Media Supply Chain + Cloud
Executive Interview With Erik Åhlin, CEO and co-founder of Vidispine
While in-person events have been curtailed by COVID-19, innovation continues to advance in both tech and media and entertainment. I’ve been sitting down (virtually) with CEOs of some of the leading AWS Partner Network (APN) Technology Partners involved in the M&E ecosystem—and their insights can offer a lens into the future of the industry.
In this interview, I chat with Erik Åhlin, CEO and co-founder of Vidispine, about media supply chains, how M&E companies can leverage the power of the cloud, and what he sees for the future of the industry.
Q: To start off, tell us a bit about your company and how you started out and got to where you are now.
A: Vidispine started with two co-founders—myself and Isak Jonsson—a very typical startup partnership. We both have a technical computer science background, but I do more commercial and CEO stuff, while he does more of the CTO type of things. Before Vidispine, we were part of building up a company called Ardendo, and we were kind of the first movers in the Media Asset Management (MAM) space 20 years ago. Back then, MAM was extremely expensive—mostly multimillion dollar projects, very vertical, only in the broadcast industry, and so on.
When that company was sold, we decided to set out to commoditize the MAM space and focus on content management. So we bootstrapped it and, with organic growth, we’ve now been doing this for 10 years or so. We started out with a vision of creating something that could commoditize the whole content management space. We built it for developers. So it's an API only first—which, back then, 10 years ago, was quite a bold decision. People said, how can you sell something without the UI? But these days, people get that. The cool thing is that we found cloud a perfect fit for our vision very early on—the horizontal take on things, scaling independently. Then — ten years ago— cloud was a little bit early, but these days, it's very commoditized.
Over the years we expanded the offering, of course, but content management backend with the API first is still the heart and soul of what we do and our claim to fame. We’ve also expanded into platform as a service (PaaS) and UX frameworks to make it easy to build things. But our heart is simplifying the building of new, innovative media solutions for developers—that’s still our core user base.
Q: In terms of how you selected the Amazon Web Services (AWS) cloud or how you got into the cloud space—what prompted you to make that bold move?
A: One thing we asked ourselves when we started writing the specs of the API backend was: how small and large can it scale? On the small side, we were thinking of small devices like mobile phones—what people today would call IoT. And on the larger side, we found cloud because there's a global network of servers. A decade ago, people were still talking data centers, and we saw cloud as a commoditized public data center for everyone. It’s a perfect fit for developers who want a sandbox to play around in, build cool tools, and focus on innovation.
We met all the major cloud vendors—Azure and AWS were the big ones back then—and AWS was really ahead of the game. I mean, they invented the cloud! And specifically in the media and entertainment industry, with the challenge around large files and strange formats and all that, AWS was really getting it way, way earlier than anyone else. And I think AWS still provides customers that advantage. Every provider is racing and chasing, but AWS is still ahead of the game. We got to know AWS when they were still the new kid on the block and their media team was very small, so we had the opportunity to do proofs of concept and real deployments very early on.
We had our first production-grade deployment in 2011 with Deluxe. And the first major studio came on board, which was really a breakthrough, in 2014 with Sony Pictures. Eric Iverson was the CIO there at the time, and he was very visionary in terms of understanding that the cloud would change how they do TV and deploy that globally. A few years later—by 2015 or 2016—suddenly “cloud” was on everyone’s lips, and then we were only doing cloud, and we were the thought leaders in content management for the cloud.
Q: Can you talk a little bit more about what your vision was and the use cases you encountered with TV distribution back then? What were some of the challenges?
A: There were a lot of challenges on the TV distribution side of things. And since Sony is a global operation, they saw that cloud could really standardize technology, deployment methods, distribution chains, and more. It could also save money—not just on storage costs, but even on the operation side, how you work with a global team. They saw all that early on. They saw, through security discussions and storage costs discussions, that all that would become commoditized—and now, of course, we can see that they were right.
Q: What would you say the impact of cloud is going to be on the media and entertainment space over the next three years?
A: This is one of my favorite topics these days. We have this mantra at Vidispine that we want to be ahead of the curve. Right now, people talk about how we’re through the discussions around security compliance and storage costs and all that. And especially with Coronavirus hitting, none of that is even a discussion anymore. It's here, and it will have an impact on business.
The angle that I see now—which I see few people talking about—is that the M&E industry is going through what I would call a sort of mental transformation. It’s becoming more like a Silicon Valley, entrepreneurial style, rather than a classic broadcast media company mindset. It makes sense because cloud and Agile are absolutely spot on in terms of creating a culture of experimenting, failing fast, and integrating with the latest technology seamlessly. What’s exciting for me is seeing how the entertainment industry has had to fit into the YouTube generation, both for reaching consumers and attracting employees. The smartest talent out there can choose between working at a big studio or someplace like Spotify or Slack—the studios have to compete for talent. The Silicon Valley style of work is about experimenting, doing new apps, all that. The asset that the studios and M&E companies have is the enormous library of content. They have to figure out how to monetize that in new ways—and cloud and Agile are the way to do that.
Q: I think we see that in the industry, like with Fox’s recent acquisition of Tubi—there’s been a series of acquisitions of some of these tech talents. It seems more and more the direction is to bring in the management and distribution to complement the content ownership that these studios have. It's interesting you mentioned Agile methodologies as part of that—the Silicon Valley or tech influence on the entertainment industry—I hear that coming from a lot of the M&E leaders I talk to. With that in mind, are there any other cloud technologies that you've heard about or find particularly interesting?
