In the early autumn of 2005, Dina Kaplan was freelancing as a spot reporter for WNBC 4 New York, “covering fires and murders and bodies found in dumpsters and things like that,” she told The Observer on a recent humid morning in Soho. But on Wednesday nights, the petite strawberry blonde was routinely having dinner in the cafeteria of the World Financial Center with a group of guys who were coding a new online platform for videobloggers called Blip.tv. Her friend Mike Hudack, a developer and administrator for the National Hockey League and “one of the smartest people” she had ever met, was courting her to join the team as chief operating officer, a position that would require her to shmooze with investors and make distribution and advertising deals with major media companies.
Ms. Kaplan, a Pittsburgh native, had spent the good part of a decade building her career as a journalist—from her college days at Wesleyan to reporting for MTV News during the mid-’90s—and giving it up to join a tepid tech start-up wasn’t part of her plan. She was intrigued, but far from sold.
But later that September, an interview she had with Andrew Heyward, then the CBS News chief, made up her mind.
“We had a pretty formal interview,” Ms. Kaplan recalled. “At the very end he said, ‘What else do you do? What are you interested in?’ And I said, you know, ‘On Wednesday nights, I get together with some really smart friends of mine and we are starting a company, which is a platform for people creating Web shows on the Internet.’ And—I will never forget this—he pulled his chair back and looked at me in a whole new light. That sort of glaze of interviewing yet another reporter, only the seventy-five thousandth of his life, ended and he snapped out of it. He looked at me directly as a person rather than another local TV reporter, and he said, ‘Do that. That is the future. Forget this TV reporting thing.’
“That, actually, was the moment that I knew we were onto something,” she continued. “I stopped worrying and thinking about TV reporting and spent a lot more time thinking about Blip.”
Ms. Kaplan, who would not disclose her age, uploaded videos of her own on-the-street reporting from the Cannes Film Festival onto the platform. She joined Blip.tv as chief operating officer soon after.
Four years later, Blip.tv hosts and distributes more than 48,000 original Web shows via platforms including iTunes, AOL Video, the iPhone, Facebook, TiVo and Verizon On-Demand, sharing ad revenues 50-50 with content creators. The company has found a comfortable niche as a distribution site for independent content creators. If YouTube, which launched in February 2005, is the go-to spot for amateur video clips, and Hulu is the home for professional content from major networks and studios, Blip.tv is wedged in between, as the choice platform for indie Web show producers.
Late last month, Blip.tv hosted a big press event at its brick-walled, Broome Street loft, where the company now employs more than 20 people (there’s usually a keg of beer on tap in the kitchen and Nintendo Wii to play with in a media area). Ms. Kaplan and the rest of the Blip.tv crew announced new distribution partnerships—with YouTube, Vimeo, NBC’s Local New York station and Roku, which makes a digital video player—that promise to bring Web shows to the millions, whether via computers or on flat-screen TVs.
But now that Blip.tv has top-notch software, some good press and decent distribution deals, Ms. Kaplan and the team is taking on the task that colleague sites like Hulu and YouTube still haven’t figured out: how to be profitable.
Ms. Kaplan would not disclose exact revenue figures, but it’s safe to say that Blip.tv still relies heavily on venture capital to pay for all those videos on their servers and to keep engineers coding. They offer a premium membership (at $8 per month) for video bloggers, but most clients prefer the free service—and would likely abandon Blip.tv if the company decided to charge all users.
Her challenge now is to transition Blip.tv from a tech company to a media business.
“The next step is going to sound a lot less sexy,” she said.
AFTER OFFICIALLY JOINING the company, Ms. Kaplan launched a charm offensive, going to tech events and conferences, some where she was the only woman in the room. She helped land funding from angel investors (the first to sign on was her father, Robert Kaplan, a Harvard Business School professor) and venture capital firms (at undisclosed amounts); at a sports conference, she made Blip.tv’s first distribution deals with AOL and Yahoo! (Ms. Kaplan has made a name for herself as a bit of tech-world socialite, too, hosting soirees like last spring’s Founders Club event on a roof overlooking Rockefeller Center, with IAC’s Barry Diller, NBC’s Jeff Zucker and Late Night’s Jimmy Fallon in attendance.)
Some angel investors didn’t take her seriously as an entrepreneur. Even in this day and age, they would sit down to pitch meetings and ask if she was the wife or girlfriend of one of Blip.tv’s four male co-founders. “It was definitely a handicap,” she said. “Most of them had never been pitched by a woman before. I started realizing that you were smart to bring a guy with you, no matter who it was—it could be a guy you met on the street or an intern, but having a guy there was helpful. Hopefully, that will get better.” (Indeed!)
As part of the team’s plan to take Blip.tv to the next level, Ms. Kaplan will need to land more distribution deals—especially with cable companies and TV box top devices—and get more advertising, from brand integration to pop-up ads, on Blip.tv’s shows. They plan on hiring a new sales team.
“You have to squeeze blood from stone,” Ms. Kaplan said about the challenge of making advertising deals. “You’re having to create budgets where they don’t exist and you’re either stealing money from display advertising or from TV. We definitely have good products—it’s building trust with the ad sales fairy dust.”
After sitting down with The Observer earlier this month, Ms. Kaplan flew to Los Angeles to attend a few parties and meet-ups. “You will find us talking about and spending a lot of time in L.A.,” she said. On the West Coast, she meets with companies about forming partnerships, “whether distributing videos within the Warner Bros. family or CBS Entertainment,” she said. Major Hollywood studios and independent companies, like Ashton Kutcher’s Katalyst Media, for example, are revving up their online content creation, and Ms. Kaplan wants to turn them on to Blip.tv as their distribution platform.
Blip.tv is the choice platform for indie Web show producers.
Blip.tv has so many different small Web shows that they can be bundled into packages—like, say, five or 50 shows geared toward moms—for brands and advertisers. According to Mr. Hudack, this is a tremendous advantage when attracting advertising. “One hundred thousand people are usually too few to justify an ad buy,” he wrote on Blip.tv’s official blog. “It benefits advertisers because packages made up of lots of little shows can be much better targeted than individual mass market shows.”
At the press event in July, Mr. Hudack said he hopes his aging aunt, a decade-long AOL dial-up user who only recently got a modern modem, will soon be able to sit down on her living room couch, flip on the television and not be able to differentiate whether a TV show was created by a major network or “that guy in his garage.”
“You don’t have to go up to Jeff Zucker at NBC and essentially ask for what is a bank loan” to create your own TV show, Mr. Hudack said. “Sometimes, literally for a couple hundred bucks, you can start a Web show and reach millions of people.”
Still, it remains to be seen whether Ms. Kaplan and the rest of the Blip.tv team can turn those millions of people into millions of dollars. We’ll be watching.
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