The founder of the Austin-based startup Tankee, Gerald Youngblood helps to create a safer user experience for gaming-related videos for his son J and millions of other younger viewers.

Gerald Youngblood and His Startup Tankee Help To Make Gaming Videos Safer for Younger Viewers

The Forrest Files: October 6, 2020

Gerald Youngblood is the Founder of Tankee, Inc., an award-winning media company dedicated to the future of family-friendly digital entertainment.

He is also the Head of Brand, Consumer & Creative Services for NSF International, an organization dedicated to protecting and improving global health since 1944. Additionally, Youngblood is a Mentor-in-Residence at the University of Texas at Austin Longhorn Startup Lab.

Most importantly, he is a proud husband and father who games with his son purely for research purposes.

Asked to list his favorite things about Austin, Youngblood replies: “This is the city where I looked into the eyes of my wife and my son for the first time. It’s a place where I got to be a full-time poet and started three businesses. It’s the city of my dreams because I’ve lived my dreams here.”

I understand that Tankee has seen some tremendous growth over the past few months. Can you give us a quick recap of some of the recent milestones for your startup.

We were just selected to receive non-dilutive funding and support from the Google for Startups Black Founders Fund which is a major milestone as a diverse and high-growth business. Also, as kids and parents spend more time with limited in-person entertainment, the need for quality safe streaming content is rapidly increasing. This has led to major growth at Tankee. We have seen engagement increase over 700% since the March lockdown. This has coincided with a push into Connected TV with launches this year on Roku, Comcast, Apple TV, VIZIO and Plex TV. The team also debuted a 24/7 Tankee TV streaming channel which will soon be expanding into Europe.

When COVID-19 moved into the United States in late February / early March, what were your initial thoughts on how the pandemic would impact your business?

Honestly, I wasn’t thinking about the business. We were worried about high risk family members and the status of our son’s education. Once we started to settle into the new reality, we had a hunch that families would need safe content to entertain kids facing a spring break that quickly morphed into summer. Our hunch was right as we saw watch time on Tankee increase 500% within three months of the lockdown. So our business has turned out to be a good fit for the needs of families facing the pandemic.

So younger users are watching a lot more online videos since the beginning of the pandemic, right? If so, then how much more?

Young users are like the rest of us in that they need a connection to the outside world without being able to fully participate. Tankee content is a way to both embrace and escape the insanity of 2020. We have definitely seen massive spikes on our platform with overall watch time increasing by 500% from February (pre-pandemic) to May. That’s a combination of families craving more entertainment and our distribution growth. This year we’ve moved from Tankee being a primarily mobile platform to diving into the Connected TV space with our video on demand platform expanding to Roku, Comcast, AppleTV. We also launched our 24/7 Tankee TV channel on VIZIO SmartCast and PlexTV. We want to meet families wherever they are and the need is palpable.

Are younger users watching online videos at different times of the day since the beginning of the pandemic?

We definitely noticed that viewing has started earlier and extended to later in the evening since the pandemic. Prior to the pandemic, it was common that weekday watch times would start to fall off around 8–9PM local time, but that definitely stretched later once the pandemic hit. We had a unique phenomenon where we’d see longer watch times during the week and slight dips on the weekend once the pandemic hit. Now that school is back in session, we are returning to a more “normal” pattern of spikes on the weekends.

Are younger users watching different kinds of online videos since the beginning of the pandemic?

We haven’t found that kids are watching different kinds of videos per se. We have just seen that there are new games trending on our platform like Among Us and Fall Guys. It’s amazing to see kids dive into new games and minigames within the Roblox ecosystem, Minecraft remains a timeless gem. Tanksters are definitely diving deeper into the content library these days. Our viewers are really embracing the whole catalog as we see over 90% of our catalog being viewed on most weeks. Hopefully that means we’re giving them entertainment that they value.

Are younger users watching online videos on different kinds of devices or platforms since the beginning of the pandemic?

Connected TV platforms like Roku have really taken off. They still love tablet viewing as the main “mobile” platform. I’m sure phone viewership will grow as the world opens up, but we love seeing Tankee on the bigger screens. Now we need a movie theatre partnership to take things to the next level when the time is right.

Has Tankee created any content that is specific to the challenges of COVID?

We have been fortunate to work with a great organization called Kids Digital Health to produce best practices content reminding kids about washing their hands, wearing masks, and social distancing. We also have content creators like AmyLee33 who made quarantine-themed content in Minecraft that addressed the pandemic in a very authentic way. There are incredible initiatives like the Scrub Club from NSF International who have been supporting kid health and safety for years. We are looking for more ways to give kids positive messages during this trying time so there’s more for us to do.

