The Way I Work: Justin Kan of Justin.tv
In 2007, Justin Kan strapped a small video camera to his head and began broadcasting live footage of his life on the Internet. In six months, hundreds of thousands of voyeurs dropped by his website, Justin.tv, to watch him putter around San Francisco, hang out in his cluttered apartment, and even go on dates. Since then, Kan and his co-founders -- Michael Siebel, Emmett Shear, and Kyle Vogt -- have transformed Justin.tv into a burgeoning business. Kan no longer broadcasts video of his life; the site is now used by consumers and businesses to host their own live video feeds online. Each month, some 30 million people in 250 countries view one of the live broadcasts on Justin.tv.
Although Kan, who turns 27 this month, often wears a suit and tie to the office, the company's loft space in San Francisco sometimes resembles a college dorm. As Justin.tv's president and chief product officer, Kan manages 28 employees -- most of them recent college grads -- and oversees the development of new features for the website. Kan, who eats both lunch and dinner with his employees, often lingers at the office late into the night, writing code and playing board games with the engineers.
Some start-ups put a lot of emphasis on work-life balance. I try to work the hardest I can without burning myself out. It's not that I think working all the time is the key to success. It's just the way I was raised. I don't feel productive if I'm not working a lot. All of the founders here are the same way. They like work a lot.
I wake up every morning around 7. I check my e-mail first thing, just to make sure nothing happened overnight. Our business is live video, so the technology has to work 24/7. If a YouTube clip went down for an hour, people can watch it later -- no big deal. But if a live video feed goes down, that's your only shot.
If everything is cool with the site, I head to the gym with my co-founder, Emmett, who is the company's chief technology officer. He and I have been roommates since we graduated from Yale five years ago. We talk about work all the time. We'll discuss business strategy or potential hires on the way to the gym or on our way to work -- we often drive to the office together. Other times, I take my motorcycle. It's a Suzuki SV650. I bought it right after we launched the site in 2007. It's just a convenient way to get around San Francisco. You can park anywhere.
I usually grab some coffee on the way in and head to my desk to check e-mail and read a few blogs. I have one of the crappiest desks in the office, but I don't care about that. I'm more concerned with making sure other people have desks they like that help make them productive. My job is to help other people do their jobs well.
I recently moved my desk to be near the engineers, because I'm working on a redesign of our website. Our company is sort of split: About 75 percent is tech, and 25 percent is business and sales. Unfortunately, the office space is split in a similar fashion. The engineers work on one side of the office, and the business and marketing folks work on the other. There's a common room where we have lunch and meetings. I don't like the divide. I wish it were more integrated. But the business people need to be on the phone, and the engineers need it to be quiet.
I usually float between the tech and the business sides of the office. Last year, I was focused on business development and spent most of my time meeting with the media and spreading the word about the company. We've since hired someone whose full-time job is business development, so these days, I'm mostly in the office, focused on our goal of making live video fast, easy, and fun for everybody.
We have two big screens in our office that randomly rotate through channels on our website. I check them periodically throughout the day. I'm more interested in our video quality than content, but it's interesting to watch. On a given day, there are about 50,000 people broadcasting live video on the site. A friend of mine used to broadcast a live stream of his street in the Tenderloin in San Francisco. There's also a channel with live video of safaris in Africa. There are a lot of aspiring musicians trying to promote themselves. One of our most popular channels is this group of four guys who sit around playing video games. Some of the users have five followers; others have 50,000.
I oversee a lot of the technical projects we're working on. Emmett knows the hard-core technology, Kyle understands the operating systems, and I'm sort of the general contractor who makes sure the thing gets built. For instance, if we want to do a new Facebook app, Emmett and I will work together on the specs. We'll figure out what we want the app to look like and what functions it needs to have. I take those notes and give them to an engineer to create the app. I'll make sure it gets done, and I'll help out if the engineer has a question or a problem.
We have an all-staff meeting every Monday. We all talk about what projects we're working on. As the company has grown, the meeting has gone from 15 minutes to 45 minutes, so we ask people to make their presentations engaging. People can comment and ask questions. There's a lot of joking around. Sometimes, people will start getting into a discussion, and I'll have to say, "Hey, guys, let's do this afterward," but I think it's good for people to give and receive feedback. At the end, Mike, my co-founder and our CEO, gives everyone a quiz based on his notes from the meeting. It's just a fun thing, to test yourself and see if you're paying attention. Sometimes, I'll get five out of five answers right; other times, I might get two out of five.
