Industry Profile: Howard Becker
By Larry LeBlanc (CelebrityAccess MediaWire)
This week In the Hot Seat with Larry LeBlanc: Howard Becker, CEO, Comet Technologies.
Howard Becker, CEO of Comet Technologies, is absolutely delighted that his privately-held company recently launched the social networking and social network marketing applications Twitpump, Gamenion, and Sportadore.
Co-founded by its chairman Victor Sviadoschóa marketing and technology entrepreneuróand CTO Valeri Chirokov, a software and internet Research & Development manageróComet Technologies launched in 2001 to develop algorithms for the purpose of compressing, transmitting and viewing video over dial-up telephone connections.
Comet, based in Cleveland, Ohio, went on to pioneer and patent the technology for the streaming of live video through cell phones.
By 2004, Comet introduced the first free videophone service specifically targeted at dial-up users.
In 2005, Becker joined the company as CEO. With a consulting background in technology commercialization, and experience in technology and consumer products, he had the background to develop a strategic plan for Comet that targeted security and media markets.
Becker is a former CPA who has overseen numerous startups, including for software security, web acceleration and geo-location firms. He has also been a CEO for both Signature Works, and Hartford Eichenauer, Inc. as well as senior VP of corporate development for Gibson Guitar Corp.
Becker earned an MBA from the University Of Chicago Graduate School of Business. He also has a B.S. in Management, Minor Economics from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy, New York.
As cell phone technology caught up with its live streaming technology, Comet targeted the journalism market by launching its First2Air product line in 2006. First2Air is a mobile application that provides direct live-to-TV air broadcast of streaming video from a cell phone.
Fox News, CNN, ABC News, GEO, Multimedios are among the news organizations that have utilized First2Air.
In 2006, Comet began providing live streaming capabilities to the consumer market. It launched its first mobile social networking experience, focusing primarily on live streaming video. This product, morphed into Phlyr, was provided to AT&T as a live streaming platform for cell phones.
After developing multimedia social network marketing technology last year, Comet prepared to launch the Gamenion, and Sportadore websites; as well as Twitpump, a social networking marketing plug in 2011.
Gamenion is a gamer-centric website with messages that include references to particular games, and game-related keywords. The messages are categorized by game, so that a user can see all the social networking communications related to that game. The website includes unique data bases, where a user can see all the messages from people within their social network that relate to games.
Sportadore is similar in concept to Gamenion, except its proprietary robots search and bring together all Twitter and Facebook messages with key sports and individual athlete related keywords. Users can view all the messages related to a single team, or can view messages from everyone within their social network.
Launched last month, Twitpump is intended to keep followers and friends on a customerís website while aggregating followers and friends. Twitpump offers these friends and followers direct purchasing opportunities from the customerís web site. It allows all multimedia, including pictures, music, video clips, and real time live streaming to be included within messages sent from computers and smart phones.
Twitpump is a social networking marketing plug?
Itís a very cool product. We launched it in Cleveland (on April 18, 2011). We think that we have found something here. Itís a model where we allow businesses to have their social networking platform on their website; and they are able to stream live video onto their website. Since they can do that on their website, they can get even more people to their website; and they can then get more fans, friends, or whoever to their website. More people, more eyeballs, more revenues, more profit to them.
Something like Twitpump isnít in the marketplace?
We hope that we have hit the niche at the right time. A lot of businesses, if they have either a Twitter or a Facebook page, are sharing real estate with Twitter and Facebook branding. They canít sell right on their site. But with Twitpump, we give them a three line script that they can plug right into their website. They have the time line right there. Plus all of their messages go to Twitter and Facebook as well so they donít lose anything off their current marketing strategy.
At the same time, they bring people back to their website where thereís a ďbuyĒ button next to the time line if they want to stream an event or stream some studio time. They can do it right to their site. They donít have to worry about anybody else putting ads around it. They can sell T-shirts right next to the live event.
In essence, Twitpump is an enhancement of Twitter and Facebook, with increased control by the user.
