Peter Kafka

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A Web Video Divorce: “Lonelygirl” Creators Eqal Break Up With Spark Capital

Eqal, the Web video start-up best known for the “lonelygirl15” series, has handed back the money it raised less than two years ago from its primary investor, Spark Capital.

This sounds alarming, but you can think of it as an amicable divorce: Spark gets back all of its bubble-era investment and Eqal gets to keep going, with fresh money from new and existing investors.

Spark led a $5 million series A round in the company in April 2008. Eqal co-founder Miles Beckett wouldn’t tell me how much of the round Spark accounted for, but did say that the VCs were made whole in a transaction that closed at the beginning of this year.

So what happened? As far as I can tell, it’s a straightforward story: Eqal changed directions and Spark didn’t want to stay on board.

Eqal began life as a video-production house spawned by the surprise success of “lonelygirl,” the supercheap, superpopular Web series that crested on YouTube in 2006, just as that site was acquired by Google (GOOG). But by 2009, as the market for Web video ads was slow to develop, Eqal was shifting from developing its own Web video to helping other people make and distribute stuff.

If you want to paint that in a positive light, you can say that Eqal had become a Web video-platform company. A less attractive way to describe Eqal is as a Web video-services company. The difference is meaningful if you’re an investor because “platform” is a scalable business while a service company requires more money and effort and offers less lucrative returns.

Any way you slice it, Spark wanted out. “They wanted to zig and we wanted to zag,” Beckett says. He notes that current management and some original investors, including Ron Conway, helped finance the buyout; Eqal also rounded up new money from investors like Scott and Cyan Banister.

The deal is a much better outcome for Spark than Veoh, another Web video bet, was. That one collapsed in a bankruptcy-protection filing earlier this year. The firm still has money in two other Web video investments: Next New Networks and 5Min.

Meanwhile, I’m still looking for examples of companies that can say they’re doing a booming business by concentrating solely on making original Web video. Anyone?

Here’s a clip of “lonelygirl,” the series that put Eqal on the map. Below it is an example of the company’s new work, a promotional campaign for Kraft’s (KFT) Philadelphia Cream Cheese, starring food celebrity  Paula Deen.

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