Last week, Surge, Sequoia's accelerator programme for early-stage startups in India and Southeast Asia signed on 17 companies. As part of Surge 01, each company will receive mentoring and $1.5 million in funding.
One of the startups that made the cut from over 1,500 applications is Uiza, which is based in Singapore and Vietnam.
Uiza is an Application Program Interface (API) platform for video streaming that enables developers and companies to stream videos directly from their own app in a fast and cost-effective manner through a set of simple APIs. The company has built sophisticated video infrastructure, which is currently used by over 250 apps, and is serving viewers from over 100 countries.
In a conversation with YourStory, Kevin Nguyen, the company’s 29-year-old co-founder, reveals more about the startup, what being part of Sequoia’s first cohort means to them, and their plans for India.
Kevin Nguyen, Co-founder, Uiza
Edited excerpts of the interview.
YourStory: Tell us about the platform that Uiza offers.
Kevin Nguyen: Uiza is a platform for developers. We help them add video/live streaming function to their application with a few lines of code. The company was started in January 2018, and has served clients from seven countries with end-users in more than 100 countries across various verticals such as ecommerce, online education, media, and social communication. The company was founded by several Vietnamese engineers and is currently based out of two centres - Ho Chi Minh City (Vietnam), which acts as the IT hub, and Singapore, which serves as the business centre.
YS: Why the name Uiza?
KN: Uiza means “wizard” in Japanese and “wow” in Vietnamese.
YS: How and when did Uiza start?
KN: By the time we started Uiza, around end 2017, video-based startups, from edtech and healthtech to ecommerce and many other services, were democratising access to products and services across emerging Asia. Our aim was that Uiza should play a key role in that process, by empowering more companies to stream video in an affordable way to new or untapped consumer segments and reach Asia’s emerging mass markets.
We have a huge desire to make a social impact by helping our clients succeed. Video and live streaming is changing the way education is delivered, the way we do commerce, the way people interact with each other. By solving the problem of how to deliver video in a more cost-effective manner, we’re able to help more companies reach new, underserved markets.
YS: There are some interesting stories from your early days. Tell us some of them.
KN: Gareth (Nguyen), my co-founder, and I were having coffee in Hanoi, a day before I was to fly to Ho Chi Minn City to get the company started. We didn’t talk about Uiza and I did not have an offer for him. But Gareth booked a one-way ticket to join Uiza the day after.
Another interesting anecdote is that the entire founding team of 12 people decided to not take salaries for the first year.
YS: What has been the most challenging time in your journey so far?
KN: For me, the most difficult time was when we had to decide to change the direction of the company in the middle of 2018. When we first started Uiza, the objective was to build an Online Video Platform, like a Content Management System (CMS) for video, and serve countries in Southeast Asia. We wanted to bring a more cost-efficient solution to small and medium businesses such as tech startups. However, after six months, things weren’t really working for us as the market perhaps didn’t need another Online Video Platform. The opportunity lay in other areas such as video processing or video delivery.
So, I decided to stop everything that we were working on and asked everyone in the team to go out and talk to our clients to get real insights from them. And after a month of conversations and understanding clients, we decided that we needed to pivot our company into a platform that serves developers and helps them solve video-processing problems and eases video delivery while staying cost-efficient.
The lesson we learnt here is that talking and really understanding the client’s problem is critical. Don’t assume that they need this or they need that. We need to talk directly with them, a lot, to get real insights.
YS: Tell us about Uiza’s co-founders.
KN: My co-founder, Gareth Nguyen, 28, graduated in Finance from Singapore Institute of Management. He worked in investment banking before realising that he wanted to build something with more social impact. So he started his first startup and worked on home automation systems. After a few years, he decided to sell the company and join Uiza following our discussion on the vision and mission of the company.
My other co-founder is Harry Duong, 30, a computer science graduate from Vietnam. He is truly the most video-passionate person I have ever met. Through his 10 years of experience in working with video, he has played key engineering roles in R&D teams at the biggest video systems in Vietnam such as FPT Play, HDViet, and Fim+. He leads Uiza’s R&D efforts in video-processing and delivery technology.
And lastly, about me. I moved to the US at the age of 18 years to study machine learning engineering in Florida, and then worked at a US machine learning consulting group for a year before returning to Southeast Asia to run my own company. I created a machine learning software language localisation platform, a product I felt would make everything from operating systems to user guides more accessible to mass market consumers in emerging markets of Southeast Asia. I later joined Topica, Vietnam’s largest online education company, and led expansion of that business to Indonesia and Thailand, before starting Uiza.
Uiza's sophisticated video infrastructure currently serves viewers from over 100 countries.
YS: Where did your initial capital come from and how much was it?
KN: The initial capital came from the savings of every member of founding team. It was around $75,000 that time. Three months on, we got pre-seed investment from ESP Capital and Framgia Inc.
YS: What is your business model and who are your customers?
KN: Our business model is selling to enterprise through mass adoption of freemium users, mostly developers and technical people.
The company’s customers include ecommerce platforms that allow sellers to demonstrate their products and interact with buyers in real time through live streaming; a regional online education company that delivers their learning materials to millions of students in Southeast Asia, an e-sports streaming platform in Indonesia, and LINE, which uses Uiza’s platform to stream content that caters to millions of women in Vietnam.
YS: What does being a part of Sequoia’s first cohort of 17 'incredible' early-stage startups mean to you?
