Tilzy.tv: A TV Guide for the Web?

Startup Watch: Tilzy.tv

Have you noticed that YouTube is 99% crap, 1% genius? 

Enter Jamison Tilsner and Joshua Cohen, of Tilzy.tv.  Launched in April of 2007 and operating out of Brooklyn, NY, Tilzy.tv’s mission is simple on its face:  to act as a sort of “TV Guide for the Web.”  Sounds simple, but on closer look, these two childhood friends have their work cut out for them if they want to take Tilzy.tv to the next level.

For one thing:  Who decides what’s worth watching?

Currently, Jamison and Joshua, mostly.  By their own admission, these guys review and showcase stuff largely on the basis of their own personal taste.  However, and to their credit, Tilsner and Cohen have spent several years thoroughly ensconcing themselves amidst the fast-growing community of people who make videos for the Web.  They have thus built up a considerable amount of credibility and goodwill among their peer group, because they cared before there was any money to be made. 

Despite a recent re-design, Tilzy.tv retains something of the flavor of “two guys and a dog,” attempting to create a community-centric, decidedly approachable brand  — rather than trying to match Hollywood slick for slick.  Going forward, the personal touch evident in Tilzy.tv could be an advantage against well-funded corporate competitors entering this market.  Or it could be a deal killer.

Still, who do you trust more to tell you what’s worth watching, Jamison and Joshua at Tilzy.tv, or Variety?  That question goes to the heart of this opportunity—and also its considerable challenge.

It’s the classic story: while the big guys plot their moves carefully, not wanting to make a mistake, the small guys with nothing much to lose grow and test and learn.  One interesting choice Tilsner and Cohen have made, though, is to think like the big guys, and eschew the viral videos that find such popularity on the Web in favor of more mainstream-friendly, television-like material.  Says Cohen: “We try to focus on stuff that we think has the potential to gain a good-sized audience.”

A conscious strategic decision, and probably a good one.  After all, garnering consistent advertising dollars for online video has been problematic for even the biggest players (i.e., YouTube) because advertisers do not want their brands appearing anywhere near . . . um . . . certain content.  YouTube wouldn’t be the same without that certain content; Tilzy.tv can take it or leave it.

And though editorial boss Cohen claims that “we never sought to be a filter or curator,” he does see how playing just such a role could be an advantage when selling to advertisers.

Clearly, Tilsner and Cohen are managing Tilzy.tv as a business, not some dorm room project born out of too much spare time and a desire for attention.  They’re not yet 30 years old, but by no means rookies.  Tilsner has an MBA from New York University and Cohen got his start working at the TV channel A&E.  Inspired by and having closely studied influential music review site Pitchfork.com, Tilsner and Cohen think there’s a way to be grassroots but professional at the same time.

Now, this little website is seeing the professionals come to them.  “Within the last nine months,” Cohen says, “We’ve been getting a lot more calls from PR people pitching us.  Before, it was individual content creators.”  Disney, Sony, and Warner Brothers all have online video divisions now (Stage 9 Digital, Crackle.com, and Studio 2.0, respectively).  And money is increasingly flowing into this market.

And Tilzy.tv has placed itself right in the middle of this industry.  Though they claim to envision Tilzy.tv as a stand-alone business five years from now, Tilsner and Cohen do not profess to ignore the value that a database of meticulously catalogued and competently reviewed online video might have to a major media company.  In the meantime, they concentrate on keeping their overhead costs low and building buzz in inexpensive ways, such as subscriptions to their RSS feed (found at http://feeds.feedburner.com/TilzyTVNews).

Running a bootstrapped, private company, Tilsner and Cohen were, not surprisingly, demure about sharing numbers with us.  They would not speak on the record on how many unique visitors they have per month, nor how much ad revenue, nor their immediate plans for securing venture capital. 

Still, as more and more video content of “varying quality” comes online, we believe that the consumer’s need to wade through the crap in search of the genius will become ever more acute.  If Tilzy.tv can use the rest of 2008 to further establish itself as a reliable, personable guide to what’s worth watching among all this madness, Tilsner and Cohen will be sitting pretty.

And the big guys will be scrambling to catch up.