James Hsu, GEMBA 2020

James Hsu is the co-founder and Chief Product Officer of Stream Sage, a new data-driven livestreaming platform that shows its clients how they can understand, and connect with, their audiences on a much deeper level. A current CEIBS student in the Global EMBA 2020 class, James has made the switch from a corporate career to startup entrepreneurship with swift success and seeming ease.

We sat down with James to get his take on the rapid growth and innovation of the global livestreaming industry. More specifically, we discuss what the rest of the world can learn from China’s livestreaming experience and projected growth.

An appetite for building new products

James’ career got started in software engineering before moving on to more senior product management roles for the likes of Yahoo!, Amazon and Microsoft. Between 2010-2018, the main focus of James’ efforts lay in building primarily mobile consumer experiences for these companies. Services such as Amazon’s China Mobile Shopping experience and Microsoft’s Cortana Mobile received this treatment under James’ guidance.

However, after more than a decade in various corporate settings, James was ready for an entirely new set of challenges. With his co-founder – a long-time friend and industry peer – James and his partner turned to the bourgeoning livestreaming market. Together, they saw an opportunity to apply their knowledge around improving products and customer experiences, but this time as a startup.

James Hsu with Prof. Bala

Livestreaming – An explosive market and a growing global phenomenon

Though the livestreaming industry has its origins in the West, solidified by early success stories like YouTube Live and Twitch, China is now leading the way in livestreaming innovation, audience growth and adventurous new business models.

Looking at the value of livestreaming e-commerce in China, the figures speak for themselves. In 2018, the market in China was worth 120 billion RMB. By the end of 2020, that figure had soared to over 1.2 trillion RMB – a 10-time expansion in just two years. In another two years, by the end of 2023, it will be worth almost 5 trillion RMB. Much of the revenue generation of the wider market comes from in-stream shopping activities.

“In China, a very common and highly profitable business model is what we call ‘shoppable livestreaming’ or ‘livestreaming e-commerce’. This is where you’re watching a streamer promote a product and you buy it in real time. This is yet another interesting example where China didn’t come up with the idea initially, but has taken it, flipped it and grown it into a massive cultural and commercial success,” James says.

Today, livestreaming enjoys rampant popularity because it lets viewers become part of the stream. As James explains, it is this interactivity that elevates the experience beyond a simple click or tap.

“The fundamental concept of shoppable livestreaming isn’t new – it’s basically the home shopping network, but over the internet. What is new is how deeply connected viewers feel to their favourite streamers. It’s not a simple transaction experience; the most popular livestreamers make their fans and followers feel like they are part of the stream. They’re called influencers for a reason! They exert significant influence in terms of establishing and strengthening fashion trends, promoting brands and boosting sales of specific products. This deepening connection between shopper and streamer is what’s powering China's shoppable livestreaming boom,” he says.

James Hsu, GEMBA 2020

Enter Stream Sage – Strengthening the bond between livestreamers and their audience

Unsurprisingly for a startup founder, James is something of a polymath. Alongside his computer science and programming skills, he is also an entrepreneur, author, podcaster, and an inveterate lover of esports and gaming (video and tabletop) too. His wide-ranging interests have been invaluable in helping him understand the fundamental challenges streamers face, leading to the idea of Stream Sage.

All livestreaming platforms, whether they are focused on gaming, cooking, cosmetics, fashion, art, jewellery or any one of hundreds of product segments, want the same two things. First, they want to know as much as they can about their audience. Second, they want to empower their audience to interact with the stream in enjoyable, informative and meaningful ways. Stream Sage helps streamers achieve both these goals, using a wholly data-driven approach.

“Stream Sage’s creation story is fairly typical for a startup. We created it to solve our own problems! We wanted to understand our audience at a very deep level, to know how they felt about the streams they were viewing – what they enjoyed, what could be improved, and what would elevate the experience for them. That’s what we do for our clients today. We show them how their audience is responding to a given stream in real time, creating a virtuous cycle where better content comes from more accurate insights. This use of intelligent analytics also lets us figure out how to give their audience a deeply customised experience, because we know what they want to see and do in the stream, and we can give them the interactive tools to do it,” James says.

For an example, James turned to cooking streams – currently an area of focus for Stream Sage. With the platform’s tools, viewers can use rich, interactive overlays to pull up things like recipe details, relevant cooking tips, and quick reminders of steps already completed earlier in the stream.

“Keeping this kind of interactivity within the stream is essential. You don’t want to simply post a link in the chat, because people will shift their attention away from the stream. This way, they can follow the flow of what’s happening while maintaining the connection with the streamer and the rest of the audience, even as they discover additional information that is important to them,” he explains.

James talking with GEMBA classmate

What can developed economies learn from China’s livestreaming experience?

The Stream Sage team are currently focused on working with brands and individual streamers based in Europe and North America. As well as enhancing major live concerts, sporting and esports events, Stream Sage is also bringing insights from China’s shoppable livestreaming experience to the West.

“North America and Europe are exciting ascending markets to be in right now. To use some b-school terminology, China has very quickly become a red ocean for livestreaming, especially shoppable livestreaming. Key Western platforms are watching China with interest, and are keen to emulate their success. The pandemic has been an accelerator for experimentation in the West too. Brands have always wanted to tell their stories in exciting ways, but the pandemic has encouraged everyone to look outwards and embrace new approaches,” James says.

Chief amongst those insights from China is the use of influencers or KOLs (key opinion leaders) to drive stream viewership and engagement. China has now developed a series of highly refined mechanisms for leveraging KOLs in ways that go beyond the more obvious paid sponsorship ads that are prominently deployed by Western – and indeed global – brands. Chinese livestreaming platforms enjoy continued success in integrating products more naturally and subtly into streams, with tangible results both in driving higher sales and audience engagement.

“The key message is that there are always so many ways to tell stories. There’s no ‘one size fits all’ in livestreaming. Many KOLs in China have learned this lesson so well that they’ve forged their own media empires that span interactions with dozens of major brands. This makes KOLs something that Western platforms need to embrace, but in the right way for their audiences,” James says.

Another key concept that Stream Sage hopes to imitate in the West is China’s high level of customisation, personalisation and targeted marketing towards individual viewers. Leading Chinese livestreaming platforms are masters at pointing their target audiences towards the right streams at the right times, based on exceptionally targeted marketing backed by intelligent analytics.

James Hsu in GEMBA class

Creating the ‘dream stream’ may not be far off

“It’s an exciting time for livestreaming both in and out of China. We’re on the cusp of so many innovations and major changes, from smarter automation to dedicated AI. It’s personally very exciting for me too; I’m loving being part of the Global EMBA 2020 class. My peers and professors are so much fun to learn with, and they have already been invaluable in helping me consider challenges and opportunities for Stream Sage from wholly different perspectives. I’m always asking myself where my blind spots are, and there’s no better way to answer that question than having a strong network of such talented people around you, constantly pushing you to improve,” James says.

We wish James and the rest of the Stream Sage team the best of luck in their continuing journey. The livestreaming industry is evolving at breakneck pace, and developed economies are clearly ready to get on board with radical change. This bodes well for streaming audiences the world over, as competition breeds innovation, no matter where you are.

Tom Murray
Marcel Austin-Martin, Michael Thede