Imagine building a business in such a way as to experience an acquisition in just 4 years. Think about the complexity in that. In fact, if you have ever built a technical solution then you understand just how impressive that narrative is. The precision in execution that is needed in order to take an idea, develop it, scale it, navigate a 20x level of growth during 2020, and then negotiate an acquisition, is an unbelievable accomplishment; and we will unpack all of it in this week's episode.
My guest this week is Geige Vandentop, co-founder and CEO of StreamYard. For those that are not aware of StreamYard, they are a livestream platform that allows broadcasters and creators to automatically distribute your video feed to numerous popular platforms like Facebook, YouTube, Twitch, and even LinkedIn.
As you can imagine their business blew up in a huge way in 2020 as events all over the world were being cancelled, and brands were trying to figure out had a move their engagement online. Well, they responded to the demand successfully and in 2021 they completed the sale of the business to Hopin for around 250 million in cash and stock.
There are various online articles that speak about the acquisition and one of them from TechCrunch actually shares that the time of acquisition Stream Yard has scaled itself to 30 million in annual revenue and they had zero external capital. That is an amazing accompanishment and Geige will unpack his journey in this episode.
In fact, the StreamYard journey is a very quick one, because it was just three to four years from concept to acquisition. So for anyone who has tried to launch a technical solution that timeline has to impress you, and so will his entire startup story journey.
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Geige Vandentop: Hi, this is Geige Vandentop, co founder of StreamYard. And this is MY startup story.
James McKinney: Hello, everyone. Welcome to another episode of The Startup Story. Can you believe it's the beginning of July? Wow has this year flown by. The past couple of months have been power packed with top notch founder interviews. And in case you're just tapping into The Startup Story, welcome. We're excited to have you. And you should definitely queue up some of the most recent interviews into your podcast queue so you can get caught up to speed with everything that's gone on. In the month of June, we featured Ariela Safira, the founder of REAL, and in that episode we have some very transparent conversations on all things mental health related. I also sat down with Clay Alexander, the inventor and creator of Ember, and in his episode we get super tactical with understanding what to look for when negotiating a licensing deal. And we even talk about how something as simple as cold scrambled eggs can be the necessary catalyst to start a new business.
All of our episodes are available on all podcast platforms so make sure to subscribe on your podcast platform of choice, so you never miss an episode. And believe me when I say you will not want to miss some of our upcoming episodes. I'm not going to tell you exactly who's on the release schedule. But I will just leave this teaser out there for you: Beats by Dre. Aha, I know you want to smash that subscribe button now, don't you? All right, well, I'm not going to tease you anymore. Let's jump into this week's episode.
My guest this week is Geige Vandentop, co founder and CEO StreamYard. And for those that are not aware of StreamYard, they are a livestream platform that allows broadcasters and creators to automatically distribute their video feed to numerous popular platforms like Facebook, and YouTube and Twitch and even LinkedIn. And as you can imagine, their business blew up in a huge way in 2020, as events all over the world were being canceled, and brands were trying to figure out how to move their engagement online. Well, they responded to the demand successfully. And in 2021, just earlier this year, they completed the sale of their business to Hopin for around $250 million in cash and stock. Now Hopin whose core business is to create immersive virtual hybrid and in person event experiences. Now, as you can probably tell by that little snapshot of Hopin the StreamYard acquisition was a perfect fit.
Now there are various online articles that speak about the acquisition and one of them from TechCrunch actually shares that at the time of acquisition StreamYard has scaled itself to $30 million in annual recurring revenue, and they had zero external capital. That is an amazing accomplishment, and Geige will unpack his journey in this episode. And in fact, the StreamYard journey is a very quick one, because it was really just three to four years from concept to acquisition. So for anyone who has tried to launch a technical solution, that timeline has to impress you. Think about that in a three to four year window, the idea was conceived, the solution was developed, the business was scaled, and the acquisition negotiated. With that type of excellence and execution, entrepreneurship had to be part of Geige's DNA, right?
Geige Vandentop: I didn't discover entrepreneurship until quite late in my life, which is unfortunate, because I think I had a lot of anxiety because I hadn't discovered. So my dad's an engineering manager at Intel, his backgrounds in chemistry, and my mom's a nurse practitioner. So both had pretty conventional jobs. And I definitely had the same mindset growing up that I think most people, or many people probably have, which is like, the paths are like engineering, lawyer, Doctor, like those types of things. So entrepreneurship wasn't really on my roadmap. Like I didn't really think of it as a real possibility. And yeah, I wish I did. Because even at quite a young age, I had some anxiety about like, what am I going to do like? Because I didn't enjoy school all that much. So yeah, I wish I would have discovered things like programming and entrepreneurship a lot sooner. It wasn't until university that it really became a reality for me.
James McKinney: No, you said your dad is with Intel. Where were you raised?
Geige Vandentop: So my parents are both Canadian, but they moved to the states for my dad's work. So I was actually born and raised in Portland, Oregon. We moved a bit so I lived in Arizona for a while then we moved back. But yeah, mostly in Oregon.
James McKinney: Okay, so the time of Intel was never Silicon Valley area. It was always manufacturing somewhere?
Geige Vandentop: Yeah, he worked in the facility in Oregon. Yeah.
James McKinney: Okay. Got it. Okay. All right. So but being a part of Intel, I mean, you are, you know, somewhat connected to technology, right? And so was this of interest to you growing up in any way shape or form?
Geige Vandentop: Yeah, I definitely admired my dad as far as like the path that I thought I was going to take was definitely the engineering route, but it was more like I never really found in school something that I really enjoyed and can really like fully dive into until university is when things really changed. So I was definitely aware of it. I thought computers were really cool. I always was fascinated by I think I was a bit daft. I think it should have clicked for me as far as like what I enjoy, because I love the Internet. The Internet was amazing to me as far as like how it connected people and how you could talk to people from all over the world. But I never really made the connection of like, "Oh, I should explore programming and learn more about computers." It was always just like math, science, you know, tests grades, like those types of things.
James McKinney 05:27
So I mean, let's put a timestamp on just for those listening. How old are you right now?
Geige Vandentop: I am 28 years old.
James McKinney: 28 years old. So your high school years were 10 to 12 years ago. So we're talking 2011? We'll say 2008 to 2011 is kind of your high school years. Right?
Geige Vandentop: Yeah, that's right.
