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The buzz has been building for Boxee lately. Mainstream news outlets like The New York Times, BusinessWeek and NPR are getting hip to the little open-source media center that could quite possibly change the way you experience TV.
I first met Boxee CEO and co-founder Avner Ronen at a NewTeeVee meetup in New York roughly a year ago. At the time, I was contemplating buying an Apple TV (s aapl). He politely shook his head and said I shouldn’t bother, that his company had something better in the works.
Indeed, Boxee launched its alpha last June, it has since gone on to aggregate some big-name content, allowing users to watch Hulu, ABC, Joost and even stream Netflix (s NFLX) video through its clean interface. Boxee now has more than 240,000 users checking out its alpha, and, oh yeah, it raised $4 million in October, helping ensure that its 12-person staff will have jobs through 2009.
With all it has going for it, it’s no wonder everyone is jumping on the Boxee bandwagon. I asked Ronen why people love his company so — he credits the diligence with which Boxee listens to its audience. Twitter plays a big part in what Boxee does; Ronen himself maintains the @Boxee account on the micro-blogging service answering questions, delivering news and taking advice from users. The company also continuously combs through its forums and changes up its product road map based on what its community is saying.
The approach reminds me of Hulu CEO Jason Kilar’s talk at NewTeeVee Live, in which he described his staff’s near-constant vigil with the Hulu community, solving and responding to even minor technical issues at all hours of the night.
That’s not to say Boxee’s success is guaranteed. The more tech-savvy may not mind downloading and configuring an app and plugging a computer into TV screen, but that solution isn’t for everyone. And while Boxee is building a sizable following right now, it still needs to show that it can make money at some point. But Ronen and his Boxee crew are aware of the issues before them and are realistic about tackling them. For now they can bask in the moment, and prepare for the next version of the alpha, due out March 5.
So what lessons can be learned from Boxee?
- Pay attention to your audience and use all the tools available to communicate with them. Ronen & Co. are always on Twitter and use it as a two-way street.
- Be willing to take in good ideas that come from outside the company. Boxee adjusts its product road map as it receives input from the community.
- Be efficient. Boxee was built using open-source tools, and the company has only 12 employees with no plans to get any bigger anytime soon.
But the real reason I like Boxee? It, like so many other successful companies, seems to be a direct extension of its leader. Ronen’s a genuine, soft-spoken guy with just the right amount of overconfidence; he sincerely wants to build a great business, and isn’t looking for a quick cash-out. Because he is sincere, Boxee, by extension, is, and audiences pick up on that and want to be a part of it.
Pasted above is a quick video I shot of Ronen talking about how Boxee uses Twitter and forums to stay connected with fans, how they’re going to move into the mainstream, and how the company would implement a Facebook integration.