As soon as you're buzzed through the doors in shiny-windowed Coal Harbour, you know BroadbandTV (or BBTV) is not your typical West Coast start-up. You're greeted not by bros, beams and brew-taps but by precisely curated decor including a grand piano and a jet-black pair of Gaetano Pesce's La Mama chairs, designed in 1969 to symbolize the oppression of women. As for the dress code, here's BBTV's founder, Shahrzad Rafati, in an outfit from edgy Japanese label Sacai and four-inch heels.
Rafati and BBTV explode not just the stereotype of the Vancouver tech scene but also that of the Canadian media. With the exception of now New York-based Vice Media, Canada has never had a new media company that's so aggressive or successful. Earlier this year, according to comScore data, Broadband surpassed Disney's Maker Studios as the world's largest multi-platform network, or MPN.
Companies like these make their revenues mostly by signing up YouTube channel owners, then providing them with ad sales, administration help, creator tools and ancillary services. BBTV has plenty of competition in this space, but there are a lot of channel owners out there, and their videos are watched by a lot of people. The company counts 85,000 content creators in its roster, and their combined 18.2 billion monthly impressions make BBTV the world's fourth-largest "video property," according to comScore—behind universal carriers Google (primarily its YouTube unit) and Facebook but ahead of other MPNs like Maker or music brand Vevo. Revenues generated by the 400-employee private company aren't disclosed—but they're growing at an annual rate of 149%, says Rafati. Not bad for a venture that launched with a nebulous hardware premise shortly after Rafati graduated from a University of British Columbia computer program.
That was in 2005, when Rafati was 25 and only a few years removed from her birthplace of Tehran, which she left on her own as an ambitious teenager. BBTV was about six months into its hardware phase, she says, when another opportunity presented itself. YouTube had just launched that same year; creators and content owners quickly found that it was difficult to control or profit from their videos.
Rafati jumped in, mostly to help them fight piracy. Her little company quickly began to pick up customers. In 2009, she had 20 in hand. Then she landed a really big fish. "When we went to the NBA, we knew exactly what we could do with them, how we could manage their views, how we could help them control their content," she says. "It was a truly turnkey solution; they didn't have to do anything."
Then the video landscape began to shift, and BBTV shifted along with it. Video producers and content owners—including the fans and makers of mash-ups who'd been viewed as pirates—were effectively becoming broadcasters, turning an entire generation into watchers of phones and computer screens instead of television sets. BBTV jumped in to facilitate the transition by ensuring that the content available online covered all the topical bases and was as appealing as the competition's. Today the company offers a suite of tools to help creators make better videos, not to mention studio and production facilities of its own. "We're creating a really solid revenue engine," says Rafati—an engine that benefits both the content creators and the big media companies.
Ad sales are a key source of revenue, but others are growing, Rafati says—"licensing revenues, app revenues, merchandise revenues." Often those revenues are measured in pennies, but the pennies add up. In August, a gaming app that BBTV developed for Latin American YouTuber Fernanfloo topped global charts with 2.3 million downloads in its first week.
In 2013, Rafati sold a 51% stake in BBTV to European broadcast conglomerate RTL (part of the Bertelsmann empire) for $36 million (U.S.). That helped pay for Rafati's Class A office space, while also allowing her to accelerate a program of launches and acquisitions that now sees BBTV with dozens of networks. That's in keeping with a phase that Rafati thinks both BBTV and the video world are entering—as originators more than documenters, regurgitators or as a secondary support medium.
Among BBTV's brands are leading gaming and kids' networks TGN and HooplaKidz; the largest hip-hop and electronic dance music networks, Opposition and WIMSIC; and news network Outspeak, launched with the Huffington Post. The long-standing NBA partnership has BBTV's Playmakers complementing the largest pro sports channel on YouTube.
The lineup covers some of the fastest-growing "verticals" in the video world—a strategic focus that BBTV thinks gives it an advantage over competitors and helps account for its rapid growth, further aided by a technology edge traceable to Rafati's computer background.
BBTV's arrangement with RTL-owned Fremantle Media sees it not only managing uploads for some 200 television series but also co-producing original programming in entertainment, music and gaming genres.
On a meeting room wall, a design element arranges a stream of binary code to spell out Rafati's personal credo: "You become what you believe." She's not the first to express that sentiment, but she brings an edge to it. Those La Mama chairs in the lobby are there for a reason. One of the things driving her, she says, is that, while there are many inspiring female leaders, "we don't have a Steve Jobs or Mark Zuckerberg," the kind of transformative founder who tilts the planet in a new direction. She's working on it.
Editor's note: An earlier version of this story said BroadbandTV was the world's eighth-largest "video property" according to comScore. In fact, it is the fourth largest. This online version has been corrected.