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How a tiny startup fixed the future of TV

Reelgood doesn't make shows, and it doesn't make TVs. What it does is try to make sense of the future of TV and movies — and it's doing that really well.

Reelgood office

Before the pandemic, Reelgood's offices were bustling (and messy).

Photo: Christie Hemm Klok

David Sanderson's journey to fix the future of TV started with a simple and extremely familiar problem: He canceled cable and suddenly couldn't find anything to watch. This was 2013, and the Canada-born Sanderson had moved to Silicon Valley to work at Facebook's headquarters after a year and a half in its Dublin offices. After one look at the price of cable TV, he decided against it, thinking, "I don't really watch TV anyway." Netflix was enough.

In his day job, Sanderson, tall and confident and relentlessly cheerful, was a rising star. He "fell into product management," he said, but had a knack for it. He was on the ad-product team, working on the tool that made Facebook a self-serve ad platform (and helped turn Facebook into the ad giant it is today). When that did so well, his bosses told him to write his own job description going forward.

Facebook had plenty of interesting problems, but Sanderson was increasingly hung up on the one he faced every night when he went home. What started as a Netflix subscription had ballooned into something bigger. When he got into "Homeland," he got a Showtime subscription, then "Brooklyn Nine-Nine" hooked him into Hulu. Every night, when he'd get home from a long day in Menlo Park, he'd have maybe an hour to watch something. "And every night," he said, "I was like, 'is there a new episode of one of the shows I'm watching?'" He'd open one app, click around, close it, open another, rinse and repeat. All that searching, not much watching.

By now this is a mainstream problem — there's too much to watch! — with a new set of solutions. Universal search for TV shows and movies is available on plenty of platforms, and the notion of re-bundling the unbundled streaming landscape is on the top of everyone's mind. Much of that progress is due to Sanderson, who eventually quit Facebook, founded a company called Reelgood, and in the last five years has become an indispensable part of the streaming ecosystem. But the future of entertainment continues to get more complicated, and Reelgood's story makes clear just how big this problem is even now — and why Reelgood might be the company to fix it.

Coming up next

Let's fast-forward a couple of years. By 2015, Sanderson was a manager at Facebook, jumping from product to product, moving up in the company. "He was promoted faster than anyone in the history of Facebook at that time," said Kim Scott, the author of "Radical Candor" and a mentor and friend to Sanderson. (They met shortly after Sanderson moved to the Bay Area, and he babysat Scott's kids after she had what she called a "nanny crisis." He's apparently an excellent babysitter.)

David Sanderson David Sanderson on the couch, where he has his best TV-watching ideas.Photo: Christie Hemm Klok

Success and all, Sanderson couldn't stop talking about this streaming TV thing. He'd tried all the supposedly helpful ways to aggregate streaming services, like Can I Watch It and Fan TV, and all left him cold. He'd started to understand that the streaming problem was really a data problem and a user interface problem, "and I'd launched enough products at Facebook to know how to do it." He was starting to get itchy at Facebook, too; as he rose in the company, it became easier to get ideas approved and resources marshaled. Which, for Sanderson — a guy who loves a fight and seems to love proving himself — was almost boring.

One night at dinner with Scott, Sanderson got to talking about his streaming-app idea again, and Scott got tired of it. "She was like, 'David, shit or get off the pot,'" Sanderson said. "'You're either going to keep doing your thing at Facebook, or you're going to do this.'" (Scott doesn't remember her saying exactly that, but said that's the message she was going for.)

Scott also told Sanderson that before he made any decisions, he should go meet with "Michael." Sanderson didn't know who that was or why they should meet, but said OK. "Michael" turned out to be Michael Dearing, the founder of Harrison Metal and an investor in early-stage companies. Soon after, the two men had lunch, and Sanderson, as he tended to do, talked a lot about his streaming idea. At the end of lunch, Dearing had a proposal: He'd give Sanderson $1 million to leave Facebook and start it.

Dearing then gave him a project: Invent a valuation of your company, I'll do the same, and we'll meet in the middle. So Sanderson talked to a few people and came up with a number: $7 million. Dearing, it turned out, had come up with $5 million. So just like that, Sanderson's unnamed, unbuilt, unstarted streaming company was worth $6 million. Sanderson opened a bank account for this company and put a dollar into it. Soon after that, another million appeared. And just like that, Sanderson had a company called MyFlickList, and now he had to build something.

