Episode 48 | Crunchyroll: Kun Gao
He watched anime because some of the stories in anime talks about hard work and dedication and building yourself up. And so through that he started lifting weights, he started going to the gym and then all of a sudden he became this huge NFL player who continues to love anime.
Below is an abridged audio transcript of Episode 48 from Season 4 of Rock The Boat: Making Waves, edited for clarity.
A lot of Asian Americans grew up on Sailor Moon and Dragon Ball Z. We'd rush home and turn on the TV to catch the next episode in the series. Nowadays, the people of the world are lucky to have online video streaming services that serve that anime need. Back when online video was in its infancy, Kun Gao and his cofounders started Crunchyroll as a user content based anime site.
Finally, anime lovers could upload their favorite shows and share them with their friends on a site that was for them. Not only that, there was an active forum to connect with other viewers and community members. In this podcast episode of Rock the Boat, Lucia talks to Kun Gao about being Asian American, starting Crunchyroll, and taking it the next step into the 21st century by switching from user content to licensed content.
Find out about:
What new businesses Kun worked on
The NFL player who was inspired as a child by anime to start working out and lifting weights
How he went to Japan to get the licenses to monetize Crunchyroll content
I. Kun's Origin Story
Kun: I was born in Beijing and moved to the US, Houston when I was eight, then Los Angeles when I was 10. And I spent most of my most of my childhood there, undergrad at UC Berkeley, grad school at Carnegie Mellon, and then back to the Bay Area for work. I think as a kid growing up, I don't think I had a very remarkable childhood and or in any way I just remember you know having having fun hanging out with friends and you know doing the normal things that any kid would do.
Lucia: And do you see any of the types of like projects that you worked on as a kid to reflect on the things that you did for Crunchyroll or for Hot or Not?
Kun: I think As a kid I always enjoyed building things tinkering around building playing with you know toys And I think that probably led to me being being an engineer I think when you grow up in a in an Asian family typicallyit's impressed upon you to either be a doctor or a lawyer or an engineer And so I think that's the the the route I took
Lucia: And did you ever have any pushback to being an engineer or you were kind of like, "Okay, I'm going to be an engineer"?
Kun: When I was graduating from Berkeley, the expectation was for me to go to grad school, to go into academia or to go into industry. Those days, it was to go work for Microsoft or work for Nvidia. So I ended up taking the academic route and went to Carnegie Mellon for a few years. And it was certainly a really interesting experience.
And at some point I just I had I made an internal decision that you know academia is great if you're into research.
I wanted to do things that have a very immediate impact in people's lives And that seemed at the time a lot easier to accomplish to do via via a startup.
Lucia: He started working on another side project before going back to hot or not full time. The side project that he started would later be known as Crunchyroll.
Kun: I got back together with a bunch of Berkeley friends and we you know we in in our in our off time we just we just wanted to tinker. And that really comes from our engineering background and wanting to build things that get product market fit and crunch was one of the ideas we had at the time.
We just wanted to build a video sharing site. And part of it was really more a technical slash academic exercise because video was pretty new at the time online and it wasn't just something you can do off the shelf. You have to make your own servers. You had to go find and customize encoders. You have to figure out how to decode video on your web browser. You have to figure how to deliver the bits. And so there was actually a lot of heavy lifting and we just thought it was cool to make a video project. And so we ended up doing that.
We shared it with our friends who for the most part were Asian. And they ended up uploading a lot of Asian content they couldn't normally watch in the US and that's kind of how the content programming of Crunchyroll was started.
Lucia: At what point did you decide to name it Crunchyroll?
Kun: The story behind that was one of our co-founders friends was actually, we all were friends, also playing online games together. And this friend in particular his screen name on Battlenet was Crunchyroll. And that's actually a pretty good name if you wanted to build a more Asian centric service of some kind. And so we basically adopted that name.
And I guess the other version which we kind of tell in hindsight in success is that a Crunchyroll is a California roll that's been dipped and battered and deep fried. And so it's got a crunch when you bite into it.
It's really our way of taking something that is very Japanese, the concept of sushi, and making it adapted for Western taste.
III. Crunchyroll goes big
Lucia: So as Crunchyroll grew, you guys all quit your jobs, you're maxing out your credit cards, cash is strapped. I saw that in an interview you did that VCs ended up approaching you.