James McKinney: Perfect. So obviously, the economy was in shambles. So that must have created some level of stress for maybe for the family, I don't know. But for yourself, you mentioned a few times the anxiety you had about what your future looks like. Was this something you experienced in high school? Or was this anxiety about your future more in the college years?
Geige Vandentop: No, it was all the way from when I was quite young. I think I just wanted something… I wanted to find something that I could like dive into and be passionate about. But I had trouble finding that like most subjects in school. Like I did very well in school, like I was good at math and science and all those types of things. But I never really found something that I was truly passionate about until much later. But I was very fortunate, like during like 2008 to 2011. Luckily, my parents kept their jobs. I remember having friends where their parents left their jobs. And it's definitely a scary time for a lot of people. But I was very blessed.
James McKinney: So in the 2008-2011 era, you're coming, let's just say 2011, you're coming to the end of your high school years. You're not quite sure what you want to do with your life. I assume that college was that next step for you. But coming out of high school, entering college, like what did you think you wanted to do? Like, what was the purpose of going into college?
Geige Vandentop: Yeah, so I just figured I'd follow the conventional path, right. It's like I was good at math, I was good at science. So I decided to pursue electrical engineering was relatively close to the type of stuff my dad was doing. I wasn't super… I still had a lot of anxiety about it, because like, I don't really enjoy this all that much. But I don't have… for lack of a better idea, I decided to study electrical engineering. I actually ended up going to school back in Canada, because I'm actually a dual citizen, and I got a scholarship there. So that's actually how I ended up in the University of Victoria.
James McKinney: Excellent. So during your time at university, since you were in Canada we'll call it University not college. So as your time University, you know, that is a formative period for a lot of people, and especially for those in a business program, in a technology program, and in the engineering program, there tends to be a crowd that we run with, and sometimes people are wanting to create things on the side outside of their academics. What was your college experience like?
Geige Vandentop: The first year was more of the same as far as like, you know, I don't love any of this. I'm excelling at it, I'm doing well at it. But it would be really nice to find something I'm passionate about. And our university also had a co op program where we'd go out on internships after every semester. We actually had to complete four. So I'd completed my first co op internship at Intel, actually. So that was that was cool to be at the same place my dad worked, but I didn't enjoy it very much. And that was also during the same time that I met my co founder, Dan was in first year of university. And both of us after that first co op he was at a separate company. But neither of us had really enjoyed it either. We were in a very similar spot where we were both, you know, excelling in classes and whatnot, but didn't weren't really passionate and didn't really know what exactly we wanted to do.
And that was when we first thought like, what if we just built a product? And that was an option for these co ops was you could do like an entrepreneurial co op. So that was our first sort of venture into the entrepreneurial stuff was like very, very early, early days. It was more like just building a product than truly entrepreneurial. But that was our first jump into it. And where I really discovered, where my sort of worldview opened up a bit to like, okay, there's more to just being like an engineer or like there's more options, right. So yeah, we built it was a music visualizer essentially, we worked on that together for that co op for four months, which was basically you could program… it was a box that you could program different patterns into and it would like go to the beat of the music. That was our first entrepreneurial venture.
James McKinney: I love it. Now, you're again under the auspice of entrepreneurship. Obviously, there's a market, there's a purpose behind it as a problem you're trying to solve. I just have to ask a music visualizer, what were you guys thinking from a problem solving perspective? This is where, this is again, not that you plan on taking that to market but just from an academic exercise. What were you thinking you were solving with that?
Geige Vandentop: That's a good question. It took us a while to get our marketing chops. So like it was mostly like we're engineers by heart, right. So at the beginning, it was mostly just building stuff that we thought would be cool. I don't know that it's the greatest entrepreneurial example but it was our first sort of venture into it. But I mean, the obvious demand was, you know, people want lights when they're having a party and there's not a ton of options out there. So wouldn't it be cool if we had, you know, a little music visualizer that people could make their make their own light shows on. But it was it was very, very early days for us. It's a long time before we really started understanding, like, you know, maybe you should have a marketing strategy and think about distribution and like these types of things, right.
James McKinney: I love it. Now, just out of curiosity, what year do you consider the origin of StreamYard?
Geige Vandentop: 2018
James McKinney: 2018? Okay, so long after college then. This was not something that you had formulated during your college years?
Geige Vandentop: StreamYard, no. So Dan and I started really, really getting into like, okay, we actually want to build a company together towards the end of university. So after that project, it was like it, I wouldn't really say that's where… it's where I sort of my worldview opened up and I understood entrepreneurship was like a real opportunity. But I didn't learn a ton about the marketing side of things during it. But after doing a few more co ops, and then continuing thinking about what am I actually going to do with my life, I'm not enjoying this stuff very much, that's when we… and hats off to Dan for that, he was the one that really inspired me, because he had the courage to say, like, "I'm going to make this work," like he really hit the books and decided, like, I'm going to, you know, build a company. And that's what sort of encouraged me to join him on that. But we failed for a couple years in university with random projects that we were trying to turn into companies before, really figuring things out and starting StreamYard.
James McKinney: You know, and it's interesting and again, just because I feel like StreamYard is intertwined within your entire journey, because of just various elements of your experience. So I want to I want to jump ahead a little bit from our usual narrative that my listeners are used to. So for those who aren't aware, can you share with my listeners what StreamYard is? Because we're going to be talking about it throughout the remainder of our episode.
Geige Vandentop: For sure. So StreamYard our slogan is, "The easiest way to create professional livestreams." So the whole idea is we wanted people to that weren't super tech savvy that didn't understand like bit rates and encoding and having to buy a fancy computer to still be able to go online and spread their message and create a well produced show. So StreamYard easiest way to create professional livestreams.
James McKinney: So between 2018, which is the origin of StreamYard, and we'll say the foundation of StreamYard probably as an entity. I assume StreamYard was probably some part of your thought process a year or two before this as far as problem solving. But what was it in your world that introduced you to the significance of online video? Because we're in 2012 at this point in academia, or in university. And we'll say, I'm assuming you graduate with 2014 if you finished 2014 or 2015?
Geige Vandentop: Yeah, around 2015. Yep.
James McKinney: Around 2015 so what was happening in your world were online streaming was an important thing for you to be involved with? And I ask this question, because I don't know the exact date of Twitch but that was, they were the heaviest player for the longest time.
