Entrepreneur Interview Series: A Sit-Down with Screenius genius co-founder Seth Cohen
Screenius may sound like the ominous description of an evil-genius iPad app hell-bent on world domination -- but it's far less maleficent than that. Screenius is a newly-launched iPad app that is joining the ranks of Angry Birds, Doodle Jump and Pocket God.
Screenius is another infotainment tool -- one that helps you funnel your video choices through its 'video valet' services. This video-funnelling tool reduces the ridiculously-large amount of online video choice and whittles it down to a bearable size to offer you just two choices.
Quite genius if you think about it. If you were to go to a Ben and Jerry's and stare at their 75+ flavors your eyes would glaze over as you tried to choose. Go to McDonalds however and your choice between their simplistic Chocolate or Vanilla is practically child's play. "People can be paralyzed by too many choices," points out Seth Cohen, co-founder and CEO of Screenius.
Screenius is more than just a video-viewing app though. It's an intelligent app that learns your tastes as you go. If you watch TED Talks and The Colbert Report clips regularly, it won't pop-up with Justin Bieber's new Christmas hit or Jersey Shore reruns (both of which YouTube erroneously suggested to me last week, shudder). In addition to learning your likes the app includes review posting, sharing, and short menus for video browsing.
I recently got the chance to sit down with the 27-year IT industry veteran Seth Cohen to talk about Screenius, Seth's entrepreneurial experience and everything leading up to it:
Can you give me the quick, elevator pitch for Screenius?
Screenius is an iPad app for personalized video discovery that finds video content you will enjoy -- a 'Pandora for video.' Screenius builds up your taste profile based on the choices and actions you take (or don't take) simply using the product.
Screenius is moving towards social video -- 'video with friends' -- where we also learn the tastes of your friends so we can help you find content your friends will enjoy to become a convenient starting point for social conversations.
What is your educational and work background?
My B.A. is in Film & Television and I began my professional career as a filmmaker. After working in the industry for a few years on some award-winning films, I made a personal pivot and went back to school to learn programming. I got a Masters in Computer Science from the University of Illinois and worked for years as a software engineer. Then I transitioned into a software product management role and I see my current title of "entrepreneur" as a logical extension of that.
What are your biggest challenges as an entrepreneur?
The first answer that popped into my head is "resources." But no, our job is to make the best use of whatever resources we have on hand --you probably never have enough resources, so that's not my biggest challenge. I guess the answer is a clarity of purpose that will allow me to find, recruit, and deploy our resources to greatest impact. That single-minded purpose has to be strong *and* flexible enough to overcome competitive threats, customer inertia, and rapid industry shifts.
What are your plans, hopes and marketing ideas for the future of Screenius?
Video infotainment for consumers, the industry currently known as television, is in play. The paradigm will be changed by tomorrow's media giants who are being born today. We at Screenius hope to play a pivotal role in defining what that new order will be.
What are some of the mistakes and/or failures that you learned from while starting up?
My biggest mistake was not allocating sufficient time upfront to rapid prototyping to gain customer validation. Our magical team of 3 was able to build and deploy a unique iOS app in ~8 weeks, but in hindsight, I should have used pen and paper to run ideas by consumers first. It would have saved us a lot of subsequent beta cycles.
What were and are the challenges that you face(d) starting up?
Starting up is the fun part -- I love just jumping off the cliff and figuring it out as we go. The challenge is remembering that at some point, you have to figure out the landing (hopefully) before you hit the bottom. So planning ahead to rapidly test assumptions is something to work on.
How have you personally changed since you started?
My hair has gone gray, rather rapidly.
What has been the biggest surprise being an entrepreneur and business owner?
The amount of patience required. No matter how much fudge factor I add to my calculations, it always seems to require more energy and time to get to the next step than I anticipated/hoped/planned.
What development, event, or new understanding since you started has had the most impact on your original plans and how have your plans changed in response?
This will be revealed in our future product; for now, will keep it under wraps.
What sacrifice did you have to make in order to focus on your start-up?
A pact with the devil, sorry, the wife.
Which do you think is most important and why: the right market, the right product, or the right team?
Right team always -- markets are dynamic and constantly changing so a great market today could be the dead end of tomorrow, and few products are perfect out of the gate so you have to rely on having a team with the smarts, capabilities, and stamina to roll with the markets' punches and continuously improve the product until it becomes "right."
If your company tanked tomorrow, would the experience have been worth it?
Would Steve Jobs had been happy if his career had ended with Next closing? Or if Apple had tanked after he returned? Doubt it. I think ultimate success makes the experience more sweet while failure makes it more sour. I'll go with the sweet.
What made you first think that starting a company is right for you?
As a product manager, I used to practice (and preach) that the role required one to think as if they were the CEO of the product line -- the PM job is to do whatever is necessary to make the product successful at that point in its life cycle. Sometimes that is working closely with engineering, and sometimes that requires hitting the streets and selling, and sometimes that means sitting on the phones in support. It makes the job interesting and never-ending. So moving into the role of CEO is just an extension of that philosophy, only this time the scope is all-encompassing and no excuses allowed.
Was there anyone/anything who inspired your managerial style and defined the culture of your company?
The army. You quickly learn there are only 2 kinds of commanders -- those that lead by example and those that lead by dictate. There are those that are the first to jump in the line of fire and there are those commanders that give orders from the rear of the pack. I want to be one of those leaders my team wants to follow as opposed to has to follow due to rank. (Not saying I am there yet, merely that this is what I aspire to be and hopefully will get there.) For tactical considerations, would like to implement as close to the Netflix model.