Exactly. We donít perceive ourselves competing with Twitter or Facebook. We view what we do as building on them. If weíre successful, and if our customers are successful, it will bring more people into the Twitter and Facebook communities.
But you are piggybacking on Twitter and Facebook.
We are piggybacking on them because it is their user base that is going to the customerís website. (Twitpump) is a specific niche for business. It works well with entertainers and musicians. Lady Gaga might have millions of followers on Twitter but if she had the Twitpump plug on her website, those people could come to her website rather than going to her Facebook page with all of the (direct) opportunities in engaging them for her concerts.
(Twitpump) reduces the number of clicks by one to three. Plus, you are able to have the ďbuyĒ button there, and not have to share the real estate with all the (Facebook) friends stuff, and all of the Twitter followers stuff on Twitter.
Twitpump is still kind of an enhanced Twitter.
Itís useful for business people to be able to send out a message; and itís useful for a business, like a Disney or a cruise line, to have this on their website. With (Twitpump) they can have people streaming video and have fun things happening. They can put up video clips and picturesóall of thatóand itís all oriented around their brand rather than somebody elseís. So there are some interesting corporate opportunities for it.
You offer a customer more control over their brand.
Absolutely. They control their brand. All their graphics can be there; however, they want to link with the rest of the website. Yep, itís an issue of control. As a side issue, the social networking that we are offering is incrementally better than either Facebook or Twitter because with the mobile media, people can attach whatever they want to their site, including using live streaming as well.
Itís kind of a one-stop shop for the users because with Twitter, if you want to attach a picture you have to go through Twitpic. Then it goes to Twitpic. What do you do when you look at Twitpic? If thereís a picture attached, it gets clicked on and what is surrounding the picture is the customerís website. We have all of the features in one place. Our messages can be up to 4,000 characters.
So Twitpump gets the message out, and lets customers show fans or whatever what they want to showcase.
Yeah. The other thing is fans can put messages up on a customerís time line, where it is not just uni-directional like Twitter, itís bi-directional. Of course, we give the company the back end where they can moderate it. If they want to opt into that feature they can. If they opt in, they can edit out the messages that they donít want.
You arenít using an advertising model for Twitpump.
The model is that the customer has a monthly licensing fee. At this point, the typical fee is $199 a month for the plug in; they get the ability to stream live video. It is run off our servers. They donít have to do a thing. It takes 15 minutes for them to download the script onto their website and to have it show up. For a corporation or any type of entertainer, that isnít a bad deal.
You launched Twitpump with no pre-marketing. How are you spreading word about it?
The initial phaseóthe first six weeks of our marketing planóis to hopefully have opportunities to talk to the media; use the viral network; use the social networking approach to marketing without a significant investment in what would be considered classic advertising. Then, at the end of that six to eight week period, we will see where we are; and determine where we want to go to the next step.
We launched Twitpump last month. We plan to launch Sportadore on May 3. Then we will launch Gamenion two weeks after that. Hopefully, two weeks after that, we will launch something else.
Not having any pre-marketing is quite a reactive strategy.
It is, but with something new, I like to get it out first and through interviews and technical discussions, get people engaged in the whole thing; get people interested; and get feedback before going onto Phase 2.
You want people to use the product and spread the word?
Yes. If we can use this approach to get some users, get them involved, get people getting people, and get the information, that helps create a more classical marketing approach. Then proceed from there.
Tell me about Gamenion and Sportadore.
These are very interesting. We have these little robots that go through the internet and (with Sportadore) any time anything is said about a certain sporting team, a member of the team or anything related to that team, we pull that message, and we categorize it, and list it. Which may sound simple. Some people call that aggregation, but we are doing more than aggregation. We filter news, and we have guys in the background trying to keep up with it.
Not only does Sportadore get all of the information about the team, but a customer can find out what his friends are saying about a team on the internet.
