Two ex-executives from Asian Paints and a coding maestro got together to create an advanced, AI-powered algorithm that “watches videos like human beings”, to tailor-make your movie and video recommendations.
Every time you, a sci-fi nerd, were recommended a video about the passion of the Christ; every time you were bombarded with a barrage of 90s R&B music recommendations because you watched that one Rick Astley video ironically, an Asian Paints executive would fall out of his desk agonising over the fact that there’s got to be a better way—and a cricketing legend would bat for that belief.
Thus, two ex-executives from Asian Paints and a mastermind got together to create an advanced, AI-powered algorithm that “watches videos like human beings” to tailor-make your movie and video recommendations, and after a three-year-long pursuit roped in Sourav Ganguly as a backer and believer. Here’s all you need to know about the Mumbai-based startup Flickstree, and their journey so far:
CEO Saurabh Singh hails from Calcutta and worked for 11 years at Asian Paints, where he launched and seeded multiple successful product and services. Nagender Sangra, the CTO, is the machine learning expert who is the brains behind the operation. Rahul Jain, the COO, is an alumnus of MICA. He is a digital and media expert who also spent eight years at Asian Paints Media, out of which he headed the media team for three.
During Saurabh’s stint at Asian Paints, personalisation as per customer preference was at the heart of what he did—the ideology resonated with him strongly. As the digital wave caught on, he was convinced that users would no more be interested in a one-to-all interface on any platform, and would want a more intelligent and perceptive, one-to-one experience.
“Facebook and Twitter are personalised and huge. And every industry needs personalisation—so we first picked up movies and then created India’s first movie recommendation app that helps find the movies that you love. The obvious, natural extension was video recommendation,” he says.
Flickstree was incorporated in 2014, and their platform—the movie recommendation engine—was officially launched in August 2016. With the same underlying technology and principle, they expanded the suite of services they offer, and rolled out the full-stacked website and app that we see today that also recommends videos, around February this year. “If a user likes any piece of visual content, we help them create a tech magazine, or a sports magazine—so on and so forth,” says Saurabh.
Essentially, Flickstree is a curated and personalised video platform for free-to-watch videos. The AI-based patent-pending technology aggregates these free-to-watch online videos from social networks, media sites, and blogs and then creates a customized video feed. “You cannot have human beings curating stuff, that world is endless. Thus, our technology watches videos like human beings and understands key objects with each video. It lists each key object and creates a context—whether it is a short film, movie, trailer, news video, etc. Because it is tech-based with no human intervention, scaling it up gets easier,” he says. They use an embedded player, so that the user stays on the platform.
They only consume official APIs. “We could have added many other categories if we wanted to take the other route, but we didn’t. We needed to create a product which is compliant with their terms,” says Saurabh.
Building the product took a year’s worth of trial and error for the trio. Once the beta was ready, they spoke to 200 users over a span of three months, and learned that they could be split into three categories—the “Explorers”, who are in their 20s and early 30s, who have UC and Opera browsers because they like to experiment, some 30 percent of them stay away from family, travel in trains, buses, and consume content on these journeys; the “Modern Traditionals”—who are tech savvy but traditional in behaviour and consumption, they use conventional apps like Facebook, Whatsapp, YouTube; and the third was everyone else.
“The category we want to tap is the explorers, and there are 50 million of them in India. As early adopters and innovators are crucial—we started getting very active on Quora—and it gave us one fourth of our traffic. Other platforms such as the international site Reddit have also helped. The hack was simple—mapping our users, tracking their every move, and the results came faster,” he explains.
At some point, they want to perhaps approach bus operators—to replace the common TV on buses with the app—which one can watch within the atmosphere of the bus. “There is Wi-Fi in every bus, so you’ll be locally connected. Similarly, we can look at in-flight, in-train, and in-car entertainment,” he reveals.
While they took a year to create the product, once it was ready, Saurabh’s approach was the opposite. “We wanted shortcuts—smart work over hard work. That is when somebody like Sourav, with his pedigree, comes in. He gives us three things immediately –visibility as we are a B2C product; partnerships—as, rather than praying the product goes viral, it’s important that we work strategically towards it; and lastly, access to mentors—when such a name joins your board, he also brings the right set of people. This helped us travel the same distance faster,” says Saurabh.
Saurabh notes that the key is to know when to start monetising—Twitter, Facebook, they all started monetising later. “It’s important to get the absolute right fitment and scalability, rather than thinking of how to monetise every user. Our revenue model will be ad revenue—like native ads, interstitials, surround commerce—and curated sponsorships, rather than promoted content—because the latter goes against our ethos. There will be certain sections that we will not be able to monetise, so be it,” he says.
Currently, they have 75,000 monthly active users and have garnered half a million users across their web and app platforms. “In India, phone storage remains a concern. Getting users through the web has been much easier for us—and constitutes more than 60 percent of the user base. We’re investing heavily on our web front,” he says.
This week, Flickstree raised seed funding of Rs 3 crore from investors in a round led by Venture Catalysts, which also saw contributions from Anirban Aditya and Ankit Aditya (Aditya Group, Kolkata) and Moksh Sports Ventures, and cricketing legend Sourav Ganguly, making it the latter’s first foray into the startup world. “There is something for every user type, with carefully chosen video categories on Flickstree. Everyone should give it a try”, says Sourav Ganguly. “A player like Flickstree can potentially change the way videos are consumed by users all over the world,” added Anirban Aditya, Chairman, Aditya Group.
Flickstree is also a Facebook-backed company through their FBStart programme. Currently, with over 25 video categories, the boom in the video industry will perfectly complement their growth as well. With the newly acquired funds, they wish to keep adding newer features and categories, such as providing the user with multiple video feeds based on his specific moods. Their iOS app is next in line, and in future, they also want to launch in different languages and make their portal multilingual.
“We also want to make it digital social, so people can follow each other’s feeds. We want to have more partnerships with content creators, and perhaps become a preferred distributor,” Saurabh reveals.