After hiring a team — first a few freelancers from Upwork, then a group from Popcorn Time, that infamous Netflix-for-piracy service that has been both beloved and in various kinds of trouble over the years, then the rest of the staff — Sanderson and his crew set out to build a social watch-listing app. Users could track what they were watching and build and share the lists of stuff they liked across multiple streaming services. (It was basically Spotify libraries and playlists for movies and TV.) It did OK, and people liked the idea, but most people only used the app in the occasional moments they needed a friend's recommendation. Plus, "seeding a social app is hard," said Reelgood's director of product, Eli Chamberlin, "without huge gobs of money."

Reelgood executives A few of Reelgood's executive team. From left: Head of marketing Cat Burhenne, CEO David Sanderson, head of data Pablo Lucio Paredes and head of product Eli Chamberlin.Photo: Christie Hemm Klok

But the thing people liked about Reelgood was slightly different. The service had already started to grow, largely thanks to people looking for answers to questions like "where to stream 'Arrival'" and "is 'Molly's Game' on Netflix?" "It's like, I want to search across everything," Chamberlin said. "And I want to be able to click a few buttons and make this big filtered thing that shows me everything I can watch that I like." That had initially been a means to a social end, but it quickly became the main product.

This, again, is not a particularly complicated or revolutionary idea. Decades ago, when the advent of cable brought the number of TV channels from three to hundreds, the TV Guide became a staple of the system. Streaming then turned hundreds of channels into a practically infinite library, with no regard for what's on right now. Everything is on right now. So building a new kind of guide seemed more important than ever. What Google was to the internet as a whole, Reelgood wanted to be to internet video.

Part of the reason the Reelgood problem appealed to Sanderson in the first place was that it seemed like it ought to have a relatively simple solution. TV shows have names, cast members, genres; movies have all the same plus box-office data. Somebody had to have all this data, right? At first Reelgood licensed a database from a big provider (Sanderson didn't want to say which one, it's a small industry), which has long offered a database for movies and shows. But it didn't work. Sanderson remembered "Tarzan" as a particularly good example: "There was the new 'Tarzan' [in 2016], and it would say 'It's on Netflix!'" But then Reelgood users would press Play and be served the 1999 Disney movie. Or "Tarzan's Greatest Adventure" from 1959. Or any of the dozens of other Tarzan movies made over the last century. Bad results killed Reelgood's reputation, and people would stop using the app when they felt like it wasn't helping them.

The other problem Reelgood discovered was that data was often out of date. Here, too, Sanderson remembered one specific title: HBO's "The Young Pope." "HBO had all their marketing budgets going toward 'Young Pope,'" he said, "and like a week and a half after it came out, it still didn't say it was on HBO." He emailed the company asking for a fix, which took another few weeks. The show was one of the biggest things on TV, but as far as its data — and thus Reelgood — was concerned, it simply didn't exist.

After giving up on its provider, the Reelgood team looked around at different providers to see if there were better options out there. It was a bizarrely manual process: They'd compile a list of everything they could find on, say, Netflix, and then check the databases to see which was most accurate. Luckily the vetting didn't take long, because there weren't many options and they were all pretty bad. But they needed something, so they signed up with Guidebox, which was at least better than the rest. "We were customers of theirs for a couple of years, actually" Sanderson said. "Until we bought them."

It acquired the company in 2018, betting the combined team could build something even better. Everything else was paused for six months while they worked on the data. "And we've spent literally millions of dollars, and years, perfecting this system," Sanderson said. "Because we're a nice front end, but none of it matters if our data is not accurate." Reelgood never intended to be a data company, but it suddenly had to become one.

Channel surfing

Here's the simplest way I can think of to explain why it's so hard to sort and search through all your streaming services: Almost nobody wants you to be able to do that. Netflix wants users to open Netflix, then watch whatever Netflix Original its algorithms think they'll like. (That's why you won't find Netflix in the Apple TV app, for instance.) Hulu, Amazon and the rest all feel the same. A search box flattens some of their branding, takes away their ability to cross-promote content and keeps people away from the screens reminding them to subscribe. There are innumerable streaming services, each of which wants to build a universe for users to explore, not a database to be queried.

