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Twitch founders headline technology summit

Justin Kan ’05 and Emmett Shear ’05 were disappointed to find only one Halloween costume among the crowd in a packed Evans Hall last Friday. The two founders of the gaming-focused live streaming video platform Twitch were back on campus to delivered the keynote address of Yale’s first ever Technology Summit.

“It’s been a while since I was called a recent alum,” Kan joked after the introduction.

“Makes me feel young again,” Shear rejoined.

The two, friends since high school, teased and interrupted each other as they related the saga of failed startup attempts that led them to Twitch. The site is now the fourth-largest user of bandwidth in the United States, and was recently acquired by Amazon for around $970 million.

It all began with a conversation with some friends their senior year, when the two realized they would never have the same access to this much “intellectual capital” again. They didn’t have an idea yet, Kan said. They just decided they should start a company.

After a year of developing an online calendar that looked “a little worse than Outlook,” the two applied for funds from Y Combinator, a company that provides seed money to startups. They gave back their starting bonuses to the other jobs they had lined up, and decided to go all in.

There was about a year of “boot camp” mode: just “making stuff and waiting for it to explode,” Shear said. It never did. When asked what kept them motivated, Kan’s answer was simple: pride.

“A lot of people we graduated with went into banking, consulting, law school,” Kan said. “A lot of what kept me going was ego. I didn’t want to admit that maybe this wasn’t the best idea.”

As their funds continued to dwindle, the team decided to sell the company. They hoped to make at least $70,000, enough to pay back their investors.

But their decision to put the startup up for auction on eBay garnered press and attention, and they eventually made the sale for $250,000.

“We were like, ‘we’re geniuses,’” Shear said, before adding, “Don’t do this. It worked once and it worked because it was a ridiculous stunt.”

They carried the lesson with them to their next project: The concept was a 24/7 live streamed reality show that would detail Kan’s life. “We had no media, no video production experience.” Kan said. “The content was extremely boring.”

But the now-defunct site would grow, plateau, and eventually give birth to Twitch. The secret in the transition was in actually having conversations with users about their problems and goals—something they had never done before, and something too many startup founders never even consider doing, Shear said.

“The core central problem is does anyone actually want this thing?” he said.

The day-long summit also featured nearly 40 other events including “To Cloud or Not to Cloud” and “Technology for a Compassionate World,” with presentations by everyone from ITS professionals to Dance instructors and undergraduate app designers. Dave Logie, a project manager in academic ITS, said he attended the summit to see his colleagues presenting there. He was most excited about the event “Changing the Practice of Medicine with 3D Printing,” which he described as having enormous potential to expand.

Davis Nguyen ’15 said he found Kan and Shear’s talk “very motivational” as someone hoping to pursue a related path.

“The takeaway is fail, and fail early,” he said. “It’s important to have a plan going in and realize that plan is going to change.”


The Yale Alumni Magazine is published by Yale Alumni Publications Inc., an alumni-based nonprofit that is not run by Yale University. Its content does not necessarily reflect the views of the university administration.

Filed under Twitch, Justin Kan, Emmett Shear
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