Lunch gets delivered to the office every day at noon. We asked our former office manager to order lunch every day, because I didn't want to worry about it. I just wanted food to show up. He did it for a year before starting his own business, which now provides this service for us and for other start-ups in the area, too. Even though it costs the company to feed everyone, it saves us in the long run -- if your engineer can get back to his desk 10 minutes earlier by eating in the office, that's great. Plus, I think eating together helps us bond as a team.
I like to have meetings in the early afternoon. When we're starting a new project, I'll first meet with one or two people. I try to keep the meetings small, especially when we're doing product design. If you have eight people in the design meeting, it doesn't work. Everybody has an opinion. Everyone wants to weigh in on what the font should look like. The end product becomes the average of eight opinions. You don't get excellent work, just average.
We have a pretty open office environment. There aren't a lot of conference areas. If someone wants to talk privately, I often suggest walking around the block. Or we'll go to the coffee shop around the corner. It's nice to get some fresh air. A lot of important decisions have been made at this company as we walk around the block. And the funny thing is, everyone at the office does it. I'll be at the coffee shop talking with Mike about new business-development ideas and wind up seeing a couple of the employees having a meeting at a nearby table.
I don't read a ton of business books, but Shogun -- a novel about a Japanese warlord-adventurer who basically conquers Japan -- has been fundamental to our company philosophy. Mike and I have each read the book many times. So when we think about business strategy, we often ask ourselves, What would Shogun do? In one scene, Shogun has to make a time-sensitive decision. And he decides to wait. We've followed his example more than once and found that waiting led to more options.
We believe in open discourse. I know I've made a lot of mistakes -- probably as recently as yesterday -- but my goal is, learn from those mistakes and make Justin.tv a better place to work. Every six to 12 weeks, we have reviews in which we ask employees questions like, "What can we do to make you more productive?" and "What would make you feel more ownership of your project?" A few months ago, an employee complained that our office wasn't very professional. It's true -- it's pretty casual. There's no dress code, and most of the employees are about 25 years old. And I could probably work on my professionalism. After that criticism, we wound up hiring someone to keep the office more tidy. I also started wearing a tie to work. It wasn't so bad. I actually like dressing professionally.
In the late afternoons, I usually take the notes from my meetings and write up specs for the engineers. Then, sometimes, I sneak off to nap. We have a lounge chair on the second floor. At least once a week, I'll crash there for 15 minutes or more. If people need me, they will call my cell phone.
I usually have dinner at the office. We order food for the staff every night. It arrives around 6:30. We try to get a variety. One night it will be Indian, then Chinese, then Thai, then burgers or something. I'm not very picky. What's important to me is that everybody else is happy with it. I want to eat something and get back to work.
Some nights, I'll leave at 7:30 or so. Other nights, I'll stay until 11. I typically stay late because that's when I can find time to write some code. I don't do any of the complex programming. It's usually just some of the easier features of the site. I'm certainly not the best programmer. If I were, then I would be programming full time and somebody else would be managing. But I like coding. It helps keep me sharp. Plus, I find it hard to manage somebody's work unless I have an intimate knowledge of how to do it myself. Otherwise, how can you differentiate a good idea from a bad one or know how long something is going to take?
A lot of us work pretty late. Sometimes at night, a few of us take a break and play a German board game called The Settlers of Catan. Four people can play, and the goal is to colonize an island. It involves probabilistic game theory. A lot of it comes down to the roll of the dice, but there's strategy, too. Unlike chess, in which how good you are depends on your ability to think like a computer, winning Settlers has more to do with instinct.
Since the launch, I haven't taken very many vacations. The last long one I took was in Hawaii, when I had a camera strapped to my head. I did go by myself to Vancouver last May for four days. I left my phone and computer behind and went kayaking and mountain biking. I didn't talk to anyone the entire trip.
When I get home from work, sometimes I'll grab a beer with Emmett or one of our other roommates. When I'm home, I don't do any real work. Usually, I wind down by reading Hacker News and TechCrunch. I also like to read books in the evenings before I take a melatonin, put on some nature sounds, and go to sleep. Right now, I am into Iain M. Banks, a Scottish science-fiction writer. I also like reading books about psychology. Influence is my favorite book -- it's about how people influence each other. I bought 10 copies for the office.
I tend to dive into things. I go through waves. I'll get really into a book or really into motorcycles or really into working on this one project. And then I move on to the next thing. I think that's one of my greatest strengths. I'm the type of guy who's going to come up with an idea, really hammer it home, and then move on to the next idea.
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