Hey everybody. Welcome to episode 96 of How I Built It. Today my guest is
PJ Taei, founder of UScreen. That’s UScreen.tv. It’s an online video
website where you can create your courses, sell your videos, things like
that. Now I am all about services like this because I’m big into online
education and making that process as easy as possible is super important to
PJ understands this market and everything that needs to be done to make
creating your own online courses, or even your own online TV series, really
simple while still maintaining complete control. We’re going to get to all
of that in a minute, but first I want to tell you that this episode is
brought to you by Pantheon, our season-long sponsor and Backblaze, a brand
new sponsor I’m excited to have this week.
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: Hey everybody. Welcome to another episode of How I Built It, the podcast
that asks, “How did you build that?” Today, my guest is PJ Taei of UScreen.
PJ, how are you today?
: All right, I’m doing well, Joe. I’m happy to be here.
Thanks for joining me. You reached out, and your platform looks very
interesting, so I am excited to talk to you about it. Why don’t you tell us
a little bit about who you are, and how you came up with the idea for
Absolutely. As you said, my name is PJ. I’m located in Washington DC, we
work out of Washington DC, and two of our head people– myself and two
other developers are here. Everyone else is remote. We’re a remote team,
and we started UScreen about four years ago when I saw a need for an
easy-to-use, all-inclusive video-on-demand platform. And that’s what
UScreen is. It allows you to launch your own streaming service, make money
selling your own videos, or build your own Netflix-type service. Whenever I
say that everyone gets it pretty quickly. We started the idea conception
about three and a half, four years ago tops.
Very cool. So, a common use case might be that I have an idea for a series
that might be a good YouTube channel idea, but I’m owning much more of the
experience than I would on YouTube. Is that right?
Sort of. A lot of our customers have very solid, good followings on
YouTube. But YouTube you’ll make money on ad revenue, so if you have lots
and lots of views, you’ll make some money. The percentage payouts are very
low on YouTube. UScreen is for someone who wants to sell video directly to
their audience. Make a sale, and then you can view the content. Think of it
as a fitness company who will charge $50 a month, or $30 or $10 a month to
gain access to view their content. Any fitness videos service, educational
content like if you’re teaching English, then you might charge $9.95 to
gain access to all your content and teach everyone a series of content. To
teach them how to dance, English, fitness, ballet, Zumba uses us. The
content is all over the place, any vertical works.
Very cool. I have my own online courses, I host the videos over on Vimeo,
and then the entire platform is built on top of WordPress and WooCommerce.
Maybe you could give a good list of the differences between that and
UScreen? I’m seeing on your features you have customization and hosting,
learning tools, marketing payments. Is this an all-in-one platform for
somebody who might want to have a series of online courses?
Absolutely. I’m happy you brought that up. Definitely WordPress, Vimeo
plugin, and then a membership plugin like WooCommerce or Memberful. Those
three pieced together, and then maybe you might need an analytics tool as
well. All those on WordPress is an alternative to UScreen. One software
versus four plugins is one way you can look at it. The difference is we do
everything under one roof for a small monthly fee and no rev share, where
you are building multiple pieces of the same concept with multiple
different plugins. Because WordPress is a CMS system, but it’s made for
everything. Hosting a website, blog, everything. You have to plug in a
bunch of tools to make it a membership subscription video platform.
We give you all of those tools under one roof, and on top of that, we give
you analytics. Lots of subscription analytics. You can see your lifetime
value share and all that good stuff, and then we also give you a branded
app. One thing you would have to do is go and spend $5, $10, $20,000 per
platform and build yourself an iOS app, publish that app to the app store,
and then go to your audience and your friends and family and say, “Do you
want to watch my podcast, or my show and videos and all that good stuff?
Download this app,” and then whether it’s free or pay a service fee to gain
access to my content.
For a small monthly fee, we give you access to your iOS and Android apps,
and then you can also have TV apps as well. We do everything from the app
publishing all the way to the video hosting, and we give you the CMS
system, we give you themes that are ready to go that are perfect for
subscription video services. You can use them for fitness, and you can use
them for education, all that good stuff under one roof. It’s pretty much
comparing a plugin of multiple tools, vs. one, “I’m ready to go.” I always
say, “You bring your content. We do everything else.” That’s all you have
to do on UScreen.
