Published on May 2nd, 2016 | by Bhavishya Kanjhan0
In conversation with the President of STARZ Play Arabia
The office of STARZ Play isn’t much to look at. Right now, it’s barely more than painted walls and furniture put together. The meeting room, however, does have a large TV with many connected devices, each capable of streaming STARZ Play on to it. You would be forgiven for thinking STARZ Play wasn’t a startup, for it lacked the fancy furniture, ball-pits, and on-premise chef that has become characteristic of startups. Perhaps this is how startups are supposed to function – prudently. It’s not that STARZ Play doesn’t have the money to build out fancy offices; it just seems it has invested it elsewhere: the platform and content I’m told.
“Most of the capital has been invested in content.” says Maaz Sheikh, Cofounder and President of STARZ Play. “Programming costs, especially for Hollywood movies and TV series tend to be high.” he added. The seed funding and Series A came from the co-founder Peter Ekuland. Starz Entertainment, along with GE, came in for Series B and the former lent their brand to the product as well.
We sat down with Maaz Sheikh to talk about the history and the future of STARZ Play and find out what the areas of focus were for the startup. An edited version of the transcript appears below.
Content has been a key area of focus for Sheikh. You can tell he is proud of the content base STARZ Play has built up. He lists as many studio names as titles for which they have exclusive access. StarzPlay has partnerships with many Hollywood studios and production houses: for TV services, they’ve partnered with CBS, Showtime, ABC/Disney and Starz, some they are exclusive with. Their TV catalogue consists of over 2,100 hours of TV and this includes access to exclusive shows such as Billions and Black Sails. Sheikh, proudly, says that there are over 35 shows that are available on STARZ Play within an hour of airing in the US.
“All in all, we have about 4,000 hours of content.”
On the Movie front, they’ve partnered with the big names of Sony, Disney, Warner, MGM, and Paramount. Many titles with these studios are in an exclusive licence period – ‘pay window’ is the industry term – where the title isn’t available anywhere else regionally, that is until it moves to ‘library window’ another library term where other providers may air it too. There are over one thousand movies in the catalogue from which a hundred are new, and the remaining would be in the library window.
“All in all, we have about 4,000 hours of content.”
So how does that compare to Netflix then? According to one estimate, Netflix in the UAE has just over 300 movies and a total title count of about 1,700. This, of course, keeps changing and the numbers are insufficient to paint a complete picture. Sheikh says when compared to Netflix, STARZ Play has more content which is more recent, again on the back of their exclusive partnerships.
The arrival of Netflix has “brought recognition to the category.”
Does that mean Netflix’s arrival to the region has been bad for STARZ Play? Not according to Sheikh. The launch has “brought recognition to the category” and by that virtue to STARZ Play. An increasingly greater number of users is aware of and subscribing to Streaming Video on Demand (SVOD) services.
Not all is good though – Sheikh does admit that they have their work cut out when it comes to brand building. He admits that as a young startup, STARZ Play has their work cut out for them when competing with an industry leader like Netflix. This brand credibility is especial to build that trust with users.
On building a brand and partnering with Telcos
One of the ways STARZ Play is doing that is by partnering with leading telcos through the region. STARZ Play has group level partnerships with Etisalat, Ooredoo, and Orange to name a few. These partnerships not only bring credibility to the STARZ Play brand, they’ve actually helped build a solid subscriber base in countries across the region. In Tunisia, for example, Ooredoo gave users an allowance of 1GB of mobile data per day to be used on the STARZ Play service with the purchase of a subscription. Similar partnerships are being rolled out with telcos through the region and Sheikh sees the set-top boxes as an essential platform for reaching the millions of regional customers.
STARZ Play is “an extension of their (telco’s) existing service rather than a replacement of their full package.”
But isn’t STARZ Play competing with these telcos by providing cord-cutting solutions? Not according to Sheikh. He sees STARZ Play as “..an extension of their (telco’s) existing service rather than a replacement of their full package.” It serves as an add-on to the telco’s current content catalogue. “With one click, users can switch from the free-to-air television or the sports channel provided by the telco to the premium recent Hollywood content provided by us … we’re not a be-all and end-all service for all types of content, rather, we see ourselves fitting in as part of the total experience provided by the telco.”
“We see ourselves as bringing in that premium, ads-free entertainment in full HD at an affordable price point to the region. So we see ourselves as an alternative, premium television service”
Alright, so value proposition defined, the brand defined, partnerships defined – what has all that net STARZ Play so far then?
“75,000 users so far in 21 countries” according to Sheikh. “A majority of our user base is in UAE, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Kuwait, and Tunisia”.
Building that user base hasn’t been easy, though. Sheikh talks about a time when the website was getting over 300,000 visits a day and thousands of app downloads but few conversions. “We were hitting a payment wall with credit cards only. So the next three of four months, we focused heavily on adding alternative methods of payment.” STARZ Play now allows for payment via PayPal, cash on delivery for 3/6/12 month voucher codes, mobile payment / carrier billing. With Etisalat, for example, I’m told you don’t even need to enter your mobile number to subscribe since the website automatically recognises you and just sends you an SMS confirmation. All these efforts along with partnerships with telcos for presence on the set-top boxes has got STARZ Play here.
STARZ Play is still far from a household-name though. One hundred thousand is a fraction of the total market size: tens of millions of customers across the region. You can tell that Sheikh and his team are working towards it though. At AED 30 / month in the UAE or less than the equivalent of USD 4 in Tunisia, STARZ Play seems cheap enough to have as an add-on service, but also one that could be forgiven for not having everything you wanted on your television. Sheikh sees STARZ Play as an “alternative, premium television service” that “complements existing services that operators offer.”