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‘Our platform helps artists to reach an exponentially larger audience’: Q&A with M17 global CEO Hirofumi Ono

Ono is on a mission to grow the company’s livestreaming business in international markets like the US and India.

M17 new global CEO Hirofumi Ono. Picture courtesy of M17.

In August, M17 Entertainment announced a change in its C-level lineup. Co-founder and former CEO Joseph Phua stepped down after seven years of tenure, and Hirofumi Ono, who previously headed the firm’s Japanese division, took the position as M17’s new global CEO.

Under Ono’s leadership, M17 has grown rapidly in Japan, with its livestreaming platform, 17 Live, claiming 60% of the country’s market. Ono is now expected to replicate the success on a global level.

The Taipei-based social media startup is currently operating in multiple countries across the globe, such as Hong Kong, Singapore, Malaysia, India, and the United States. Its services also cover various grounds, with 17 Live as the firm’s flagship livestreaming app; MeMe, a live streaming platform focusing on India and Southeast Asia markets; and livestreaming shopping app HandsUp.

However, M17 is having a hard time navigating the Southeast Asia market, as China-based livestreaming apps have been leading in the region. By revenue, YY’s Bigo is the leader in the region, followed by QuVideo’s VivaVideo and MLive, an Australian-owned app. M17 comes in at the fourth position, according to Sensor Tower data quoted by the South China Morning Post.

M17 botched an IPO in 2018, but has steadily bounced back after raising USD 26.5 million in a Series D funding.

KrASIA recently talked with Ono about his plans to replicate M17’s success in Japan at a global scale.

The following interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.

A livestreamer chats with her audience on the 17 Live app. Screenshot from 17Live.

KrASIA (Kr): Congratulations on the appointment! Now that you are overseeing M17’s global operation, what changes will you introduce?

Hirofumi Ono (HO): Thank you very much. It has been such a rewarding experience at 17 Live over the past three years. Back in 2017, we started the company, but by Q1 2018, we grew our market share to 19%. Now we have increased that to over 60%. We are looking at diversifying our content to accommodate a wider consumer audience, tailoring our platform to the cultural differences of each geography we enter, and developing new products in this ever-changing livestreaming industry.

It was natural to be appointed as the global CEO, as we have shown operational experience in creating the Japan 17 Live business, increasing the revenue to a dominant position within our company (Japan is now 70% of total revenue), and reaching the top position in market share in Japan. With success in previous startups, I am fully committed to growing 17 Live’s business globally.

Kr: M17 is big in Japan, claiming over 60% market share. How did you reach this level of success, and how can you replicate it in other regions?

HO: We put our artists first. In fact, we allocate one-third of our employees for streamer management, while other competitors, including Chinese players, do not.

Models that succeeded in Taiwan also played important roles in Japan’s operation. We are in tune with cultural differences and have adjusted our operation model into a localized one. Whenever we look to expand into another market, we look at our competitors, our consumers, and how we can fit in with our own style and flair. We have a bottom-up, on-the-ground feedback system to adapt to our new markets.

Kr: Livestreaming platforms are seeing more user activity, as people look for entertainment due to COVID-19 lockdowns and social limitations. How is it working for M17 so far?

HO: We knew that our platform was the perfect venue for artists out of work, to allow them to earn a livelihood during COVID-19. We decided to come up with several programs to help where we could.

For instance, we previously held in-person music festivals in Japan on a regular basis before COVID-19. After the initial outbreak, we adjusted to an online festival where only streamers who won the online competition would participate. The online festival was then open to all our 17 Live fans, without restrictions. This provided our users and fans with the opportunity to interact with their favorite streamers. This festival was streamed in real-time on the 17 Live platform.

Kr: How do you envision the future of the livestreaming industry? Has new potential been unlocked during the pandemic?

HO: We discovered that the pandemic only accelerated the adoption of livestreaming as a normal entertainment media platform. We captured this opportunity by establishing the highest number of projects in our history from March to May. We consider this a huge success, given the number of user views, comments, and Baby coins [in-app currency to buy digital gifts], which were all above average.

We have had recent success where we combined e-commerce opportunities with our livestreamed music events and concerts. Musician and concert merchandise sold at a rate that was double the average compared to the conventional method. Our platform helps artists to reach an exponentially larger audience than live in-person concerts.

In fact, if we are to extrapolate these events to even larger mainstream bands, think about the potential. The time and money saved are immense on our platform when compared to a regular concert tour, which includes costs associated with flights, insurance, logistics, equipment rental, stadium rental, local staffing concerns, and others. We are excited to offer our livestreaming musical events service to a broader and more international audience than ever imagined.

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Kr: Which countries are going to be your key markets this year, especially with expansion plans for the US and countries in the Middle East?

HO: We have some very exciting plans in store, but I think it would be premature to talk about them now. However, you can see from our recent acquisition of MeMe Live that we have an interest in multiple markets.

Japan has grown to become our main market over the past years. With the stable base of Japan, we will be shifting the resources to developing markets such as the US, India, the Middle East, and North Africa.

Kr: What can users and creators expect from M17 in the future? Will there be more unique features to strengthen your company’s position?

HO: We continue to focus our time on streamer diversification. Livestreaming has gathered huge attention from those who are seeking ways to earn money to replace offline businesses.

For example, we have noticed that certain genres have been very exciting and have grown rapidly. For instance, pet shops have started animal streaming, while athletes have been talking about their activities to interact with fans. Also, retail stores have been actively reaching out to start live commerce activities. We are always re-inventing livestreaming and look to improve our product as a whole.