IT’S A SNAP
by RYAN HOLEYWELL
Behind all those media montages on late-night television is a search and retrieval company founded by Rice alumnus Rakesh Agrawal ’97. But there’s more to the platform than political commentary and comedy shows.
When Rakesh Agrawal attended a taping of “The Daily Show” last year, he didn’t expect to briefly become the star. As Agrawal tells the story, then-host Jon Stewart was warming up the crowd with some Q&As before the taping began, when an audience member asked how he makes the television montages that have become a mainstay of the program. Stewart mentioned SnapStream, a device and software platform that makes it possible to record multiple channels at once then easily search for just the right clip.
“That’s my company!” Agrawal blurted out. After some back-and-forth with Stewart, the comedian jokingly asked Agrawal, SnapStream’s founder and CEO, for a discount. It was a fitting moment for Agrawal, since nothing has done more to raise the profile of his company than its association with Stewart’s program and similar political comedy offshoots.
Though Agrawal formed his company in 2000, shortly after graduating from Rice in 1998, it gained increased notoriety as the media figured out it was the “secret sauce” behind shows like “The Daily Show,” “Last Week Tonight With John Oliver” and “The Colbert Report,” which ended its run last year. All those shows rely on video clips from news broadcasts to make points about media sensationalism and the hypocrisy of politicians.
“It was a turning point for us,” Agrawal said of the company’s relationship with “The Daily Show,” which it announced in 2009. “It was definitely an inflection point in our business. This is a niche business we’re in, and everyone knows ‘The Daily Show.’ They’re so influential.”
Agrawal is modest. He said the show’s staff members still must develop the concept behind the clips. But there’s no doubt SnapStream has made their job exponentially easier.
As he frequently describes it, SnapStream is essentially a “DVR on steroids.” In that regard, the service is not unlike the traditional digital video recording devices that have become ubiquitous in homes. But unlike a consumer system, Agrawal’s devices don’t connect to televisions. Instead, they connect to networks that allow owners to store huge quantities of footage and build their own archives. Most critically, the content of the shows can easily be searched.
That’s because SnapStream figured out a way to take advantage of closed-captioned data contained within the broadcasts. The result is a system that allows customers to pinpoint the precise moment in a recording where a specific word or phrase is mentioned, then easily extract a clip. It’s like Google for television. “Search is at the center of what we do,” Agrawal said.
The platform replaces a previously cumbersome process in which broadcasters would have to search through transcripts and see how they corresponded to video recordings. Today, senators use SnapStream to see how the media describe their political positions. Major League Baseball uses it to find and distribute highlights. KHOU uses it to track competing newscasts. The Houston Police Department and Harris County Sheriff’s Office use it to see how their messages are playing with the public. “They all want to control their story,” Agrawal said.
The company currently has hundreds of customers. “We’re profitable and growing,” Agrawal said. Similar products exist, but Agrawal said they are more geared toward a process called “broadcast verification,” in which networks check to see whether their broadcasts are conforming to certain standards.
The product has made the process of sifting through vast troves of video much simpler, said Paul Niwa, an associate professor of journalism at Emerson College in Boston, which is a longtime client. “Before SnapStream, we had a similar product that we stitched together ourselves … it was a nightmare,” Niwa said, citing poor video quality and a clunky interface. He praised SnapStream’s efforts to continually improve and refine its products.
Today, Niwa and his colleagues use the service to record coverage of major news stories and discuss with students the different approaches taken by various news outlets. “It’s great to show students not just the comparison between channels but how the story evolved with time,” Niwa said. “It enhances our ability to teach them news judgment.” (Agrawal also donated a SnapStream DVR appliance to Fondren Library’s Digital Media Commons for faculty and students to use for research and video presentations.)
Interestingly, Agrawal’s company — in its current form — was born out of an early business model that proved unsustainable. Originally, SnapStream created a consumer DVR that was designed to connect to consumers’ home PCs. That device emerged around the same time TiVo, a digital recorder that connects to televisions, started to gain traction. Despite TiVo’s popularity, retailers, including Best Buy, Fry’s and Micro Center, eventually sold about 150,000 copies of SnapStream’s software, dubbed Beyond TV.
While Beyond TV was popular with tinkerers, Agrawal wasn’t optimistic it would make the leap to the general public. But he remembered businesses had always inquired whether there was a souped-up version available for professional uses. That demand led Agrawal to steer the direction of SnapStream to its current incarnation. “We’re in our second life as a company,” Agrawal said.
At Rice, Agrawal majored in mechanical engineering and computer science. He continues to recruit for the school and praised his friends from Rice who are “doing really cool and inspiring work in their respective fields.” Among them, he said, is White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest ’97, who was a member of Sid Richardson College alongside him. In 2014, Agrawal received the Outstanding Young Engineering Alumnus award from Rice Engineering Alumni.
As a student, Agrawal served as an assistant photo editor of the Rice Thresher. More recently, his photography gained notoriety when footage of the Memorial Day Houston flooding he shot with his drone went viral and was distributed on the Web by the Houston Chronicle.
Since he graduated, Agrawal also has become something of a startup junkie, making investments in more than 55 businesses. Agrawal gained attention in tech circles when it was revealed that he, a limited partner in a fund that invested early on in Uber, briefly worked as a driver for Lyft, a ride-share service, in order to learn more about the industry. He ferried passengers around in his Tesla.
SnapStream recently added a service that integrates TV clips into social media outlets like Facebook and Twitter. But the biggest challenge facing the company is recruitment. Today, the company has about 30 employees, and they’re critical to its success. “Business all comes down to the people at the company,” Agrawal said. “You have to have a good product and strategy, but all of those things are driven by people.”