Interview: Crunchyroll's Vu Nguyen

by Zac Bertschy, Mar 25th 2008

What's your title, and what do you do for Crunchyroll?

I'm one of the cofounders of Crunchyroll, and I handle the business development aspects of the site.

How did you get started?

One of my friends had this idea about a year and a half ago – it was kind of a side hobby that we worked on for a while. It was just something that we thought filled a need at the time.

A need for what?

Bringing content that's not easily accessible in the US using traditional media sources, basically.

So the feeling at the time was that torrents and YouTube weren't doing enough?

Yes. The idea started out as an experiment and it just kept growing. We wanted to make a place for fans of Asian content because we felt they weren't focused enough to do it justice.

I'm assuming your friend  is “Shinji”? How old is he? What did he do for a living before Crunchyroll?

Yes, that's him. I can't give out too many personal details… including most of that stuff. He's worked in some internet stuff before, but he did drop out of school.

To maintain the site?

Yeah.

How did he support himself then?

You mean…

If he dropped out of school and he's doing Crunchyroll full-time…

Well, before, when he was working on it and still in school, he had internships and jobs before. I don't really like talking too much about his personal information.

How was the decision made to begin soliciting donations for the website?

Soon after the site launched, after a few months, it started growing too fast. We had some ads on there but it wasn't enough to cover the costs. So we had to either shut it down or solicit donations.

What was the money you made through donations and ad sales used for?

It primarily went to bandwidth and servers. We didn't have any other costs to cover because it was just a part-time nights and weekends hobby project, and most of us had day jobs to support ourselves.

It's been mentioned that Crunchyroll has a full-time staff. When did people start working on the site full-time?

Late 2007 or so. Four of us just decided to leave our jobs and tackle the site full-time. We covered the basics for ourselves while we worked and were talking to investors, and part of what drove us to come on full-time was investor interest.

At that time, was the money coming in from donations – was anyone using that to support themselves?

No. Never.

None of it ever made it into the pockets of any of the staff?

It's always gone back into the infrastructure.

Approximately how much bandwidth does Crunchyroll use each month? How many servers do you have?

I can't give an exact number but it's a lot. Several gigabits per second around peak times. It was costing over $50k/month on bandwidth and $20k/month on servers just to operate.

So was any of that coming out of pocket? Were your donations and ad revenue enough to cover $70,000 a month?

We started the site with around $15,000 – for a few months we were down about $20,000.

When did that turn around?

Around the middle of 2007.

So eventually you were making as much or more than $70,000 a month.

Yes, but not much more.

When are peak times?

Usually in the evenings.

How many servers do you have?

More than 100 now. I can't say that it's cheap or easy to maintain.

Where are they located?

In a location near the San Jose area.

You would claim that yourself and other staff members consider yourselves anime fans, correct?

Yes. In college, we used to watch It with all our friends and dorm mates.

So everyone on the team knew each other in college?

Yeah.

Did you ever feel a cognitive disconnect making money – regardless of what that money was used for – by providing illegal streams of the artists’ work, without a dime of it going back to the artists themselves? You weren't subtitling them yourselves, either, just using external fansubs, and making money by streaming them. Did that ever bother you? Did you ever stop and think “what are we doing?”

I wouldn't say that, but a lot of people don't realize how much work and money it takes to keep a website running. All of the donations went into operating expenses. We put in countless hours every week after work and school to make it a good site. We weren't trying to make a profit, but just keep the site running. We believe the same thing fansubbers do, that by growing the popularity of anime, we are growing the fanbase and the industry. I can't comment directly on it, but I can say how the anime and fansub community even began.

I don't see how that's relevant…

It's a little bit like… fans taking matters into their own hands. Fansubbers consider themselves fans.

But they weren't charging people… it's against the most basic “code of ethics”, if you will, that fansubbers claim to follow. Even speed subbers who do licensed titles find it wrong. So I don't see how you could equate fansubbing with what you've done here.

Again, we weren't trying to profit but cover costs. It's similar to how fansubbers used to charge for the price of the VHS tape and shipping to distribute their work.

But you didn't fansub anything yourself – you're a third party, providing these streams illegally with no permission from literally anyone involved in their creation. Not the production companies, not the artists, not even the fansubbers. How do you justify that?

The reason fansubbers do their work is because they want it to be distributed and they want people to see their work and we feel we've done so without trying to profit. There have been a few fansubbers who didn't mind what we were doing.

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