creating startups; what is some advice you’d offer to those going through similar situations?
Focusing on your inner state. If you draw it back to making all of this money and obtaining success, what I found was, that doesn’t drive my personal happiness. Eventually I started to seek things that were able to make a difference.
Meditation is one great example. Other practices as well; once I started doing those things, I felt a lot better in my life. They help me stay grounded in my daily experiences. A way where I am able to be present in my experiences, ways I haven’t been able to do before while having success.
These are important life skills which society doesn’t really teach us. I’m really excited with the fact that they’re becoming more and more [present] into the zeitgeist, I think it it becomes very good for people.
You’ve said “Your attachment to outcome will cause you suffering.” Could you expand on what you meant by that?
We want things in the world. You want things, I want things. When I was a founder, I wanted my company to be bigger, more successful, and sell for a billion dollars or whatever, right?
If you’re a streamer, you may want 10,000 viewers. If you’re at Ninja’s level, perhaps you can say you’ve “made it,” there’s more and more things that you want. When you achieve things, you sometimes may feel good for a little while, but then you create a new goal, even loftier.
The problem isn’t having goals, it’s that we end up torturing ourselves about whether or not we’re performing well enough to accomplish those goals, or make the right decisions along the way. A form of mental self-torture.
“I should have made better decisions, my company would be bigger.”
“If we didn’t have so much downtime, the website would be bigger, or have more traffic.”
“If I did a better pitch, I could have gotten more funding in the last round.”
You focus on things which aren’t good enough, right? Or, that you feel like you should get, but aren’t getting. That plays into happiness within the Western world.
Take anywhere for example, South Korea, America, where you’re from, where I’m from. We both have all the ingredients we need to be happy every day. Yet, people in the West are more unhappy than anyone. It’s an epidemic.
I think that’s due to an inability to sit with this sense of having all the attachments we want, and not being able to deal with it.
Like you’ve said, happiness is internal. It’s an internal thing.
We’ve seen a massive evolution of esports within the last decade especially. From high stakes tournaments being $5,000 to tournaments being in stadiums for tens of millions of dollars. The International’s last prize pool was over $34,000,000. What are your thoughts on how it’s sort of risen parallel to the livestreaming phenomenon?
It’s great. It’s kind of crazy to me, to see it. It makes sense though; gaming is a massive industry, and this [livestreaming] is a primary marketing vehicle for gaming. We always thought there was something here, and once we started seeing it in the beginning… thinking back to maybe 2010 or 2011, sort of our first real year, gaming was already larger than Hollywood at that point.
Some of the games that were very popular were making hundreds of millions of dollars and relied on multiplayer playability. It just made sense people recognized this avenue where a lot of money would go into this [esports, livestreaming].
Do you have any thoughts on the upcoming 2020 elections and how livestreaming could play a part in that?
I’m not really sure, to be honest.
There are some politicians on Twitch, but I feel like people are not getting their news content from livestreaming.
It’s much more entertainment content, and as far as I can tell from larger streamers in the space, there’s not really… it’s just not really a driver for political content compared to say, YouTube or reddit.
I don’t foresee a huge pull, but I could be wrong.
Where would you like to see livestreaming go from here? Will it continue exponentially or plateau at some point?
Of course I would like to see it continue growing. It’s awesome to see Twitch grow and grow. Twitch sort of “owns” the market of gaming and streaming. A lot of Twitch’s growth is through the market growing. The market growing is in large part due to new and fun games which are engaging the audience.
What I’d love to see are more games which are designed for streaming.
Marcus’ impact on the scene, what’s your take?
You know it, but, he just has this positive attitude. A champion of this entire genre. When we were selling Twitch, we knew we had to get him to come on board. We’re very fortunate, because Twitch would not be the same without him. He was pivotal in that.
He had a stream on Ustream for a long time, and that’s how we came about his work. You can ask Marcus, but I don’t think he thought much about JTV in the beginning.
He candidly mentions the early days of switching over, and recalls some disputes, which were later resolved due to the sheer passion he saw from you guys at JTV, as well as the care you all had for making this succeed.
Right, reflected right back at him. He’s so passionate about it all, and he’s acted as the center and has been the center of this whole industry for such a long time. It was obviously someone we needed to work with.
In terms of his attitude, he’s just such a supportive person. Someone that you just want inside of your company, that positive and talented. That’s already more than what you could ask for.