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Meerkat's Founder on Snagging Madonna, Battling Periscope

Some folks think Meerkat is toast, but founder Ben Rubin says he's just getting started.

Joy of Tech

What was supposed to be a big win for Meerkat turned into a debacle on Tuesday when the premiere of Madonna’s new music video on the live video streaming service for the upcoming single “Ghosttown” failed.

That it did so again this morning was a “stupid mistake,” said Meerkat founder Ben Rubin. It’s just another one of the service’s challenges as it finds itself suddenly up against Twitter’s Periscope, a service that appears to be a direct rival.

Madge’s fans were eventually placated when the stream started working 10 minutes late, after Meerkat’s team tracked down the engineering problem. At the end of the video, users were introduced to Meerkat’s newest feature, a link directing viewers to buy Madonna’s album on iTunes. All broadcasters will now be able to program a button to pop up at the end of the stream and connect people to external sites like YouTube channels, items in the iTunes stores or online articles. It turns the livestreams into a marketing tool for businesses, but it could also be used by regular consumers to build up their Twitter followings or direct readers to their blogs.

Although a bunch of different celebrities have played around with both Meerkat and Periscope, Madonna was arguably the biggest name to do so. It comes at a time when some members of the media are wondering whether the Grim Reaper has come calling for Meerkat, thanks to the fast rise of Periscope.

I sat down with Rubin to find out whether Meerkat is dead, how Madonna discovered it, whether he’s paying her to use it and other mysteries of the livestream universe. The interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Re/code: How did you get connected to Madonna?

Rubin: I can’t talk about it.

You can’t talk about it?

No. Her people — it’s just not something I can talk about.

Are you paying her to stream?

No, no, no.

Have you considered paying famous people to stream?

You cannot do it. It’s like being an artist and paying for people to come see you.

But it’s common practice to pay celebrities to promote something. Adidas pays Rita Ora.

It’s different, because they’re selling something. I’m trying to build an awesome community. [Our users] would love to be the first to see the [music video] premiere and we are able to create this experience where they can create a conversation while it’s happening. We are able to give them that.

Let’s talk about Periscope. It was a couple of weeks behind you guys, but backed with all the firepower of Twitter. How did you feel when Periscope launched?

I felt awesome.

Awesome? Come on now.

The space is awake now. It’s good. For me, people saying it’s binary and there will be one winner is like saying Facebook in 2004 won and there’s not going to be a Yik Yak, there’s not going to be a Snapchat.

But Yik Yak and Snapchat are different products from Facebook. Periscope and Meerkat are very similar.

For you, from your point of view, you’re probably right. We feel very comfortable with why our product is different. We believe in participation. There is a lot of stuff to do in real-time participatory media when the audience is part of the experience. If [the livestream videos] are saved afterwards, it just confuses the user.

I thought people could save their videos from Meerkat?

At the end of the screen you can save it as a broadcaster. But it’s not in the [Meerkat] application itself. (Reporter’s note: In Periscope, the livestreams are saved in the app itself so people can watch other users’ videos after they’ve aired.)

Where in the long run do you see Meerkat and Periscope diverging?

Facetime and Skype and Google Hangouts — they’re all in the same space. But there is enough [to differentiate them]. When you’re sitting in bed Facetiming, it’s different than when you’re doing Skype.

Basically, it’s the same thing with Periscope and Meerkat. It will take time, and it’s on us to prove that it’s different. We totally get it. But we’re confident and have enough of a track record.

You’ve got to be hearing from people who say Meerkat is dead. These tongue-in-cheek jokes on Twitter. The stories about it.

We’ve been through so much shit that it’s kind of like, whatever, dude. We closed the product [Yevvo, Meerkat’s predecessor]. We know what dying platform data looks like because we’ve seen it, and this is not that.

For me, it’s negligent for people to talk about [Meerkat dying] without mentioning that we were featured as the best app in the App Store before Periscope came, and then they took that place. That’s the reason we came from 600th place in the App Store to 140, and now we are back to 600.

But that does matter for growth, whether you’re featured in the app store or not.

It doesn’t! Where were you when Snapchat was with a million users in 2012 and it was buried in 600th or 800th place? Nobody knew it, but they were fucking killing it.

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