Rabb.it less great

It was 2018 when we discovered Rabb.it. Yes, that was only a year ago but what a year!

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By ‘we’ I mean a small but dedicated group of Korean drama watchers on Dramabeans (DB). The website had given us the chance to connect, chat about our favourite dramas, get excited about upcoming ones, and squee over our Oppas (the latter at least for some people who are not me).  

But we were a dispersed community and so watching dramas together wasn’t something we could do. Parallel or group watches were all very well, but Rabb.it gave us the ability to watch dramas together. More importantly, it gave us a chat function outside DB’s excellent but structured fan wall. We could chat about life, the universe and everything, watch dramas together, complain about timezones and streaming speeds and generally connect in a different way.

Our group chat Traumabeans quickly turned into a community inside a community. A watch calendar was set up to coordinate Rabb.it watches. Some people connected on WhatsApp and via email or text. Phone numbers were swapped. People arranged to meet offline. Real friendships were formed in the real world. Chatting on Rabb.it provided a new dynamic to our interactions that strengthened our sense of community.

Oh and yeah, we also watched dramas and stuff.

At some point in the heyday of those first few months, I and others asked “How on Earth does Rabb.it make money?”

For a start, Rabb.it has a built-in VPN, which meant it was bypassing geocoded content restrictions. That meant that an Aussie like myself, with a vast array of Korean dramas available on Netflix, could share content with unfortunate souls in benighted countries like the United States.

With this, I was sure that Netflix was thrilled.

As someone with a Netflix account, I could share its content with people who did not have Netflix accounts.

With this, also, I was sure that Netflix was thrilled.

Basically, there was no way that Netflix (or any other content streaming provider) was paying Rabb.it to disseminate its product.

I did a quick glance over the site for ads and saw none. Rabb.it was clearly attracting a large volume of hits, repeat business, and groups such as ours that were on the site 24/7 due to the wonder of a global community. But there were no ads.

We didn’t have to pay for a subscription to the site.

Where was its income coming from?

After an afternoon of googling, I thought I came upon the answer and it seemed to be the streaming technology. What Rabb.it was developing was the excellent technology we were using to group watch, including an in-watch chat as well as a microphone and video function.

The ability to stream video and have multiple viewers able to talk to each other in real time while watching was pretty great technology. I speculated that we were guinea pigs – lab rabbits if you will – testing the technology they would then on-sell to underpin streaming on other sites.

If anything, I thought the idea was kind of genius.

As it turned out, I was wildly overestimating the business planning of the people behind the website, Rabb.it – in that I had assumed they had a business plan in the first place.

Everyone knows that earlier this year, Rabb.it released an “upgrade” to their site that was universally panned. Poorly-designed and difficult to use, it drove many people off the site and led to a stream of complaints about things like basic usability. The chats were gone, the public and private rooms were gone. Instead, we were asked to create groups and then use those groups to watch. Those groups were permanently public but it was never obvious who was watching what and where.

The site was glitchy, the streaming was slow, the chat was clunky and hard to read. An annoying popup on the phone app informed us that the site was ‘having intermittent issues that may make Rabb.it less great’.

The main ‘intermittent issue’ that was making Rabb.it ‘less great’ was the popup itself. There was nothing intermittent about the poor design changes; they seemed here to stay despite endless and detailed complaints from users.

Our watch coordination suffered and a large chunk of our community jumped to WhatsApp. They couldn’t watch together but they could chat properly and that was what they were missing from Rabb.it.

A small rear guard of dedicated Rabbiters remained to keep the remnants of the chat alive and to provide a base for watches. Traumabeans was still there, ready and waiting when people wanted to group watch, which people still did (although half the time I wasn’t even aware watches were happening).

Until today, that is.

Today we found out that Rabb.it is no more.

Thankfully, this isn’t a Dramafever situation: we didn’t drop by the site this morning to find it had disappeared. Rabb.it is still here, it’s just that its days are clearly numbered.

The funny thing is, the technology underpinning Rabb.it is fantastic. It’d be great to see some of its functionality – especially the live chat – being rolled out on streaming sites with legitimate content such as Viki – a streaming service that specialises in subbing Asian dramas. Viki has a comment function but subscribers can’t share screens, nor can they chat with each other while watching.

It’s certainly more likely that Rabb.it would be able to sell the technology than introduce a subscription service when they don’t own any of the content being streamed. People will pay for content but will no doubt baulk at paying Rabb.it to stream content they don’t own. Viki is having a related problem with its paid content because, while it pays for distribution rights to its shows, it doesn’t pay its subbers – a fact that a lot of subscribers are increasingly uncomfortable with now that Viki has introduced a premium level to its subscription service.

However, getting back to Rabb.it and its announcement on 3 July that it closed its doors five weeks ago. The stunning thing about the LinkedIn statement by Rabb.it CEO, Amanda Richardson is its gobsmacking insight into the lack of any kind of business planning by the people behind the shared steaming service.

Richardson lists three hard lessons she learned since she was handed the poisoned chalice plank walk off the Glass Cliff responsibility of leading Rabb.it in August last year. These three “hard lessons” are almost shocking in how basic they are for any business start-up in any industry.

As you read them, you’ll probably be more likely to wonder how Rabb.it didn’t go bust a long long time ago:

  1. Figure out monetization early – even if you don’t implement it. Otherwise you’re just giving away free stuff, which isn’t product-market fit – it’s just free stuff being given away. I could grow a user base massively by giving away free beer – but that’s not a business.
  2. You need a ton of capital (and time) and user growth to make a run at a content business. Netflix, Spotify, YouTube. These took years and hundreds of millions of dollars in capital.
  3. Business development isn’t a four letter word – literally and figuratively. Invest in learning the partners in the ecosystem, get on people’s radar, make and maintain relationships. You never know when you’ll need them.

Yes, my friends, these are Richardson’s hard lessons:

  1. Your product needs to earn money
  2. You need investment to develop stuff
  3. You should spend time developing your business

So, Rabb.it is dead because the people behind it did not have even the most basic of business sense (something that should have been obvious to us when they rolled out their awful ‘upgrade’ earlier this year). And this is before we consider any legal issues from allowing people to access paid content from providers such as Netflix for free.

As Traumabeans reels from the shock of its impending demise (ironically a group has come back from WhatsApp briefly to say goodbye) we’ll start looking for a new platform on which to group watch. And I guess it’s time to say farewell, not just to a website, but to an era.

As we ponder that this year’s #OctobINAR may not go ahead as planned, we invite any Beanies who want to say farewell to come by Rabb.it. We’re called Bleeding Flowers today. It just seemed appropriate.


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