Great. And that’s fantastic because I’m a developer by trade and I have
know-how and experience to do something like set up an educational platform
quickly using WordPress. But there’s a decision that you need to make how
you want to run your business. Do you want to focus on content, or do you
want to focus on content and also be the technical support person? If your
site goes down, you have to fix it. If a plugin breaks, you have to fix it.
It depends on what you want to focus on as the business owner.
Absolutely, that’s correct. A lot of time, as you said you’re a developer,
a lot of time is put into just setting up WordPress. Imagine getting
multiple plugins, then you’ve got to update WordPress to keep it going, and
still, it’s not optimum performance for a video core service. It’s pieced
together, so you have to research and see what plugin does what, and what
doesn’t and all that good stuff. It is a time-to-value type thing.
Right. And looking at your pricing here, the cost of the pro package for
one year is going to be less than what you would pay a developer to do that
if you didn’t have the know-how. I love WordPress, I love the whole
ecosystem and doing things, but there’s the developer side of me and then
the business side of me. It’s like, “How do I want to spend my time, and
how do I want to spend my money?”
Correct. And remember, a Vimeo business package is still $30 or $40 a
month. We host all your videos unlimited, unlimited streaming bandwidth, on
any other middle to higher packages with the apps. You still get a lot of
savings there, as far as streaming resources and server resources. You
don’t need your own server. WordPress, you’ve got to host your own server.
You could pay anywhere between $30, $40, $50 or $100 a month depending on
the number of traffic because Vimeo videos are resource intensive. We host
the complete server and videos for you.
Yeah. That’s a great point too. There’s a lot to think about. I’m not
weighing in one way or the other. I do things one way, and I’m seeing this
other way. But a lot can go into the decision-making process, and
Ustream.tv looks like a way for you to focus on the thing that you want to
do best. As we talk about that you said about four years ago, you found a
need, and you saw a need for a service like this. What research did you do,
what led you to that conclusion?
Absolutely. What led me to the conclusion of seeing a need and launching
the platform was, in my case, almost accidental. Because of my previous web
hosting company which I ran and operated for 12 years, WebNet Hosting,
which I sold in October 2016 to a Canadian corporation called
EntirelyDigital. I hosted a lot of sites and servers throughout my life in
the hosting company. The last few years of the hosting company’s life I saw
a lot of companies wanting to host video. Video is growing and booming, and
they were trying to host it, but sell it and monetize it. Some of the only
ways that they were able to do that because they would come to us as the
host provider asking questions, “Do you have a simple way to– Can you guys
host video? How can I sell it, can I set a price?”
The only real way to do that was Vimeo on Demand, for example, which takes
10%. It’s a marketplace. Vimeo has turned its back on it. It’s a pretty
clunky platform. There was data available, and there was putting it on
Wistia and then building your complete WordPress site. And doing all the
plugins and stuff, which we discussed. And then there’s the hosting of the
actual media server, which is very complicated, which would be like Wowza
media server. So I didn’t see too many good solutions in 2013, ’14 for
something like that. There were bits and pieces that you had to put
together. I did some preliminary research with looking at our current
customers on hosting, and seeing if they’re willing to pay for that type of
service. “What’s out there?” Market research, even if it’s just from
Just doing some basic searches and seeing what comes up and what’s
available. It’s good to see the competition. You do want to see that, and
you want to see that there is competition and that they have customers,
your competition has customers. Then you’ll quickly figure out that there
are better ways of doing things. For example, for us was, “Vimeo is taking
a rev share. So we shouldn’t charge a rev share. How can we make it work,
and not charge a rev share?” Believe it or not, if you’re starting out rev
share is good. Because you’re like, “I can pay nothing and start out, and
pay 10, 20, 30% percent.”
But our average customer, and we have about 1,100 paying customers now,
makes about $3,300 a month. On a 10% rev share, and some of our competitors
take up to 30%, that’s a lot. That’s $3, $400 a month, and they’re going to
charge you for video and bandwidth and all that. No app. It gets expensive
very quickly. So, there are some value points that you will find that you
can do right off the bat. But again, basic market research. Looking at
Google and seeing who’s out there. “Hey, I have competitors. Do they have
customers?” That’s always one great way to start.
