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Mark Kornfilt: “YOU CAN’T DO EVERYTHING YOURSELF”

We are already experiencing the impact of the power of video in the workplace, online, and in many of the ways we connect. Like the old adage, “a picture is worth a thousand words”, video unlocks a whole new level of sophistication in our communications. What can be conveyed through 15 seconds of video vs. […]

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We are already experiencing the impact of the power of video in the workplace, online, and in many of the ways we connect. Like the old adage, “a picture is worth a thousand words”, video unlocks a whole new level of sophistication in our communications. What can be conveyed through 15 seconds of video vs. a text or email is exponentially superior. Used effectively, there is no medium better at transferring knowledge and evoking emotion, and we will continue to see adaptations in how both organizations and individuals interact to forge richer, deeper more emotional connections between people, companies and their audiences.


The telephone totally revolutionized the way we could communicate with people all over the world. But then came email and took it to the next level. And then came text messaging. And then came video calls. And so on…What’s next? What’s just around the corner?

In this interview series, called ‘The Future Of Communication Technology’ we are interviewing leaders of tech or telecom companies who are helping to develop emerging communication technologies and the next generation of how we communicate and connect with each other.

As a part of this series, I had the pleasure of interviewing Mark Kornfilt, who oversees innovation at Vimeo. He is responsible for finding new, impactful ways to help Vimeo’s users harness the power of video with technology, and leads the strategy and development across Vimeo’s product and engineering functions.

Mark has extensive experience building teams, products, and companies. He previously served as CEO and co-founder of Livestream, the leading global live video platform that powered over ten million streams a year, before overseeing its acquisition by Vimeo in 2017. Prior to Livestream, Mark was one of the developers of the popular peer-to-peer app LimeWire. Mark earned his Masters in Science with a double major in computer science and electrical engineering from the Ecole Polytechnique Federale de Lausanne in Switzerland.


Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Before we dive in, our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your ‘backstory’ and how you got started?

I realized that I wanted to build my own company when I was working as a distributed systems developer for the peer-to-peer software LimeWire. I read the book Hackers & Painters by Paul Graham (founder of Y Combinator), and it was a perfect articulation of many of the feelings I started having about being part of the internet revolution: I had observed the power of distributing software at scale, the impact it has when the world is your market, and the value you can create — for both your users and as a business — when millions of people use the tools you develop. This was the impetus of my entrepreneurial start; I wanted to be a builder.

In 2006, I met Max Haot and Phil Worthington who had developed a prototype of a browser-run TV studio based on the premise that anyone could have the ability to broadcast live video online. Together, we spent the next couple of months pursuing that concept, and built the first version of Livestream. The process was exhilarating. We slept very little, spent most of our time coding, and I woke up with a smile on my face every day. The prospect of bringing an important innovation to market was incredibly fulfilling. I knew then that I wanted to do this for the rest of my life.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began your career?

Every startup has ups and downs, and with those moments come difficult decisions. One of the most meaningful moments in my career was in 2010 — Livestream was dangerously close to running out of cash and we were facing the possibility of the business not making it. We were in discussions to raise money but time was running out; in two months we’d miss payroll.

We decided the best way forward would be to reduce our burn rate and give ourselves six months to find a solution. Everyone on the team was asked to take a 30% salary cut against additional equity in the company; leadership took a 50% cut. It was a defining moment for Livestream, our people, our belief in the idea, and our vision of what the business could be.

Instead of resigning, almost the entirety of the team made incredible concessions, doubled down on the business, and together we were able to overcome what could have been the end of road for the company. We became a stronger, better team out of this experience, and I am forever inspired by the collective commitment to the promise of Livestream. It showed me how resilience, grit, and passion can shape the destiny of a business. Today, the majority of the Livestream founding team is still here at Vimeo, expanding on the work we started 15 years ago.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

I grew up with my father telling me “For every door that closes, another 10 will open.” This perspective is embedded in how I approach my career and my life — a guiding philosophy that reminds me to be willing to fail, that there are always more opportunities. Failing is something every entrepreneur has to learn. It’s a critical part of the innovation process, of success and aiming for greatness. It can be easy to get stuck in making small, iterative improvements. I always want to encourage my team to embrace risk, pursue big ideas, and get comfortable with failing.

None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?

There are two people who took a chance on me at pivotal moments. The first is my co-partner at Livestream, Max Haot, who taught me everything I know about building products. Max put his trust in a 24-year-old kid, and gave him an opportunity to learn and grow. 10 years later, he named me as his successor and the CEO of Livestream.

The second person is Vimeo’s CEO Anjali Sud. In 2017, Anjali made a bet on Livestream, our vision and technology, and what we would bring to Vimeo. She has been an amazing leader and partner in building the business, and someone I’ve learned a tremendous amount from.

How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?

Over the course of my career, I’ve had the privilege of contributing in a few ways.

