‘I Think the Truth Will Come Out’: Investor Pegasus Tech Ventures Sees Quibi’s Legal Woes as Proof of Future Success
Sam primarily covers entertainment and media for dot.LA. Previously he was Marjorie Deane Fellow at The Economist, where he wrote for the business and finance sections of the print edition. He has also worked at the XPRIZE Foundation, U.S. Government Accountability Office, KCRW, and MLB Advanced Media (now Disney Streaming Services). He holds an MBA from UCLA Anderson, an MPP from UCLA Luskin and a BA in History from University of Michigan. Email him at samblake@dot.LA and find him on Twitter @hisamblake
It's been nearly a month since Quibi launched into the fog of a pandemic. Chief Executive Meg Whitman and founder Jeffrey Katzenberg both expressed early approval at the mobile streaming app's 1.7 million downloads in its first week and another million the next.
But the high-profile startup, which raised $1.75 billion before any consumer had used its product, has faced criticism. Subscriber growth has slowed, with some reports showing that Quibi has fallen from among the most downloaded apps in the U.S. to outside the top 250.
Two marketing executives left in April, reports emerged of a duplicitous user-email leak, and an ongoing patent infringement lawsuit has intensified as investment firm Eliot Management has taken a stake in the plaintiff's case.
All this before anyone has even had to pay for the service, which offered free 90-day trials to April signups and free 2-week trials to anyone who's signed up since.
With so much to sort out, dot.LA wanted to hear the perspective of a Quibi investor. Anis Uzzaman runs Pegasus Tech Ventures, a Silicon Valley firm with $1.5 billion under management. In conjunction with corporate partner Asahi Broadcasting Group, Pegasus invested $35 million into Quibi's second round of funding earlier this year, which totaled $750 million.
Uzzaman talks about his firm's decision to invest in Quibi, his reaction to Quibi's first month, and expectations about the firm's future.
dot.LA: How did Pegasus end up investing in Quibi?
Uzzaman: We liked the company from the get-go. It's a perfect blend of technology and entertainment. The co-founders definitely caught our eye. We also liked that professionally made short content was something that was missing from the domain. There are famous platforms like TikTok, Vine, Instagram, and YouTube but none of them provide professionally made content like Quibi. The domain they were trying to address was empty.
The pitch that the Quibi team made to us was that they're going to play in a new domain where there is no direct competition. And that made sense. The pitch was also that some of the greatest personalities of the entertainment industry have already committed. It is not that easy to pull together a group of people like Jennifer Lopez, Reese Witherspoon, Benicio Del Toro, Steven Spielberg and so on and get a commitment from them for an upcoming new platform, so that was really attractive from an investor point of view. The other part that was interesting was that the advertisers were piling up. I think every single first-tier advertising slot was fully sold out before even the launch.
Anis Uzzaman runs Pegasus Tech Ventures, a Silicon Valley firm with $1.5 billion under management.
What was your valuation process and how did you make your decision?
We compared Quibi with several groups of relatively similar platforms who — not directly, but indirectly — can be competition. We looked at the last 10-plus years of YouTube, and also mapped Quibi against other short-content platforms like Vine, Instagram, and TikTok. We saw how those individual platforms have grown from their launch dates to today, and we looked at the people behind those platforms, their funding and their support infrastructure.
And then looking at Quibi, we relied heavily on the track record of the founders, and the other people working for the team. Did they have the right experience? Had they done it before? Had they experienced this kind of struggle? That was our number one point. Number two was funding, which got the green light because they already had some of the biggest investors on the planet. Then it was very important for us to see whether they had enough support infrastructure to be able to procure this content for the years ahead. And they had enough partnerships in place that gave us confidence. Plus, we had seen they had sold out their advertising slate — and you can guess that's a lot of money we're talking about there. So that's why we took a big risk.
What do you think motivated the major studios to invest in Quibi?
If you look at most of the studios, they have always created content for the big screen. If you look at the trends of the world, though, all the younger generations are not watching content on the TV anymore. All the data show that people who are watching TV for hours are 65 years old while young people are increasingly watching content on their mobile device. So all the big content makers who've targeted the big screen, they're also thinking, 'How can I be viable from here on, for the next century, for the new generations?' They are looking very carefully at all the new platforms that are coming out. And when Quibi was coming out I'm sure that all of the big content makers wanted to make sure they're part of this mobile platform that is becoming the main thing, where people are spending most of their time. And advertisers are also focusing most of their money there. So it is very important for the big content makers to be a part of this.
What did you think about Quibi's decision to stick with the April 6th launch date?
It was a little bit of an unusual situation because the app was made for on-the-go consumption. It was a challenging time. But hey, any startup should be ready for such challenges. COVID-19 is going to separate out the strongest startups from the weak ones and only the strong and most effective ones will survive. So I think it is a good test for Quibi to prove that they can survive. So far they have bypassed three million downloads, which is basically what we are expecting as investors.
