Interview With Toodou Founder Gary Wang, Part 1
3G, Gary Wang, Internet, Marc van der Chijs, Toodou, WVAS, podcast
Call it "Web 2.0" if you must, or simply a user-generated, interactive, multimedia content website. Whatever you call it, Toodou.com is one of a select few startup companies leading the push toward interactive online services in China…or anywhere else.
Less than one year after the podcasting medium arrived on the scene, Toodou, which launched in April of this year, is already hosting video podcasts.
Overseas returnee and Bertelsmann veteran Gary Wang and Holland native Marc van der Chijs got the idea for Toodou in late 2004. One of China’s pioneering podcasting websites, Toodou has been increasingly popular and now has over 120,000 registered users.
Pacific Epoch recently visited Toodou in their new office at "Su Hang Cang Ku" in Shanghai – a hip development in an historic warehouse. Toodou’s office fits the typical description of a new media start up: graffiti-covered walls surround a sparsely furnished large single room, with laptops humming on industrial tables strewn in intentionally random fashion. The following are excerpts from our recent conversation with Toodou co-founder Gary Wang about the wild world of podcasting in China.
For Part Two of Pacific Epoch’s interview with Gary, click here.
Pacific Epoch: What was the idea behind starting up Toodou?
Gary Wang: My partner Marc and I got the idea last year. We first heard about podcasting in September 2004 and we talked about it for a while and thought the technology was going to take off. This was a new way of looking at media, from how it is created to how it’s distributed. We started very simply with just playing around with podcasts. In January, I left Bertelsmann to start Toodou. We launched the website on April 15, 2005. Through the first three months, we had 20,000 users. Over the past three months, we have added almost 100,000 users. We have not done any marketing yet. It has all been word of mouth. There has also been quite a bit of media attention on Toodou, including the blogger community and some traditional media.
The idea behind Toodou is very simple, though it actually goes a little bit beyond basic podcasting. We are really trying to create a personal media service. We want to create a platform – a theater – that’s open to all content providers. We want to make this a huge theater that might have hundreds of thousands of screens where people can come in to watch whatever it is they want to watch. All content on Toodou is user generated. Toodou users will ultimately be able to access the content through broadband Internet, through podcasts and eventually through 3G mobile networks.
PE: After taking a quick look at the site, it seems that a lot of the content is video. Is Toodou focusing on video podcasts?
Gary: There is a natural progression from audio to video with any type of content – and this is now happening with podcasting. We started out not wanting to do a lot of video; there was not really much video out there anyway. When we first started out about one percent of content was video compared with more than half now.
PE: How are people using the site?
Gary: Currently, 99.9 percent of users are downloading our content to their PCs because portable devices [capable of playing video] are not widespread in China. And it is not yet feasible for users to download content to their mobile phones over the wireless networks. Most view or listen to content on our website directly or download content to their PCs.
PE: What kind of censorship does Toodou have to do?
Gary: Well, this is China, so we do have to make sure that none of our content is pornographic or violates any Chinese laws. All of our content is screened and approved by Toodou employees and volunteers.
PE: As Toodou grows, won’t that create the need to have more and more people monitoring content?
[@more@]Gary: At most we would need five to ten censors. Up until now the content on our site has been very clean; we have had no problems with content.
PE: What is Toodou’s target audience?
Gary: Most of our content producers are 18 to 25 years old. However, there are also several who are in their 30s or 40s, and one of our oldest podcasters is a 75 year old guy who does calligraphy and makes videos of those outdoor gatherings where a mostly older group of people practice ballroom dancing.
PE: What is Toodou’s eventual plan for generating revenues?
Gary: We believe sending content to users over wireless mobile networks will be an important channel for us. We have to wait for these mobile devices to take off and then we will provide content to them. As I mentioned before, right now it is just not feasible.
However, some of the new mobile phones coming out in the next few months are starting to really get close. A lot of companies are coming out with new multimedia-focused phones. In another five to six months, I think the devices will be there. Of course, we are looking forward to when 3G mobile services are available and more widely accessible. When that happens, we will be in a good position to feed content to these devices.
There are also ways to generate revenue through broadband Internet services. People are getting used to being entertained through the Internet, and many will pay for it. If you go to the Internet cafes, many people are watching movies (some pirated, some not) online.
These are the most obvious ways of generating revenue, but there are others. I think revenue for Toodou is still a year or two away. We are not too focused on revenue models right now. Right now we are focused on improving the website, the user experience. Six months from now we may look at revenue models.
PE: Has Toodou raised money to finance development over the next few years?
Gary: We have been financed, but we have not yet announced anything. In a month or two we may think about announcing something.
For Part Two of Pacific Epoch’s interview with Gary, click here.
In Part Two of Pacific Epoch’s interview with Toodou co-founder Gary Wang, Gary talks about important trends behind Toodou’s development, his future plans for the site, and why he is not worried about competitors.
Part One of Pacific Epoch’s interview with Gary can be found here.
