Jacob (Ba) Blackstock imagined developing a TV show in which the viewer was the star well before Los Angeles social-media company Snap Inc. bought his Toronto startup Bitstrips Inc. in 2016, taking its custom Bitmoji avatar system with it. On Saturday, Mr. Blackstock’s team will finally pull it off, launching a Bitmoji TV series inside Snap’s Snapchat messenger as the oft-imitated parent company tries to out-innovate Big Tech copycats.
Since the acquisition, at least 130 million people worldwide have designed cartoon Bitmojis of themselves – customizing everything from shoes to eyebrow shape to build portraits for stickers they can send in texts and chats – predictably prompting others, most notably Apple Inc., to mimic Bitmoji with avatars of their own. This was a familiar story for parent company Snap, whose disappearing video and photo “stories" have been imitated by Facebook Inc. and its photo-sharing app Instagram.
But Mr. Blackstock, his co-founders and his team – which has tripled since the acquisition – see Bitmojis as more than just cartoon icons in an app. They imagine them as customizable mirrors for the digital age: a way for consumers to see themselves reflected in pop culture. It began with custom comic strips and is creeping into gaming. Bitmoji TV goes a step further, inserting users’ avatars into bite-size cartoons that imagine them as the protagonist in a slew of shows, from talent contests to soap operas.
“Even before Bitmoji, we saw a world coming where everyone is going to have an avatar for various purposes,” said Mr. Blackstock, its chief executive and creative director, in an interview. “What we’ve done has been effective enough that other companies are spending tens of millions or more trying to catch up to us.”
The 10-episode series, to be released weekly in tribute to classic Saturday-morning cartoons, builds on the success of 2019′s Bitmoji Stories – regular comics in which the user is the star. The company says they’ve been viewed more than 130 million times. The show is, by design, a clue to the still-Toronto-based team’s broader ambitions: to become the world’s foremost designer of cartoon avatars across an ever-growing number of mediums.
The company can see what groups of users enjoy most in real time – perhaps they rewind to see themselves again in a cop procedural, or maybe a baking show – and Mr. Blackstock admits this will help the company serve up more of what those users enjoy for its next endeavours. “Let’s say there’s a two-second segment in the show that people lose their minds over; maybe that gets spun off into its own show,” he said.
Before Bitmojis became a global brand of self-designed icons for messaging, Bitstrips was already a platform for storytelling – through comics starring the user. It launched in Mr. Blackstock’s living room in 2007; its co-founders also included Shahan Panth, now its vice-president of marketing; David Kennedy, its vice-president of technology; and lead content engineer Dorian Baldwin. (Jesse Brown, founder of media criticism website Canadaland, had an early co-founding role as well.)
By the mid-2010s, the company had developed Bitmoji stickers and a long-term plan of all the “crazy stuff” it wanted to do, Mr. Blackstock said. During a meeting with investors in California, he got an e-mail “out of the blue” from Evan Spiegel, the CEO of Snap – then called Snapchat – asking for a chat. The discussions that unfurled soon convinced the Bitstrips team that Snapchat could fund its vision.
The subsequent acquisition was reportedly worth US$100-million. Within a year, it was the No. 1-downloaded app in Canada and the United States. And it has gradually become a Snap ambassador, free from the confines of a single app: Mobile users can install keyboards to use it on most messaging services, and it can appear on other company’s products, such as Fitbit watches. Snap, Mr. Panth says, “sees us as our own product,” and encourages such partnerships.
Snap has struggled with both profitability and growth, although a recent Snapchat relaunch for the Android mobile operating system has boosted the latter, says Paul Briggs, a senior analyst with eMarketer. Bitmoji, he says, has a growing opportunity to keep users engaged within Snapchat. “In the past, as new features were introduced, it’s had better engagement and user numbers, and that has a positive impact on the financial results of the company,” Mr. Briggs said.
Your time is valuable. Have the Top Business Headlines newsletter conveniently delivered to your inbox in the morning or evening. Sign up today.