If you look at some of the criticism, most of the complaints were, 'Why can't we watch this great content on a bigger screen?' Everybody was pushing Quibi hard to be able to do Airplay, because everybody's at home. So the launch has also helped Quibi to understand consumer demand, in this case being able to see the content on a bigger screen as well. They already had it in the plan and the process was made urgent because of the COVID-19 situation. Otherwise maybe that demand wouldn't have come into the pipeline that fast.
If you look at major pandemics from the past, most pandemics are anywhere from 12 to 18 months long. That's pretty long. And if you look at startup cycles — that is, the average time between funding rounds — they are also 12 to 18 months long. So if Quibi had waited it out, they would have had to wait a long time. Could they have waited it out another one and a half years? I think time is money and you never know what the competition is thinking. So in some sense, did they have any other option? I would say maybe they didn't.
Jeffrey Katzenberg | Jeffrey Katzenberg speaking at the 2014… | Flickr c1.staticflickr.com
Do you think accelerating the availability on bigger screens dilutes Quibi's competitive position?
The issue with many other platforms today is that the mobile version is not good enough to be seen on a mobile device, whereas Quibi has been created for mobile. So it doesn't dilute the original purpose because the picture quality of those videos are made for mobile. It has not diluted the original value of being able to see it on-the-go. But it has given some people the option to watch it while sitting on the couch.
What's your impression of Quibi's performance so far?
The numbers could be better but I would say they are pretty much in the ballpark, considering the overall situation of the market. Maybe they are a little short of where they should be if you're talking about a fast track company, but we feel we also need to consider the overall macroeconomic situation of the market.
In terms of the growth rate, I feel that it is gradual, which is what I like, rather than a quick spike. YouTube and Netflix did the same thing. Their growth was gradual. And Disney+ is not a great comparison — it has unique characteristics. So I will not be very worried. I will wait for the new content coming out. Top titles will probably drive traffic, because it's not actually about Quibi; it is the titles that will make the difference in the life cycle of this platform.
From the investor point of view, I think everything's fine as of now and we want them to keep up the current growth rate as much as possible.
Could you describe your outlook looking forward?
I'm sure that we will see an international expansion coming down the line, and that is going to also pull up their numbers quite a bit. Most of the top executives in entertainment and high-tech outside of the U.S. are watching the situation very closely and are very interested in having it in their countries as well.
The pandemic will likely slow international expansion, though, because you need local partners to launch in a new country. And none of the partners are able to operate at 100% at this point. Until content makers can operate 100%, it will be tough for anybody to do anything big and launch in a different country in a comfortable way.
To what extent does Quibi's patent infringement lawsuit concern you as an investor?
We are watching the situation very closely. We strongly believe the accusation is not true, because we know that both of the co-founders of Quibi have very high integrity and dignity. That's why they're so successful. It looks more to me that it's a financial game for the claimants and they're trying to make a big deal out of it. And seeing that some of the hedge funds are supporting it also sounds to me like it's a financial game. I think the truth will come out. I'm sure all investors are closely watching the situation, but does it put any doubt in our mind about the Quibi team? Absolutely not.
How open was Quibi to discussing the case with you as you were considering investing?
The case was pretty open from the get-go and it has been kept in a very open state in front of us by the Quibi team. We knew about it. We knew this very openly from the get-go and we still decided to invest.
Did it raise your eyebrows when you saw Elliot Management get involved?
Not really. I feel that the financial game could also be that people are looking for a short-term settlement — it's no secret that Quibi raised a lot of money. I don't know what the hedge fund's goal is but they might have similar motivation for a short-term gain. Does it concern us? It definitely tells me that the management team has to address it properly and I'm sure they're working very hard on it. But I strongly believe that it is a false accusation. In some sense I would say it's proof that Quibi is going to dominate this domain; people are already starting to take shots at it and trying to make some financial gain from it.
What's your stance on Quibi's reported plan to spend $1 billion in year one?
There are two ways that startups can grow. One is in a kind of a stingy way, where they're counting every single dollar, and they hire only if they really need to. We've seen those models more in very heavy high-tech industries, things like quantum computing and pharma, where you need to go slow and steady.
The other way is you move fast before anybody else can come up with something similar. The media and entertainment industry does that. Quibi's setting up a platform; they're the first one of its type in the market, so I think moving fast and grabbing the market is not a bad idea. I would have done it the same way if I was the CEO of the company.
(The interview has been lightly edited for clarity and brevity)
Sam Blake covers media and entertainment for dot.LA. Find him on Twitter @hisamblake and email him at samblake@dot.LA
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