First, the societal impact of video is very powerful and, when applied correctly, is a force for good. Video inspires us, keeps us entertained, and delights us. It also helps businesses thrive. Last year, we saw video transform from a “nice to have” to the most critical tool we have for staying connected. Video enables small and local businesses — the lifeblood of our economy — to reach their customers more effectively. It keeps teams more productive and engaged. And it bridges gaps between global borders. Live video adds another layer of authenticity and dynamism because it captures life in real time — memorializing iconic moments that might be otherwise inaccessible to audiences. Citizen journalists have captured images and stories that have brought awareness to global humanitarian missions otherwise left untold. I think of video as an essential tool, and I’m endlessly inspired by the idea of making it simpler and more accessible for all.

On a personal level, I am a proud executive sponsor of “Vimeans for Good” — Vimeo’s internal initiative that supports local communities with time and resources. We’ve volunteered at local community centers, hosted events to raise awareness on relevant issues, and gifted wishlists to families in needs.

Ok wonderful. Let’s now shift to the main focus of our interview. Can you tell us about cutting edge communication tech that you are working on? How do you think that will help people? (add a note on pro-quality)

My team at Vimeo fully understands the magnitude of video’s potential and its power to help people — whether it’s improving their ability to work or tell a story with greater impact. Anticipating our customers’ needs is the fuel that drives us to build the next product, make a better service, and innovate. Ultimately, we believe we’ve seen only a tiny sliver of how businesses will use video in the future. The ways that people use and need video to communicate effectively are rapidly evolving, and we are preparing for a future that remains completely undefined.

We’re investing in AI and machine learning, which will be used more and more to derive insights at scale that will improve the speed of creating great videos and make that content empirically better and more engaging. We’re looking at new ways for teams to interact and collaborate more efficiently. And we’re partnering up with some of the tech industry’s biggest players so we can bring the utility of our platform to sites and services across the internet. The most exciting part of our business is creating technology that will shape how people live and work.

How do you think this might change the world?

We are already experiencing the impact of the power of video in the workplace, online, and in many of the ways we connect. Like the old adage, “a picture is worth a thousand words”, video unlocks a whole new level of sophistication in our communications. What can be conveyed through 15 seconds of video vs. a text or email is exponentially superior. Used effectively, there is no medium better at transferring knowledge and evoking emotion, and we will continue to see adaptations in how both organizations and individuals interact to forge richer, deeper more emotional connections between people, companies and their audiences.

Keeping “Black Mirror” in mind can you see any potential drawbacks about this technology that people should think more deeply about?

We must be cognizant not to become overly reliant on virtual experiences vs. in-person, human interaction — especially as we see the effects of technology on the growing generation of digital natives. Video is an exceptional tool to support how we interact and how we express ourselves, especially in a socially distanced world. It’s changing how businesses operate; they are learning that with the right tools, a tremendous amount of time and expense can be saved on travel while maintaining connections across geographies and dispersed staff. Virtual experiences can now replicate the feeling of “being there” so it’s widening the possibility of who can see what, and when — making previously inaccessible events, accessible. But as convenient and engaging as any digital medium becomes, there is no screen in the world that can ever replace real, tangible human interaction. It can’t, and shouldn’t. For me, it comes down to building technology that enhances human connection, not replaces it.

Was there a “tipping point” that led you to this breakthrough? Can you tell us that story?

There was no single tipping point. It took decades of innovation across an entire ecosystem to make video truly ubiquitous. You have to take into account the massive leaps required to bring video from movie theaters and into every home and hand. Things like the transformation from analog to digital, codecs and compression algorithms, the role of Adobe’s Flash in making video playable in every browser, smartphones, social feeds prioritizing video, high-speed networks and more. And over the last year, the global pandemic accelerated the adoption of video across the board as people and businesses were forced to find new ways to communicate. And what’s incredible is that we’re still just getting started, there is so much innovation ahead of us.

What do you need to lead this technology to widespread adoption?

Widespread adoption is already here. I’ve spent nearly a decade and a half years building video businesses because I believe in it as a medium. I always knew the world would adopt video, but I never imagined it would happen as quickly as it has over the last year — we watched as adoption patterns sped up from years to months. Vimeo saw record growth in 2020, and we scaled our platform to over 200M users around the world. We’re experiencing — in all possible measures — a video revolution. Yet the barriers for making professional-quality video remain high, and that’s where I’m focused: making this incredible medium possible and affordable for everyone, from a local fitness instructor to an Oscar-winning filmmaker to the Fortune 500.

The pandemic has changed so many things about the way we behave. One of them of course, is how we work and how we communicate in our work. How do you think your innovation might be able to address the new needs that have arisen as a result of the pandemic?

It’s no surprise that a pandemic would drive behavioral change — I would guess that more people have collaborated, interviewed, studied and presented in front of a camera in the past year than in the past five years combined — but the question becomes, what will actually stick? Businesses are rethinking efficiency, productivity, and communication in our workplaces and many adapted their operations with video: streaming town halls to remote employees, moving events to virtual experiences, connecting with customers through social videos. I believe that the newly adopted behaviors around video are here to stay and, that, looking ahead we’ll see more innovation to make things even more efficient.

