Seung Bak is cofounder of DramaFever, a streaming service for Asian prime-time television, subtitled for the American and Canadian markets. The site recently closed a multi-million-dollar funding round, gaining backing from YouTube cofounder Steve Chen, among others. Fast Company caught up with Bak to talk about boys, flowers, telenovelas, and the future of TV.
What is DramaFever and how do you know if you’ve caught it?
What we’re building is a global online video platform for the best international TV shows and film. When you grow up overseas, or live outside the U.S., you develop an omnivorous appetite for entertainment. I grew up in Korea, watching Korean shows but also anime and dramas from Japan, action movies from Hong Kong, and stuff from China. Korean dramas are very popular throughout Asia, but we started noticing that even outside of Asia, many people in Europe and the Middle East–people in random countries–were creating subtitles and making a rudimentary video experience so people could enjoy these shows. It became clear to us that good content travels and crosses borders. We thought, “This is interesting–how awesome would it be if we could put together a clean, professional, highly curated experience?” It took us eight months to get our first license–we were just two guys with a PowerPoint calling up big media companies.
What were those early pitch meetings like?
My partner, who oversees licensing, was relentless. We’d just show up at media companies, because they wouldn’t answer our phone calls. “Who are you guys, and why are you here?” Other times, when we traveled through Asia, a lot of these folks don’t even speak English. We’d expect to walk into a nice office building, but instead we’d be in somebody’s apartment, with a guy in front of you, chain-smoking. It was fun, in retrospect, but very difficult. Finally someone gave us a shot, and we launched a rudimentary site in August of 2009.
How did the site fare at launch?
We threw a launch party at a club called Circle in midtown on a Wednesday, because it was the cheapest night to do it. There were literally four people working at the company, each of us doing everything imaginable. We were very scrappy. We got all these bloggers to write us up. Two hours before the doors opened, there was a line around the block. This was in August of 2009. Since then we’ve gone from zero to 1.5 million active monthly users, all in the U.S. or Canada. We have deals with about 60 different content owners from seven different countries.
Who’s watching this stuff? Mostly Asian-Americans?
That’s hardly the case. It’s one of the more surprising aspects of the business. I was prepared for the worst, which is just a bunch of Koreans coming to the site. But for a site that’s currently 100% Asian content, our audience is 70% non-Asian. Half our audience is Caucasian, and 20% is Black and Hispanic. If you visit our Facebook page, just by looking at the faces, you’ll see a lot of diversity.
What percentage of your content is Korean, specifically?
We have 400 titles on the site today, 10,000 episodes. About 80% of that is from Korea, with the balance from China, Taiwan, Singapore, the Philippines, and Japan.
It sounds like the Korean drama is to Asia what the telenovela is to Latin America.
If you look around the world, the TV drama format is by far the most dominant. It’s very similar to telenovelas in the types of stories: Usually there’s a man and a woman who want to be together but they can’t for a whole bunch of reasons. It’s a rich guy and poor girl, or there’s love triangles involved. But there’s variety on the site: historical drama, action stuff, the Asian equivalent of CSI…
What’s your favorite Korean drama?
Probably one of the more entertaining ones is Boys Over Flowers. It’s similar to Gossip Girl. It’s about a fictitious high school where boys are so beautiful, they’re more beautiful than flowers.
When do you plan to expand to new countries?
In Latin America, we have two parts to our strategy. The first part is simply to make the service available there. The second is to make the content of the site much more diverse. We’re pretty far into discussions with folks in Latin America. We’ll probably expand there very quickly.
How do you make money?
It’s a freemium model. Anyone can come to the site, and you watch a commercial every 10 minutes. If you want the commercials to go away, you can pay $10 a month. Right now we have about 15,000 people paying for premium service, and that number is growing pretty fast.
How does Hulu play into all this?
Hulu’s a great partner of ours. We’ve been curating their Korean drama channel for about a year and a half now, and it’s a great source of revenue as well as exposure for us. Hulu and Netflix are great services, but you can look at them as like a Neiman Marcus, with a little bit of everything. We’re trying to build something more analogous to Victoria’s Secret, adding value by focusing on specific categories.
This interview has been condensed and edited.