That’s a great point. There’s going to be two reasons why there’s no
competition, either somebody hasn’t thought of this yet, or the much more
likely, people have thought of it, but it’s not necessarily a viable
Absolutely. That’s correct.
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You saw the need, you did the research to see what competition was out
there, and then you adjusted your business model. I’m part of a mastermind
group. I go to conferences and network a lot, and I talk to people and
bounce ideas off of other people. Did you talk to anybody about maybe the
initial feature set, or pricing, business advice? Anything like that?
Yeah, initially I did. And it would be a series of people. When I started
out knowing that I want to start this VOD platform, I joined an incubator
which is called 1776 and it’s local and in Washington DC. So that helps. If
you have any startup advising incubator, I would say if you have a startup
incubator near some metropolitan area near you, they offer good advising.
You can get help for free, and that helps a lot. That was one way I started
out, just getting to better understand how I can go to market, and so
forth. I experimented with pricing initially, and then I spoke to
customers, that helps a lot.
You want to make sure that you as the founder, owner starting out, you call
your customers and you get the feedback. Because if a salesperson does it,
which I had my hosting sales person do it initially, they’re going to sell
it. You do want to sell it, but you don’t have a product. So when a
salesperson sells something they hype it up, “Would you pay for a video
service that had lots of features and an app, and you could stream it on
TV? And then you could even buy in-app purchases, and you’re going to make
more revenue? You can compete with Netflix,” You tell that to the average
person they’re going to get very excited, so you’re going to almost get
Rather you want to be the owner of the company calling and saying, “Listen
I know you’re selling and already streaming videos, and individually on
your website, it’s broken. Would you pay for a service rather than selling
your DVDs, would you pay for a service on the web and pay a monthly fee to
get additional apps?” You get a different vibe from the customers, and
that’s how you want to validate your concept. You want to be the one
getting out of the building, as they say, to get your initial feedback.
That’s interesting because people might view the founder, the owner, the
first employee number one as not only the mastermind behind the product but
also the salesperson. But what you’re saying makes a lot of sense, because
“Do you think this is a good idea?” Versus, “Would you pay money for this?”
They’re two very different questions. And like you said, you’ll get a false
positive from the first one.
Absolutely. That’s correct. And you want to call a series of customers, and
you want to make sure you’re not selling it to them. You’re almost getting
Great. Then along with that advice you have the feature set or at least the
things that people might be disappointed in with their current solution.
The things that might make them jump ship for a new product.
Absolutely. That’s correct.
Fantastic. We are about at the halfway mark, which is when I like to ask
the title question. How did you build it? You’re the founder of this
company, and it sounds like you have a bit of a technical aspect, technical
background to you. Did you put down any code, were you the architect of the
feature set? What was your role in building UScreen?
Yeah. I did not code. I’m not a developer, but I had a technical
background. I was initially in IT, and I was a Microsoft Certified systems
engineer. I have background as far as computers go and networking and Cisco
stuff, but I’ve never been a coder. I can read and understand HTML. That’s
the extent of it. It was a huge learning curve to learn how to build a
software, I had never built a software, and I will say that’s one of the
hardest things I’ve done. Not so much building the code, developers can do
that, but building the right product for the right audience with the right
set of features. Because if you build all the features, it’s not going to
The features that you build need to be right for your audience, and they
need to be easy to use, if you build too fast they’ll have bugs. If they’re
hard to use, then people won’t use it. So figuring out exactly the right
formula to build the right features for the right audience, is probably for
me, the hardest part. Because you’re going to have to figure out your
product market fit early on so you can build for them. Because if you find
that out too late, or later down the line which is what we did, then, in
that case, you’re building tools for customers or a potential audience that
doesn’t need those tools.
Initially, when starting out if your marketing is good– because I had a
hosting background and I had launched an online company before, so my
online marketing and all that stuff, I was up to par. I knew what I needed
to do. It was quick for me to get off the ground, launch a website, get it
SEO-optimized, start writing content, optimize it, get ranked. Build your
conversion funnel, all that stuff. Landing pages. I got all that down very
quickly, and I already knew how to do it. It was just a matter of
executing. What happens initially is you’re going to get a lot of
customers. And I’m not saying “A lot” of customers, you’re going to get a
“wide variety” of customers.