PE: How does Toodou organize the content on the s
Gary: That is one of the challenges with a type of site like Toodou that has a large amount of content being added daily. So how we organize the site to allow our users to effectively access content is an important question. The fundamental way we do this is through tabbing, much in the way it is used on photo-sharing site Flickr and other sites. We have used tabs since we launched the site in April. Users can also track the postings of a particular user if they want to.
PE: It seems that many Internet services in China are copies of similar services that were first launched in the US. However, with podcasting still such a new service even in the West, there is not really a model for Toodou to follow. So how does it feel to be helping lead the way?
Gary: Well, we wouldn’t mind following an example, but there is no one to follow. We have really had to forge our own path with this thing, especially in terms of business models. There are so many different approaches to multimedia user generated content. There have actually been a lot of new of these types of websites launched in the US just in the last few months, and while we won’t do exactly what they do, we may adopt some elements from others and integrate them into Toodou’s website.
PE: Many of China’s larger blog sites like Bokee or Blogcn have or plan to launch podcasting services. How will Toodou deal with the increased competition?
Gary: Bokee has had a podcasting channel for awhile. They launched their podcasting channel three or four days after we launched Toodou. Since then there have been a lot of smaller websites that have launched podcasting services, as well as some very large websites such as Mop.com and Blogcn that plan to launch service in the next few months. It is a natural progression for these community sites.
There are all kinds of approaches to user generated content models. Some see podcasting and video podcasting as complementary to blogs, some think of it as a stand alone product, while other see it from the point of view of traditional media as something they can plug in to their existing media channels like TV. I believe that it is difficult to make this kind of service a small part of something else. I mean, most Internet users in China have probably never heard of Bokee’s podcasting channel. The user experience and content may not exactly be there yet for these larger sites that offer podcasting as one of many services. Our experience has taught us that it is much easier for us to be a stand alone player.
PE: But there are also several other pure podcasting sites in China.
Gary: It really depends on how you look at the market currently when you talk about competing sites. There is not even a market for this type of service yet, so it is too early to talk about competition and how we will compete with other players in the market. The key hurdle for us today is the fact that not many people out there have devices that are able to play video podcasts. How many users are going to access podcasting and are accustomed to generating their own content? Is the website up to a standard that allows people to easily submit and view content? These are the bigger challenges facing us today. Everyone can explore the market in their own way. And I am not saying our way is the best; it is possible that our model will not work. Of course, I believe our model will be the most effective way to provide this service. Toodou, as the first, best known and largest of China’s podcasting sites, will benefit from the expansion of the market that comes from more players beginning to offer the service.
PE: Does Toodou have any plans to begin doing any formal marketing?
Gary: Yes. For the first six months after we launched the website, we only had five full time employees, including myself. Most were technical employees. It was not possible for us to do any formal marketing at that point. However, we just added about ten new employees over the past month, so now it is possible to start doing marketing. We have a three person team working on different marketing strategies.
PE: Does an audio and video uploading site intimidate some people? Is the service too technical for some people to use?
Gary: There are not really any technical hurdles on our side. Right now it is more a question of making the service better. The major hurdle for users today is the process of converting their videos into a digital file. Many of our users face this problem and ask us about what to do. However, once it is a digital file, it is relatively simple to upload these files to our website. The process is very intuitive.
PE: What are some of the trends you see in the interactive multimedia market in China that affect services like Toodou?
Gary: I believe there are several trends that are relevant to the development of services like Toodou. First, the prevalence of mobile digital devices will continue to increase. Everyone will at least carry a mobile phone. More and more people will begin carrying some kind of device that will be able to record audio and video content. Secondly, the younger generation in China is more individualistic and is more inclined to "show off". So there will be a growing segment of the population that is used to generating its own content.
Many people are trying to take advantage of these two trends, just like Toodou. I believe that a pure player will usually be able to compete better. If the market is big enough to support a pure player, then the pure player will eventually win. I think there will be a big enough market for us to succeed as a pure multimedia user generated content website.
We also offer other services including blogs, short messaging and other community features, but everything we do revolves around our multimedia offerings.
PE: What do you envision for Toodou five years down the road?
Gary: Now that is a question I can answer. I couldn’t tell you what my plan is for the next six months, but I do have a vision for five years from now. In five years, I can imagine a situation where a user has a personal space, which may be a web page or a mobile device where you can access information or something else. But users’ personal information will be stored somewhere, maybe at multiple websites. Or maybe not even a website, it could be a database. The stored information would include personal preferences, viewing patterns, habits, etc. This person will be able to access this information, either over high speed Internet or a mobile device or through something we don’t yet know about. The user will be able to see and find the things he wants to view and find from anywhere. We will be able to carry these personalized preferences everywhere. Users will bring their own filter everywhere they go. In five years there will be so much more information, and the challenge will be to most effectively match these preferences against the content database. There are many different ways that this question is being approached right now, but the basic challenge is the same.