Shahrzad Rafati: Tehran native connects with global online media community

Rafati cornered market in monetizing video content and became an international hit

Shahrzad Rafati

Shahrzad Rafati arrived in Vancouver in 1996 as a fresh-faced 17-year-old, unfazed about leaving Tehran to come halfway around the world on her own to study computer science at the University of British Columbia.

"My big plan was to do an undergraduate degree here and then move forward doing a PhD of some sort, although I did not do the PhD," said Rafati, who is Business in Vancouver's CEO of the Year in the small private company category.

The "small" descriptor in that award is increasingly a misnomer.

Her BroadbandTV now employs 72 Vancouver staff and more than 200 consultants around the world.

Rafati launched that venture after a stint in Paris and returning to Vancouver to graduate from UBC in 2005. She then felt her way in an industry where revenue models had yet to be defined.

BroadbandTV's original model was to sell subscription content for Internet-connected "set-top boxes," which were similar to personal video recorders (PVR) and Apple TV consoles in that they stored content, which could be shown on a TV.

The company's business model morphed to being involved with streaming content as users increasingly accessed video online.

BroadbandTV helps large companies, such as the National Basketball Association, reclaim revenue that would otherwise be lost.

That's because it created technology that is able to spot pirated videos on sites such as YouTube. It launches advertising to play before the videos, and that advertising revenue is funnelled back to the owner of the content.

"Revenues at the beginning were very much not something you could consider a successful business but we were getting a lot of traction," Rafati said. "We had a lot of traffic and realized that there was a trend here. People were consuming content and, at the end of the day, advertisers would follow consumption."

Follow they did.

Her company's content partners get about 1.2 billion views per month, and that figure is steadily on the rise.

One major success came earlier this year when BroadbandTV received an initial $36 million investment from European entertainment giant RTL Group in exchange for what was reported to be a 51% stake in the company.

Rafati does not reveal annual revenue but her award is for companies that generated less than $50 million last year.

"She's incredibly enthusiastic, extremely positive and hard-working," said BroadbandTV's director of public relations Don Gamble, who nominated Rafati for the award.

Other organizations have similarly recognized Rafati's influence. Technology and innovation magazine Fast Company, for example, named Rafati as one of the 100 most creative people in business in 2011.

Outside BroadbandTV, the amateur yoga practitioner is an investor, co-founder and board member of Chopra Yoga, of which her brother Sharam Rafati is president.

"It was a really good investment, but being involved with Chopra Yoga was more about wanting to be part of something that is positive in the community," she said.

Rafati has also become involved in philanthropy and helping others give.

One initiative was founding an online video channel called VISO Give, which features videos on non-profit and charitable organizations.

Advertising revenue bought against each video is donated to the organization being featured.

"I'm a big believer of making an impact, and this is what we're doing at BroadbandTV," she said. •

What sorts of character traits or leadership styles do CEOs have to cultivate in the 21st century?

A CEO has to remain laser-focused on the overall vision and be very clear on the overall goals and objectives, but they need flexibility too; they need to remain focused but open.

What accomplishments are you most proud of?

I'm most proud of what we, as a team, have accomplished at BroadbandTV. 2013 has been a fantastic year for the business – in summary:

  • a $36m investment and strategic partnership with RTL Group in June;
  • we now have over 12,000 channel partners, over one billion monthly views, and over 100 million subscribers;
  • more than 70 full-time staff in Vancouver;
  • we launched our breakthrough technology product VISO Catalyst, helping our 12,000 content creators to become more successful online;
  • I was awarded Ernst & Young's Pacific Emerging Entrepreneur award; and
  • we were awarded Playback's Digital Company of the Year.

What is the biggest challenge you have faced?

One of the biggest challenges I faced early on with BroadbandTV was convincing premium content owners of the business model – it was a new offering and we were a very young business. I was so convinced that our business model would work that I paid our potential clients upfront. It paid off massively for us and I'm pleased that I had confidence in my early decision.

What career decisions would you make differently were you starting out today?

If I were starting out again today, I'd externally push the brand even earlier.

What's one business lesson that you'd like to pass on to others?

Go after large pools of opportunity, work hard and maintain a positive mental attitude.