Kanopy lets you stream movies for free via your library membership. Aussie founder Olivia Humphrey explains what it took to take the company global.

Kanopy Executive Chairman of the Board Olivia Humphrey. Image: Supplied.

Olivia Humphrey, founder of online streaming service Kanopy, doesn’t see Netflix as competition.

Kanopy allows users to stream films for free if they have a library membership. It offers a range of films, documentaries and educational movies including “Lion”, “I Am Not Your Negro” and “Rear Window”, and because the costs are covered by either a library or university, you get access to the films for free – without any ads.

The service was founded by Aussie Olivia Humphrey in Perth in 2008. It started out as a DVD distribution service for libraries and has since evolved into a streaming service.

Humphrey came up with the idea for Kanopy while reading about how to start a business inside a library. She says Kanopy provides democratic access for everybody.

“I love the fact that anybody who has a library card should be able to watch these really important films that we genuinely believe are good and are changing minds, driving social movements [and] showing how other people live and breathe,” she told Business Insider Australia.

Humphrey added that the platform not only complements what libraries aim to do, it also has another benefit of driving new membership and activity to libraries.

Kanopy now has a selection of more than 30,000 films and is available in more than 4000 libraries around the world.

And in Australia, you can get it on just about any platform including your smartphone, laptop, tablet or even through Apple TV or Telstra TV.

Taking Kanopy to the US

Kanopy launched in the US in 2013 and is the company’s largest market. Its headquarters are in San Francisco, with offices in Orange County and employees working remotely.

But Humphrey said entering the US was a “huge challenge”. She highlighted that she and her husband bootstrapped the business – meaning they didn’t have any outside cash supply – which was a challenge in the beginning.

“There are advantages and disadvantages,” Humphrey said. “One disadvantage is that we struggled a lot early on not paying ourselves and really having to compete against very established competitors in that space.”

She explained that while there were video streaming services in the US, Kanopy didn’t feel like those services were attracting an audience.

“My view was, ‘what’s the point of having a video streaming service in libraries if no one’s watching?'” Humphrey said.

So, Kanopy focused hard on driving users to its platform.

“By focusing on the core stakeholders – the librarians, the filmmakers and the audience – and making sure we were balancing the needs and the demands of each of the stakeholders, and getting that balance right, we were able to grow relatively quickly after the first year of pay,” Humphrey added.

Kanopy focuses on “thoughtful” films

Humphrey explained that Kanopy’s mission is to provide “thoughtful entertainment” – essentially, films that “make you think” afterward. It’s a destination for indie documentaries, world cinema, and titles you may not find on other streaming services.

“[Films that] challenge an assumption, challenge an opinion, that spark a conversation, maybe show you how other people live and think,” Humphrey said.

When it comes to picking the films, Kanopy’s film acquisition team sorts between 1000 and 2000 submissions each month. And each month between 50-100 films are added globally.

“It’s a huge job of using algorithms to work out what our audience wants, talking to librarians to check we’re selecting films that align with what they want to invest in,” Humphrey said. The films also have to align with Kanopy’s mission around thoughtful entertainment.

Aussie Kanopy users, according to Humphrey, are particularly interested in world cinema, and – unsurprisingly – Australian films.

“Overall, Australians do tend to love independent films in general,” Humphrey said.

Other streaming services aren’t seen as a threat

While there are a plethora of streaming services available – from Netflix and Stan, to Disney Plus and Amazon Prime Video – Humphrey doesn’t see them as competitors. Instead, she applauds Netflix, a platform that also had its origins in DVDs, for what it is doing for the film industry,

“We’ve all got the same challenge, which is attracting eyeballs to our own platforms,” Humphrey said. “And I think other streaming services, particularly Netflix, have done a great service to streaming in general and really changed the film and TV landscape in incredibly exciting ways, to make these films available to so many different places.”

The next phase of Kanopy

In late 2019 Kanopy appointed a new CEO, Kevin Sayar, and Humphrey moved into the role of executive chairman. After living in the US for seven years, Humphrey and her family decided to move back to Perth. “We loved America but it’s so nice to be home and I am so excited to be back,” she said.

Nonetheless, the company will continue to work with libraries as the demand for films through Kanopy ramps up. While libraries are traditionally used to handling books, Humphrey is seeing a major demand for films, which she considers a “good problem” for Kanopy.

“It is a challange,” she said. “We need to work closely with libraries to understand where films fit in their overall resource strategy compared to books and magazines, and all of the resources libraries actually distribute.”