Toronto-based startup Bitstrips is not an overnight success despite recently adding tens of millions of new users and securing $3-million in funding from Silicon Valley rainmaker Horizons Ventures. The customizable comic strips have been available as a Facebook app for five years, but the trajectory of the company dramatically changed after the Oct. 1 launch of its mobile app in Apple's App Store.
Since then, the company says 30 million new avatars have been created (since that's the first thing you do when you download the app, it's an imperfect but suggestive measure of the number of new users added). The almost instant upsurge in Bitstrips cartoons in the News Feeds of Facebook users enraged some, but inspired still more to sign up. Politicians in France are using it for political messaging, and one of Bitstrips first revenue generators was in schools, its early source of funding was licensing deals with Ontario's Ministry of Education.
With that meteoric new growth came challenges for the small team, as outlined in the company's new comic blog written by Bitstrips CEO Jacob Blackstock, who uses the pen-name BA. Basically the startup needed to hire "web ninjas" after the sudden popularity threatened to melt its servers, the small shop has jumped up from 12 people to 17 the last few months.
Blackstock comes from the animation and comic-making world, previously running a "new media think tank" called Core Matrix, as well as Dream Machine, an animation school for children (among the multiple degrees he didn't finish was a stint at York University's film school).
What started as a comic strip generator has become a mobile messaging and publishing company – something akin to Snapchat or Instagram – where users create strips about themselves or their chums from pre-built set-pieces. The company sets the table with most of the visual elements pre-built, which users then re-arrange in their own ways (a new batch of Christmas card-style holiday themed sets will begin to flood into Bitstrips today). The company's style of personalized comics is a natural outgrowth of the sort of thing the co-founders have always done.
"I've been doing comics and cartoons and making animation since I was a six year old, doing comics was always really a social activity," says Blackstock. "We would put each other in comics to make each other laugh. That carried on through school, and after when we were working at jobs."
And the appeal of simple customizable images with users adding their own text appears to be global: After launch the company says it reached No. 1 in Apple's U.S. App Store, eventually becoming no.1 app in 40 countries, and the No. 1 entertainment app in 90 countries. "People are using it all over the world," says Blackstock.
Around that time is when Horizons Ventures comes into the picture. Blackstock says Solina Chau, an executive in Li Ka Shing's foundation and one of Forbes.com top 100 most powerful women, is herself a prolific user of Bitstrips and approached the startup about funding. Until today's announced $3-million injection (which comes with a new board member and some technical advisers) the company had been in full bootstrap mode with no outside investors. Early positive conversations with Canadian angel and venture firms had been underway, but in a story that will be familiar to most Canadian startups, those potential partners were more interested in revenue than in user growth potential.
The venture arm of Li Ka Shing's vast business empire (he's frequently rated as the richest man in Asia) throws money at lots of interesting ideas, but they also choose wisely: they were an early investor in navigation app Waze (sold this year to Google for a billion dollars).
"We do have really big plans on where this goes, we see it as not just a joke engine," says Blackstock. Indeed, there are a lot of jokes in Bitstrips content (some in questionable taste).
"We see this as a new medium for self expression. Down the road there's definitely a lot of monetization options," says Blackstock. But for now the focus is on making Bitstrips bigger and better, "We want everybody to use it. People are making millions of comics every day… we turned the Internet into a comic strip!"