Jason Mercer and Jason Weiss, who became friends as college undergrads at Stanford, had gone their separate ways from a career perspective. Mercer has gone to USC film school and shortly after getting his masters earned a Cannes Golden Lion for his work creating the renowned Reebok Superbowl campaign, "Terry Tate: Office Linebacker." As a pioneer of digital video marketing, he spent the next decade developing countless digital campaigns for established brands. Weiss was an engineer turned product and organizational lead who had been instrumental in helping grow several early-stage startups to be profitable, successful companies. Most recently, he had been an early executive at mobile gaming powerhouse Scopely, whose last nine mobile gaming titles have debuted at #1 in the app store.
Despite their different paths, the Jasons both ended up in Los Angeles where they quickly rekindled their college friendship. Several years ago, they shared their mutual frustration about discussing their favorite TV shows because they were "out of sync" with one another. When every sentence begins with "spoiler alert", you know you have a problem. Same went for movies, podcasts, and other media content. With the advent of DVRs, streamed downloading, and bulk season releases, their "on demand" and binge consumption of just about everything had impacted these two friends’ ability to talk about their favorite shows – even the ones they were both watching. The social networks and online forums posed the same conversational and discovery problems. The Jasons were convinced there had to be a better way.
When they spoke to their other friends (not named Jason) in the entertainment industry about audiences being out of sync, they discovered that the content creators and distributors were also impacted by this tremendous behavioral shift. Audiences skipping commercials spelled trouble for their revenue sources, and a meteoric rise in the amount of content was making marketing more expensive than ever.
It was clear a product that could reconnect creators, networks, brands and fans around their favorite shows would address major pain-points throughout the entertainment ecosystem. So Jason and Jason quit their jobs, raised a bit of early funding, brought on a local engineering team, and set off to build it. They called the company Cooler.
What it does
In the age of streaming and binge-watched media, Cooler reconnects audiences around shows and events they love, even if they're watching at different times. With its built-in content recognition (think Shazam on steroids) cooler places your comment at the exact moment of relevance — without spoiling anyone else. It also allows fans, friends, and insiders to instantly create smart GIFs of their favorite moments and share these reactions privately, across the Cooler community, or to any social or messaging platform. For consumers, Cooler fuels community, content, discovery and word-of-mouth recommendations. And for TV and media networks, streaming services and brands, Cooler is a powerful marketing engine that unleashes the viral potential of user-generated content.
How we built it
We knew a product that would hold value for TV creators, distributors, advertisers and audiences in a quickly evolving technical landscape would have multiple use cases. So from the beginning we architected Cooler as a platform that could be accessed by any type of client (e.g., web, mobile apps, tv apps, enterprise tools). Our first hire was a talented platform engineer who knew how to develop a scalable system with a robust API. Then we hired a user experience lead and two local mobile engineers, as we knew that – from a consumer perspective – mobile would be a key part of the offering.
Mostly though, we did a lot of experimentation. We tested several approaches that could reorient a digital conversation to the context of a specific piece of media. We discovered some approaches had been tried before unsuccessfully, and others simply weren't compelling experiences. But we continually interviewed prospective power users (e.g., TV critic bloggers, show producers, SubReddit moderators), trying new mechanisms and user interfaces until we discovered a combination of features users got really excited about.
The key was providing a platform that would allow users to react to any moment of their favorite show by instantly and effortlessly creating a GIF of that moment, with a built-in link to the source media context. That GIF could be customized with the user's meme reaction or whimsical comment and then shared not only within the Cooler community for that show or event, but also anywhere else – social networks, show recap blogs, SMS, messaging, etc. When other users saw these reactions in the app, they were blurred out with our special spoiler shield if they hadn’t gotten to that part of the episode yet. The user could always choose to override if they wanted to see, but it was another way we were able to build user trust with the platform, turning it from a piece of software into a true viewing companion.
Challenges we ran into
We ran into absolutely zero challenges while building Cooler. It was smooth sailing from the get-go and all the way through.
Hang on, that's not true. We've encountered an untold number of challenges along the way. Fundraising was, as always, challenging. We were, for some time, seen by professional investors as yet-another-social-network, which meant Mercer's unventilated garage had to serve as our headquarters for the six of us for a lot longer than we initially planned. But once we turned the corner on the technology and found a few "true believer" venture investors, that tide shifted.
We also had more difficulty than anticipated completing deals with the television networks, who were among the most excited during our research phase. Despite their enthusiasm for the product, turnover and bureaucracy at those organizations repeatedly stymied our progress.
Accomplishments that we're proud of
Two accomplishments about which we're particularly proud:
1) We not only secured a partnership, but also an investment with the creator and producers of "The Walking Dead," the biggest show on cable television. Their marketing team has actively used Cooler to annotate their behind-the-scenes commentary on each episode for the last couple of seasons, which has enabled them to engage with their most passionate fans while avoiding the spoilers that their community vocally despises.
2) Saying this as humbly as possible, our technology is awesome. Cooler uses auto content recognition not only to identify what show you're watching (using Shazam-like technology), but also to sync Cooler to your viewing. So as you're watching a show, it knows exactly where you are in that episode, down to the second, and can surface commentary from show insiders, celebrities, and other fans while you're watching – no matter when you're watching. Whether you’re watching on FOX, Netflix, or an old DVD. And if you see a moment you want to react to, you just tap a button, and Cooler instantly creates a GIF of the last few seconds you just saw. (Or you can create a GIF from any moment of your show after you're done watching.) You can customize and comment on the GIF, and then share it broadly. It gives everyone on the Cooler team a lot of fulfillment that what we built leaves such a positive impression on everyone we show it to.
What we learned
Though we intellectually knew it all along, we learned first hand that continually talking to both active and potential users was the best way to drive our product direction. Looking back, early on we spent a bit too much time pitching and not enough time asking questions of our customers. We would have saved a lot of time and failed experiments if we spent a bit more time analyzing and questioning our users' behaviors and surveying the sorts of users we hoped to attract.
What's next for Cooler
We're working on expanding our partnerships with networks and streaming services. There is a valuable mutual benefit to be had for content distributors and for Cooler if we together have outstanding insider and community reactions available for each of their shows.
We are also evolving the technology to be more effective for truly live events. Sports, news, political debates, and award shows are all ripe for lively community discussion, and we want Cooler to be the go-to platform to create and share reactions as they happen. It's more complex to process live feeds for audio sync and GIF creation, but we've had early success in our beta tests processing live sports feeds and feel the opportunity is too great not to pursue.