What I learnt at Ustream HQ: Ideas are everywhere

Last month month I joined Yes for Europe for their 5th European Youth Entrepreneurship Conference. It took place in beautiful Budapest, Hungary and I shared an overview of the trip in a recent post here.

During the Conference, we visited some of Hungary's most successful tech start ups. Today I'm sharing what I learnt during at the Hungarian Headquarters of Ustream.

We were fortunate to hear from Ustream's VP of R&D Csaba Sipőcz about their decade long journey from idea to acquistion

It all started with some friends playing with live broadcasting software in a bar and seeing themselves live online for the first time in 2006. The idea to live stream came from a desire to help friends deployed in Iraq stay in touch with family at home.

The public beta version launched in 2007 and Ustream has since grown to service 80 million viewers and broadcasters worldwide. Politicians such as Obama and musicians like Tori Amos have live streamed via Ustream helping to build their profile.

They're now the world's number one live streaming site for media & enterprise with a 180+ strong team across the States and Hungary. 


The Ustream journey - from idea to acquistion:

Csaba described their journey as an exciting and turbulent one with plenty of 'OMG' moments along the way:

- Initially technology and bandwidth consumption required for live streaming was so costly it was hard to cover start-up costs

- Ustream got labelled a 'cash burning' business by press

- Ustream live streamed Obama's 2008 presidential campaign events and his infamous inauguration speech

- In 2009 Business Insider claimed they would never be able to make more money than they needed to spend on streaming live video

- They had to slow down their plans to realise the big vision and wait for technology to advance & evolve

- By 2011 high bandwidth shrinking chips had been created and so running costs started to become more manageable

- In 2013 Ustream began charging for their Pro Broadcasting service via monthly charges for broadcasters

- On 21 January 2016, Ustream was acquired by IBM to build their enterprise video offering


So what are the keys to start-up success according to Ustream?

Csaba shared that creative thinking was critical when working out how to cover live streaming's start-up costs.

He also spoke about the need for patience & persistence when treading new ground and testing out a new idea. The technology they needed didn't exist when they started!

So many 'experts' didn't get the vision, believed it would fail and said so time and time again.

**If the Founders had listened to the nay-sayers or given up due to lack of appropriate tech Ustream wouldn't exist today.

Despite everyone and their Aunty saying they would never get out of the red, they did. Eventually!

The ability to focus, identify where you add true value and 'cut the fat' has also been key. Early on Ustream were trying to stream everything for everyone. It didn't work. They realised with the associated costs that they were spread themselves too thin.

They needed to pick one thing & niche down - they picked enterprise video and now have become the world leader.


What can we learn about company culture from Ustream?

Ustream's company culture is built on half a dozen values with the key two being:

1. 'be responsible for your team & the company' and

2. 'be free'.


Like Prezi, a flexible working policy is a standard at Ustream. Also they have a no vacation policy - as long as you get your work done you can take as much time off as you'd like. That might explain why the office was so empty on the Friday afternoon of our visit!

Requests for new ideas and ways to improve are visible everywhere. From the restrooms to the kitchenette there are corkboards & pens with questions and room for answers. Staff get encouraged to think creatively and contribute to solutions beyond their role. Csaba says being open minded to new ideas is key to Ustream's success.

Treating employees like adults and honouring their need for freedom and autonomy has been the rule of thumb for Ustream to date.

Creativity and free-thinking is King and you get a vibe for it as soon as you enter their artsy, open plan offices. Meeting rooms regularly get renamed with the names of employee of the month. How cool!

How is the IBM take-over going to impact Ustream's culture?

Csaba confirmed they are aware they face some big challenges now that they have joined the IBM family. Changes are already taking place and impacting Ustream's existing ways of working.  International hiring regulations and new relocation policies are now needed.

Interesting times ahead for Ustream in this new chapter of their journey.

Outside of all the new documentation, policies and processes required. They're also exploring how they can best preserve their company culture and employee brand.  The soft stuff. The stuff that matters.

Tricky to balance this goal with ensuring they are aligned to the new mothership’s vision and their scale of operations.

A big challenge! But one it looks like Ustream are embracing with the same positive can-do attitude they started out with.

I wonder whether the principles that supported them so successfully during start-up:

- think creatively,

- get focused, and

- exercise patience & persistence

... will be leveraged & championed to support Ustream and their employees as they transition during this new, exciting phase of growth.

Only time will tell.

Thanks to Bridge Budapest for arranging the enlightening visit to Ustream. Read more about Yes for Europe's 5th European Youth Entrepreneurship Conference.


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