Large companies will become video-first. Nearly 80% of the workforce has said they want to continue to work from home even when the pandemic is over. Barring being in-person, nothing beats the effectiveness and engagement of video to convey complex ideas (employees are 75 percent more likely to watch a video than to read an email). With more dispersed and global workforces, video will be the primary medium to communicate, both internally and externally. Companies will have to produce video content that spans from marketing ads to employee on-boarding, training and recruitment, and at a more frequent rate than they ever have before.

Video will serve as the new storefront. Last year, every brick-and-mortar had to rethink its online presence or risk permanent closure. Video is the next best thing to being able to see, touch, and try products in real-life. Studies show that consumer behavior rarely shifts back to full-offline experience once digital experiences are offered. Other studies show that consumers are more likely to purchase a product — and less likely to return that product — after viewing a video. Small businesses simply can’t afford to ignore technology that will help drive sales and broaden their audience.

Fantastic. Here is the main question of our interview. What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Started” and why? (Please share a story or example for each.)

For me there are really four things that I wish I knew before I started.

1. “EXPECT IT TO TAKE 15 YEARS” — It’s easy to get discouraged if you are programmed to believe success of any kind happens overnight. Yet, most people who start tech businesses believe it will happen to them. Real success in tech is building companies that will deliver products and services that will be used for decades. So plan to be in it for the long run, and look at your entire life in this context, because they are intertwined. I wish I’d known to not dwell too much on the hard moments, and instead celebrate the small wins. In my early days at Livestream, I was continuously seeking some imaginary big event that would give me proof that we’ve succeeded — maybe an exit, or a large partnership, or some sort of instantaneous growth rate. None of that happened, and even when I sold the company I couldn’t truly consider it a success, until we successfully integrated the company and products into Vimeo and had years of validation with financial success.

2. “YOU CAN’T DO EVERYTHING YOURSELF” — This is a hard learned lesson for most people who start their first business. In the early days at Livestream, I would wake up in the middle of the night at least three times a week to fix problems with our servers. I was even once asked to get off a plane because I couldn’t shut down my laptop as the flight was about to take off! (Livestream was down and a server needed a restart, there was nothing in the world that could prevent me from doing it). In my mind, I was saving the company money — but I was thinking small, not big. I realized that we had grown to the point that it was no longer a matter of if I could afford another person, it was more that I couldn’t afford not to hire. One of the first hires I made in this vein was when I finally brought in our first Site Reliability Engineer (SRE). It was a miracle. I discovered that someone much more qualified than me was able to help us scale the service, while I was able to focus on building the business. At the end of the day, that discovery was priceless.

3. “SURROUND YOURSELF WITH THE RIGHT PEOPLE’’– Over the years, I’ve learned the value of surrounding yourself with smart, sophisticated advisors and investors who are in it with you for the long run. Most of them will tell you that they will help you with hiring, fundraising and partnerships, by connecting you with the best talent and companies. But the great ones will help you benchmark yourself against the best companies in your market, category or industry, and will know how to guide you to become like those companies. It can be very lonely running a business, and part of the challenge is being able to have validation for the decisions that you make. Your investors and advisors should help you with that, because they have a unique external view on the business while being deeply invested in your success.

4. “OBSESSIVELY FOCUS ON USERS” — As you go through various phases of growth in a tech business, it’s easy for your team and yourself to disconnect from your users — because of misaligned incentives, because you’re focused on internal issues, or just because of a false sense of comfort. Make sure you institutionalize your focus on users, by tracking and obsessing on the right metrics, by bringing the voice of users into your operating cadence, and by giving customer-facing teams like sales, support, and customer success the right visibility and forums in your company.

5. “SPEND SOME AMOUNT OF TIME ON NETWORKING”- It’s easy to get so absorbed in your business that you forget that you’re part of a community — I’m not only talking about customers or people in your industry, but also the broader tech ecosystem, other founders, investors, the media, etc. Admittedly, this is something we didn’t do well at Livestream and we found ourselves isolated at times. Networks of like-minded individuals can offer you so much — advice, introductions, guidance, fundraising support.

You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂

Unquestionably, it would be to inspire more people to be makers. I’ve frequently thought about our collective ability to create something from nothing as an immense privilege. In the world of software, it’s a superpower. I don’t assume that everyone is in a position to take the risk of building a business from the ground-up, but if you’re able to, do it, and do it as much as you can to create change for good around you.

How can our readers further follow your work online?

I am on Twitter at https://twitter.com/markkornfilt or LinkedIn at https://www.linkedin.com/in/mark-kornfilt-a8875a/

Thank you so much for the time you spent doing this interview. This was very inspirational, and we wish you continued success.


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