By his early 20s, Quinn Hu has already become a successful serial entrepreneur. One of the pioneers on the market of viral content, his startup, Distractify, was a huge hit and made him a millionaire. However, Quinn wants to create something more than just media for advertisers. His current passion is Flare, a unique messenger with an interesting twist on the idea of Instant Messaging, which he wants to evolve into a personalized content sharing platform. He sets himself up with challenging goals, dreams of a fully decentralized future around the web, and intends to change the way people reciprocate emotions. What makes him able to succeed?
Quinn Hu was raised in Beijing in a very small condo, with five of his relatives in two bedrooms. His father had a prestigious profession as a doctor, and this gave him and his mother the opportunity to move to the US when he was seven. “My dad was lucky to strike up a friendship with American professor who visited the hospital he was working in. I guess they had a good rapport with each other so he invited dad to do postdoctoral researcher at his research department in US,” Quinn says. While his father got into his career, Quinn’s mother worked as an accountant (it’ll be some time before she will work with her son, helping him with the financial aspects of his own businesses).
Quinn’s past (and LinkedIn profile) have an impressive list of higher education institutions. You’ll find a course in mathematics at Buffalo University, a summer writing program at NYU, and even Biochemistry at Columbia University. But Quinn is the first to admit that he’s in and out of universities, never actually having graduated. At this point he was combining higher education with a successful business of running a gaming channel on YouTube, 2 Bucks Entertainment. What started off as a hobby of uploading gameplay videos soon became a place where anyone could upload their own screen caps of Call of Duty matches and victories. The channel grew, hundreds of videos were being submitted, and Quinn was working with partners to watch the videos, filter out the ones with bad quality, and only uploading the best ones to the channel.
Soon, he realized that it didn’t make sense to continue studying business when the business he created from scratch was doing well. It didn’t feel like what he was learning was helping him with what he was doing. To this end Quinn says, “the whole idea of college is preparing you for what you want to do in the future, but I already felt like I was doing that.”
However, his parents were “very traditional, and to them education is like an end in itself. They almost didn’t really care how well I was doing there and there was nothing I could say to break them out of their traditional ways.” So, in his second semester he tanked his finals and decided to pursue the business he was running full-time.
The Youtube story lasted for quite a long time, 2 or 3 years, and that experience should not be overlooked. “I would say most of my understanding about the internet that then helped me with my all the later projects came from that period,” Quinn says. However, he had no delusions about his business. Working with Multi-channel networks is tricky terrain in a fickle ad-driven environment.
“If I wanted to do this as a career, I didn’t want to be in a very powerless position where I get paid by MCNs who can change the terms of the revenue share at any time. My instinct was to create my own destination. So, like, three or four months after I left college officially I started working on the idea of building my own website and using my YouTube audience of over a million subscribers to drive traffic to it.”
Creating and Growing Distractify
This idea crystalized two or three months after officially leaving college, and in 10 months Quinn and his partner (Yosef Lerner, a Ukrainian immigrant and co-founder of Distractify) worked on building the first version of the website and developed a strategy for its growth. Originally the development work was done by a single freelancer in California, but Quinn and Yosef quickly ran into problems as the shipment date kept being postponed further and further ahead. “At some point I understood that it’s never going to get done with this guy. More importantly, if we launch and the website actually succeeds, he’s not going to be able to do all the maintenance. So I decided to get a larger team that was going to be able to work on the project. QArea was actually the company that helped me ship Distractify, specifically the version that eventually got the traffic and attention.”
“QArea was actually the company that helped me ship Distractify, specifically the version that eventually got the traffic and attention.”
The initial plan was to follow traditional media strategies of “writing these long articles”. But Lerner suggested it would be nice to make the content more visual. Quinn says that, “That was the main contribution to the overall strategy.” As the creative director at Distractify, Lerner described the project as an “entertainment website for Internet Addicts.”
The concept was now centered around visual content, but it was still not what they had originally intended (especially considering their background in video content production). “My sense was that the Internet was becoming a place where anyone can submit content to sites like Facebook, Twitter, etc.” says Quinn, “Therefore, there is no longer a need for specific companies to produce anything that is below the top 1% of content. If that’s what you’re going to produce, you’re basically going to get replaced by the millions of 15-year-old kids at home producing content. So, if you want to survive as a media company, you have to produce things that individuals just can’t do.”
