April 28, 2020

Kevin Lin

Kevin Lin sits down to talk early days of Justin TV, what kept motivation high internally, and what's next for Twitch.

Kevin Lin

Where or when did your interest with video games start?

It started when I was a kid; my brother who is 14 years older had an Atari. By the time I was 3, he went to college; I grew up in New Orleans. I was always a shy kid and never really wanted to socialize too much. Spending a lot of time at home, hanging out with my parents or reading books. As they were gone a lot, I found my brother’s Atari and played games like Stampede, Boom, Pong. That’s where it all started.

Eventually when the Nintendo came out, I got one of those. Played a lot of Mario, Zelda, Dragon Quest… somehow, I got a free copy of Dragon Quest through Nintendo Power.

My cousin went back to Taiwan a lot and come back, bringing me Famicom [cartridges] with 100’s of games on them. I played a lot of those games as well, which was great.

That was sort of my past intro to video games. Eventually, in high school, I started playing Warcraft and Warcraft II, graduating into Brood War and Warcraft III, then StarCraft II. Video games have been a large part of my life, ever since I can remember going to the arcade and playing Street Fighter.

I was in a little [bowling] league; the only sport I consistently played for a while. They had an arcade in there as well.

Going into the idea of Justin [Kan] making JTV, his intention was to make this solely dedicated to showcasing his life, correct?

There was no initial intention of a platform or allowing others to stream as well, until the community piped up about it.

Did you or anyone else involved as a founder have any inkling that this would be larger in the long run when you subscribed to Justin’s idea?

Yeah, the original concept that they pitched was this reality show, a 24/7 reality show.

I think there was an inkling of realization that this thing was going to become much bigger than it was; certainly, the investors watched that way. It was the end of 2006 and Justin was raising seed money and getting some media attention.

You could say the belief was there, but it wasn’t on the top of everyone’s minds. As soon as feedback from the community started flowing in, and more people passed by the office [in-person]… once that started to peak, then we were thinking ‘oh, okay, millions of people can do this,’ but everything was still EVDO [cards] at the time. You absolutely could walk around any given city and stream 24/7. 3G came out later in 2008, signals got stronger, and then the wheels started to really turn.

You’ve stated in the past, this quote: ‘these days a lot of these kids pay themselves way too much money, and don’t have the urgency of busting ass to win’ – do you think that plays a part in JTV reigning supreme in the wars of livestreaming platforms early on?

Sure, so that comment was primarily based on my experience sort of traveling around the startup space(s) in Taiwan, but I do think it’s somewhat true. Urgency helps. The urgency we felt; not paying ourselves too much, even. We paid ourselves $75,000/year; it sounds like a lot, but in San Francisco, it really isn’t. Especially today, that amount is difficult to make livable.

Folks that pay themselves several hundred thousand dollars a year, there may not be that urgency. There are many life situations, right? Families and whatnot that have to be taken care of. A person’s desire to become an entrepreneur should not be limited by their life surroundings.

For us [JTV/Twitch] at least, it [the urgency] really pushed us. Not only to think about our own lives, but others’ as well. Remember, we were in the recession when this was all happening. 2008, 2009 when we were really starting to expand the platform for general free-use. That was also a very different and unique experience we had, versus today. Now, with coronavirus (COVID-19) occurring, you’ll see a whole other slew of companies. But, circling back, yes, the urgency definitely pushed us.

Marcus has mentioned a time where you called him and asked him to rebrand everything due to JTV turning into Twitch; a moment that made him furious, but in retrospect, can be laughed at. Can you break that down? Do you recall this?

Yes!

He was on Ustream and I believe the biggest change to the business that happened during Twitch’s development was the number of customers we were talking to and reaching out to. Marcus was not super excited to hear from us in the beginning, I don’t think. Understandably, because he didn’t know us; we were not good at customer-facing stuff for a super long time. Our brand was this generic brand, with little-to-no marketing around JTV. Eventually we got him [Marcus] on the phone and explained what we were trying to.

A lot of people have mentioned your name, especially in the space of esports.

Esports is something that we all loved; we were watching GSL, we were doing… we were all fans. One thing led to another and he eventually switched over. I want to think that it was because he felt like we were listening; for us, we were building something that made sense to gamers. Our goal the whole time was to build a home for gamers to hang out on the internet. Without that feedback, without really knowing it was that people wanted, we couldn’t have done it.

It was part of that personal outreach. What came across as ‘care’ as you mentioned, was really genuine care. We were users ourselves of our own product; that was something that fundamentally shifted our thinking. That fundamental fact that we were building something that we wanted to use.

