Yakau Buta: “When I was 17, I opened the first computer equipment store in Svetlogorsk”

The founder and head of StringersHub Yakau Buta spoke on entrepreneurial spirit, working with CNN and Al Jazeera, measures after a fake video and acceleration of the startup in the USA.

The right priorities and internal drive for business

I am 29 years old, and I was born in Svetlogorsk, in a classic Soviet family of a military and a teacher. Until the 10th grade, I had business plans. Like so many others, I began to earn some money. I had been making printing products, setting up the software, building computers, bringing them from Minsk and selling. In the 11th grade, I was invited to the editorial office of the local district newspaper as a correspondent, and I really liked journalism. But the entrepreneurial fuse did not go out, and at 17 I became a sole proprietor. I had to go through the process of emancipation.

My parents wrote an application to a notary so that I would be found as fully capable before reaching the age of majority. When I was 17, I opened the first computer equipment store in Svetlogorsk.

I became a businessman for two reasons. The first is upbringing by my father. He is an entrepreneur in spirit and after a military career, he entered private business. The second reason is the projects of foreign partners, which were carried out in Svetlogorsk.

Due to the complex situation that prevailed in the sphere of AIDS, the computer center was built with sponsorship money in the city as a club for extracurricular activities. Mentors from abroad like Lions Club came there and carried out projects like “Young Entrepreneur”, “Young Journalist”, “English Language Club”, “Debate Club”. In this center, ordinary schoolchildren pumped their skills, including in English. There I mastered the program on which I made a calendar for a year. And then I thought that I could sell it to this center. They agreed, and I printed and sold the circulation with the help of my father’s connections at the printing house.

Now I am pleased to accept proposals to speak and to participate in projects. This is such a payback from my side.

We are also establishing contacts with the computer center for collaborative projects. Perhaps in the fall, I will conduct intensive training for a couple of days, because I know how this helps pupils.

Studying at BSU and working on First Channel of the Belteleradiocompany

At first, I wanted to enter the Belarusian State Economic University, but at the last moment, I changed my mind and went to the Institute of Journalism of the Belarusian State University on the Faculty of Audio-Visual Media. A year and a half I studied full-time, dove in the students' life, participated in all events and then transferred to distance learning. After the first year, I got a job on Channel One BT (now Belarus 1) to work out in practice, and soon they hired me.

Then the department head said me that institute’s task was to make sure that after 5-6 years of study students can get a job in some kind of media, and after one year you work in a television news agency.

So what can we teach you? You already need to be practitioners.

First, I managed the business in Svetlogorsk remotely, but then I got lost into working on TV and decided to close the company. I had been working at BT for 6 years. I visited Iraq and Venezuela, I traveled to Brazil twice. This expanded my horizons and gave a large number of acquaintances, which I still liaise.

Pretty quickly I began to miss the entrepreneurship. My colleague and I began to offer companies, organizations and public associations the production of promotional and presentation films. Having made several joint projects, I later opened my company Likemedia Marketing (likemedia.by), which provided comprehensive services in areas of video production and advertising on social networks. Now the focus has shifted towards the Hub.

The idea of StringersHub creating and the personality traits of a stringer

One of the first to contact us was the TV Center. They were going to make a film about teas. One of the episodes they wanted to shoot in St. Elisabeth Monastery near Minsk where these teas were supposedly grown and then sold in Moscow. And it was necessary to expose, to show that nothing was grown there, and this was some kind of roadside dust instead of tea.

The order was worth the operator’s fee. But it seemed interesting to us.

After completing this work, customers needed to shoot a tea street in Beijing. And I had an old friend and colleague who lived there and agreed to help. The customer was very pleased with the quality and price. So we began to pull on this thread slowly and it turned out that there was a real problem in organizing shootings in locations where the media do not have their correspondent points. We packed it all and started with cold sales primarily in the Russian-speaking market: Ukraine, Russia, Kazakhstan, Belarus. So we came to the Hub.

If you watch an American movie of the same name you will learn that a stringer is a sensation hunter, a versatile soldier who listens to police frequencies.

And when something happens, a stringer turns out to be the first in place, he shoots and sells content for media. In our case, stringers are people who can make content themselves, arrange an interview, come, shoot everything and transfer the source materials to the editorial office. In the Russian-speaking region, these can be even ordinary men who shoot weddings.

To become our contractor, responsibility is the first what matters because we work for news media that are tied to the speed and reliability of content delivery.

Ordinary freelancers are not very tightly bound by obligations with employers, so they may not feel responsible and fail.

The media have their air times collapsed, they lose money and ratings because of irresponsible executives.

