Firework CBO Jason Holland on How to Light a Fire Under Next-Gen Consumers
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How to Light a Fire Under Next-Gen Consumers
Today on The Future of Fandom, we present the finale for our 2022 run of episodes—and hey, what good is a finale without a little Firework show?
On this episode, we explore how Firework envisions the future of truly connected, community-based, live commerce in partnership with their Chief Business Officer, Jason Holland.
Jason thinks like a modern content creator; from a long form, he builds for the short. Discarding the text and display of the past, he sees live and short-form video as the way forward—the only way forward. Since he joined Firework two and a half years ago, the business has taken off like a rocket and exploded onto the scene, boosted by partnerships with major retailers and tech titans in their ranks, and we’ll explain more about that in our discussion. Today, we’ll also discuss how next-gen consumers are embracing live commerce, the future of commerce in Web3, and Jason’s vision for an optimal community-driven experience where every voice has a voice.
Jason is more forward-thinking than most, and will more than likely have a hand in the future of the way you shop. So, let’s finish the year with a bang and predict the future with Firework and Jason Holland.
Connect with Jason Holland on LinkedIn: https://www.linkedin.com/in/jasonholland/
Read more about Firework: https://firework.com/
Full episode here:
FULL TRANSCRIPT BELOW
Adam Connor (01:43):
Jason, thank you so much for speaking with me, first off.
Jason Holland (01:46):
Adam, thank you for having me. Couldn’t be more excited to be here.
Adam Conner (01:50):
You came to Firework about two and a half years ago, in June of ’20. We’ll talk about all the circumstances and maybe benefits to a virtual commerce solution about that in just a second. The first thing I’ve got to ask is that I know you had been introduced to Firework in May of 2020. That in my opinion, because I’ve never moved to a job really that fast, is you must have seen something that just lit a fire under you that was absolutely unstoppable, that in part made this move happen. Would you mind telling me the story of how you joined, and then we’ll talk about Firework as a biz?
Jason Holland (02:28):
Yeah, I’m happy to go into it, and you’re spot-on. It was an interesting circumstance where I was working with a business that I had been with over two tours of duty in the publishing space called Evolve Media. I was with the business in its infancy when we founded the company from 2004 to about 2010, took about a seven-year break and came back to the business as its chief operating officer in 2017. So, I’d been with the company for about three and a half years, and was introduced to Firework as a function of a strategic partnership that I did between the Evolve business and its publishing portfolio and the shoppable video commerce and livestream infrastructure that Firework has.
When I met Vincent, Jerry and the founders and executive leadership at Firework and saw what they were building relative to what is such a burgeoning, but I think arguably nascent space in video commerce, and what’s happening, especially in Western markets, in the US, UK, and in how retailers, brands, publishers and agencies are looking to adopt the technology and trying to figure out the best way to do it, I couldn’t turn down the opportunity to join. So, I joined Firework in June of 2020. I’ve been here for about two and a half years, and work as the company’s chief business officer.
Adam Conner (03:50):
Folks, I would encourage you as we speak here to just go fire up Firework on your browser just to see what they’re all about and to see the incredible growth that they’ve not only experienced, but the endorsements they’ve had in terms of their funding. This is really going crazy, and right before we started you told me this is a seven-day thing. Now, for those who haven’t yet navigated to the browser — Yes, I’m still talking to you, listener — Could you tell us and help them out? What is Firework in a nutshell?
Jason Holland (04:20):
Yeah, happy to walk you through it. Firework is very much a video commerce infrastructure and operating system that enables retailers, direct consumer brands, consumer packaged goods businesses, publishing, and in the co-alignment with media buying agencies and holding companies to create a connected open web infra that is all built on shoppable video, live commerce and what will be the future of video commerce. As we think about short, 30-second swipeable, shoppable video and the experiences that digital consumers have got historically in the walled gardens, whether it’s an Instagram, a TikTok, et cetera, Firework’s thesis was, “Look, we have got to enable digital consumers and content consumption folks to be able to tap those experiences onto actual retail websites as well as direct-to-consumer brand websites.”
