Vube.com seems a bit too good to be true. It's a user-generated music video site that features cover songs and monthly cash prizes for those who get the most likes. Vube hit the top 100 global web sites on Alexa in its first year which is quite an accomplishment. Yet it hasn't appeared in any major tech blog nor had I heard about it till this time. I spoke with two co-founders and was very interested in what they had to say. However it left me puzzled about their backstory and searching on the web cast a shadow on the whole enterprise. [please see update at end of post]
One way companies deal with a troubled past is to not discuss it. That works surprisingly well sometimes even in the age of the internet. For example, Russell Simmons, who has had some huge music industry successes also has a long list of failed projects especially in the digital space. Most people don't know that cause those projects get shut down quietly and I was the only person who seemed to write about those failures on a regular basis in the previous decade.
I've given up the role I played in hip hop media. I'm no longer interested in being a watchdog. Unfortunately when a situation like that of Vube presents itself I'm stuck in that position again.
What Is Vube?
Vube itself seems like a good site for those involved. People are getting views and when I spoke with co-founders Scott Perkins and Shawn Boday they portrayed a rich global community of musicians who were getting way more attention than they could get on YouTube.
For some individuals that's said to have already helped them on a local level to get gigs and kickstarted the beginning of careers that just weren't going anywhere previously. However, other than a tweet by one musician, I haven't seen any real evidence of that though it may well be true.
The company was formed in January 2013 and then the site itself went live in April 2013. They got to a top 100 global position on Alexa in a year or less.
Here are some Vube stats I was given by a publicist. Vube has:
nearly 2 million registered users;
over 20 million visitors per day;
and gives away over $55,000 a month.
The site is described in the email I received as a "viral video engine" which is driven by a "global marketing initiative with advertising in hundreds of countries."
But there are also a handful of web discussions making claims about adware (malware delivered through advertising) and a past in the webcam porn industry.
So What's Really Going On With Vube.com
I didn't raise the webcam porn question in the interview because I'd only seen a passing reference at that point and I hadn't yet figured out the connections to Accretive Technology Group. At that point adware seemed to be the main point of discussion.
I asked the Vube co-founders a fairly general question about comments I'd seen on the web referencing adware and popup ads.
They told me that there had been an adware problem but that had come from a third party in September and had been quashed. And it's true that a lot of what I'm finding on the web clusters around that time.
They also mentioned that all their advertising focused on the artists and that seemed to be the primary way they were driving traffic.
Given that I hadn't dug very deeply, this response seemed reasonable. But because some of the answers hadn't been clear and I hadn't asked the right questions, apparently, I began digging on the web after the interview and found a backstory that they would have been smart to address on their own.
Here's Where Vube Dropped The Ball
Here's the thing. I'm not a journalist or an investigative reporter. The ROI on that kind of work for me is negligible. In fact, it requires so much work that it would push my per-post rates down into the "I might as well start panhandling cause that's a better business model" territory.
And the other thing is that people mostly don't care about the truth. They just want things they can gossip about that confirms their beliefs about the world. That deeply saddens me but I've come to accept it.
So I'm not trying to expose anything here, I'm just trying to sort out the details of something I'd rather leave behind. Perhaps some of this will be useful to others who will take it further.
My interview with the Vube guys was very awkward. It was one of those rare cases where they sat and waited for questions. I've had that happen only 2 or 3 times before in the last 3 or so years.
Typically startup founders have an agenda and they aren't going to wait for my questions to decide what's said though it's almost always done in a very positive way that leads to a productive exchange. This was not that productive an exchange though if I had the right questions they seemed open to giving reasonable straightforward answers.
But they should have told me more. For example, I asked where the $50k+ a month in prizes came from.
I was told they were "internally funded" and that's all they said. That's fine and I didn't push on that because companies that haven't gotten documented funding from outside sources often keep quiet about the details. That's perfectly appropriate.
