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. Yakun 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 Yakun, “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, Yakun’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. Yakun 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, Yakun 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, Yakun’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.”
Yakun 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 Yakun’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.”