As we watch those KPIs from an engagement perspective, conversion, et cetera, click-through rate really applied to owned assets like an Albertsons, who is an early-stage grocery retail partner of Firework, and a Fresh Market, and what has been executions with Walmart and Sam’s Club, et cetera, the engagement and conversion that we see relative to digital consumers having these ecosystems on an owned asset are 10X what any other digital mechanism drives. That’s a really exciting component of the business.
Just walking through a quick timeline in history of the company, the business is pretty young. We were formed about four and a half years ago. Our co-founders, Jerry Luk and Vincent Yang, are both serial entrepreneurs. Jerry was the founder and creator of LinkedIn and LinkedIn Mobile with Reid Hoffman, was an early-stage employee, was one of the first 35 employees at LinkedIn, and he partnered with Vincent, who’s a former investment banker and ran components of JPMorgan and Summit’s investment banking divisions to bring all this to life. When I think about the engineering, tech, dev and fundraising horsepower that the business has got, it’s incredible.
And then when I think about the executives that we have started to bring into the business as the company has scaled from other top-tier global technology companies, it casts a really bright light on what I think is the future of Firework in sitting as the base video commerce infrastructure for all of open-web digital consumer connectivity.
Adam Conner (07:06):
Well, listeners, you get right there a list of titans which have helped to build Firework to date. You I hope can clearly see, especially since we talked a little bit about live commerce on this show before, how the future of Firework is likely very closely aligned with the future of fandom generally. A little plug for the title.
So, you join in the middle of 20, and if I’m doing my math correctly, that’s roughly two years into its founding. Now, of course we were in a time, especially in the US, where anything virtual-connected, anything digital content, even podcasts, saw a monster, monster lift. And in the midst of all that, you have day one. Can you describe what you remember most about 2020, how it affected live commerce as an industry, and what has stuck around now that we are looking at it at the end of 2022?
Jason Holland (08:10):
Yeah. I think it’s the investment that major brands and even small and mid-sized direct consumer businesses were making in their digital ecosystem, in how do we tap into a richer connectivity to our consumer base in shifting away from display images and what has historically been a text-based environment on the open web and websites, in really saying, “How do we deploy a more human high-touch experience?” That obviously nets out in short video, shoppable video, livestream and live commerce. And in the middle of the pandemic, that’s where the business really started to catch fire as these companies were looking to upgrade the ways in which they connect to their consumers.
So, it was exciting at the onset. The last two and a half years have been among the most intense, fascinating of my professional life. So much of that is just a result of not only the company’s scale and the amazing partners that we’ve got, but also the market at large as especially Western markets look to adopt live commerce and shoppable video and upgrade their digital consumer experiences. The only footnote I’ll put on that is Firework has been so fortunate from the standpoint of institutional knowledge and IP that we’ve got, all the way through our CTO, Rick Zeng, who was the founder and creator of Taobao and Taobao Live, which is the live commerce infrastructure powering all of Alibaba’s live commerce and the roughly 400 billion in econ GMV that they run through that in China. He is the founder and creator of our shoppable video and live commerce technology.
So, the institutional knowledge the business retains on how to blend, what I always tell people is the best of what China has done through the lens of Alibaba and live commerce with the best that the walled gardens have brought from a swipeable short video perspective, enabling it with shoppability and then bringing it to a connected infrastructure on the open web is what really makes the company powerful.
Adam Conner (10:19):
I’m so glad you said that, and I should hardly be surprised that you have somebody who is so central to live commerce’s growth in Eastern markets. That’s what I’ve heard all the way back between… 2019 was the first time I really started to learn about it from the brick-and-mortar retail perspective. A gentleman who I interviewed who was doing tours called retail store tours had taken a lot of his inspiration for what was to come from Eastern markets, and that was just in a brick-and-mortar context. We already knew that digital live commerce was brewing, and in fact, well on its way there already. So, the fact that you have that IP in the bank is just wonderful.
