Ilya Pozin, the CEO of a TV startup called Telly, has a plan to take over your living room. The first is to build the best TV ever because he’s convinced that your TV is the most important device in your house and is being criminally underutilized as manufacturers cut every imaginable cost in the name of selling the cheapest sets. The second is to sell you that best TV ever for a price of zero dollars and zero cents.
Before founding Telly, Pozin was the founder and CEO of the streaming platform Pluto TV. Pluto’s big idea, back in 2013, was that people might not want to pay for streaming services forever and that someone should come in and build an ad-based network that could capture all those viewers. That idea is now everywhere in Hollywood, of course, as Disney Plus, Netflix, and others launch their own lower-priced ad-based tiers, but in 2013, it seemed downright heretical. “We went out to get capital from investors,” Pozin says, “and I think we had 90 noes before we had a yes.”
While at Pluto, Pozin worked with most TV manufacturers to build apps for their devices. And he says he noticed something: “They don’t make any money selling TVs.” TV and OS manufacturers all wanted a cut of Pluto’s ad revenue because that was the only way they made any money. That’s when the light bulb went on, the idea that became Telly. “You can’t make any money selling hardware. Why fight for that tiny margin anyway? Why not build a product in a way that you can give away and quickly take the market like we did with Pluto?”
On The Vergecast, for the first episode in our miniseries about how technology connects us with our stuff, each other, and the world, we talked with Pozin about Telly’s ambitions to reinvent the TV market and why he’s convinced that ad-supported hardware is the future.
Telly’s TV is actually two screens: a 55-inch 4K panel on top, with a smaller rectangular screen just below that looks like a stock ticker or a menu bar. Telly calls it the “Smart Screen,” and it’s the whole business: while you watch shows and movies, part of that screen might show an ad, while another runs apps that interact with whatever you’re watching. The Telly also has a camera so you can video chat, a “Hey Telly” voice assistant, built-in games, and more.
Pozin does seem to be genuinely convinced that Telly built the best TV on the market. But he wouldn’t dream of trying to sell it to you. “We would fall on our nose, we would fail.” People buy TVs based on price and almost nothing else, he says, which is why all those manufacturers skimp everywhere they can to make the set a few dollars cheaper. Pozin would rather just give it away and figure out another way to make money.
What is that way to make money? One word: ads! Pozin is not shy about this fact. If you want a Telly, you are going to see ads, and Telly is going to collect data about you. If that freaks you out, that’s okay. There’s just one argument Pozin would make to convince you. “Other TV makers,” he says, “they’re just monetizing your data with little to no permission. They’re monetizing in many different streams. We’re just very upfront and transparent about it.” Telly reserves the right to get its TV back if you’re not using it or otherwise violate its terms, but the company’s whole thesis is that this is a much more fair trade. Instead of paying money for a TV that collects and shares data about you, at least this one’s free. And the ad is on another screen.
Pozin says hundreds of thousands of people have already signed up to get a Telly and that the company is hard at work on software and integrations to make the TV more than your average dumb screen. There are already Tellys in the living rooms of lots of beta testers, too, he says, and the feedback he’s getting is great. Pozin has lots of ideas about where to go next. He’s trying to reinvent the TV business, primarily by leaning into the way the TV business actually works, and trying to make it a better deal for everybody.