Geige Vandentop: For sure. Yeah. Twitch absolutely. So it was sort of the natural next steps after our failure in the video space. So most of the stuff, video was sort of our first like that's when Dan and I really learned how to program too was towards the end of university. Like Dan's a mechanical engineer, which is even more disconnected from programming. I'm an electrical engineer, so it's not web development, right? It's quite different. So like I said, earlier on the internet always fascinated me. So I was the one that sort of pushed us to go into the video space, like the ability to connect with people all over the world. Like before the internet, you know, if you're really interested about something that a ton of people weren't interested in, you might not be able to connect with anyone in your community. And the internet really changed that. Things like Reddit and Skype and the ability to talk with people all over the world. So I was naturally fascinated by that.
So the first things, the first project we worked on was essentially like a Zoom competitor with some social media aspects. But we were way too focused on the engineering side of things and sort of spun our wheels for two years without getting traction. Like essentially, I'm sure story you hear all the time of like being too focused on the engineering side of things and building something that there's not really a market for. So after like failing at that, we were deciding what we wanted to do next because we're fully committed like, okay, we do not want to go back to typical job, like we want to start a company. And Twitch has had always been exciting to me, like interesting to me, mostly from the business side of things. Like I am interested in gaming, not so much these days but early on I was. But Twitch was interesting because like you said, they were the big player in the space and so many companies in the life like livestreaming platforms have come and gone. Very few people have actually gotten it right. And Twitch was interesting from a business perspective because it did get it right. It was one of the few that it did. And we thought a big part of that was the demographics. So gamers are pretty tech savvy. They've got a powerful computer. They play complex video games so they can set up a well produced livestream. And then they have the added benefit of that they can sort of defer the entertainment to the game that they're playing, compared to something like Meerkat or Periscope, where it's just you in front of a camera having to be super entertaining the entire time, you just have to take breaks.
So we figured the hypothesis was like, okay, Twitch was like this amazing thing that was a catalyst for all kinds of stuff in the gaming community. Like it really accelerated where gaming is today. Like gaming commentator is now a job title. It's really incredible what it had done. So we figured if we made something that was super simple to use, and cloud based, and then instead of gaming being the form of entertainment, making it where people could share slides, and bring guests onto the broadcast and do things like that, that would be sort of the gaming equivalent of creating the entertainment. Maybe that same effect that Twitch had on the gaming industry, we could have on other industries by giving people this tool that was really easy to sort of have like your own media studio with. So that was sort of the genesis. But again, we had screwed up a lot with the previous company. So before we built anything like that was sort of like we shut everything down, like okay, we're going to get things right this time. And we really went to the fundamentals and hit the books and did a ton of… before we built anything, we did a ton of market research, talked to users on other products to determine is this a real problem? Like are we actually going to be solve a real problem here? We did user testing with products that were our own. So we did a lot of research before writing a single line of code, which was the main mistake we had made with previous ventures.
James McKinney: You know, and I love that you did the research because it leads into my next question, as you were talking about Twitch and the demographic they serve and everything you were saying like, Oh my gosh, yeah, my son loves Twitch. It's a platform that I have no interest in participating in, because I just can't see a place for what it is I do in that. But you being in that space of the online video, what were some other players in your research, what were some other platforms and players that people were participating in that became kind of a benchmark for you to say what is going to be our unique operating value?
Geige Vandentop: So by far the biggest one was OBS, which is a great, great program. So there's things like OBS and Vmix. The other ones in the space are probably too small for people to know who they are. But the main... So what we sort of discovered was there were great tools out there that were super powerful, like they're powerful, stable, capable of creating an excellent broadcast. And there are also tools out there that were sort of marketed towards like, "Hey, this is the easy thing to use." But they were more like toys, like they weren't powerful enough or they weren't stable like they'd break, they were sort of finicky. We really came to the conclusion. There's not something that's easy to use, but also stable and powerful enough to create a great broadcast. And that's sort of how we decided like okay, there's we can we can make something that's compelling in this space.
James McKinney: Okay, before we continue on did you catch that part about how Geige and his co founder Dan surveyed the landscape to see what the livestream scene was like before they ever wrote any line of code? Well, as we continue on in this episode, he's going to share more tactics that he employed to start marketing and scaling StreamYard. This founder direct guidance is truly what makes The Startup Story so unique. And it's also what makes Grindology so special as well. And Grindology for those who may not know is an entrepreneur subscription box that shifts every quarter full of resources to help fuel your grind, and your hustle.
What's included in your Grindology shipment? Well first and foremost, every single Grindology shipment will include a copy of the Grindology tactical manual. Every single issue of Grindology will be chock full of real tactics from real business builders, not journalists. Within the pages of the Grindology tactical manual we will be delivering to you tactics and strategies you can integrate into your business immediately. Our current issue that is available right now is focused on content, and in this issue you will receive proven tactics on how to leverage existing content that you've already created to drive new business and deliver new revenue. You will hear operational tactics that are used by a founder that saw nearly 400% growth in one year, and he attributes that growth to the tactics he shares in this issue. Tell me those founder direct tactics wouldn't be helpful? Well those are the exact types of tactics that will be found in this issue and every issue of Grindology. Like I said, real tactics from real business builders.
Our Q2 issue is now available and you can access it at grindology.com. Everything about Grindology is about helping to fuel your grind and your entrepreneurial journey. So visit gridnology.com to learn more. We'll include a link to grindology.com within our show notes for easy access. Now let's jump back in to our episode with Geige Vandentop as he continues to unpack how he developed and scaled StreamYard to the point of being acquired just earlier this year.
James McKinney: So when you and Dan get to a point where like, okay, we kind of see where we fit in this market space, we kind of see what our solution needs to be, if you were to think through StreamYard 1.0 or even, you know, point 001 before it was even called StreamYard maybe like just the early days like what was your first iteration of the product?
Geige Vandentop: It was pretty, like it looked a lot different than it does today. But the fundamentals were all there. So it was cloud based streaming studio. We had the ability to bring in guests, we had some basic production elements, such as the ability to share your screen, show banners on the on the screen. The biggest difference between what the initial version looked like was the level of customization as far as choosing colors and changing fonts. And then also, the number of platforms we support. So we initially only supported Facebook Live as the destination platform. Yeah, but it was pretty similar as far as the initial feature set.