As far as this year is concerned, what is the latest and greatest in live commerce? I ask this because consumers may have remembered just at the beginning of October, TikTok mentioned, and I’m sure this is something they’ve probably also pursued in Eastern markets first, that they were going to dip their toes into live commerce solutions here in Western markets, in the US. Of course, if you’re on Instagram, you’ll have seen shoppable links, things like that. But I’d like to know from your perspective, since you’re in it seven days a week, what’s the newest, latest, greatest that we might not have heard of?
Jason Holland (11:36):
Happy to share there. I think it’s important to start as we think about walled garden social apps and the open web and defining in Western markets like the US, that 96% of digital consumer transaction still takes place on the open web. It’s not taking place in a social app. That’s where when we think about shopping in digital consumer bases on an Albertsons or a Fresh Market, a Walmart, et cetera, it’s really those ecosystems where we have got to place huge investments in upgrading the shopping experience, because that’s where the vast majority of the transaction is still taking place.
I think that’s where Firework said, “If we can build an infrastructure that any of these businesses, no matter how large or small, can tap into, and also harness the thesis that Alibaba has tapped so well around taking in-store sales associates and creating a brick-and-mortar experience where you’ve got a greeter as you walk into a Walmart, et cetera, and flipping that into the digital world so that we’re personalizing it and creating something that feels like you’re in the store as close as you possibly can in a digital environment. That’s really where the business takes off, and when I think about what China’s done so well from a content perspective is it’s not celebrities primarily that are driving the live commerce and shoppable video growth in China, it’s folks that are passionate about the products, it’s loyal consumers, it’s folks that work in brick-and-mortar stores that are turning the camera around and using the software to talk about the products and the services that they’re promoting.
That’s been a huge thesis of Firework as well, is how do we start getting livestream and video into the hands of the people that interact with products and that love the products the most every day? That’s where if we look at the shift away from A-list celebrity and some of the inauthenticity that especially younger audiences see in products that are promoted by celebrities, it really becomes an interesting component of our business as we work to build content in creator portals that are unlike anything that Western markets and retailers have been able to tap into before.
Adam Conner (14:00):
That’s an especially good point with regard to how the everyday person now can be what we’ve seen, I think between probably 2017 and today, go from influencer to micro to nano to pico, to all of these prefixes, which eventually just boils down to just a person and their ability through innovative solutions like this push a purchase, which maybe we didn’t think about five, 10 years ago.
In terms of the actual content experience tied to shopping, what are some of the ways in which you encourage interaction in the moment? What are some of the ways in which you measure that? What are some of the ways in which you’re seeing that the newest consumers and fans of today want to do it? Because other than, and maybe this is just my elder Millennial perspective, I see the video, perhaps I like it, comment on it or something like that. Then I swipe to a shopping experience, and the two are still separate for me. Now, I could have a video that I’m watching, a livestream video, and I could have a button, it might pop down a widget, something like that. But that’s my ancient 30-year-old brain talking. How have you noticed that Gen Z, Gen Alpha, if they’re tiptoeing around it, how have you seen that they are interacting live with this connected content commerce experience?
“That’s a great question. I think it’s a combination of interconnectivity in the ability to participate in something that’s live, whether it’s commenting, whether it’s interacting in a video capacity with hosts, et cetera, and it’s also the ability to create their own content. When I think about passionate shoppers and loyal customers and communities of shopper and fandom, frankly, that partners of Firework are building across the retail ecosystem and direct-to-consumer brands, CPGs, it really becomes the fact that video commerce is the future and it’s the connectivity that shoppers have got in passionate fans of brands, that it just doesn’t exist in display images and text anymore. Everything has got to either be live or short video.”
— Jason Holland (15:15)
And to your point around the blend of those two, I think that’s where Firework has done a good job of being able to then take a live stream, whether it’s 30 minutes, 45 minutes, et cetera, and cut all of those highlight reels down into short shoppable video so that you’ve got swipeable segments that bring the best of the best from those livestream segments into something that can live in perpetuity on a retailer’s website that becomes really powerful.
And then when I think about, again, content creators and just the future of fandom relative to brands, it’s the ability for those e-communities and the shoppers to actually participate in creating the content themselves that becomes really exciting. When I think about next year, that’s where we’ve got a ton of exciting stuff that we’re launching with several global partners, retail partners, et cetera, where they will leverage the ability for their shopper base and their most passionate, loyal fans to participate in creating the content in conjunction with them, which I think is awesome.