But that statement didn't match the picture I was erroneously drawing. By the end of the interview I thought I was talking to two coders who were articulate but didn't normally volunteer information because of their personalities and focus on product development.
If it was just two guys in Austin building product that would explain a lot as to why the interview was so awkward. But it left a gap in their backstory. How did they come up with that money?
There's not much about the two individuals Scott Perkins and Shawn Boday except for limited Vube coverage and people talking shit about them online.
Now talking shit online is easy. And people get things wrong all the time and they'll go on and on about their wrong ideas as if it they were arguing over some contentious sports figure while out drinking.
But there is a history here which looks bad as currently presented especially when these guys did not volunteer any information about who they were or their business past. At this point I can't say if they didn't want to talk about it because they mostly just answered my questions.
But if you're interested in digging in, here's a selection of relevant links. I'll let you figure out the connections if you wish:
There Were Better Ways For Vube To Handle This
Honestly, if these guys had proactively addressed their history, who they are and what they're doing, I might have written a very different post.
Instead I assume they didn't want any of the backstory to come to light because they do not present much at all about themselves on the web. To be honest, I only encounter such low profiles from people who:
a. - don't know what they're doing,
b. - have something to hide.
These guys know what they're doing. That part is clear.
And that's where I'm going to leave it.
I don't want to investigate further. I don't want to talk to these guys again. And I certainly don't want their publicist trying to put pressure on me after reading this post.
Update: What I Should Have Done Differently
I'm not changing anything in the above post and after this closing update I won't be discussing this issue anymore.
But here's what I should have done. When I got the stats, which are the reason I wrote about them, I should have investigated further than I did.
When I get big numbers I try to see if there's anything that suggests some sort of purchased likes or similar tactics. I didn't see that with Vube. But when I checked them out on Google Trends I saw a growth in searches which was a good sign.
But I didn't notice that the top area for search was Pakistan. Of course, they claim India as their top audience so that may explain that part. They're not hiding that India is their top market.
However, I did find an initial reference to popup ads and adware. Instead of digging as deep as I could before the interview, I simply used it as the basis for a question which they seemed to answer adequately at the time but the oddness of the interview caused me to dig further.
When I say oddness, it's not anything you would get without hearing audio and I just took notes as do many journalists though I'm just a blogger.
What I found was troubling and made me realize that I should take things further before interviews.
In this case, I would have canceled the interview and not written about the company if I had done so.
Generally speaking, if a company requests coverage and I can tell I'm going to trash them, I mostly pass on the coverage. It just seems the fair thing to do if they're a startup especially since, statistically speaking, they're likely to die anyway.
In the case of a company like Beats, they're fair game due to their status and doubly so because they introduced themselves with lies and people were giving them a pass.
But in this case, I should have done what I did when I first covered Alex Day. I looked thoroughly at everything I could find online to verify his seemingly outrageous numbers. But there was nothing to disconfirm what he was saying plus there was plenty of evidence to back him up.
Given the murkiness I found with Vube, I would have just passed at that point because, as I point out, I'm no longer interested in investigative blogging.
There are just too many solid people and good companies to cover and I pass on some of them for reasons that are far less contentious.
And if they are what they present themselves to be with no troubling past history to undermine them, then a company like Vube should not only prove me wrong in the long haul but make coverage irrelevant.
Some of the best companies that were directly in touch with their user or customer base quietly grew huge and all the press had to follow,
If Vube is who they say they are and if I'm totally wrong here, that will be proven in the long run. Being on Hypebot will not make or save your company. Neither will being on TechCrunch though it will certainly give you a bigger look.
So I shouldn't have covered Vube and I now know when people bring me big numbers that I should investigate further before agreeing to cover them. It's in everyone's best interests.
Hypebot Senior Contributor Clyde Smith (@fluxresearch) posts music crowdfunding news @CrowdfundingM. To suggest topics about music tech, DIY music biz or music marketing for Hypebot, contact: clyde(at)fluxresearch(dot)com.