Yes. For example, if I have a Facebook friend, I will see the messages about the (Cleveland) Browns that he is sending. (Sportadore) accumulates Twitter and Facebook messages that go out on the Internet. We have a cumulative of over two million messages for sports. Interestingly, we have put a Twitpump plug on (Sportadore), so a person can use the Twitpump services from the Sportadore page.
Gamenion has the same model for the gaming industry?
For video games and the like. The thing that makes it significantly different is the fact that I can go to a certain game and find out what all my friends are saying about that game. That is something that you canít really do anywhere else.
Why start with sports and gaming sites?
If you look at the market for computers, and the internet, the biggest single dollar value is anything related to games. So we thought that it would be a good target. Gamers are some of the most significant social networking people. They were some of the people who were networking and blogging during all of the early days of social networking that kind of drove the volume. So, we thought that if we did that, it would be good. The first music version will be ready, hopefully, in early June.
Are Gamenion and Sportadore both advertising based?
Exactly. They are advertising based. Quite honestly, from a business point of view, each of these might be useful in and of themselves for potential acquirers. Gamenion might be of interest to a brick and mortar game seller who wants a stronger social networking/internet presence. Sportadore could be of interest to anyone from ABC Sports to ESPN.
You joined Comet Technologies in 2005. How did you meet up with Victor Sviadosch and Valeri Chirokov?
Victor and Valeri met me at the trade show. We started talking about their product. They showed me this Motorola phone that was streaming live video. It was absolutely fabulous.
Plus it featured online audio as well.
Yes. It was unbelievable. They said that they wanted to primarily focus on the security market. I said, ďWell, if you want to focus on the security market initially okay, but, obviously, the end game on this is the consumer market.Ē So we got together.
Why were they attracted to you?
During the period, I had been a consultant for startups. And I ended up in this little bit of a video field because I had done some consulting for a company called Intelligent Machine Concepts (in Titusville, Florida) that do video inspection of beverage cans. Beverage cans get produced at a rate of 50 a second. Itís a blur, but they figured out a way to do video so you could inspect 50 cans a second. Then, we sold that company and I then consulted for a company that was into video security. We were at this trade show where I met Victor and Valeri. I was in Florida at the time and I started working for the company there. By coincidence, my wife Hollee, who has been a structural engineer, decided that she wanted to go back to school and get a degree in architecture. She was accepted at Kent State University. So, thatís how we ended up only 40 minutes away from where Cometís headquarters were in Cleveland. So it worked out really well for both of us.
[Howard Becker resides in Streetsboro, Ohio, with his wife Hollee, an assistant professor in the School of Architecture and Interior Design at Kent State University.]
When Victor and Valeri showed you what they had, did they need startup capital at that point?
At the time, both Victor and other investor groups were in place. So, the money wasnít the issue. What they needed was someone who knew and had experience in technology. I had also done strategic playing (mastering complex game systems and problem solving).
Was the cost of developing Twitpump $6 million?
We have $6 million invested since the beginning in 2001. Every bit of that $6 million ended up being used in what is Twitpump. Of course, it went through variations, starting with the live streaming video. We have patents on the live streaming video in the lower band environment. But, it ended up being helpful even in higher band environments because we have a much higher quality. With cells phone, users are getting streaming from a mobile and all the other interactive things that we have put together. We built on that foundation. It is basically the same team that weíve had from 2001 that has been working with the company.
There was a big shake-up in the telecom market when Victor and Valeri started in 2001. Not a great time to be launching a new company.
Exactly. In fact, with the predecessor to Comet, the original first phase of the technology was for a telecom for the purpose of transmitting video and other large files over telephone lines. When the telecom bubble occurred, the investors in the company said, ďNow that we no longer have the telecom market available, shall we build the business on its own, in and of itself, and try to move forward that way?Ē Thatís how the company moved forward. It moved forward independently as result of the bubble.
Did the company lose any investors?
No, they are still there.
When you came to Comet in 1995, did you have to calm the investors?
Actually, all I had to do was to talk to the current investors, and put together the plan, show it to them, and they bought in. The investment group has been very supportive since that point. As we move forward, in order to grow to the next levels, we will need much larger sums of money. As appropriate, we will see if our current investment group wants to do it or if other people want to get involved.