The second thing is the basic skills of the operator. Technology is developing so equipment becomes available to more and more people. Previously, film crews had large cameras for tens of thousands of dollars with large lenses, and for live broadcasting, you had to have a mobile station for hundreds of thousands or millions of dollars. Now, this can be done by not even flagship smartphones. A device shall have 4K resolution so I could put it on a tripod so that there was no shaking, and start the stream. Therefore, it is not the equipment that is important but basic shooting skills that will satisfy even the top media broadcasts.

Another stringer segment is user-generated content, videos by eyewitnesses. In this case, the most important quality is the initiative. You can simply go past an interesting event, or you can shoot it on video and share it on social networks or on a platform like ours. For eyewitnesses, the main thing is to be at the right time in the right place. Of course, if the content has already been published its value is reduced. We try to offer customers exclusive material.

The customer base and fees of 50%

The company has 10 people working either full-time or 75%. There are 3 main parts: editorial and production group, platform development, and promotion.

The group is the core of our team. It contacts clients and stringers, monitors order fulfillment and product quality. We have a very important metric of the percentage of successfully completed tasks from all received. We try to keep it as high as possible because it affects all other metrics. And we still can not leave the client alone with the contractor, because there are risks of poor performance. This group just supports both sides. We have a large number of scripts that warn the stringer about deadlines, make reminders. We also have backup contractors if the main stringers can not perform the task.

Today, there are about 4.5 thousand professional stringers from all over the world registered on our platform. Every month we have up to 100 shootings, respectively about 100 stringers work with us every month.

70% of customers are from the former USSR: Russia, Georgia, Ukraine, Kazakhstan, Belarus, etc. The rest 30% of customers are from China, Western Europe, the USA, and the Middle East: Khabar 24, CGTN, CCTV, Al Jazeera, Associated Press, Olympic Channel, TRT, etc. We consider customers as those for whom we completed the order and received payment. And these may be producers from the same media who may not be familiar and solve their problems with the help of stringers within their budgets. There are about 250 such clients today, and about 70 such media. About 30 clients turn to us every month.

At first, we worked as a video agency, and our full-time producers had to organize the filming themselves, search for the stringer, and completely control the process. There was no connection between the stringer and the media in this communication. Two years ago, we decided to make an aggregator platform for growth because it was difficult to grow in such a manual mode.

We abandoned the previous format of work with the launch of the platform at the end of October 2018. Now our revenue is many times greater, but we started it almost from scratch a year ago. Some clients temporarily refused us but it was necessary to go through this for the sake of our new goals. At the moment, the dirty margin is 30-40%. This is the difference between the media budget and the budget of the stringer. But it will decline.

We are finishing the round of investments which will reduce our commission to a differentiated one with a corridor of 15-25%, which is already more familiar with classic freelance exchanges. Now the commission is 30-40%, sometimes 50%.

For our market, 50% is a normal commission, for example, our competitors Newsflare and Stringr work with such numbers. We will reduce it so that this will become our competitive advantage.

We have two forms of work: freelance platform, when customers are looking for artists, and stock. In the first case, the media leaves an order on our platform, the contractor responds to this order and fulfills it. Media pays us money, we leave a commission to ourselves and pay the fee to the performer. In the second case, the stringer uploads the content to the platform, a fixed 50% is automatically added to the cost of the material and the video becomes available for sale by the media. With each sale, the stringer receives a fee. There is no exclusive video there yet, we cannot guarantee that the stringer did not sell this video to us. The media agrees because they need content right now.

The growth of demand for services, acceleration in New York and investments in the Hub

In terms of market size, there are a lot of figures. Concerning investors, we speak on the following figures: from $ 2.5 billion for user-generated content to $ 200 billion for custom-made videos. We are guided by specific figures for our customers, which are easy to find, of which there is no doubt. We know how the number of correspondent points has decreased for a particular media or Russian media as a whole. So, television channels have begun to reduce their number in recent years, it had declined from 20 around the world to 1. Therefore, the entire amount of work has gone to freelancers. The number of crew trips has decreased, which means that the budget has gone to freelancers. We know that the Associated Press spends on stringer services about $ 20-25 million every year. We are 100% sure of these figures.

Two years ago, we took the path of a startup and pitched the project at various competitions in Belarus and other countries. The first investment proposal was from the Starta accelerator — Russian-speaking guys based in New York. They position themselves as an accelerator for projects with East European roots, helping to get on its feet in the United States. They noticed us at events in Minsk, where we always occupied leading places and invited us at the end of 2017. From January to May 2018, I was in New York, and we went through an acceleration program. This was our first investment.