As a result, there's no universal way of identifying a piece of content. Sure, they all have titles, but what about 1992's "Gladiator" and 2000's "Gladiator?" Or the three movies, made over four decades, all called "Bad Company?" To say nothing of the director's cuts, extended cuts, recuts and theatrical cuts that are at once both the same movie and different movies. And even that doesn't account for the slightly different runtimes, cast lists, posters and other metadata that would make most systems think the same movie is actually two different ones.

The way it should work, both Chamberlin and Sanderson said, is with something akin to barcode systems. (This is clearly how Reelgood talks about the issue internally, since both described it nearly identically in separate interviews.) "Let's say there are two chairs," Sanderson said. "You can see they're identical. Those both had barcodes on them, and one is at Crate & Barrel and one is at West Elm. If you have a person at each store, they scan it, and it's like, 'Yep, same ID, no problem.' But if you don't have that, how do you have a computer figure out the identity of those?"

There have been many attempts over the years to create an ID system for shows and movies, which just means there are now lots of ID standards out there. (You know what they say about standards.) Netflix and Hulu have no incentive to work together, so things aren't likely to get easier. As a result, there's really not even a way to reliably understand whether the movie called "Reservoir Dogs" is actually the same thing on Fubo and Showtime as it is on Amazon Prime.

Reelgood interface Reelgood's interface tries to make sense of a lot of complicated data, all in one place.Photo: Reelgood

Reelgood's systems use machine learning to try to collate all that messy, multiple-source data into a single entry for each title, with all the permutations and ID numbers and conflicting data coming from each service. On top of that, they're building an interface that tries to make it all make sense. Sanderson's quick to admit it's not yet perfectly accurate, but it's dramatically better than everything else out there.

As Reelgood gets more popular, its data gets better. There's a constant stream of feedback coming from users about titles for which streaming data is outdated or just wrong. That data goes to Reelgood's manual review team, which fixes individual problems and then uses the solutions to train the company's machine learning models. Every time, the system gets a little smarter about how streaming services work.

One good metric for success at Reelgood came quickly: The very studios and companies that should have already had this data started wanting to buy it from them. "I think others are coming into this space," Sanderson said, "and some of them have just thrown their hands up." He said Reelgood's future isn't as a white-label company providing real-time insights on streaming services to anyone who pays a license fee, but it's turning into a heck of a business. Reelgood powers universal search tools for Roku, Dell and Microsoft, and studios like Lionsgate and CBS pay for Reelgood's data as well. Even hedge funds are poking around the database. They all want to know what's available where, who's watching what and how content and viewers move between services. Nobody, not even the streaming services themselves, knows any of that better than Reelgood.

In recent months, as the pandemic has driven more people home and the annoyance of streaming has driven more people crazy, Sanderson said he's had conversations with practically everyone in the industry about using Reelgood's data and software. "People are starting to want to make [our app] their home screen," he said. "It's not an app, it's The Thing." Soon enough, rather than turning on their TV to find rows of app icons, they might see a page full of shows and movies available to them, no matter where they stream.

Universal universal search

Reelgood has grown quietly but quickly over the years, and then even faster during the pandemic. It now has 6 million users, up from 2 million at the beginning of 2020. Its website is its most popular platform, driven by some excellent SEO work and a pop in Google searches for "where to stream" shows and movies. Reelgood wasn't the first player in the space, but it was early enough and good enough to have an advantage.

Of course, it wasn't always easy. In the earliest days of the company, a lot of investors didn't understand why people needed better ways to find stuff on TV. At one point in 2016, Sanderson said, Reelgood was close enough to running out of money that employees were starting to interview at other companies, until an investor who had previously passed came back and wanted in. Once that happened, suddenly everyone else wanted in, too, and Reelgood had all the cash it needed.

As the streaming world continued to grow, the need for Reelgood only seemed to increase. Hulu and Netflix and Amazon Prime gave way to Disney+ and HBO Max and Peacock and Paramount+ and Apple TV+ and so many others, all of which picked up subscribers as millions of people ditched their cable subscriptions. A recent TiVo report found that the average TV watcher subscribes to as many as seven streaming services, and that 84% of them wanted some way to browse and search it all in one place. Streaming was becoming the clear future of TV and movies, and Reelgood was there to put it all together.