A: A couple of small ones we look at are what I call the tech put into the stack. There's a couple of cool AI solutions out there. We looked into Wirewax, who do some interesting stuff using AI to, for example, automatically fit a clip into the right time stamp and timing QC problems. There's nablet, who's doing automatic highlighting for sports games. I think AI is in a phase right now where we've gone through the major innovation to make it generally available, and now it's all about finding the perfect fit for one specific niche—and the more niche, the better. For instance, what nablet is doing around automatic highlighting is quite fascinating. And then there's Bitmovin, there's Mux.com, and some other technologies that facilitate others to build stuff.
But I think the most important technologies are more around efficiency tools like JIRA, Slack, Zoom, Hubspot—all those make industries and companies tick on a daily basis. We don't think of them as cloud technologies, but they are. Everything we do these days is SaaS and cloud, full stop. And I think it’s about integrating them into productivity spaces. I'm trying to find somebody who's using AI for optimizing workflows and workloads—smart assists to help middle managers make better and more informed decisions. I think there's a lot of things that can be done in that space.
Q: We do consulting for some of the largest studios, in particular around digital delivery. And it's really surprising how much of that is actually a manual process. Whether it's metadata being flagged or anything else, manual processes introduce all kinds of issues in terms of clerical errors and the time that it takes to get these things done. It’s just a result of legacy technology built on legacy technology. I think this move into cloud is a real opportunity—and this is something Vidispine is really enabling. That AI wouldn’t be possible without a media asset management system or a media workflow enabled in the cloud. And once it's enabled in the cloud, then there's all sorts of opportunities.
A: Yes, and data is the new oil in terms of value. Having that data associated with your content is a no-brainer. The bigger companies, studios, and media conglomerates already do this in some way, but I think that needs to trickle down to tier-two and tier-three media houses, and maybe even the global brands. Whoever needs to reach out to an audience, they need to up their game in content quality and data awareness.
Another cool startup we’re working with is doing more vertical integration of the supply chain. So you have a production company, but there's also freelancers and other companies in that whole supply chain, and integrating all that is lacking in media and entertainment, like in a lot of other industries. It will be really interesting to follow how they build that up in the next few years.
Q: What I'm hearing in the spirit of how you're approaching things—and generally how I think the best cloud technology vendors work—is that focus on specialization and collaboration. It reminds me a lot of open source, back when it was about everyone rallying together around an open source stack. Now it seems to be more about saying okay, we've got this platform, we have these services, let's figure out how we can do our thing really well and find the best people and systems to tap into.
Now, with the impact of coronavirus hitting all of us, what do you think the impact is going to be over the next 12 months? If you had a crystal ball for the media entertainment industry, what do you think the impact is going to be?
A: Well, the first five minutes of every single call I’m on these days is a coronavirus news sync—so there’s a lot of efficiency loss there, people talking about it for five minutes. Of course, people can't stop thinking about it. And it will affect the industry in many ways. I think it triggers new ways of working—it's going to be the new normal to meet virtually, and even people who are late adopters will be dragged into working digitally and more online. I can only assume that people will consume more content as they spend more time at home, which is going to be good for industry.
On the other hand, sports events and all those things that used to be massive revenue drivers for many of our customers are being cancelled. So that's a downside—billions of dollars have been sunk. Just moving the Olympics out a year is a massive drop.
So, summing all that up, I think that, unfortunately, short term it's a net negative impact. But beyond that, I think the outlook is a little more positive. I think that we will learn to work smarter, to use digital tools better. Our customers and partners are forced to rethink what they do and how they do it. If you look at crises in general, they spur innovation and new, smart ways of doing things. So long term, maybe beyond 12 months, I see a more positive side.
Q: Absolutely, we have to use this as a moment to influence change. The people who grab this opportunity to move deeper into the cloud and into digital will be the ones who come out on top. And certainly with the increasing cost in content creation, the question really becomes, where do you see your efficiencies? I think there's a lot of opportunity for efficiencies within the media management and distribution chain. So I think that bodes well for Vidispine.
A: I think it also helps that people will also see a new way of innovation. Human beings are great at making the best of a situation—like all those videos that come out because people are bored being stuck in the house in quarantine. People are figuring out how to create things in a different way. Maybe we will see a lot of cool new communities, new applications and use cases at the end of this. Human beings at their best are really great at using their creativity.
Q: So very true. Based on all we’ve talked about, is there anything else about the landscape or the future of cloud and M&E that comes to mind?
A: My favorite theme these days is how our industry is doing more and more Silicon Valley-style deployments. I also think there's a great future in content creation. People want to see very high value content; great production is everything. So Netflix, HBO, Disney, Apple—all of them pouring money into that is perfect, because that triggers other people to step up the game in terms of content creation, which is also good for our industry in general. Those are some of the big trends I see.
Another thing that comes to mind is the ecosystem we’re building with Vidispine, and how we found Metal Toad as part of that. I think it ties into the whole thing Silicon Valley metaphor. The tech industry has been great at innovation—that's what they do for a living. But people forget that it's also very much about building ecosystems of companies working together. If you look at many other industries—like telecoms, utilities, airlines, and so on—it's a lot of big companies eating small ones. But in tech, you have to build strong ecosystems of partnerships. In this kind of fast innovation path, you can't do it all, and you have to have partners.
At Vidispine, we've been actively seeking people who understand video, our industry, and cloud—and it is rare to find people who understand all three. We found one or two in Europe and Metal Toad in the United States to tick all those boxes, and who also have a very progressive way of approaching clients. I think Metal Toad thinks more about how to actually create value for the industry and our customers on a broader scale. So I'm very happy that we ran into Metal Toad and very pleased that we’re starting to do even more things together.