You’re going to get ten customers, and they’re all wanting different
things, but your marketing looks cool, and you sold it to them, so they’re
going to sign up. But they want to do different things, so who are you
going to build for? You’re going to have to say “no” to a certain group of
customers, and “yes” to the other group of customers. You have to figure
that out early on. So, how I built it initially was I started contracting
different companies. I initially looked in Poland because I knew they did a
lot of Rails. I did know I wanted to build on Rails, just because it was up
and coming. It’s clean, and it was still affordable rather than PHP for
PHP is more affordable, but I just wanted to specifically write on rails
because I knew it was the future. It’s a cleaner framework. I looked for
contracting companies in Poland, and I shopped for rates, I shopped for
personality, I shopped for expertise, and I went through two, three
companies within the first six months. Just writing code, playing with
concepts, and stuff like that. And I spent money doing that. It’s not cheap
to hire developers. Until they really build and get out there, you’re going
to spend some money doing that. Then what we did was we hired started
hiring our developers, bringing them in under that same umbrella of the
outsourcing companies, and then eventually phasing them out.
We phased them out from the day we launched, about 15, 16, 18 months later
max. We had our team. Because it’s the only way to build properly, is to
stay away from development companies unless you know exactly what you’re
going to do. Which 99% of newly-found founders probably don’t. That’s just
my opinion. You know exactly what you’re going to do, you’re always going
to pivot, if you know exactly what you’re going to do then maybe you can
find a contracting company and say, “Build this exactly like this in this
framework,” but if you have any deviations in any way you’re going to spend
a lot of money with people that don’t work for you, which are not fully
vested, building proof of concept. It can get expensive quickly.
Gotcha. That’s another very interesting perspective, as somebody who has
come from the agency world we got hired by people to build websites for
them. But this wasn’t their product, and this was something to help promote
their business or their product. It sounds like having your own team if you
have a digital product, is super important for the things that you just
mentioned. First of all, you have a group of people who understand the code
base and how the product works well. And then you have people who are
vested in the project, it’s not just a job for them., it’s their career. As
opposed to hiring out a contractor that is not sure if they’ll have that
contract in six months, or whatever. Does that sound about right?
Absolutely, that’s correct. Contractors, especially with designing a
product, you want to be vested in there. You want to own up to it. There’s
challenges, like one day you’re going to be like, “Build this,” literally
seven days later you’re going to be like, “No.” People get de-motivated
pretty quickly. You’re going to have the same challenges with an internal
team. Too. It takes a lot to hire a developer, and you don’t know much
about development. And then be able to motivate that person and let
everybody know that this is going to succeed. There’s a lot of challenges
outside of– What I mean is, there’s a lot of challenges to making the
And it’s not just getting customers. Getting your team to perform and build
a software is a huge challenge, marketing and getting customers is another
challenge. Just having a platform is not going to get your business. You’re
going to have to market it. But if you can build a platform or a software
or an app that works a specific way for an audience, I think it’s an
advantage, because it’s not easy to build software for the average founder,
for example. That’s why they say if you have any technical background it
helps. I’m technical but I’m not a technical developer, so it doesn’t help
me too much. I had to learn my way in and out.
Absolutely. Especially since today, I’m a developer, but I’m a front-end
developer. If I were to go off and build some big platform, I would need
somebody who understands server architecture, and somebody who understands
caching and stuff a little bit better than I do. Even as a developer with
technical knowledge I can’t confidently build a good product on my own. I
need other people who have different areas of expertise.
That’s correct. You said that right, you’re front end and you don’t know
back end, but still, you have a good understanding. Just being a developer
would help a lot, rather than me I was fully green on– I knew what the
difference between front end and back and was, but I was still pretty green
as far as architecture, plugging everything in together, proof of concept,
and all that good stuff. Any development background helps.
Absolutely. There’s one more thing I want to touch on here, and that’s the
idea of building a company culture, which is something that you can more
easily do with your own employees. You talk about how you want people to be
vested in the product, can you talk a little bit about what that’s like?
Having a company culture, I imagine, allows everybody to rally around this
thing and make them feel like they’re part of something.