Has the mobile marketplace just caught up with what Comet has been doing?
Well, weíve been ahead of (the market). Thatís it. Our technology has been ahead of the phones for the past 10 years. What has happened is that they got more memory, they got more battery and other things. And, as the technology has moved forward, they can do more with what our stuff is. We did a lot of work on live streaming video. We were the first people to ever stream live to air from a cell phone. We did it with a Windows mobile-based phone. Fox News started doing it a couple of years ago. We have done a lot on the streaming process.
It was in 2004 that Comet offered video streaming with dial-up. Thatís amazing.
We were doing it on dial-up on some old Motorola phones. It was just unbelievable. It was so cool. It started out black-and-white, and then when the first smart phones came out, we then had to re-write the codes for the Symbian (operating system and software platform designed for smart phones) and Windows. Then, as iPhone and Android came out, we had to move forward with that.
With mobile phones, even the smart phones, the screens for video are probably smaller than what people really want.
Well, on a mobile phone with the size of it today, you are 100% correct. For me, if I want to view a video, if Iím on a plane or somewhere, I need almost a 3 (inch) by 4 1/2 (inch) type of screen size or an iPad. But the iPad is a little larger. I saw some of the early Nokias where they were experimenting with sizes in between. I figured that someone somewhere along the line would come up with something the size of one of the wallets that you put in a suit pocket. A little bit bigger than todayís mobile phone.
The iPhone has been a game changer, but the Android phone with Google will likely have greater impact.
The iPhone was the game changer as far as changing the direction of mobile when it got moved in two years ago. Today though, the game changer may be the Android phones with Google. Just from a technical point of view, our guys like coding on Google. The platform is much more open, and thereís a lot more that can be done with it. As it has gone forward, Google is looking at expanding Android so that it goes on other platforms. That, I think, is a good move by Google. iPhone can be very rigorous and difficult as you do the development work for the mobile. For us at least.
iPhone has the most apps now that people are interested in.
Absolutely with iPhone. The last (figure) I read was 200,000 (apps) and growing. Thatís amazing. But you are right, itís changed everything. Itís going to be a continuing part of the change.
The introduction of music services with Google and Spotify will likely have a significant impact in the U.S. mobile market which seems to be behind other mobile markets like Japan and Korea in terms of the use of content on mobile.
Youíre right. Starting about three or four years ago, we were starting to see the mobility connected people in Korea. Then that expanded to Japan. The amount of content that has been delivered through Japan and South Korea starting three years ago has put (them) ahead of us. Plus they were using the more expensive phones.
Part of the problem in the past two or three years (in the U.S.) was (the smart phone) introductory pricing of $600 or $400. As things have come down more people can get them. The pricing is going to be the issue as to when everybody replaces their regular cell phone with some form of smart phone.
Meanwhile, music industry has to come to terms with varied ways of licensing content.
They are still using old models for monetization.
Yes they are. Monitoring the copyrights can be difficult. There are a lot of watermarks that you can put in place. But for every watermark that you put in place at a different level of encryption, you end up with a situation that someone will focus on and get into. Any type of security always has to be dynamic and in real time and always on line whenever somebody is listening. With all of the privacy issues, technically, it is a difficult challenge for them.
Right holders remain wary of the internet.
When I was with Gibson two years ago, I was working on a project that managed their video rights across all platforms. We tried to pitch it to Paramount, Disney and others. Even at the time, they were scared out of their wits that what had happened to the music industry would happen to them. But they were also scared out of their wits because the technology people didnít grasp how quickly that everything is going to one thing. Thereís not going to be ďits contentĒ and itís no longer how itís delivered, whether it is computer or MP3 or whatever. That doesnít matter. It is all about content available to everybody on everything and whenever they want it. The more you delay that (then) the business you have is going to go down the toilet.
Whatís your background?
