If you were fortunate enough (or, depending on your tastes, unfortunate enough) to catch Justin Kan's six-month run as a reality television star in 2007, you would have seen the then-23-year-old drinking beer with his buddies, going on dates, wandering around San Francisco, and, strange as it may sound, going to the bathroom. You also would have seen many hours of sleeping.
Kan -- along with Justin.TV co-founders Michael Seibel, Emmett Shear, and Kyle Vogt -- were pioneers in an experiment called "lifecasting." Kan coined the term and became its first practitioner, wearing a camera on his head at all times and broadcasting live from a clutch of cell phone modems stored in a backpack he took everywhere he went (including the bathroom). "It was an experiment," Kan says. "We thought at the very least it'd be a lot of fun, and at the most we figured we might make something people would like."
Justin.TV is Kan's second company. He and Shear founded Kiko, an online calendar program, during their senior year at Yale University. "While everyone else was applying for jobs, I was sort of not doing anything," Shear says. "That forced me to start a company." The pair landed start-up capital from Y Combinator but struggled when Google introduced a competing product. Kan and Shear bailed, selling Kiko on eBay for $258,000.
While trying to figure out what to do next, they landed on a novel idea: They would attach a video camera to Justin's head and broadcast his life, 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. They recruited Vogt, then a junior at MIT, who dropped out of school to build a mobile broadcasting device, and Michael Seibel, another friend from Yale, to head up business development.
During Justin.TV's early days, the four founders shared a two-bedroom apartment, working in shifts so that someone was awake to manage the site, even when Kan wasn't. Amazingly, this odd experiment attracted a loyal, Truman Show-esque following -- at any given time there would be hundreds of people watching Kan -- and a raft of press attention. Just weeks after going on the air, Kan was interviewed wearing his camera on the Today show, and dozens of media mentions followed. "It was mindboggling," Vogt says. "I'd wake up at 3 p.m., wander out into the living room in my boxers and there'd be a camera crew there."
Later that year, Kan turned off the cameras and opened his site up to all manner of live broadcaster, a move that caused traffic to surge. Today, the site hosts 40,000 broadcasts every day -- broadcasters have included the Jonas Brothers, Stephon Marbury, and Rep. Ron Paul -- and attracts some 31 million visitors a month. That translates to a staggering 50 million hours of video shown per month. "It's a far cry from when it was just Justin," says Seibel, the company's CEO. "We have the most used live video system in existence."
What's next for Justin.TV? Well, profits, for one thing. Right now, the company makes money through advertising and a $9.99 per month fee for broadcasters who want to show live videos without any ads. But the plan is to increase revenues -- and get to profitability -- by handling live video operations on other people's websites. Organizers of a sporting event or a rock concert, for instance, would be able to use Justin.TV's system, paying a fee based on how much bandwidth used. There's also a payment processing system in the works that would let broadcasters offer pay-per-view streams, while paying Justin.TV a transaction fee. "It'd be nice to say this is how we planned it out," Kan says. "But that's not true. Having a start-up is all about being able to see what works and change your idea."