Absolutely, that’s correct. See, we’re a remote team. There’s twelve of us
now. Me and my head developer are in DC because he lives here, but everyone
else is remote. Being remote seems cool, but it’s harder. It is. Being a
remote business, it’s harder to do business, and the reason is one, time
management. You don’t know what people are doing and how efficient you are
working from home. Now there’s tools and stuff to help with that, and
obviously, you’re going to learn project management better, which is what I
did, and then I learned to manage them better. But the upside is that it’s
more affordable. That’s why we started out remote, because we’re a
bootstrap company and we’re self-funded, and I’m the only funder.
So hiring a developer at $8, $10,000 a month in DC, needing three of them
and app developers was not even feasible. That’s $50,000 a month in
development fees which is at a time when you don’t even know what you’re
building. Spend that for a year, or until you figure it out. Remote helps
that. Building a company culture with a remote team is not easy. It’s
harder. We were lucky that one of my traits is, I’m able to just from
experience, I can immediately within a few interviews of a few different
candidates I could tell which one will probably be a fit for us. Just from
experience of hiring and firing I’ve learned that. We luckily, knock on
wood, have a really good team now. The culture, you can feel it, that
everybody’s hard working and they want to succeed, they want the app to
Then we obviously have had some growing pains with certain people in our
company that have left, and just not matched and so forth. It’s easy to
tell. But the core of the group sticks together, and it’s a really solid
team. Building a culture around that you get with experience, you do. You
start to hire different skill sets and different types of people, but they
have similarity in where they want to go. They want the company to succeed,
and they know you are a bootstrap. They like the product, and they like
what’s going on. That gets a little bit easier as you go along and as the
product matures because you’re going to hire people and you’re going to be
like, “We have 1,000 customers. Here they are, here’s what they’re doing,
here’s how much money they make. Here’s their challengers. This is the
bugs. These are the things we want to do,” so people are like, “Wow. All
right, stuff is happening.”
Rather than at the beginning, you’re like, “Listen. We want this, and the
market is big, we want to acquire customers. It’s possible for us to get to
this MRR. Here’s all the stuff they want, and we want to do.” And then as
you’re going through that process, there’s a lot of doubts, and there’s a
lot of failures, and there’s a lot of features you’re going to motivate the
heck out of your team, and then the feature is going to get trashed. People
get de-motivated, that happens. That’s something that I learned with
developers is, I don’t understand this, I’ve always learned how to work
hard, and there’s good times and bad times and if something doesn’t work
you trash it and you move on. But developers tend to say, “I’m burned out.
That means they put their heart into building a feature that you motivated
them for three months, and they built it for another three months. So six
months was spent and then all of a sudden it’s not used anymore. And that
happened a lot with us, and we kept trashing features. That’s de-motivating
for a team, and you do lose that culture eventually, but obviously, you
have to stay on top of it. It is a full-time job to keep people happy.
That’s why now I understand as I’m getting older and running businesses,
you need project managers. You got to get people to be on top of things.
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I like to equate development with artwork, in a sense. Because it’ like you
said, you have these developers pouring their heart and soul into making
something that is good and then it gets trashed. Or maybe someone finds a
lot of bugs, or someone says it’s not very well built, and you take that
hard. I suspect that’s why developers don’t like testing their own code,
because you’re actively trying to break your own code. And that’s not
something you want to do because you just put all this time into it. That’s
And as somebody who works from home, self-employed and came from a remote
team, I understand the difficulty of having a remote team and still trying
to build that culture. Or even just somebody working from home all the
time, I’m an extrovert, and I like having face time with people, and going
out there in a co-working space helps. But you see the challenges of
building a culture with people who are all over the world, different time
zones, different countries and stuff like that.
That’s true, that’s a great way to put it.
Great. We are coming up on time, so I want to ask you these last two
questions. We know where UScreen is today, what transformations has it gone
through since the first launch and what are your plans for the future?
Yeah. It’s gone through a lot of transformations. Initially, we thought our
product was for anyone with any video, that’s trying to monetize videos.