Frankly, with JTV, no one was really watching any of it or using our own website. For it to shift into something we were using, on a daily basis, while having our own thoughts on what we should be building… we had to make sure we gut-checked that with what people and the community wanted. Those lines were made open, and remain open today.

That whole story around the Twitch thing, yeah. [laughs]

I remember Marcus and his crew building and creating all of the assets. He was at MLG Columbus I think, when I made the call to Scott [Smith] and I said:

Hey Scott, I’m really sorry man, but we’re going to be changing the brand.

I actually told him that it was going to be Zarth, which was Twitch’s project name that almost became the final name. Scott just paused on the phone and was like ‘you’re out of your f-… you’re out of your mind’ and I said I was kidding and it was going to be Twitch.

[laughs]

Those were the types of relationships we needed. Direct communication, and able to take the heat and criticism while making change and growing as fast as possible.

What was the largest obstacle at Twitch early on? The stream sputtering early on, the scaling, the delivery network?

Even the sputtering you mention early on was an obstacle; this was growing faster than anyone had anticipated and from JTV, we had a lot of our own infrastructure. We were also working with CDNs [content delivery networks], third-party CDNs at the time. The traffic was just so much, the people were not prepared for it. That was a big part of it.

Also, really, it boils down to resources and resourcing. We had raised a little bit of money in 2008, prior to the recession and during the fastest periods of our growth, it was hard to raise money due to the recession. We were coming out of it. That made things… you know, we had to stay incredibly scrappy.

We were growing in Germany one month, then we’d grow in Brazil all of a sudden, and it was very difficult to predict where these growths were going to occur. Potentially, wherever people would find out about us, we had the potential to have a spurt. This would happen periodically.

I remember an Age of Empires event in Vietnam; all of a sudden, our traffic there was spiking, but we had no servers even close to Vietnam. It was very hard to figure out where to prioritize, we had to be careful wish cash, sensitive to investing so-to-speak with regions where we could potentially make money, so we weren’t just blindly paying for bandwidth and losing money. We had to think about that as we grew.

We had competitors, we had sales channels issues on media sales… we had all kinds of things that we were up against.

I wanted to bring it back to Marcus and what you believe his impact to be at Twitch, or in a larger sense, just the esports scene as a whole.

Without Marcus, who knows where we would be. Marcus brought everything from product ideas to ultimately policy on how we handle the site. The community. A lot of everything you see from rules of conduct to our partner development program to everything we’ve done at Twitch Studious, video programming internally… Marcus touched. Truly cross-company impact. He’s helped the sales team on campaign ideas, helped the marketing team with how to approach and pitch to video game companies. He’s brought massive impact.

I think the biggest thing that was more on the cultural side of keeping Twitch frankly honest and making sure that we were considering creators and their needs and their hopes and dreams, as we think about policy and product in regards to smart business decisions, all the while… a lot of the work we did was in some ways, a full-blown advisor to young creators or those who didn’t know where to look for advice. We’d lend an ear to everyone and anyone, from when they had a breakup to helping them find an accountant to manage finances correctly.

Marcus did a lot of that, hands-on, and continues to do that today. He influences our social media strategy, marketing strategy, and so really brought influence and impact all throughout the JTV days into today.

For me, Marcus exemplifies exactly what we were hoping would happen with Twitch. Someone that can bind the community through great content, engage with that community, and make a living off of it, all the way to the hopeful side of starting to reach thousands, then millions around the globe. The ability to share your gameplay is one thing, and the ability to build a career or supplemental income through that is another.

Marcus exudes that [process]; the way he lives his life: no matter what, he will find a way to turn a passion, a community, an industry, into something sustainable.

That to me is what Marcus stands for.

What do you want your legacy to be, going forward, or perhaps that of Twitch?

Sure, so for Twitch I’d definitely like to see more community and communities. We’re working on this now. We did Twitch Creative, lots of music stuff these days. Twitch is at minimum, a place to have fun in what otherwise may be a bland solitary experience. In some cases, a career.

I love those stories – “I bought my mom a car,” or “I was able to get myself out of debt because of Twitch,” things like that; the feeling that people can be their own boss and do something around something they hold true passion about.

I don’t believe the golden adage of “chase your passion” or the idea of “if you find something you’ll love, you’ll never work a day in your life” type stuff; I find that to be very cheesy. It’s more pragmatic than that; you need to chase a passion with a business model around it.

On one hand, Twitch is a connective tissue. Truly deep in terms of engagement, the establishment of friends; real friends for the rest of your life. On the flip side, I hope that it’s a place that people can find new ways to be independent to make money their way. To build a community of like-minded people, where people can find their own type of entertainer that wouldn’t be found through traditional means, and build onto that.