S'pore startup finds niche in crowdsourced video subtitling

Video streaming startup Viki.com is tapping a "passionate" user base to grow its business, and its success can be seen by its partnership with Universal Music Group announced today.
Written by Ellyne Phneah, Contributor

Singapore-based startup Viki is attributing its fast growth to its community of "passionate" users adding and refining subtitles to content on its Web site based on their passion for learning languages and sharing content.

According to Razmig Hovaghimian, CEO and co-founder of Viki, it is not only the availability of subtitles for its content in 160 different languages which helps the startup stand out, but its "passionate" community supporting the business. 

Along with his two co-founders, Changseong Ho and Jiwon Moon, Hovaghimian launched the startup in 2010. The video streaming service relies on a community of volunteers managing the channel, adding and refining subtitles to its content which includes TV shows, movies and music videos. Currently, it has 20 million viewers a month, 1.5 billion videos viewed and more than 350 million words translated. 

(Source: Viki.com)

He said Viki's community is not paid for their translation services, but they contribute anyway because they are "big fans and superfans" of a favorite artiste or a popular drama series. It's not for their own enjoyment either. They are also keen on sharing the content by helping others connect with it via their native languages, the CEO said.

Viki then becomes a learning platform for these users because they also get to learn new languages or improve on existing languages in the process of translating the dialogue into subtitles, Hovaghimian added.

"They are passionate about learning languages, content and opening this content for the rest of the world, because they feel they are building cultural bridges with other countries," Hovaghimian said. "There is also a collaborative feel that does not make it feel like a job but something fun and light."  

To further motivate users' contribution, Viki rewards users who contribute to subtitling through a points system, he pointed out. This means users with more points are able to manage channels, get administrative rights and will be given priority in translating latest or exclusive content. 

These dedicated contributors will now have more cause for celebration.

On Friday, Viki announced it signed a deal with Universal Music Group (UMG) to stream more than 7,500 music videos on its platform. This is in addition to other partners including Warner Music and Loen Entertainment since it started showing music videos on its site last year.

ZDNet Asia went on to chat with Hovaghimian to find out more about the company's monetization strategy as well as plans to expand further in the Asia-Pacific region.

Q: How was Viki founded?
Before 2010, we were thinking of a way to let people learn new languages and we figured subtitles could be such a language learning tool.

At that time I was at NBC Universal, and the three of us also realized that content producers and owners tend not to know which markets to distribute their products to. They would produce content in one market and sell it to another 10, and that's all. This is especially so for content from Japan and South Korea, so the business model of creating subtitles and putting it on our videos just exploded for us.

We raised money, quit our jobs, and came out with the beta version of Viki in 2010.

Where are most of your users based in and what is the bulk of your content?
A third of our users are in the United States and Canada, while 50 percent are from Latin America and Southeast Asia combined. The rest are from Europe. In Southeast Asia, Singapore, Malaysia and Indonesia have a large number of users and the Philippines is also growing very fast. 

As for content, South Korean and U.S. videos make up the bulk of our site. There are also videos from Japan, Taiwan, Philippines and Indonesia.

There are plenty of video-sharing sites featuring the same content as Viki. Besides crowdsourced subtitles, what is your edge?
"Gangnam Style" had a billion hits before people knew what the song meant. Users will choose us because of the language of their choice and being able to understand what the content means. Localization is a big element, as is the whole aggregation of the content around fans. This is built for the fans, by the fans. 

How does Viki monetize its site?
We have three models. The first is to roll out in-stream advertisements before videos start similar to other sites such as YouTube. Besides that, we also do syndication. We license the best content for Viki and get rights to put it on places such as Netflix, Hulu and Amazon in the U.S. With Netflix, we also gave them Portuguese and Spanish subtitles when it launched in Latin America because it's time consuming and costly for it to create its own subtitles. 

The third model--microtransactions--is not officially launched yet but we are currently experimenting it in the U.S and China. With this service, users are able to pay a small amount, say US$0.60 to US$0.70, to view premium content such as the latest episode of a popular TV series an hour after it was aired on TV.

Why isn't microtransactions offered in more markets?
Right now, our focus is on the first two business models because these are ramping up nicely and scaling really well. And we do not like to focus on too many things.

We also realized there is a shortage of premium inventory, and advertisers are really looking for one big global destination for prime-time content.

What are Viki's expansion plans for Asia-Pacific?
We want to invest in bringing more Asian dramas to our site because it is popular in the region. In terms of distribution, mobile is just exploding so we are focusing on our mobile Web and finding telco partnerships for distribution. 
Any plans to expand further into China?
We're still taking baby steps in the China market, and already have partnerships with Renren and Sina Weibo, the Facebook and Twitter of China.

We're not there yet and physical presence is still important, so we need to narrow down our focus in certain Asian markets because time is precious. In order to scale in China, a lot of it is related to finding the right partners because there is a ratio of government shows to regular shows and the TV broadcast rights must be acquired.  

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