David Sanderson using Reelgood Reelgood's goal is to list everything you might want to watch, no matter where it comes from.Photo: Christie Hemm Klok

But the streaming boom also meant bigger players started to encroach on Reelgood's turf. One of the worst days at Reelgood was March 25, 2019, the day Apple introduced the Apple TV app. A Reelgood developer had built an Apple TV app a few months earlier, and early users were loving it; then Apple basically built the same thing. "It was almost pixel-for-pixel identical to ours," Sanderson said. It had universal search, it showed all the stuff people might want to watch no matter where it was. The Reelgood team had gathered in Sanderson's living room to watch the announcement, and Sanderson almost sent them home. He tried to convince everyone that this was good news, it validated the market, all the normal CEO-speak. But suddenly, Reelgood felt under threat.

The team eventually convinced themselves that because this was just for one set-top box — and a relatively niche one, at that — that Reelgood wasn't dead yet. Morale went up even higher when the Apple TV app launched and didn't work very well. It only indexed a few services, had a clunky interface and suffered from all the things Reelgood was well on the way to fixing.

There's still the threat of a big company going all-in on solving the TV data problem. "Maybe a really small team builds a great product, and Facebook buys them, and suddenly they have Facebook TV and they have 80 million users," said Howard Hartenbaum, a partner at August Capital and an investor in Reelgood. But increasingly, that's not how it works. Increasingly those big players are trying it themselves, realizing how hard it is, and coming to Reelgood instead.

The couch-to-TV problem

Reelgood isn't likely to build its own streaming box or TV set anytime soon. The team thought about it, but so far has decided that being a neutral platform would make it easier to work with others. But there is one other piece of the TV-watching puzzle that has come to fascinate everyone at Reelgood: the remote. In a strange way, the remote was Reelgood's biggest competitor, because people could use their phone to find a show but then would have to pick up the remote to actually go watch it. For the smartphone to be a great remote, it needed to be … a remote.

At a company retreat and hackathon earlier this year, a small team started to hack together a prototype with a simple goal: make it possible to tap a title on a phone and have it automatically play on a Roku. (Roku's the most popular set-top box maker, so it seemed like an easy choice.) Initially, they figured it was impossible, but at least they'd learn something. But they got it to work, using some clever web hooks and deep-linking on the Roku platform, so they filed a patent for the tech and shipped the new feature: Instantly, Roku users started to use the app more often and to watch more. The Reelgood app can now control Android TV and Fire TV boxes, along with LG Smart TVs, and the team's working on more.

Still, though, it's finding and surfacing content that keeps Sanderson going. He sees Spotify as a sort of North Star: The service knows every song down to its notes and tempos, understands its users and how their needs change, and has access to practically the entire canon of music.

Sanderson said he's still trying to understand how that works in video. "If you take something apart, does it have the same meaning?" he said. Can he assume that because one person watched "The Crown" that they'll like other shows about royals? Will they like "Doctor Who" just because Matt Smith is in it, too? For now, he said, simple pattern matching seems to work better than anything else they've tried. If 10 people like the same 10 shows, and nine of them also liked an 11th, there's a good chance that's a useful recommendation for the one who hasn't seen it yet. But he still thinks there's more to do there.

Complicating matters even more is the fact that "TV" is an increasingly amorphous thing. If he had it his way, Sanderson said, Reelgood would also index TikTok and Instagram and YouTube and Snapchat Originals and every other source of video on the internet, all available in the same space. But if streaming services are reluctant to open up access to their content and algorithms, Big Tech is on another level entirely.

Sanderson, a person who tends to get bored without a challenge, seems excited about this one. "Our absolute perfect view of the world is, yeah, we have all of them. Your 'Continue Watching' would have your Instagram stories for that day, then a YouTube influencer that's queued up for you, then the Jets are playing so that game is there on demand. It's just, like, you sit down on the couch and turn on the TV, and we know exactly what you want." Will he and Reelgood get all the way there? Probably not. But Sanderson is absolutely convinced it's what the future of TV should look like, and he's going to keep trying to get there. One messy database at a time.

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