After selling Viki Razmig Hovaghimian launches a new startup

After selling Viki Razmig Hovaghimian launches a new startup –

By Judith Balea


There’s no denying that Razmig Hovaghimian is one of the most impressive startup stories to come out of Asia. From a failed pizza maker to owner of Viki, a video streaming site bought by Rakuten, to being Rakuten’s first-ever entrepreneur-in-residence, Razmig’s life as a founder has had many twists and turns. Now he enters another chapter with his newest brainchild.

“We are creating a hub for city news and stories happening right around you, tapping into the pulse of your city,” Razmig says. It’s an app called Ripple.

The idea behind it is simple: every story has a location. With this in mind, Razmig says he built Ripple to deliver relevant content – both text and video – to the right people through location tagging. With each city’s newsfeed, a user can view the top voted stories in their area. Essentially, he says the app acts as a “nearby” button for news.

Aside from city newsfeeds, Ripple has a global feed where the most popular stories from all cities are featured.

“That’s what the name means. You ripple a story by upvoting it and more and more people will get to see it,” he tells Tech in Asia.

After bootstrapping since January, Razmig today revealed that Ripple has secured a US$4 million series A round from investors, including some names from Silicon Valley and media heavyweights.

The investors are Rakuten, Greylock Partners, Graph Ventures, Social Capital, Charles River Ventures, John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, Eric Schmidt’s Innovation Endeavors, Pejman Mar Ventures, Matter Ventures, 500 Startups, MIT Media Lab director Joi Ito, and angel investors Blake Krikorian, Magdalena Yesil, and Shane Smith of VICE Media. Rakuten of course is an existing backer of Razmig – along with Greylock, Charles River, and Joi – having invested in Viki before.

Previously in beta in San Francisco – its base – and Oakland, Ripple launches publicly today with the addition of news streams in New York, London, Cairo, and Bangkok. It’s available for both iOS and Android devices.

A hybrid

Hyperlocal news apps aren’t a new thing. However, unlike others, Razmig says Ripple isn’t just a collection of news from media groups and blogs. It’s a hybrid of that and original content from Ripple correspondents. These correspondents are “citizen journalists” who are actually living in the area where the news originates from. For example, users in San Francisco’s Mission District will find daily stories from Ripple correspondents who are working on the ground in Mission as well as local news partners such as KQED, Mission Local, and Hoodline.

Ripple encourages communities to tell original and quality stories that may not be captured by traditional media. It’s just not possible for media outlets to have a crew in every city – especially since many are facing budget cuts right now.

Such constraints have resulted in two trends in reporting: parachute reporting, where people only fly into a city or a community when something major has happened like a fire or a shooting, and internet reporting, where people cut and clip stuff online and don’t actually talk to people on the ground. Ripple goes against those two trends, Razmig says.

The big question, however, is the credibility and authenticity of the reports from independent sources. Razmig says they address this by carefully screening correspondents. “We only accept correspondents in a particular area who live in that neighborhood.”

Interested contributors are asked to submit their basic information and LinkedIn profiles or portfolio links, but it’s not clear how else a writer is vetted.

Ripple churns out 50 stories a day from a network of 200 correspondents out of 700 applications as well as several media partners. Razmig says it’s too early to disclose the number of app users, but he shares it’s surprising how engaged the users are. “More important than having hundreds of thousands of users is to have a few thousands obsessed users,” he notes.

String of ventures

Ripple is Razmig’s first creation as Rakuten’s entrepreneur-in-residence, a post which means he gets to work on ideas inside and outside Rakuten while performing his other roles at the Japanese company, including head of video and board of directors observer.

He landed those posts after Rakuten acquired his company, Viki, a streaming video site much like Netflix but with the ability to crowdsource subtitles from its users similar to how Wikipedia’s users collaboratively create content. The 2013 deal, which was reportedly valued at US$200 million, was one of the largest ever for a Southeast Asian company and put Razmig on people’s radars.

Prior to Viki, Razmig co-designed and patented Embrace, a premature infant incubator for the developing world which his team sold to international non-government organization Thrive Networks in 2015. He started those two ventures as class projects at Stanford Business School. They turned out to be his first successful ones. He tried pizza delivery and jeans exports after high school but failed at those.

While Ripple was born just this year, Razmig got the concept for the app long before his time at Rakuten – and even before Embrace and Viki.

At Stanford, he spent his summer working with the United Nations in South Sudan and East Africa. “Saw too many stories around me that were going untold – from kids renting guns for US$5 a night to foreign prisoners building oil rigs. I wanted to take photos myself and report about these stories, but that was right when Facebook was just starting and there were no smartphones yet,” he recalls.

“After Viki, I played around with many ideas, but kept defaulting back to participatory journalism. This time I’m doing it with the knowledge from Viki and of the power of community in breaking down barriers. I realized that I love the intersection of tech, community, and media.”

Building its community of writers and news sources as well as readers is Ripple’s focus at the moment. Monetization will come later on.

Razmig says the team is looking at deriving revenue from ads – either “inside the feed or sponsoring the feed.”

“We’ve actually experimented with some airlines. The way it works is every time you land in another city, say Bangkok, you can get local news from there right away.”

He says that the “vast majority” of Ripple’s contributors are currently unpaid, but “as we start monetizing, we will share our revenues with them.”

Even without pay, local writers are happy to contribute to the app because they see it as a way to reach additional readers and build their brand, he explains.

“Like them, our mission is to uncover untold stories and strengthen communities by sparking thoughtful conversations,” Razmig says. “To make ripples, that’s what the app is all about.”

Ripple is independent from Rakuten, but the two will be working on some “synergies” in the future.

Rakuten is touted as the Amazon of Japan because of its dominant position in the country’s ecommerce market. Over the past few years, the company has been zooming in on video and content, acquiring messaging app Viber, European video site Wuaki, and ebook store Kobo, and investing in social bookmarking site Pinterest.

Razmig says he’s working on a few ideas with Rakuten, but he’s keeping those under his hat for now.

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