Interview with John Dahl, CEO, Co-Founder at Mux

John Dahl, CEO at Mux

“For some online video platforms, the most profitable form of monetization isn’t advertising – it’s sponsored content. An interesting sponsored video is a lot more engaging than a traditional pre-roll ad.”

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Tell us about your role and journey into technology. What inspired you to found Mux?

I got into software accidentally. I actually studied philosophy in college and theology in graduate school and started doing some freelance programming when I needed a job, since the market for professional philosophers is a bit thin. After learning software programming, I ran a small software agency a few years later. One of my clients needed help with publishing video, which was in the very early days of online video and around the time when YouTube was just getting started. I learned about video publishing out of necessity. The biggest challenge for video back then was “encoding,” which is processing it to a standard format so that it can play on the right devices.

Back then, encoding was expensive, slow and required a lot of expensive hardware. This is when a few friends and I saw an opportunity and launched Zencoder in 2010. Zencoder had turned this difficult problem into a simple cloud service. Rather than managing a rack of $20,000 devices, customers could use a cloud API. Two years after Zencoder sold to Brightcove, I wanted to start something new. That’s when the idea for Mux was formed.

What is Mux and how does it fit into a modern CMO’s tech stack?

Mux makes it easy to build software that streams video. A CMO could use Mux in two ways.

First, you can use Mux indirectly, since Mux makes it easier to add video to SaaS tools in the CMO’s toolbox. Video is an extremely effective way to engage audiences, but it’s a pain to work with from a technology and infrastructure perspective. Because of this complexity, many CMOs turn to SaaS platforms to manage their video. In fact, many CMOs already do use Mux through companies like Wistia, since Wistia uses the Mux Data product to optimize video performance. This enables Wistia users to get fast, high-quality video playback every time.

Second, more technologically-inclined CMOs could use Mux directly if they are building custom apps and websites. For example, if a CMO wanted to run a promotion that asked users to upload videos of them using a product, Mux could take care of all the heavy lifting behind the video upload, encoding, and streaming.

Tell us more about the Real-Time Streaming Dashboard and how it helps publishers achieve ROI from video inventory?

What sets Mux apart is its use of data to make video streaming better, and the Real-Time Streaming Dashboard is a key part of this vision. With the Real-Time Streaming Dashboard, companies who stream video can exact more precise quality control over their streams and “treat it before [viewers] Tweet it.”

Recent high-profile outages, like that which occurred during the World Cup, have highlighted the importance of monitoring live stream performance in real-time to trigger rapid response. Dashboards claiming to be “real-time” are often only so in name and feature only the latest performance analytics. Mux’s new dashboard guarantees real-time data acquisition and aggregates trends over time for more accurate impact analysis.

What are the core tenets of your business model for video technology ecosystem?

We are committed to democratizing video streaming. At scale, video is still really hard to work with. Think of the difference between video and images – if you want to add images to a website or a mobile app, you just add them, and they work. But if you want to add video to a website, and you want to own the video experience (so you can’t just use Wistia or Vimeo), you have to build complex software. Our goal is to make it so that any company can do powerful things with video without having to build complex software.

What are the challenges to modern-day video advertising? Why should brands reconsider their mobile ad-tech budgets?

Video advertising today has a number of problems, and amazingly, many of them are technical problems. Ad playback experiences are often inconsistent (at best).

The Android platform, in particular, is especially troublesome for most advertisers. On top of these problems, ad fill rates can be criminally low in some circumstances, and fraud is rampant. The bad news is that there is no silver bullet today for perfect video advertising. The good news is that things will get better.

Our first product, Mux Data, is a video performance monitoring platform that can actually help video publishers understand their ad streaming performance and answer questions like ‘How long does it take to start playing a pre-roll ad? and what is engagement like on videos with ads vs. without ads?’ What brands need to do is hold their ad-tech vendors accountable. Demand the data you need know what is actually happening in the wild, and pay attention to the Quality of Experience (QoE) that your users are seeing.

Which marketing and sales automation tools and technologies do you currently use?

We’ve used a number of tools over the years, from Heap to HubSpot to Zapier to Fullstory.

What are your predictions on the most impactful disruptions in marketing operations for 2018-2020?

Companies will continue to get more and more creative in how they bring together data to drive marketing goals. “One-size-fits-all” approaches to nurture and onboarding leave a lot to be desired so there’s a lot of opportunity for deeper personalization. The tools exist today to do really creative things to engage prospects, and this will only get easier over time.

How does AI fit into your advertising and video technology offerings? What are your major differentiators in the tech-heavy landscape?

We use AI to drive the way we deliver video. For example, we have an AI model that analyzes every video in our system to determine the right way to encode a video. If you think about it, it doesn’t make sense to process a complex live-action video the same way as you process a product demo video – they have very different needs, and the best quality version of each requires different bitrates, resolutions, and settings. So our per-title encoding system actually does in-depth analysis and classification of each video to make sure we can deliver every video at the best quality while saving bandwidth.