Adam Conner (17:17):
You are preaching to the choir there. You’re kind of preaching to another preacher, maybe a deacon or something like that, but you’re preaching,
Jason Holland (17:26):
I think you see it too, which is really exciting, because again, as the ecosystem grows, and I would say most of our conversations with our business partners start with, “We’re trying to figure this out. We’ve got to remit. This is on our strategic roadmap, it’s being deployed now. Investments have been set aside to build into video commerce infrastructure. How do you advise that we do it?” And when I think about the deep discussions that we have with engineering, tech, product, development, retail media, merchandising teams, et cetera, Firework is really the only full-funnel video commerce architecture that embraces full livestream and live commerce capabilities, full shoppable video, full one-click-to-buy, and then a distributed open web storefront across retailers, brands, publishers.
And it’s the connected network effect of bringing an entire open web together, which when we think about the open web, it’s still a hundred times bigger ultimately than all the walled gardens combined. Think about all of the shoppers that are on Albertsons, Kroger, Walmart, Target, Macy’s, Nordstrom, all the brands that are selling their products within those stores, et cetera, and to have one video commerce infra that supports all of that and then cross-pollinates that content in a contextually relevant way becomes really powerful for shoppers and the retailers.
Adam Conner (18:54):
I can see it. I clearly see it. It’s clear that you can too, and listeners, this is why we do this show, because this is coming. And it may start and sputter here and there because, hey, we haven’t seen it before, but this is where it’s going. It’s all about creating that community at the end of the day from the long-form that you cut down to the clips — I can definitely relate to that because I do podcasts all day — To the feeling that you are truly contributing to something and that something is contributing to the world.
That is the root of two things that I have seen which come together nicely here. The first is how next-gen consumers and just young people operate, behave and work. And secondly, it is one of the many premises of Web3, which is still a pretty cloudy thing in a lot of folks’ minds, but the point is that things, life should start with community. Would you mind expanding on that a little bit? When you think about the open web current experience today and then look forward to this Web3 world, and maybe I’m not even describing that correctly, but just a world separate from today where this kind of thing has been fully adopted, where does Firework play? Where does live commerce sit?
“The word that comes to mind is ‘connected,”‘and that’s where when I think about, regardless of if you take the open web again and you think about any content that you’re consuming in a video capacity being contextually relevant and available from a live-streaming and shoppable video point of view, anywhere you’re at on the internet, that is a connected infrastructure that very much feeds into what I believe is the thesis of Web3.”
— Jason Holland (20:17)
And it’s the ability to take any shopper or any fan, et cetera that is interested in a brand or its content, and to be able to create and contribute to the content that they’re most passionate about. It’s the ability to view it and engage with it and shop with it anywhere they’re at on the open web, whether it’s a publishing ecosystem, thinking about our partners like Condé Nast and Hearst and Accelerate360, which is Us magazine, et cetera, and the ability for all of our retail partners, again, whether it’s an Albertsons, a Fresh Market, et cetera, to be able to interconnect all of that short video and livestream into contextually-relevant publishing ecosystems. And then from a retail media perspective, allow P&G and Unilever and Olaplex, et cetera, to then bring their content into the same connected infrastructure.
There’s nothing that exists like that right now, where all of this from a short video, livestream and video commerce perspective is proliferating and living across a connected infrastructure. So, when I think about network effect and what has really driven Firework’s scale from an investment perspective, it’s the fact that there’s no video commerce infrastructure that is connecting the entire open web, which again is massive relative to walled gardens. And I think that’s where people forget; you look at Instagram and TikTok, and it’s the digital consumer experience that they’ve made so popular from a swiping perspective, et cetera, that just hasn’t been made available to open-web audiences previously. That’s I think where the business is really excited.
Adam Conner (22:27):
The other thing that immediately comes to my mind, you say “connected,” I think about something which is imminently measurable, trackable, where you can finally start to see the true ROI of some of these. I don’t care if it’s a celebrity campaign or an influencer campaign or what, but it’s hard to say, “Hey, I got a million likes on this celebrity post or an influencer post,” that that drives sale.