James McKinney: You know, Facebook Live, I mean, we had Randi Zuckerberg on and hearing her story of the creation of Facebook Live because of her theater background, and the idea of people broadcasting and sharing their own video stories. But I can't remember what was the year? And maybe if you don't know, that's fine, but what was the year Facebook Live came to be?
Geige Vandentop: That's a good question. I don't actually know off the top of my head-
James McKinney: But it was already there when you guys started working on StreamYard?
Geige Vandentop: Oh, yeah. It had been around for I think it was probably… I'm going to be wrong, I think was probably 2015 or 2016. But it had been around a couple years, for sure. I think 2015 or 2016.
James McKinney: Okay, so a couple years for sure then. And just out of curiosity, from a user perspective, you know, why would someone have used StreamYard in the early days versus just going straight through Facebook Live?
Geige Vandentop: Yeah, that's a good question. So the biggest thing was the ability to bring in guests. Facebook Live had a basic version of that but it was pretty glitchy and you could only bring in one other guest. And then the added basic production elements like sharing your screen, showing a banner on screen, believe it or not you couldn't actually do a lot of that on… Facebook was very much focused towards the Periscope style of like it's you in front of a camera.
James McKinney: Okay. So as you get that first iteration out to market, and we'll say, obviously, is it safe to assume you probably had a fairly small testing market? Like maybe just 25 or 50 users that were kind of testing the product? Or did you open it up wide, public from the get go?
Geige Vandentop: No, it was a pretty small, pretty small test group. But it still was a huge difference. Like it was a leap for us in terms of like stuff we'd build in the past, which was no users, which is a horrible idea. Building stuff with no users is a horrible idea. So but yes from that user research and talking to different people in different communities, and participating and really learning about the problem, we had built a small group of initial test users to launch the product with.
James McKinney: Okay, so when you think back to the early days, again, everything's about learning, right? And even The Startup Story, it's about learning. About my audience learning from you, and some of your lessons learned. I mean, throughout your university years, you had some failed attempts, you had that social video platform that you talked about that had no users and you learn from that when it came to building StreamYard. And you launch StreamYard. And again, not even talking about the growth of StreamYard and where we're going to get to with the story of StreamYard, but just the early days. The first iteration, the getting to market, the pursuing a perfect product versus just getting launching and adjusting as you go, whatever the lesson was. When you look back on those lessons, what was something key that you take away now that even if you were to launch another product, you would probably leverage these milestones as a learning moment and adapt from that?
Geige Vandentop: Customer focus was by far the biggest one. So with that previous failed attempt we were sort of just like emulating other companies. We had the idea of it's going to be free, we're going to try to raise a bunch of money, we're going to be VC backed, and we'll figure out the business model later. Because that's what all the cool companies do. And we didn't really talk to customers. We're just like we know what to build, like this is a brand new product, like how are we going to talk to customers when it's a brand new product? So we were definitely misguided there. So the biggest thing was taking a step back and being like, okay, forget the… Not that there's anything wrong with VC funding. I think it just like, we just didn't handle that and we became distracted by it. So for us it allowed us to focus by being you know what, forget all that. We're going to be bootstrapped. We're going to make a profitable business from day one, and be relentlessly focused on the customer. And honestly a lot of things just work themselves out by taking that path. I think it's really hard to screw up if you are really, really talking to customers, every single day focusing on their problems, like it sort of guardrails, like it makes it a lot easier to get where you want to go.
James McKinney: You know, it's funny you mention the VC backing. You're right, there is nothing wrong with venture funding. I mean it's a great way to scale. In that era in particular, and I would say in the mid 2010s and even earlier, I think not so much now, it's almost as if people built businesses for venture funding. Like they weren't trying to build a business to be self sustaining or to build a profitable business, they were building a business with the intent of pursuing venture capital. And then somehow like that became the business. And it's like, wait, you've got to start from a foundation. This has got to be a business, period. But I love that you had spoken about that to your first venture, because there's so many that from the get go, it's like, what's the business model? We're going to be venture backed, and we're going to, like you said, give it away free and just build up a massive user base, and, and then we'll start charging. That's not exactly how that works. So I love it.
Geige Vandentop: Yeah I think we were kind of doomed from the beginning. But yeah, customer focus was by far the biggest change in mindset that I would definitely carry forward to a VC backed or not VC backed, being relentlessly focused on the customer, I think it's incredibly important.
James McKinney: So being that you and Dan are technical in nature, but not from a computer programming side, you're both, you know, again, electrical and mechanical. When it comes to the growing of StreamYard it is a technical solution. It's cloud based. It's video streaming. Obviously, there's lots of technology behind it, but not necessarily mechanical or electrical. What were some of the challenges when you look back on your earlier years that you think, man, you know, if we would had to do this over again, here's the team I would probably construct from the get go, here's how I would handle capital from the get go. I mean, what are some things that you would augment to help support the areas in which you're not strongest?
Geige Vandentop: So although we don't have the programming background, we sort of made it our strength. So during that two years where we were just like focused on the engineering side of things, that's sort of where we developed our programming chops. That's where we became video engineers, which is… the internet's awesome, right? Like, I don't think we could have done that we did 10 years ago. The amount of resources online to sort of teach yourself deep engineering fundamentals when it comes to software is crazy, like the amount of resources out there are amazing. So we did sort of equip ourselves with that, with those skills before we started StreamYard. And I think it was actually an advantage for us not hiring people for a long period of time. So like, again, with that previous company, we were trying to get contractors and things like that. Again, I don't know, this might only apply to me, like I'm sure someone who approached it more thoughtfully I know it can work very well. But for us, it allowed us to stay much more focused. Things like culture and stuff are pretty simple when it's just you and one other person you've known for, like 10 years, right? So it allowed us to be super focused by waiting so long to make those initial hires.
James McKinney: So when you get the product out there and people are testing it, do you remember some of the early feedback from users? And I'm going to ask from a standpoint, what was any of it painful to receive? Because you had to have been super excited to get that product out there, like many founders are, and sometimes that first initial feedback, it's hard for us to detach and say, "Well, that consumer doesn't know what they're talking about. So we're not going to listen to that," or we're going to keep pushing in this area, or did you just receive everything humbly and you just made augmented changes on the fly as they happened? What was it? What was it like getting that feedback from the first set of users?