Distractify decided to bet on viral content. In 2013, the year of Distractify’s foundation, there was an open market for viral media with few competitors. Sure, they were notable (BuzzFeed, Viral Nova, Upworth), but in a very short time, Quinn’s project started to stand out in the crowd as one of the fastest growing websites on the Internet. Within the first several months after launching, Distractify reached an audience fo 50m unique monthly visitors.
Funding and the Future of Distractify
Such a significant growth could not remain under radar and less than year after the launch, in June 2014, Distractify was funded. They got the $7 million in a funding round from Lightspeed Venture Partners. “The company intends to use the funds to expand the team, move into new verticals and launch mobile products” said the investors’ press release.
The team faced the challenge of deciding how to spend this investment. It was no longer as lucrative to deal with the kind of viral content the massive audience had come for. Quinn said that making viral articles worked in the beginning because nobody else was doing it, “but even after a few months—every day a clone emerged. They were just sprouting up.”
To survive as a media company, they needed to not only create content, but also become a tech company and build a platform that people use to share content. It was the first time when the idea of a mobile application for content sharing was discussed. This was developed, but was never launched.
In the meantime, disagreements with investors were creating a major challenge. “It gave me a lot of insight into that whole business. Constantly, venture capitalists used to say that their goal was to support the founders, not the product, meaning that they trust them to take the company in whatever direction is best. But in my actual experience, when they give you money they expect you to work for them even if they don’t own a majority of the company.” As founders that wanted to live by what they do and see their project grow organically, this created a problem.
Now, with his new startup, Quinn knows that one of the main difficulties in shipping it will be finding the right partners and the right crew.
Flare — the Next Big Thing
Having spent so much time dealing with viral content media businesses, Quinn’s next venture is a pivot to making content-sharing more personal. He wants to create a more meaningful and useful product, one that is unlike some of his past projects which were “essentially worthless except for the ad revenue.”
Quinn Hu’s new project, Flare (which he’s also working on with Lerner), is a live-messaging app. The key differentiator of this app from other instant messengers is, as you may have guessed, its live component. The app shows your interlocutor what you are typing as you are typing it. In Quinn’s words, the new messenger aims to “bridge the gap between the instant connection of a phone call and the informal communication style of an instant messenger.”
The creation of the new messenger brought some challenges, specifically in the experience of feeling comfortable typing your message knowing they’re being read as-is right away. Working on this app “meant reconstructing the display of messages as well as the rules of storing messages in history (our model of “temporary history” threads the needle between the existing paradigms of ephemerality and permanent saving),” says the app’s LinkedIn page.
When describing the immediacy of instant messaging communication Quinn remembers how things used to look in the past. “Remember days you received just one message a day? It was a sense in all those push notifications after which you could read them in full. But it was about 12 years ago, when messengers just appeared. I think now you like see a message in about 5 seconds in 80% of cases”, he says.
There are only a few people in Flare’s team just yet, most of the engineers are from Ukraine. The project is bootstrapped, as now Quinn is a lot more selective about who he works with. “With the same amount of money from two different people it’s like a totally different experience. So I want to find people who are much more aligned with my vision”, he explains. The same is about team members, it is important for him to see a person who generally believes that there are things you can do to improve the world. It ensures that a whole team is going to work together very intensively and see eye to eye about the future.
Flare is somewhat of a return to Quinn’s ancient idea about platform for personalized sharing original viral content, which he tried to implement as part of Distractify. “It was never even about one-to-one messaging, most of our ideas were about sharing content with strangers”, he concludes. So the idea is to have once a lot of people using the core site messaging, after what they will be able to build a lot of features on top of it. They plan to add here group chats, video sending options and much more, excluding nothing of what traditional messengers can do.
Looking like going above and beyond with his plans and ambitions, Quinn eventually confesses that he doesn’t tend to turn Flare into the product to make a whole bunch of money off it. He is going to open source the code and make all the technology available. The only thing that should remain closed, he specifies, is user profiles, contact database, message history, and other privacy issues. “I want anyone could create their interfaces and various features based on this code. So imagine that anyone can build their own version of Facebook that doesn’t have a shitty stuff like news feed for example”. Quinn is obsessed with the idea of decentralization and is confident that this is not something too altruistic, but rather the normal of the near future.
One more of his most moonshot ideas is to formalize the exchange of emotions on the Internet by creating a digital currency based on blockchain technology. “The internet is the only place where making this kind of things is possible, like paying someone for good,” reveals details of his plan. Sounds crazy? But this guy did it all so far. “I just never give up,” he explains so simply the reason for his success. Let’s see what he comes up next with.