Jason Holland (22:51):
To truly drive.
Adam Conner (22:52):
“Oh, well it drove these clicks,” and sure, there’s a funnel you can follow and there’s stuff, but it’s not as direct. And that for years, I haven’t seen it so much in the retail side, but I’ve definitely seen it in worlds where first-party data is hard to come by, especially the CPG world. How many years ago was it that Unilever and Keith Weed came out and said, “Influencer fraud is rampant. We need to figure out some better way.” They have got to be drooling over that future, and while it’s not here today, might not be here just tomorrow, it is coming, and that’s, again, very cool that you’re at the cutting edge of that. It’s kind of making me jealous sitting here in the host chair, honestly.
It makes me wonder, even if we don’t see that maybe utopian future in the world of connected commerce in a live context yet, what do you see for ’23? I mean, what’s the reasonable next couple of milestones where you see this starting to mold, even if not resembling that description you just gave us.
Jason Holland (23:47):
It’s a great, great topic. I think it all starts with retailers, brands and their shoppers, especially retailers and brands, wanting to own the connectivity to the communities and loyal fans and shoppers that, again, 96% of them are shopping on the owned website and assets of the retailer and the brand, and they don’t want to pay any of the Google tax associated with converting a platform they don’t own, which is TikTok, Instagram, et cetera. They also want to own the first-party data, and they want to own the conversion metrics and everything that Firework can offer back to them when you are communicating through video commerce in an ecosystem that you actually own.
“So, I think that becomes a really important piece of what will 2023 hold, and this is all a function of the discussions that we’ve had throughout 2022, is everyone is investing in video commerce now and they’re trying to figure out where does this slot into, not only our digital consumer connectivity roadmap and how we’re doing that in Q1 and Q2 of next year, but it also ties into brick-and-mortar and how are we using the shopper video content and the video commerce that we’ve got in our digital assets to power into our stores as well. Whether it’s QR coding on shelves, which is something that we’re doing with some of our biggest retail partners in Japan, such that if an in-store sales associate isn’t right there walking with you and you want to learn about a particular product, you swipe your phone over the QR code, and your immediately into livestream and shoppable video experiences showing you how to cook with the product, recipes to use with the product, how to use this particular home and garden product, et cetera.”
— Jason Holland (24:32)
And that’s where, when I think about the democratization of content and the ability to bring all of these experiences that used to live solely on TV into your digital ecosystem, and create DIY and home improvement shows through livestream and shoppable video that are all driven by experts in the categories and shoppers, it starts to put forth an entirely new content consumption experience that we’ve never had.
Adam Conner (26:10):
It’s true. You think about this a lot. I think about it in the traditional television, how do I combine the best of that, seeing somebody cook with the thing, use the home and garden product, whatever. Can I get that right here in my hand while I’m going down the aisle? That would be wonderful. There’s a couple of steps to get there, but I’m glad that it’s at least in the ether for ’23.
What are you most personally excited about for the next year in retail and commerce generally? I’m just curious, because obviously with a tinge to Firework, that was the last question, is what do you see for next year, but what’s on the fringes of even your imagination for like, “You know what? I just heard about _____. I think it’s really cool.” Do you have anything like that that you’ve seen recently that…?
“I think it all loops back to content and the way that we look at producing it, and it will become an even more prolific shift from professionally-produced, highly-curated content that is really expensive to produce, and that will start converting into in-store sales associates that are doing a fashion show that is far more authentic and real, especially through the lens of younger consumers, that isn’t super high-polished and scripted and has blemishes within it, et cetera, that we don’t edit out. I think that’s a really exciting piece.”
— Jason Holland (26:55)
And then it’s also going to trickle into fashion shows being hosted with fans and communities of people at their houses with their friends, and big massive retailers getting comfortable with the fact that it’s totally okay, and there’s this content ecosystem of passionate folks out there that are fully capable of using Firework’s tech to produce something that they’ve never been able to tap into before in their homes, et cetera. Then of course, it’s the ability to make it all shoppable and overlay a deep conversion layer that allows those brands and retailers to make a true frictionless payment and seamless experience, all the way through what I see as upper-funnel entertainment to lower-funnel conversion in one infrastructure. That’s really what Firework is trying to build from a video commerce capacity.
