Ted Livingston didn’t set out to build an instant messaging app. Like something from a John Lennon song, it happened while he was busy making other plans.
When he began Kik Interactive in 2009, his first idea wasn’t instant messaging, but music. His company spent its first year building an application for finding and sharing music using a smartphone. Originally, the app was to be integrated with Research In Motion Inc.’s BlackBerry Messenger and be designed just for the BlackBerry.
Mr. Livingston had an early introduction to the smartphone industry thanks to three terms as a co-op student at RIM while he was an engineering and mechatronics student at the University of Waterloo. Seeing that the technology focus was moving from the desktop computer to mobile devices, he started thinking about what desktop activity he could move to the smartphone.
This is where events started taking Kik in a different direction. First, Apple Inc.’s iPhone and phones based on Google Inc.’s Android operating system began gaining popularity. Kik realized that its application needed to work on those platforms, too. So the company built its own cross-platform technology.
Having done that, Kik was still waiting to settle licensing issues that would allow it to offer music sharing. But the technology it had developed could also be used for messaging – company employees were already doing that internally – so in October of 2010 Kik launched a cross-platform messaging tool, Kik Messenger.
“It was totally reactionary,” Mr. Livingston says of the series of moves that led to his company becoming an innovator in messaging. But they were good reactions.
Of course any phone can send text messages. What Kik Messenger adds to that is speed, the ability to see when your messages are received and read, and when someone is typing a reply. It also gives a view of the whole exchange rather than just individual messages, and the ability to send pictures and other content. And because Kik Messenger doesn’t use the Short Message Service (SMS) infrastructure that ordinary text messages rely on, there is no per-message charge.
Apps from other developers build on Kik Messenger, allowing users to share video clips, music and drawings, inform each other of their locations and so on.
BlackBerry users have long been able to exchange messages instantly using BlackBerry Messenger, but only with other BlackBerry users. Kik Messenger works with iPhones, Android, Windows Mobile, Nokia Inc.’s Symbian and all phones based on the Java programming language (which includes BlackBerries).
It hasn’t all been smooth sailing, though. Late in 2010, RIM filed a lawsuit against Kik, alleging it infringed RIM patents and misused trademarks. Thanks to this still-unresolved dispute, Kik’s app is not available from the BlackBerry App World online store. The Java version that supports BlackBerries is available through Kik’s website, though.
The mobile market is increasingly focused on smartphones and products that work across multiple platforms, says Krista Napier, senior analyst at technology research firm International Data Corp. (Canada) Ltd. in Toronto. Having seen that trend early, Kik is now “in a good position to be able to leverage what’s happening in the market.”
Android devices and Apple iPhones outnumber BlackBerries since the end of last year, Ms. Napier says, and with more businesses allowing employees to use their own mobile devices for work, the ability to work with multiple manufacturers’ phones is growing more important.
Kik isn’t alone in this market. A key competitor is WhatsApp, a Silicon Valley company that launched its own multi-smartphone messaging app in 2009. Big players such as Google and Facebook are also offering mobile chat capabilities.
Kik hasn’t forgotten that its original vision involved more than messaging. The company recently launched a new app, Clik!, that allows a smartphone user to take control of any Internet-connected screen and direct video and other multimedia content to it. It’s done by first using the screen’s browser to connect to a website that displays a large QR code (one of those two-dimensional bar codes we see in more and more places). By scanning this code with the phone, the Clik! app gets the information it needs to send content directly to that screen.
Kik Messenger is free, and unlike many free apps it doesn’t rely on ads to pay for itself. Kik currently has no revenue, Mr. Livingston says. His plan is to focus on building a large user base – he claims the company has more than 10 million users already – and then to start bringing in revenue through premium features and tools for other developers to make their apps work with Kik Messenger.
To keep going until that happens, Kik has raised nearly $10-million in its three years of existence. Mr. Livingston put in the first $45,000 himself in January, 2009, combining personal savings with an inheritance from his grandfather. Two rounds of angel investor financing, at the end of 2009 and in the fall of 2010, brought in another $1.6-million. Then came an $8-million Series A funding round involving U.S. venture capital firms RRE Ventures, Spark Capital and Union Square Ventures.
The company now has 26 employees.
While he could have done without the lawsuit, Mr. Livingston says building Kik has been fun so far. What happens next is as hard to predict as it was back in 2009.
“When you’re running a start-up,” he says, “you’re trying to predict the future and be the first one there.”