KN: Based on Sequoia’s feedback to us, there are few things that make a startup standout and thrive through obstacles:
Firstly, Vision and Mission: This is the most important part. If we don’t have a vision that’s big, and tackles a real problem with a unique solution, people will not care. This is something that we acknowledged very early at Uiza. In our weekly all-hands meeting, any employee can talk about Uiza’s vision and mission in their own way of thinking. We then discuss and share more about how we want to be in the market and what impact we have made to the society and our customers.
Secondly, People: Our people translate to authenticity for me. Authenticity means you are truly yourself, you have your own thinking, are not affected by the majority, and are confident that although you are the underdog, you have your own unique strength to win this battle. Uiza relentlessly focuses on finding such people and offers them to come on board. We believe that the Uiza engineering team is one of the best teams in the region, despite being a small team of 20 engineers.
Thirdly, Timing: Timing is critical for establishing a business. If Uiza started five years ago, it may not have worked due to internet connectivity issues or core technology not being mature enough. If Uiza started five years later, it may have passed the explosion of video-based applications here in Asia.
Our strategy for the future is focusing on customer experience and harnessing the product to satisfy our customers.
YS: How do you plan to use the $1.5 million from Sequoia?
KN: We will use the money for hiring engineering talent, and in building the product.
YS: We believe you have some India-specific plans. Please tell us about them.
KN: India is a major market that we are targeting along with Southeast Asia.
The first reason is the explosion of video-based applications in India. Even among the 17 startups of the Sequoia Surge programme, at least one-third are video-focused ventures; at least two-third of them, plan to use video in their business as a technology enabler for growth. The use-cases are massive, ranging from doing ecommerce through live streaming, online tutoring, online technical training and interviews, video marketing tools, etc.
The second reason is the fast adoption by Indian developers. We have run many sample surveys to research which market will give us the most attention. It is India, without doubt. I believe that it comes from the early adoption by Indian developers. They tend to try new things faster than other countries and they love to adopt new technology, if it brings them immediate benefits.
The initial plan is getting familiar with Indian tech startups with the support of Sequoia Capital India. We are spending a lot of time talking to Indian entrepreneurs and learning about a lot of things that we can do to support developers here.
YS: Which are the markets that you cater to?
KN: Currently we want to go to regions that: a) don’t have a strong presence of big players in video streaming services such as Google Cloud or AWS; and b) have fast technology adoption from local tech community. We think India and Southeast Asia are our ideal markets, and we will focus on them relentlessly for the next two years.
YS: Tell us about your future plans?
KN: Uiza aims to be the world’s first streaming operating system that clients will use to power all kinds of video. All of Asia, including China, is part of our mid-term plans.
Uiza Co-founders Kevin Nguyen and Gareth Nguyen.
YS: Who are your competitors and what sets you apart from others?
KN: Currently, we consider Google Anvato, AWS Elemental, Brightcove, and Kaltura as our competitors. However, our point of view is a bit different from these companies.
Software is all about abstractions. Let's say you want to drive, all you need is a car, not car components. Today, if you want to add video to your software using Google Anvato or AWS Elemental, you need to build very complex, specialised workflows around components like files, jobs, playlists, cache, ingestion, and edge, but not video. It is like all you need is to drive a car, but you must buy every car component and integrate them together, to get it running.
Here is another analogy. If you want to add calling function to your software, is your first step to go around and choose which public switched telephone network (PSTN), Session Initiation Protocol (SIP) or Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP) to use, educate yourself on telecommunication compliance, negotiate partnership with telcos like AT&T in the US and Singtel in Singapore just for two ends, and hire an expert team to focus on solving call dropping? Or you want an API that abstracts away from this complexity and helps you to focus on building your software?
This is how Google Anvato, AWS Elemental, or even Brightcove, Ooyala, and Kaltura are offering their services now. We think the abstraction model behind this is impractical. Why should you have to spend months, money, and people to build complexity before you see your first video play?
When we started Uiza, our goal was to make this complexity so simple, that developers can focus on building their unique products and make their users happy.
There are a lot of things that we try to abstract away from complexity. Pricing is another thing; you will get separate and different component pricing at every stage if you use Google Anvato or AWS Elemental. It will make your cost provisioning a nightmare. Instead, Uiza brings a simple and predictable pay-per-usage pricing that works with only two-three components, based on the amount of video minutes you store and stream.
Another difference would be our local scalability. We focus on providing a simple way to do cross-location live streaming. If you use AWS, I am sure you cannot do a live in Vietnam, Indonesia, Russia, or the UAE. Live is a whole different story compared to video-on-demand (VOD) because they require large throughput with low latency and usually in a place where you don't have Amazon Web Services (AWS) or Google Cloud Platform (GCP), you will have peering congestion problems.
As I mentioned before, we focus on solving the delivery problem. We design our live stream architect with our proprietary and unique solution to ensure that this is the most scalable and streamable video platform. We combine distributed edge networks with technologies like WebRTC, hashing, and caching, optimised by our unique solution like chunk sharding, routing optimisation, and hardware-agnostic containerisation. This is our secret sauce.
And the final difference is that Google Avanto or AWS Elemental focus solely on broadcasters and big-ticket clients such as governments and Fortune 500 companies, while we think that software developers are quite underserved. In the next few years, with 5G adaptation and the Internet of Things (IoT) explosion, live will become the eyes of every computing device. Our vision is empowering any video on earth, through software. Right now, we are just scratching the surface of our long-term ambition.