What is your favorite Tankee Original video and why?

That’s like picking my favorite baby. I love them all because I care so deeply about the content creators who decided to work with Tankee when we were literally a pitch and dream. I want to say thank you to our creators and their rainbow of cultures and life experiences. I love the stories that they weave with a mouse, keyboard, and boundless imagination. Special thanks to AmyLee33, Big B Statz, SallyGreenGamer, AbdallahSmash, and FNA Nation who have worked with us on over 50 Tankee Original episodes a piece! Tankee would be nothing without these creators and we have so much more to accomplish.

What is your favorite current video game and why?

Minecraft is my favorite game right now because it’s an endless cartoon that I get to be in with my son. I do make time for Fortnite.

What new gaming release or gaming related technology are you most excited about?

I just started playing Star Wars: Squadrons this past weekend and it brings back all of the things I loved about Wing Commander with the addition of online multi-player.

What is your favorite new technology and why?

Icon 3D’s project to 3D print affordable housing and then take that to potential moon colonization with NASA is beyond exciting. I love it because it feels timeless and futuristic at the same time. It is also a project for social good with a brilliant leader in Jason Ballard.

What new technology are you least excited about?

Aimbot and all tech that enables cheating in video games. It’s essentially the equivalent of performance enhancing drugs for gamers and seems to continually evolve.

A friend of mine compared Twitch in 2020 to MTV in 1985. Agree or disagree with that comparison?

Sorry, but I have to disagree. MTV is amazing and a massive part of my journey with music and reality TV, but it’s still a station. Twitch is a platform where anyone can plug in and connect millions and millions of people. Twitch has a unique language heavily influenced by gaming and some of the biggest creators on the platforms speak no English. I am an avid Twitch watcher as I watch almost everyday and throughout the day I see top streams for one of my favorite games, Dota 2, broadcast in Russian or Portuguese or German. Comparing MTV to Twitch is like comparing Michael Jordan to Lewis Hamilton. They are both iconic, but they’re not playing the same game.

Have you changed your screen-time guidelines / limits for your son J as a result of COVID?

Absolutely, we are embracing gaming in particular as a way for our son to have healthy socialization with his friends. We even built a custom Tankee-themed Minecraft server for him and his friends to create a world from scratch. They inspire me and Candice! Kids are the most naturally creative and resilient people in the world. My son and his friends threw a surprise birthday party for one of their friends on the Tankee Minecraft server. They made him cake and filled custom chests as birthday presents. I love the fact that sometimes we need to question our view of “reality” because kids don’t live in the same box we do. Kids are meeting for Roblox recess at schools around the world. My son uses Fortnite and Minecraft like I used the telephone when I was a kid to connect with my friends, but he has limitless 3D worlds at his disposal!

Between COVID and the George Floyd murder, the US has seen incredible turmoil over the last four months. What has been your silver lining during this very difficult time period?

We are faced with a pandemic and systemic horrors that are viciously ripping at the mental, emotional, and physical health of millions of people. In COVID, we have a virus that doesn’t care who its victims are. Then we have systemic racism and police brutality that specifically target people who look like my son, my brother, and my sister. Both of these situations disproportionately impact minorities and underprivileged people.

With that backdrop, it’s challenging to identify silver linings, but we NEED to find the beauty in the turmoil. A significant silver lining has been the world’s new passionate dialog about the underlying problems highlighted by these traumas. The new sincere focus on improving our health and safety standards. It is one reason why I sought to get more involved in world of public health. Regarding systemic racism, the George Floyd murder brought back my own experience of police brutality and I realized that I’ve been suffering in silence. Black people know that we have to sit our kids down and teach them to swallow their sense of self in they deal with law enforcement. Now there are allies outside of the Black community who know why I fear for the life of my son, brother, and sister everyday. This means we have more support than ever to make real, lasting change.

What do the online habits of younger users tell you about the next wave of online technology?

The online habits of younger users tell me me that technology isn’t keeping people apart. Used responsibly, technology might be one of the best tools to maintain real connections. My son flows from being in school online to taking martial arts class online to rocking a Fortnite fashion show to recommending new European content creators for Tankee effortlessly. He doesn’t know that this would have been the greatest magic trick I’d ever seen when I was his age. I have learned that if I really want to see the future, I just need to ask my son what he’s up to and shut up. I embrace the bliss of not knowing anything!

Gerald Youngblood photo by Ilana Panich-Linsman.

Hugh Forrest serves as Chief Programming Officer at SXSW, the world’s most unique gathering of creative professionals.

He also posts frequent interviews on Medium with innovators and thought-leaders from Austin, across the United States and around the world. Browse here for the full list of these interviews.

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