Even an individual with one video that’s just trying to sell a course. Our
platform works perfectly for someone like that, but you’re more likely to
succeed if you have a few hours of content so you can build a video
business around it. It’s transformed a lot, the platform has gone from lots
of features, to still having a lot of features but they work well, they’re
tweaked, and they’re easy to use. We’ve made a lot of transformations on
the look and feel the back end, and we’re completely updating our themes
and adding a lot of beautiful themes that allow you to build your site just
like Netflix. It’s pretty crazy. We have a lot of good stuff coming, and
we’ve gone through some transformations.
Very cool. That sounds great, especially because with my theme I had to
make some customizations to make sure that video was prioritized, as
somebody who has video courses I want to make sure that the videos are nice
and big on a desktop, and then look good on mobile too. Maybe you can speak
to this a little bit, and I find a lot more people are consuming my content
on mobile devices.
Absolutely, yeah. It’s crazy. It’s 60% of our average users watching
content on mobile. It’s 60%. There’s no doubt. So that’s why the apps do
well. You have a Netflix app on your phone? We give you the same thing
under your name, so How I Built, It would be an app.
That sounds good. I should have a How I Built It app. That sounds
fantastic. And then I always like to end with this question, which is, do
you have any trade secrets for us?
Trade secrets? Yeah. One trade secrets could be hire people smarter than
you. An investor in San Francisco told me that once, and I was like, “Why
would you want to do that though?” I thought to myself as soon as he said
it to me, “Why would you want to do that? They’ll take over your business.”
But no, that’s the wrong way to think. The world is moving so fast, and
technology is moving so fast. SaaS is so complex, and building software
still is very hard, but it’s getting easier by the day. You want really
smart people on your team. It’s not easy to do business online, and it
isn’t. That’s why so many companies fail. I every night think about ways
that we don’t want to fail, like what I can do to succeed, constantly. I
keep motivating the team. And I don’t let people get too comfortable.
That’s probably another trade secret, don’t get too comfortable. As soon as
companies make money, and I did this in my previous company, everybody gets
comfortable. That’s a downside because business is war, and the other
competitor that you don’t know about is coming for you. That’s one thing
that I would recommend, is not to get too comfortable too quickly.
Wow, that’s two great pieces of advice. Hire people smarter than you
reminds me of why I left one of my previous jobs from years ago, I realized
that I was the– not to sound conceited or anything, but I realized I was
the best developer in the office. And I didn’t want to be that because I
realized that I wouldn’t be able to learn from anybody. I left, and then I
went to work at the agency that I was previously at, where everybody was
way smarter than me, and I learned a ton. Then don’t get too comfortable,
which is great. People see their businesses doing well, and they assume
their business will continue to do well and they can coast. But I say this
with the people who develop online courses all the time, specifically
online courses, this is not passive income. It’s maybe more passive, or
passive for short amounts of time. But if you run a business, it’s not
truly passive income if you want to do it right.
That’s correct. It’s hard work, and it’s not easy, it’s not anything like
they make it sound like, where you’re self-employed, and you work your own
hours. It’s nothing like that. If you’re trying to build a company, it is
absolutely the opposite of that. But if you want to build an individual
consulting business, then yeah, it’s different.
Awesome. PJ, thanks so much for taking the time and joining me today. I
Absolutely. It’s been a pleasure, Joe. Thank you very much.
Where can people find you?
Our website is UScreen.tv, and my e-mail is PJ@UScreen.tv, and I look
forward to hearing from anyone that wants to reach out to me. Happy to
speak to you.
Awesome. I will link those in the show notes. Thank you PJ, thanks to our
sponsors, and thank you for listening. Until next time, get out there and
Thanks so much to PJ for his time today. I appreciate the conversation that
we had. I love the UScreen service. It’s really interesting, and he gave us
a lot of really good advice. Be sure to check out everything he does in the
show notes. And thanks again to our sponsors, Backblaze and Pantheon. Both
of them offer fantastic resources, and you should check them out.
The question of the week for you is, are you thinking about starting an
online course? And if so, what is stopping you? Let me know on Twitter
@jcasabona, or e-mail me Joe@HowIBuilt.it. You can also join the Facebook
community over at HowIBuilt.it/Facebook. I’ll ask the question over there
too, and you’ll have the opportunity to discuss it with other listeners. I
want to build a strong community for this podcast and Facebook is the place
to do it.
Don’t forget to check out our new t-shirts and mugs over at the
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get out there and build something.