Adam Conner (28:25):
And hey, anything that helps to democratize that production process a little bit more is good in my book, because I don’t have a degree in visual effects, stuff like that. And even in the early days-
Jason Holland (28:34):
You don’t need it anymore.
Adam Conner (28:35):
Exactly. Even in 2013, ’14, Vine, which had very limited production capability, most of the stuff you saw was very quick and dirty that were some of the most popular, but even then you had the Zach Kings of the world and people who had amazing editing abilities still rise to the top because there was high gloss. That sheen is starting to wear. And of course there’s still a corner for that, but especially when it comes to then on top of it you’re throwing a brand in, people are already going to be a little bit skeptical of, “Well, what is this? Am I being sold to? Blah, blah, blah,” the fact that it’s… And brands frankly, and if brands are listening, you’re going to have to trade off the high gloss –
Jason Holland (29:15):
Authenticity and “real” is just as important now as brand safety, right?
Adam Conner (29:19):
Jason Holland (29:20):
And I think the benefit of what Firework’s built is that you don’t have to sacrifice brand safety protocols in the ability to monitor and edit livestream, buffer it, delay it, and still have the ability to edit out something that you don’t want. And then the ability to take that software and literally create short, swipeable video that fits a narrative becomes really exciting. That’s where it’s not just a video commerce technology for shoppable video and live commerce that we built, it’s a full video creation and editing CMS that anyone can use. It happens to be a B2B platform first, but ultimately I think the future state vision is that as shoppers and passionistas and fans of brands start to engage more directly with those brands, they’ll be using the Firework software to create their own video content just as much.
Adam Conner (30:16):
I hope that you’re right, for your sake and for ours who are just looking for a better shopping experience. Then, and I round out with this sometimes, I’ll do it here, although it might seem obvious, I ask people to fill out a blank. The blank is, “I can tell you for sure that the future of fandom will not include blank.” Is it eventually disconnection, high-production gloss? What is it in your head that you see us definitely moving away from?
“I do not think it will include text display and image-based anything. The future is video: it is live video, it is short video, it’s the ability for any audience to create and participate in the future of what a brand wants to do. So, I don’t think it will include what historically most websites have looked like, and that’s where Firework’s growth, as we bring the technology in, our ability to completely reinvent and re-architect a digital consumer experience to be all livestream and shoppable video first, and then connect it again across the entire open web in contextually-relevant ecosystems, that’s a really exciting future.”
— Jason Holland (30:40)
Adam Conner (31:24):
Agreed. Well, thank you for discussing that future with me here. Jason, it was wonderful to have you, and good luck-
Jason Holland (31:30):
Adam, it’s great to be here. I’m grateful.
Adam Conner (31:32):
… with ’23. For us all, to the future.
Jason Holland (31:36):
To the future. We couldn’t be more excited. I think Firework couldn’t be more grateful to sit in a space that is as explosive as it is right now and sit at the forefront of that. So, super grateful for the time, and thanks so much for having me.
Adam Conner (31:52):
I’ve noticed, and I think we can all admit, live commerce has started and sputtered slightly in the US this year, but while we’re currently far behind our Eastern market counterparts, I think Jason will be one reason we do a lot of catching up in 2023.
Thanks to Jason Holland from Firework for coming on the show, and to you, the listener, whether today is the first time you’re tuning in or if you’ve listened since we kicked off roughly a year ago, allow me in closing to offer my heartfelt thanks for predicting the future of fandom with us. These stories are a true honor to produce, and I can’t wait to see the stories that we tell next year.
With that, we’ll be back in 2023, and until then, please do stay subscribed wherever you listen, and connect with us on LinkedIn @LiveLike, or on Twitter @LiveLikeInc. For the final time in 2022, this is Adam Conner saying so long and thanks for being a fan.
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