Kun: Yeah that's right. So we will we first took a little bit of angel funding from the folks that we worked for in the past. Then we had to figure out, well how do we go raise money. I think fortunately because the site was growing so much back in the day you have the site called Alexa not not a not an audio service but a web web service that you can look up how traffic was doing. And we were we were one of the top trending sites on Alexa for some time.
And so as a result we got a decent amount of inbound requests from VCs. And so from that process we talked to a bunch of VCs and they were all pretty excited about what what we what we were building we found the right VC partner with, then we raised funding beginning of 2008.
Lucia: So you raised money and you guys keep growing I know that you attribute the growth to Crunchyroll to the incredible community That you've built around video sharing I'm curious what that community looked like.
Kun: It was definitely a conscious effort by our part to build community because I think when you talk about anime it is very much a passionate community of fans, and you see that you see that everywhere.
We built a very robust set of community and forum features. We seeded the community with a lot of discussion around various things, not just anime. And we made sure to appoint moderators in the community who we felt could have the right balance and tone that as they're moderating and growing the community. And so I think all of those things eventually contributed to us being successful in this space.
The company was founded with six cofounders and once we went full time four people joined full time of the six and then about a year in one person left, so it was three of us.
And then about five years in it was just myself.
Lucia: What was that like?
Kun: It was definitely a pretty tough time. I think it was very much outside of my comfort zone. I had to figure out a lot more of people management, how do I scale myself beyond just the individual contributor. How do I try to attract and bring others to to join the business delegation things like that.
Lucia: While you were doing this on your own, did you have a sense of what you wanted the company to become?
Kun: It was just continuing on our mission I don't think that really changed. It was how do we bring anime to the entire world. And it was still a very big mission and it still attracted a lot of really talented people. And I think I was we were all fortunate in that regard.
Lucia: Who is like the coolest person you've met while starting Crunchyroll? Was there anybody that you you've met in the anime or manga industry that you were just like floored?
Kun: Tons. I think on the on the anime side, it was probably Minami-san of Bones. He was the producer of Cowboy Bebop, my favorite show. And it was just awe inspiring to meet the creators of some of your favorite content. And another would be Matsumoto-san. He is the creator of Gundam, in the sense that back in the day people didn't make Gundam models. It was his inspiration that you can build a model of a robot and then from there created Gundam the franchise.
On the fan side, there's just so many fans of anime across around the world. Many of them are not necessarily what you expect.
So the most surprising one and interesting I would say is the time I met Mike Daniels. He is an all pro football player for the green Bay Packers, huge dude, very athletic. And I found out that he was a very big anime fan and he ended up attending one of our Crunchyroll awards. And the back story with him was when he was in elementary school and middle school he was bullied a lot. And he was at that time a scrawny kid. And he watched anime because some of the stories in in anime talks about hard work and dedication and you know building yourself up. And so through that he started lifting weights. He started going to the gym and then all of a sudden he became this huge NFL player who continues to love anime.
Lucia: I want to ask you in wrapping up our latest signature question which is, how do you intend to rock the boat?
Kun: for me I think it is Trying to trying to set an example and trying to provide mentorship where possible to to to anyone who could could see benefit in in in my experience
Starting with you know moving to the US as a kid, landing in Houston, being the only Asian kid in my school, being bullied all the way, to the experience at Hot or Not, all the way to founding Crunchyroll and all the things that we did to build that and to build that business.
I would say one would be, don't necessarily feel like people are discriminating against you because you know a few I think people discriminate. People discriminate for many different reasons and it's not just necessarily ethnicity or race. It could be income, it could be what you wear, it could be anything. What I think is really awesome in in in my line of work is that with entrepreneurship it is an extremely level playing field, the most level playing field you'll ever get.
And I think being able to harness that power being able to create companies being able to take an idea and build it, because ideas don't discriminate, is something that's extremely powerful.
If you are a big anime fan, you should check out what Crunchyroll has to offer. There's anime and a vibrant community at your fingertips! If you want to read more about Kun Gao, check out this profile in Inc.
Kun's a fan of Cowboy Bebop
Samurai Champloo is another RTB favorite