Tell us about your predictions on TV advertising versus the web and social media advertising technologies? How do you see them converging in the future?

Online video advertising has so much potential but is still a little raw due to market dynamics and technology issues. Over the next few years, we’ll see it mature. But in the meantime, for some online video platforms, the most profitable form of monetization isn’t advertising – it’s sponsored content. A funny, useful, or interesting sponsored video is a lot more engaging than a traditional pre-roll ad – instead of annoying a user for 15 seconds before they watch the video they really want to see, sponsored video actually is the video they want to see. For example, instead of running pre-roll ads for your food-related product, why not work with Tasty to create sponsored recipes that use your product?”

How do you inspire your people to work with technology?

We’re a software company, so I usually don’t need to inspire our people to work with technology. Still, I think it’s important to stay focused on outcomes and objectives. Technology is exciting when it helps us reach objectives, but it isn’t an end in itself.

One word that best describes how you work.


What apps/software/tools can’t you live without?

Bear is the best note-taking app I’ve found. It’s beautifully designed and simple to use, and uses the Markdown formatting language, which I love as a developer.

What’s your smartest work related shortcut or productivity hack?

Distinguish between what’s urgent and what’s important. These two things are orthogonal – being urgent doesn’t make something more or less important, and being important doesn’t make something more or less urgent. Instead, work can be urgent and important (the final push on a major project), urgent and not important (answering low-priority emails), not urgent but important (personal health and team culture), and neither urgent nor important (projects that your company shouldn’t be doing at all).

The hack is to make sure you spend most of your time in the Important quadrants (both Urgent and Not Urgent). It’s much better to do Important/Not Urgent work than to do Urgent/Not Important work. If something is Urgent but Not Important, decline it, delegate it, or ignore it.

What are you currently reading?

I read quite a lot – mostly in the evenings, and also when I travel. I read a mix of fiction and non-fiction. These days, I usually read on my Kindle, but I mix in some paper too.

On the professional front, I’m reading Powerful by Patty McCord, which talks about the Netflix culture of freedom and responsibility. I don’t agree with everything she says, but Netflix is a remarkable company in a lot of ways. In 20 years, they’ve gone through three major revisions to their business model, from DVDs to streaming to content. Most businesses don’t survive major changes like this, but Netflix has built something special.

For fun, I just re-read Seveneves by Neil Stephenson, which is great, and I’m about to start The Secret History by Donna Tartt. Before that, I read (and highly recommend) Golden Hill by Francis Spufford and The Book of Strange New Things by Michel Faber. In general, I enjoy books that combine good storytelling and good writing with interesting ideas.

What’s the best advice you’ve ever received?

“Make something people want.” This is the mantra of Y Combinator, and it’s the most important thing any company can do. It’s an incredible simplification of something really complex (building a company). Think of it this way: if you succeed at making something people want, you’re almost certainly on the right track, but if you don’t make something people want, you’re almost guaranteed to fail.

Something you do better than others – the secret of your success?

I think I do a good job of understanding customer needs. I spend a lot of time talking with users (both current and prospective) – I’ve had hundreds of 1:1 or small group conversations with customers over the last 8 years, across my time at Zencoder, Brightcove, and Mux. Building a technical product in the video industry, it’s also helpful that I’m a former developer. With this background, I really try to empathize with customers and their problems.

Tag the one person (or more) in the industry whose answers to these questions you would love to read:

Diane Strutner – Datazoom

Thank you, John! That was fun and hope to see you back on MarTech Series soon.

John is a co-founder at Mux where he builds software to help online video get better. Before that, he was co-founder of Zencoder, and then VP of Technology at Brightcove, two pioneering companies in the world of online video. John moved to San Francisco from Minneapolis in 2011 with Zencoder. He has two kids, a graduate degree in philosophy and theology, and enjoys writing in the third person.

Mux LogoMux is a software company that develops infrastructure and monitoring tools for developers and publishers of online video. Founded in 2015 by experts in online video, including the creators of the biggest open-source video player on the web (Video.js), the largest transcoding service in the cloud (Zencoder), and the premier conference for engineers working with video (Demuxed), Mux empowers publishers of all sizes to provide high-quality online video viewer experiences. Trusted by leading providers of online video like PBS, Livestream, and Funny or Die, and backed by investment from Accel Partners, SV Angel and Y Combinator, Mux is headquartered in San Francisco, CA.

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The MTS Martech Interview Series is a fun Q&A style chat which we really enjoy doing with martech leaders. With inspiration from Lifehacker’s How I work interviews, the MarTech Series Interviews follows a two part format On Marketing Technology, and This Is How I Work. The format was chosen because when we decided to start an interview series with the biggest and brightest minds in martech – we wanted to get insight into two areas … one – their ideas on marketing tech and two – insights into the philosophy and methods that make these leaders tick.