I am originally from Connecticut from a small town called Middle Haddam. I grew up five minutes from the Goodspeed Opera House (in East Haddam). My dad was with the telephone company. He started as a lineman. By the time he retired, after 35 years, he was a supervisor of people who were linemen.
Your work experience has been diverse.
I have had three lives. I started out as a CPA. I went into manufacturing, and then I went into technology. Iíve kind of got this wide ranging, very broad spectrum of knowledge, from human resources to marketing to whatever.
In 1998, you made the move from technology to manufacturing.
I was CEO of several consumer products manufacturing companies. The biggest one was Signature Works out of Mississippi with about 500 people. We made brooms, mops and things for Wal-Mart and some stuff for the government. I moved from there and thatís when I went into technology.
When did you work at Gibson Guitar Corp.?
I went there while I was doing my consulting around 2006. Effectively, I was an employee, but I was more like an internal consultant. If there was a problem, Henry Juszkiewicz (chairman and CEO of Gibson Guitar Corp.) would say, ďHoward, this a problem. Go fix it.Ē So Iíd go and do research, talk to him about it, and try to fix it.
How was Henry Juszkiewicz to work with?
I found that he was very, very straight with me; and he was very creative, very energetic. He really knew what he was doing. I left him in a very positive environment.
During this period, you werenít at Comet Technologies on a day-to day basis?
What happened was that for about 18 months, I continued as the CEO of Comet but we set up a subsidiary, and brought in a new group of people who moved (the company) in a new direction. So, I wasnít involved on a day-to-day basis. I was working 100% for Gibson at the time. I got back into Comet last July (2010) on a day-to-day basis.
Why did you return to Comet?
We decided totally on (developing) a consumer product that took advantage of the new social networking environment.
It sounds as if Comet had been in conflict with itself while you wanted to create a social networking model.
Thatís it exactly. I think that you have identified what it was. What we learned very early on was that the professional market is limited to three or four major networks and thatís your customer base. Unless every one of their employees has a cell phone that can run your software then the market is even further limited.
Comet First2Air was being used by CNN, ABC and GEO TV.
First2Air is primarily used to stream live video. Part of my vision had been to create a social networking model. We were attempting bits and pieces along the way, but it was not until we decided to actually target the social networking model that I came back in full time.
You recognized a wider market for First2Air; and itís not far from there to Twitpump.
Itís a logical, rational move.
When you graduated with an MBA from the University Of Chicago Graduate School Of Business what did you expect to do?
I expected to go into the world of finance on Wall Street. I ended up accelerating my studies, and I graduated early. I was 22 when I had my MBA from Chicago. The first thing I did was decide to go into (one of) the Big 8 CPA firms. When you are young and in finance, thatís what you did. I was at Cooper & Lybrand for three years before it merged with Price Waterhouse (in 1998). I was in Chicago for 18 months, and then I was in Connecticut for 18 months.
Then, I decided that since I had seen everything in the world, and I was a whopping 24 years old, I decided that I knew everything. I said, ďIíve seen people run businesses; I can do better than that.Ē So I did the entrepreneurial thing. A friend and I bought a small heating element company, Hartford Heating Element Company in Newport, New Hampshire. It had $300,000 in sales and about 20 people. I put all of my savings together and borrowed as much as I could. We ended up in a joint venture with a German company (Eichenauer GmbH) and the name changed to Hartford Eichenauer. By the time I wrapped things up there 15 years later (as CEO), we had peaked out at about $10 million in sales.
Kind of a stretch to what you are doing today with Comet Technologies.
This definitely has a higher cool factor.
Larry LeBlanc is widely recognized as one of the leading music industry journalists in the world. Before joining CelebrityAccess in 2008 as senior editor, he was the Canadian bureau chief of Billboard from 1991-2007 and Canadian editor of Record World from 1970-89. He was also a co-founder of the late Canadian music trade, The Record. He has been quoted on music industry issues in hundreds of publications including Time, Forbes, and the London Times. He is co-author of the book ďMusic From Far And Wide: Celebrating 40 Years Of The Juno Awards.