Geige Vandentop: For sure. So I mean, I think we had been very… we had been humbled in a big way by that previous company. Like, we lost a lot of time and a lot of money. So I just loved hearing feedback. As far as like, if the customer is talking to me and telling them my problem, I'm excited, like tell me everything, every problem you have, I'm going to fix it. In the first, in the early days, we weren't as humble, then we thought we knew everything. But after being humbled by that, we just love talking to customers in general. So there was nothing that we heard from customers that was hard to hear, like we were just trying to build. We wanted it, we're trying to build something for them.
James McKinney: Awesome. So in the idea of scaling StreamYard, and you're growing, right, you know, you're you have a very clear picture of who your persona is. And, and I think some people naively would say, well, it's anyone who wants to be online, but I'm sure you had a much narrower focus of who your consumer persona was. Do you remember that first persona, that first market that you tried to go after when it came to, you know, again, whether it be paid ads, or direct outreach? What was that tier one persona for you?
Geige Vandentop: Yeah, absolutely. So we were very much targeting non gamers and people that were I've heard it referred to now as sort of like the creator economy space. But specifically within the creator economy, most of our early users were individual like solopreneur type folks that were essentially doing content marketing to sell a course. Like that was the first few thousand users, that was by far the most common.
James McKinney: Okay, so course creators for sure is who most of your target was. What was your sales process to them? Because I think, again, a lot of people and I poke at this area a little bit because right now, there's this idea that if you just run Facebook ads, that's all you need to do to get your consumers. That's all it takes, just launch your program, launch a Facebook ad and the revenue is just going to start coming. Facebook ads is an ATM machine, if you will. And we just kind of get landlocked. There's so many amazing businesses that started without just dumping a crap ton of money into Facebook ads. And I'm not saying that you didn't pour money into Facebook ads. But when you think to your early customer acquisition strategy, what was it?
Geige Vandentop: Oh, yes, it was definitely not Facebook ads. So we had a lot of advantages from just the fundamentals of our product, where it's a livestreaming tool. So people are actually using the product to go out live onto social media. So we really focused on the customer themselves and making them super happy. Because the main acquisition strategy was people just talking about it. They'd go live, people in the audience would ask like, "Hey, how are you doing that with the comments or the banners?" or "How are you bringing a guest on screen?" like, "Oh, I'm using StreamYard." So that was the core loop that drove the vast majority of our growth, and it continues to drive most of our growth today. So the acquisition strategy was like, Dan and I would do a livestream ourselves every single week to talk to customers and really build that strong loyal community and following, and then also solicit that that feedback. So we had the core fundamentals of the business working well for us, and then really went above and beyond on support to get people giving us feedback and talking about us. And that's what drove the vast majority of our growth.
James McKinney: Now that model, and for those who may not be aware, in this streaming space there are many startups right now that are trying to build some iteration with some variants that it makes themselves different from StreamYard. But for the most part, there are a lot of competitors in the space now. And the model you just explained right there, the weekly if not daily livestream to get customer feedback in the private Facebook groups, and get that loyal base and obviously the brand bug in the corner of the livestream to help promote, all those things are fairly common now. Did you model that after a brand that you were aware of from a strategy perspective? Or are these are these things that you conjured up as you were thinking about your customer acquisition strategy?
Geige Vandentop: No, we didn't model it after anything. It's just we're starting a livestreaming tool. We figured we better be livestreamers, like we hadn't in the past. That's kind of embarrassing. But the first public livestream Dan and I ever did was that weekly town hall that we do. So it was generated from our own idea of we need to be doing this every single week. And if we're pitching livestreaming as a great content marketing strategy, how ridiculous would it be if we're not doing it? So this needs to be a core part of our strategy. So every single week, we'd go live to like I said solicit that feedback, and grow that core following who would talk to us and increase the word of mouth engine that we have.
James McKinney: You know, it's interesting and I would encourage you to see if anyone else was doing that model in this space before you guys. And the reason I say that is because Ben Chestnut, co founder of MailChimp, is what I think an $8 billion valuation now, bootstrapped it, never took any investment capital, I mean, unbelievable story. But when they first launched the first product, their acquisition strategy at the very bottom of the free platform, said, you know, email powered by MailChimp, right? And to this day, the free product has that. Actually, all products have it, you have to go into even in your paid account go into your settings and turn it off. But that little bug gets 2 billion views a month. And he was the first one to do that in the email service provider space. And so it was fascinating to hear from him on that. So I'm actually really curious, you might very well be the first one. So have someone do some research so you can make that claim because it's an incredible model that we see time and time again now, when it comes to the customer feedback loop, especially in the day and age of video. But let's get back to the StreamYard story. I mean, here you are getting first customer feedback. It's we'll say what maybe a year into it when you guys say you know what, now it's time to just continue to just go mass scale with it, right? I mean, how long until you decide to flip the switch and say, now it's time to scale this up and get thousands and thousands of users on this.
Geige Vandentop: So we didn't really decide. It was kind of COVID hit, and it was chaos. So before COVID hit, it was still just Dan and I but when it was just Dan and I, we had grown the company to over a million in ARR. But it was still very manageable with just the two of us believe it or not, but when COVID hit you know it was crazy. Like I think I don't know if you remember like what Facebook and YouTube and these platforms were like right when COVID hit, but everybody came online and everything was breaking.
James McKinney: Absolutely.
Geige Vandentop: So we had a plan in mind as far as like scaling up over the next six months. We always tried to not scale too early to be cautious over our resources. So we were able to about double in size like we were planning on doubling in size over the next few months. But when COVID hit and everybody was online and trying to livestream, we had to immediately start re architecting our stack to deal with this scale. Customer support was like completely unmanageable, just like the amount of people coming online. So it wasn't like, okay, we're taking this next level, it was an emergency. That's how it happened.
James McKinney: Yeah. And it's funny you bring that up. One, I forget, again the origin, the start date for StreamYard, 2018. Again, two years right before COVID. I forget that COVID is absolutely part of your story. And for those that may not be aware, and maybe you are aware just from the idea of who your favorite brands are, but everybody was moving online. I mean, obviously events across the globe are canceled. People were trying to figure out how do we still have some type of engagement online? People trying to figure out can we monetize this offering? Do we have to give it away free? When it came to equipment, man equipment was so hard to come by whether it be basic Logitech webcams, to interfaces for mics, I mean, all over the place. Everything was just off the shelf, you couldn't find it online. Obviously, Amazon had its own issues when it came to infrastructure on that. But when you think to the user growth within the first six months of 2020, how many new people came onto the StreamYard platform because of the solution that you guys had?
