IN CONVERSATION WITH CEES HONIG, THE CO-CEO OF XITE
XITE is a music video streaming service with an extensive catalog of music video’s on the TV. Founded in the Netherlands, the company knew how to expand international and now has a reach of 100 million households worldwide. Co-CEO Cees Honig (39) moved to New York in 2015 to take XITE to a new continent. He managed to attract the interest of major players in the television and music industries with the interactive TV app and in 2018 XITE launched the first TV apps in the United States, partnering up with Comcast, Amazon FireTV, Roku, and Apple TV. With the expansion of the TV app across multiple platforms in the Netherlands, its reach nationally is now greater than ever before. We had the honour to talk to Cees Honig, who just moved back to Amsterdam with his family, to talk about the origin of the app and how he managed to make it known worldwide.
Could you tell me and also our readers how the idea came up to start a platform like XITE?
We originally started with the idea to launch a competitor to MTV, with a more interactive music video product, but TV back then was classic cable TV with providers in the Netherlands like KPN and Ziggo, and Comcast in the USA. So we delivered music video channels, basically MTV competitors, combined with music video on demand offering. We pivoted about eight years ago into becoming a music tech company. Right now our flagship product is a TV app that lives on either cable TV or connected TV devices. We just announced we will also go live Samsung TV and Amazon Fire TV in the Netherlands. Basically, we are available on all of the connected TV platforms in Western Europe and North America. In XITE’s app, we bundle all music videos ever made by all major labels, independent artists, and independent labels into a product that’s purpose-built for TV. It’s a lean-back user experience, there’s always a channel playing. By switching channels or skipping or liking a video or channel we personalize the experience and then, in the end, the music videos you love, find you instead of the other way around.
Like you said, nowadays there’s a lot of new technology to watch music videos on your phone or your TV, what differentiates XITE from other music apps?
The most important point is that we are focused on the big screen, we’re focused on the living room TV, so we have a very different approach when it comes to user experience. If you look at YouTube, for instance, it’s very search-driven and lean-forwards. When you open the XITE app for the first time, immediately the hits channel starts playing and you’re prompted to skip and to like. Then it starts personalizing the channel, and if you don’t like the channel you go to a different channel. So it’s very much a lean-back experience instead of a lean-forward experience. There are not a lot of steps needed to get where you need to be, because it’s controlled via a remote control on TV obviously and not on a mobile screen. And I think we’re the only company in the world that built a specific product for music videos for TV.
I read that you moved to New York in 2015 to take over America with XITE, can you maybe tell us how that turned out and what changed for XITE?
Before I moved to the States and opened the office there, I was travelling back and forth between New York and Los Angeles for a while. We wanted to see if we could extend our music video licences with the major music labels to The States, which is a hard thing to do. It’s the biggest music market, and also a very strategic market for the major labels. We also wanted to see if there were television platforms back then, that were interested in a product like ours. This seemed to go well and we decided ”OK let’s just move to The States”. I sold my house, I asked my wife to quit her job and we went with just five suitcases with some clothes and some personal stuff. There I started almost from scratch. Today, eight years later, 80% of our revenue comes from the US, but it took us a very long time to break into the market, especially for a European company it’s a hard thing to do. The first three years were basically lots of no’s, labels saying: ”It’s nice, but why?”, a lot of TV platforms saying: “We don’t want to pay any more for these products, they should be free.” Back then we had a different business model, so during these three years, we basically had to switch our business model to not relying anymore on the TV platforms for revenue, but relying on selling ads and selling subscriptions. We had to convince the major labels too to give us the licences, but most of these bigger deals with these major labels are done through a select group of very influential music licencing lawyers. Through a contact that I had somewhere, I was able to get one meeting with one of them. With my laptop and my PowerPoint presentation, I went to Four Seasons Manhattan in New York and I was sitting down at a table waiting for this hotshot lawyer. Behind me, there was a table with Meghan Markle having drinks, and other kind of celebrities were sitting there, so I was definitely out of my comfort zone and a little nervous. I was just this young Dutch guy trying to get into business with a lawyer to pay to give us access to the right people at the music labels who would help us close these deals. After my pitch, he took my hand, looked me in the eyes, and said: ”I like the product, I like you, I’m gonna work for you guys.” It was such a relief. He and his team helped us convince the labels that we have a unique product, that we are really working for the labels and artists, and we would make more money for this content category than the competition. Then within a year or so, we were able to obtain these licences, we changed the business model and we started launching the app on these different platforms in The States. Pretty soon after that, we were available in 100 million households and that’s basically how it started.
How long were you in the US and what made you come back to the Netherlands?
I moved there with my wife, a big adventure and we lived in an apartment in Brooklyn. She was starting to work as a podcast producer starting her own business. After five years our first son was born and then immediately COVID happened. New York turned into a ghost town, most of our social network moved out of the city, and people who lost their jobs couldn’t afford to be in the city anymore. So we decided to move upstate, like a 90-minute drive north of Manhattan, where a lot of our other friends had houses. After our second child, we found out that we really missed the city. We visited Amsterdam to introduce our second child to the family, which was at the exact moment that all the COVID measures were abolished in Amsterdam. It felt free and open again and Amsterdam felt amazing. So we decided we just really want our kids to grow up near family and move back to Amsterdam. I will have to do a lot more travelling back to the States now, of course.
In conclusion, I would love to know what you have coming up, all these amazing things that you’ve been doing recently, what is next?
There’s a lot of stuff coming up! Right now we’re ramping up our new app on Amazon FireTV, which is a huge deal for us. We’re basically becoming the number one destination on the biggest TV platform in The States for music videos. We have launched 21 channels, music video channels, and Amazon’s Freevee, which is an ad-supported TV app. And after that, we’re announcing more of these channel launches in the States and also in Europe. On and off Amazon you’ll see a lot of marketing and a lot of campaigns coming up. So basically we’re growing within our footprints. The end goal is to build a global music TV network, sort of a next-generation MTV.
photography ROGER CREMERS
interview MIYANNE MAASSEN VAN DEN BRINK & REBECCA KAPENGA