Concerning public information, I can say that they come in with an estimate of $ 2 million in exchange for 7%, of which $20 thousand is given in money to an account of a company registered in Delaware, and $120 thousand for an office, business trips, mentors. Then they made a follow-on for another $20 thousand in exchange for a 1% stake. This is a realistic estimate of $ 2 million.

Last November, we attracted investments from the Belarusian syndicate of business angels Angels Band. 7 people invested in us for a total of about $ 80 thousand. This was our second investment. Angels entered with an estimate of $ 2 million in convertible loans.

How to get to Starta?

They are interested in the Belarusian market, and they are very upset when they have no projects from our country in the batch. Starta has the only full-fledged exit for today, and this exit is from the Belarusian company FriendlyData by Mikhail Rumyantsau.

As part of each roadshow, they call in Belarus, and our projects have high chances.

It all starts with applying, and then a series of interviews follows. Starting from their partner Sergey Vasiliev and his assistant in Russia, ending with managing partners in the United States. Starta takes about 20-25 projects of various profiles both software and hardware into the batch. As for me, they are interested in any areas and consider them. They received about 1 thousand applications in the last batch.

For them, the project stage is important first of all. It is hardly possible to get there without MVP, although we succeeded.

At the time of the acceleration, we had only a presentation and a raw plan of sales without a platform.

But, naturally, they want to see a minimally viable version of the product. A very important point is the focus on the American market. If they see that this direction or industry has no market in the USA, or there is no demand, or there are a lot of offers, then they can refuse.

Об интервью с мексиканским президентом и съемке протестов в Гонконге

It is especially pleasant to work with the largest world media. But this is the biggest responsibility. Large customers are the most demanding, and the cost of error is very high.

With the hundredth attempt on LinkedIn, you go through some producer from Al Jazeera.

He says that they needed to arrange an interview with former Mexican President Felipe Calderon.

At the same time, they did not leave us any contacts or addresses so we had to inform them of the progress on this project. The shooting was successful in the end, and we started working with Al Jazeera.

The flip side of the coin is cases of negative events like incidents, terrorist attacks, crashes, and unrests, when all the media go on mono-airs, the editorial offices spend the night in offices. Then we can declare ourselves and get new customers. Over the past two years, we remember all the occasions, we monitor all informational events. Our task is to make sure that when something happens we already know that we have stringers in this location. They can start working without any orders just uploading videos to the platform.

The average check that pays media for content is $ 350-400. Here are our commission and the stringer’s fee. Stringer payment depends on the region, somewhere it is $ 20, and somewhere it is a couple of thousand for a couple of days. In protests in Hong Kong, a stringer earned $ 2,700 in two days, having gone to 3 shootings.

Последствия фейкового видео

(One of the producers of StringersHub organized filming of an allegedly starving Ukrainian student in a well-furnished Belarusian apartment with the participation of his former colleague. Fake was exposed up by Ilya Varlamov and later it triggered a wave of publications in the Belarusian media — TheHeroes).

The story with fake video has become an echo of us as a video agency. It was a human factor. We intended to fix low-quality filming, but we got the result contrary to any principles of journalism. This made us then even more radically go for changes in the format of wore. We had serious rules, which are still being abided by 100%.

For example, it was necessary to agree in Amsterdam on the filming for a blogger. And we understood that the arrangement was uncomplicated, that as long as the stringer responds to the platform, we can call and get permission. And the stringer’s task will already be a little easier as he would go to a ready-made arrangement. But this is against our rules, we should not call. This is the difference between an agency and a platform.

Another innovation is not a single task now appears on the platform without the name of a media customer. This is necessary so that journalists know who they work for.

Stringers sometimes have preferences either ideological or political.

We are now developing a database of performers with ratings and reviews, we are verifying them so that the media can understand who can be trusted and who not. Our entire focus on building business processes will be aimed at protecting both sides. In our region, this is still not so relevant but in the USA they pay great attention to this. The media there is looking for a solution to the problem of fake news because the reputation is at stake. Our goal is to help media ensure that the content is genuine. For example, in our mobile application file metadata is saved. It contains such data as when the filming was made, which user made it, etc. We provide this information to our customers.

After the story with the fake video, there were a lot of comments saying that if it’s not an obituary, then it’s PR.

It was a painful fail for us, which forced us to reconsider a lot in our work.

I am sure that this strengthened the project because such difficulties help. By that time, we had been working with our customers for a long time, they had already managed to make sure of our decency. And such a human factor is present wherever. Therefore, we did not lose customers, but there also were no new ones.

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