Geige Vandentop: It was crazy. So we I think we about 10X-
James McKinney: Wow.
Geige Vandentop: … in two or three months? So like, and we were already at a pretty decent scale. So I think we, I don't remember the exact numbers, but I think we were at maybe 5,000 or 6,000 monthly active broadcasters type of thing. And in a few months, we went all the way up to like 50,000 or 60,000.
James McKinney: That's amazing.
Geige Vandentop: It's probably even faster than that. I remember that this… It was a stressful couple of weeks, sort of re architecting and rethinking like, okay, we have to deal with a scale that we didn't even know if we'd ever hit. Like we were really enjoying ourselves, just being bootstrapped, just sort of going. We were growing relatively quickly we thought we had a lot of time. We didn't even know if the market was big enough for the sort of like non gaming niche we were going after when COVID hit. So we were having to architect things that were like we thought maybe we'd never have to architect for that scale.
James McKinney: So at this point, again, it's just the two of you, and you've bootstrapped it. No venture funding whatsoever.
Geige Vandentop: Yep, no venture funding whatsoever, just the two of us.
James McKinney: Unbelievable, absolutely unbelievable. So walk through what 2020 was for you, because at some point we get to the point where StreamYard is acquired by I believe it's Hopin. And how does that conversation come to be? Because again, 2020, you're scrambling trying to make sure that things don't collapse because of how fast people are coming on board. I can think of a few major influencers that were StreamYard advocates when they came in, new customers in 2020 and then just kept evangelizing it because of how it saved their business. And so when you think through 2020, how did the conversations, how did the acquisition conversations with Hopin ever even start?
Geige Vandentop: It didn't happen for a while, I can tell, towards the end of 2020. So I had known Johnny for a super long time. So Johnny is the CEO of Hopin. So mostly just as you know fellow founders, in a similar space, we had kept in touch, and we just chatted for a few months about how business was going and just sort of kept tabs on each other. But most of 2020 was not related to the acquisition. It was dealing with the massive influx of new users from COVID and building up, starting to actually build up our team. So that was another new huge challenge for us, as we figured hey, maybe we'll just never have to hire anybody. Then like okay, we actually are going to have to hire people. So those conversations didn't happen until like October of 2020.
James McKinney: But the relationship you knew the CEO of Hopin before all of this, and so the relationship was already there. And I asked that question, because I think a lot of people when it comes to the idea of an exit, they don't understand or even have an awareness of how to even start those conversations. So just because you had an awareness, how did the conversation start? Were you were you and Dan realizing, oh, this thing needs more capital than we can possibly do to service our customers well? Let's consider either raising or exiting? Or did Hopin come to you saying, "Hey, look, let's bring you in house. And here's why."
Geige Vandentop: Yeah, ironically, I think the best way to sell your company is to like not be trying to sell your company. So fortunately, we were not looking to sell the company. Like we're just enjoying running it. And things were going well, so it was very much we just started getting solicited by different companies. Hopin wasn't the only company and for most companies very easy "no," like we had no interest in becoming part of like a really big company with getting our product potentially killed and everything was great, right? Like why change things? We had full control of our destiny. We are really enjoying the new sort of challenge of growing a team and a culture and sort of developing our leadership ability. And so it was a similar initial feeling towards the Hopin conversation. So it took a long time for us to think on it and decide that it actually was potentially the right path.
And the reason suddenly Hopin became interesting was Hopin's pretty unique company in that they're also a startup that was growing incredibly fast. And their culture was also awesome, too, as far as the talent that Johnny had been able to attract, and how impressive the teams that they had built. So the more conversations we had with Johnny and Armando and the rest of the team, the more Dan and I started thinking, like, Hey, you know, what, maybe everything we want to accomplish with StreamYard, we could actually do at a greater scale, and much faster with Hopin than without Hopin and also benefit them a lot, as well. Because we didn't have a legal team, we didn't have an HR team, like we had put off hiring for like, in some ways, it helped us, but we had put it off. I would not recommend not hiring a single person until you're like in the millions of ARR. It's kind of a crazy thing to do. So after lots of long, thoughtful conversations with Dan, sort of came to the conclusion that like, hey, let's actually explore this. I think it could be an amazing thing for our customers, for us and for the industry. And that's when things started getting serious as far as those conversations.
James McKinney: When you think about the other offers that came in you said it was an easy "no" because you didn't want to be a part of them. I don't think for my listeners, they would understand how it's an easy "no." Again you're bootstrapped, so obviously, not knowing what the balance sheet looks like. But whatever the offer was, its cash in pocket minus taxes, capital gains, all the usual stuff. So any reasonable offer, I don't think my listeners can understand why it was an easy "no." For yourself, where you were stage in life, mission of what the you were trying to accomplish, why truly was it an easy no for you, those other offers?
Geige Vandentop: Well, we had a great business that was growing. So we really valued our autonomy, we loved our customers, we loved the product, and we were at I think it was close to $30 million in ARR, mostly profit.
James McKinney: With just the two of you?
Geige Vandentop: No, no, so this was just the two of us we were at a few million, but we had quickly started hiring, okay, towards the end of 2020. But we were I think it was still like five to 10 people when we were around 20 million in ARR, and the company was continuing to grow really fast. We had this great fundamental business. So you know, it wasn't obvious that selling was a good thing to do.
James McKinney: Interesting, interesting. I think so many people, again, back to one thing that you didn't do, was build a business for venture capital, like we talked like so many people do. And I think so many people also build a business with the goal of an exit .It's the idea of not building something for long term. And it sounds very much like when you built StreamYard, the intent was long term, like this was something you guys were doing that you were passionate about. And then obviously, as it was in the consumers hands, you're passionate about delivering for them.
You know, one of the things that for those who've been around technology for some time, is the economies of various platforms. I'm going to go back to the early 2000s, and I remember Elance was a place for freelancers. So it was a freelance economy. If I wanted to find someone to write an article for me, I had to go to Elance for it. Or for those who are in college, someone wants to write a paper for me before they had plagiarism scanners out there, you could go to Elance for it. But it was a freelance economy. Then it became renamed as the gig economy when the Ubers and the Door Dashes and the TaskRabbit came to be. And now a word that we are seeing more and more and it's still fairly new is this creator economy. And I guess maybe if we were to even go back before creator economy, there's that maybe this maker economy where we have the Etsy's out there that are people are creating their own little crafts and selling them online. But back to creator economy, it's so new that I think so many people are trying to figure out what does it mean? What is the opportunity in it? Was 2020 a fluke opportunity where everyone kind of had to be a creator, and it's going to self correct as we get back to I'm using air quotes here "normal." Can you help unpack kind of what creator economy is and maybe even more so where StreamYard fits inside of all this?
