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Meet the guy who figured out how to make money from web video before YouTube did

Rooster Teeth co-founder Burnie Burns discusses “Red vs. Blue” and making fun of Apple on the latest Recode Media.

Fullscreen NewFront 2015 Photo by Craig Barritt/Getty Images for Fullscreen

When Burnie Burns helped launch Rooster Teeth in 2003, he and the other co-founders worried that they were already too late to online video.

“We had watched the way the print industry had been disrupted in the mid-’90s by the rise of the internet and HTML pages,” Burns said on the latest episode of Recode Media with Peter Kafka. “And then we saw how the music and audio industry was totally disrupted by Napster, and that was 1999. It seemed inevitable that the film industry was also going to be disrupted by video and the internet.”

“It turns out we were about eight years early,” he added.

For most of its history, Rooster Teeth was best known for the show “Red vs. Blue,” which lampoons military bureaucracy using characters from the hit shooter video game Halo. The ongoing series, now joined by dozens of other Rooster Teeth shows, is supported by merchandise sales and a subscription business that continues to this day, with more than 200,000 monthly paying subscribers.

While in college at the University of Texas at Austin, Burns and fellow Rooster Teeth co-founder Matt Hullum made a feature-length film called “The Schedule.” They were inspired by the indie success of fellow Texan Robert Rodriguez, who had recently exploded on the scene with his low-budget classic “El Mariachi.” But making the film was the easy part.

“That’s when we learned that’s only your ticket into the real game of film, which is distribution,” Burns said. “In the late ‘90s, the way that looked was independent film festivals.”

Those festivals determined whether a film could be seen by a few hundred people apiece. But Burns’s first video to reach a big audience was a parody of Apple’s “Switch” ads in 2001 — which went viral before the term “viral video” existed. Less than a day after Burns posted it from Austin, Hullum serendipitously found and saw it in Los Angeles.

“You would hear this story very commonly today, but this was a huge lightbulb moment for us,” Burns said on the new podcast. “This was all of those walls of distribution just falling down. We were really all in, from that point, on digital media.”

In 2003, still two years before the launch of YouTube, Burns teamed up with Hullum again on “Red vs. Blue.” It proliferated thanks to then-vital portals like Slashdot, Fark and Penny Arcade.

“We put the first episode online and we had to educate people how to download it,” he said. “It just destroyed our servers. Three thousand people watched the first episode, 250,000 people watched the second episode and by the end of the month, the fourth episode, we were at a million views a week.”

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If you like this show, you should also sample our other podcasts:

  • Recode Decode, hosted by Kara Swisher is a weekly show featuring in-depth interviews with the movers and shakers in tech and media every Monday. You can subscribe on iTunes, Google Play Music, TuneIn and Stitcher.
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