Geige Vandentop: Sure, the creator economy I think you can think of, especially these days as every creator is sort of their own small business, right? Each creator has their own community that they're cultivating. And now there's all these tools in this creator economy space to actually monetize those communities beyond the conventional ads based models where it's sort of like you have to be an absolutely huge channel to actually be able to be a creator. And make a living off of it. But now with things like Substack and Patreon and these different types of platforms that give sort of different types of monetization models, it's much easier for people to become a creator without having to necessarily build a giant channel. You can have a more niche audience that really loves your content and is willing to support you.
As far as the question around COVID I'm sure it definitely accelerated it, but I think it just accelerated it, so it was naturally going to a particular place and things sort of were fast forwarded by COVID. But I think high schoolers now, you know, if you ask them what's the job you want to be when you grow up? I think the one of the most common things now is YouTuber, and I think that was happening even before COVID. I think it's with Gen Z and the younger folks, it's just much more top of mind that that's a real path that like, Hey, I can make things on TikTok or YouTube, or whatever. And that can be my job, I can be a creator.
James McKinney: Do you think inside the creator economy, that we're going to see this push within technology of building various tools and resources to help people create? Because I get back to how StreamYard started, Twitch addressed the highly technical gaming community. You saw that there was a demographic not being served in the livestreaming space and so you create StreamYard. Are there other areas that maybe we don't have our eyes on where people are going to start creating solutions for these types of creators?
Geige Vandentop: Oh, absolutely. And I think it's already… it might be more mature that a lot of people think. Like I mentioned, each creator is essentially their own small business. So there's tons of tools around there's essentially for businesses it's called a CRM, but there's tons of CRMs now specifically targeted towards how do you manage an audience when you're a creator. It's similar to a CRM, but it requires a slightly different set of tools. So I know there's a lot of different tools in that space. There's also the one that comes to mind is Circle, which is essentially a community platform for creators to bring their audience together and monetize it off of the conventional platforms. So there's a ton of things in that space to help support creators. It's essentially same tools as small businesses, but for them. So another one is like email marketing. So ConvertKit is one that's very targeted towards creators. It's a pretty rich ecosystem.
James McKinney: Interesting. So when it comes to building a technical solution, again, I go back to Ben Chestnut of MailChimp. I mean, I just, I cannot think of someone who has just executed so well in the technical space as he has, because his biggest thing was he just stayed in his lane, right? And yet, so many people want to become all things to all people. As you now, as part of Hopin, you have more resources now. Are you finding it challenging to stay in the lane in which you initially entered, as opposed to trying to become all things to all people? Because I feel like StreamYard could potentially bring in a CRM of sorts for creators. Not that you should but I'm saying could. You could bring in a monetization trigger for creators. Not saying you should but you could. Do you find it challenging to kind of stay in a singular lane as to not muddy up what is what people love so much about the product?
Geige Vandentop: I'm sure it's a challenge in a lot of acquisitions. But it was a big part of the reason why we joined Hopin. They're pretty special. So we still have a ton of autonomy over the product. Like we pretty much have complete control over the roadmap of the product. And luckily, the needs of event organizers are very similar to creators. They're both trying to create high quality production that goes out. So for us, it has not been too challenging. It's certainly very different when you're working with a larger org, and different teams and things like that. So there's all kinds of challenges, but muddying the waters, it's always been something that we've been super… I think it's a challenge the entire time, regardless of being part of a bigger company, because you get tons of feature requests all the time, which are great, but you have to sort of filter those through the lens of like, okay, what's our actual purpose for this product? And when someone asked for a feature, digging into what's the actual problem, otherwise, you will end up with this crazy conglomerate of everything in the world. So it's always a challenge, and being part of a bigger company presents other challenges on top of that, but it yeah, hopefully that answered the question.
James McKinney: Awesome. So you know, as I want to honor your time and as we are coming close to the end of our time together there's a couple things that I love to look back, but your story is so compact. I mean 2018 and then you sell I think officially in 2021. It's a super fast story and obviously COVID accelerates all that, but I still, I love the look back. So when you look back to your three years of StreamYard, what are some things that whenever it comes to be, like whenever it is time for you to move off of StreamYard and maybe take some time off and then jump into another startup, whatever that may be, what are some lessons that you've learned from the StreamYard years?
Geige Vandentop: By far it is focus, being focused in general and focus on the customer is incredibly important and simplifies everything else. Like I think regardless, venture backed or not, the biggest lesson I learned from StreamYard is if you stay super, super focused. I guess that's one thing I should mention, too, that we never did with previous companies is on a weekly basis, Dan and I would chat every single week. I mean we live together so we chat all the time anyways, but we'd have like a structured conversation every single week where we talked about KPIs every single week. And we do like a pre mortem, where essentially, we'd go through, like if we failed, what were the things that probably caused us to fail, and we go through each of those things that we had thought about based on our prior experience. And to make sure we weren't doing the same thing we did before and going down that that incorrect path. So being focused, and having discipline and creating something that a customer actually wants are the biggest things that I'd carry forward for any other company.
James McKinney: What does the future of StreamYard look like? Now let's do a forward looking perspective. What is the future of StreamYard, again, as an autonomous product, or as part of a Hopin solution? What is StreamYard, let's say in three years?
Geige Vandentop: For sure. So right now, we're the easiest way to create professional livestreams. But the way we're seeing people using the product, a ton of people use it just to create recordings in general, and to just create content in general. So we're starting to think a bit more broadly, to more of a I think the slogan will potentially turn into something like the easiest way to create content. Because I think there's a big opportunity where people don't necessarily want to be live, they just want to create recordings and things like that. And then potentially, like you said, we have to be careful not to muddy the waters, but creating more tools for people in that creator ecosystem, such as managing their audience and things like that. So I think you'll see us transformed from being very much focused on livestreaming to being more of a content creation platform in general.
James McKinney: Now that you're a part of a, and correct me if I don't describe it correctly, but a virtual event company, right that's kind of what Hopin is, have you seen StreamYard used in a large virtual event setting?
Geige Vandentop: Oh, yeah, absolutely. I think that was part of the interest of Hopin is a ton of their event organizers were using StreamYard to produce their broadcast. So that was definitely a very popular use case for streamers was producing these virtual experiences, these virtual events, which was also I'm talking mostly through the StreamYard lens but it's also been awesome to be able to serve those folks, those people creating virtual experience for the first time where oftentimes it's like you have to spend like $50,000 on an agency, which is fine if you have the budget for it. But it's great to be able to serve those people and make them feel empowered and have the tools to create an awesome event without necessarily having to spend $50,000.
James McKinney: From a customer lens perspective, right? Because you talk a lot about the learning being listening to the customer. And that's kind of been a theme of your we'll say the last 10 years and listening to… or last seven years, listening to the customer. I assume and correct me if I'm wrong, but the customers of your now parent company Hopin, they're enterprise versus the core customer StreamYard is the individual creator. Are you finding, and if you aren't finding it now, do you foresee it being an interesting challenge to balance the needs of the two, enterprise versus individual?
Geige Vandentop: Yes, it is an interesting challenge. And it was something that had already come up where a ton of our users, like I said, at the beginning of StreamYard it was pretty narrow who we were focused on and pretty obvious who the customer was, but when COVID hit a ton of different types of folks who are using StreamYard. And one of those new use cases was people within larger enterprises, larger organizations, on maybe the social media marketing team, or like the developer advocacy team would start using StreamYard to create their broadcasts and like you said enterprises have different needs. Some of those things are like team accounts and centralized billing and things like that. But there's a ton of overlap so I think that we'll be able to meet that demand elegantly while also serving our serving our consumer base well. And behind every enterprise is still you know, there's still someone at the end of the day behind that enterprise making that purchasing decision and using the product.
James McKinney: I love it, absolutely love it. I want to honor your time and I want our listener's time with our final three questions. I don't want to hold you up. It's been incredible having you on here. But I know my listeners love these final three questions, because I hear about it every time an episode gets released. That first one is just about the idea of entrepreneurship. And I'm curious as to your perspective, because of where you play in this new creator economy. But do you think anybody can be an entrepreneur? Or does it take a certain genetic makeup to accomplish what startup founders do?
Geige Vandentop: Oh, I think anybody can be an entrepreneur. I think like the most critical part of getting to where I was today is just not giving up. I think the trick is if you can find something that you're passionate enough about, that you just never give up, I think it's hard to fail for like five years. If you're giving it giving it your all, you'll figure it out. So I think anyone can do it, as long as they find the right thing.
James McKinney: Was there ever a moment in your journey where you thought I'm over this?
Geige Vandentop: Honestly, no, just because I really had not enjoyed most of the jobs I'd had. So the idea of like, I think I am definitely a builder at heart, like the excitement of building something and putting it in front of someone, I definitely found the right thing for me. There was nothing that could match the excitement of that. So even when things got rough, I never thought like, hey, this isn't… like "I have to make it work" was sort of my mindset.
James McKinney: I love it. You know, one of the narratives out there when it comes to entrepreneurship is that it's a Lone Ranger journey. It's just you on your friend's couch pounding away code, just eating ramen for three meals a day. It's just this isolated life of living in a vacuum. And it's just not true. And those are the anomalies. I mean, there are those success stories that follow that narrative, but they're just so few and far between. And so when you look back on your entire life journey, who are the people that you point to with such immense gratitude for their contribution to where you are today?
Geige Vandentop: Honestly my co founder Dan Briggs is probably the biggest one. I've got to give my hat's off to solo founders, because that seems like a tough gig. Like it takes a lot of courage to go on it completely alone. But seeing Dan transform from like I first met him in first year university, to seeing him completely decide I'm going to be an entrepreneur, I want to pursue this and you know, Geige it would be great if you did it alongside with me. And how he really completely went for it with complete conviction was huge for me. It would have been really hard for me to develop that same conviction and really go after it without my co founder, so Dan Briggs.
And then there's so many other people to be thankful for in the space in general. I think I sort of alluded to it earlier with just how much information there is online with the open source community, and things like that, like what we did in two years would not have been possible 10 years ago with things like frameworks like React that just make front end development much easier, with platforms like GCP and AWS, where just two people can have the power of an entire cloud infrastructure. There's so many people to thank in the open source community for that, but as far as like individual person that stands out, co founder is definitely the biggest one.
James McKinney: I love that. And that's one of my favorite questions because it just gives people this understanding that it's not isolated. It is so much harder to go it alone, and those who have poured into us, they just bring so much value to our story and our journey. And our last question is, as much as I would love to afford an opportunity for all my listeners to sit with you and kind of pick your brain and ask you whatever question it is that they have about whether it be technical or consumer acquisition, or whatever the case may be, it'd be unreasonable at this scale. So I reverse that by allowing you to speak to them directly. And the persona of my listener is the entrepreneur and wantrepreneur, right that those who have a business and maybe have some, some challenges that they're going through, or they're just here learning from you. Or maybe it's the wantrepreneur who has got a book full of dreams and ideas, and maybe they have ideas to be a creator of some way, but there's just some narrative inside of them that they've paused moving forward on it. Whatever that is, if you were having coffee with one of my listeners, what would you say to one of them?
Geige Vandentop: Absolutely. So most stuff, especially early on, is not going to work. So don't give up and if you don't give up and you stay focused on the customer and fundamentals, it won't necessarily happen fast, it will take a while, but ultimately I think it essentially has to work out if you just never give up and stay focused on the customer.
James McKinney: Once you've had a few moments of process all the value Geige Vandentop brought us in this week's episode, please hit me up on LinkedIn, Facebook, or Instagram and share with me your thoughts on this episode. And if you've been around The Startup Story for any length of time, then you know how much emphasis I put on the idea that entrepreneurs support other entrepreneurs. And so for that reason, let's show up for Geige and visit streamyard.com and give their product try. They even have a free version that is always free so there really is no reason to not give it a shot. And if you're an entrepreneur then you have a story to tell, so let StreamYard help you broadcast it. You know Geige delivered so much value to us today, visiting streamyard.com is the least we can do to show our appreciation. And of course, we'll include a link in the show notes for easy access. And now for my personal ask.
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