Bitstrips are personalized comics based on a simple idea - that the simple moments in your life are funny, poignant and worth sharing. The comics became a staple of Facebook users' news feeds in 2013. Despite the fact that the Toronto-based companywas started in 2007, the company's real breakthrough came in mid-October of this past year, when Bitstrips launched its first mobile app. Within a few weeks--and without any paid marketing by the company--the app attracted millions of new users and became the most downloaded free app in Apple's App Store.
We recently spoke with Bitstrips co-founder, creative director and chief executive officer Jacob "Ba" Blackstock to discuss his business lessons from the past year, as well as his goals and plans for 2014.
What did Bitstrips learn in 2013?
Social media sharing offers growth potential--but privacy matters, too. Bitstrips' Facebook app for desktops launched in late 2012 and offered several new features that made sharing comics with friends easier. Previously, Bitstrips was only shared mostly among users on the company's web site. But the Facebook app allowed people to invite their friends to design their own comic strips featuring their friends with the comics appearing on their Facebook timeline and their friends' news feeds. However, as Bitstrips began to analyze its user data in 2013, it found that many users prefer not to share their comics publicly; they'd rather share them privately with friends. So the company tweaked the app so that users can decide whether to share their comics publicly or privately.
Sometimes less is more. The original version of Bitstrips was basically a blank slate that let users custom-design comics from scratch. But that level of customization and user decision-making took time--something most people don't have. When Bitstrips launched on Facebook late last year, it began offering pre-designed background scenes that users can select for their comics. The pre-made templates greatly sped up the comic creation process, letting Bitstrips users funnel their creative energy into captions and other elements of their comic strips. Blackstock believes the templates made the tool easier to use and partly credits it for Bitstrips' growth. "When you give someone something to work from, it can actually fire their imagination more quickly," he adds.
Changing content frequently encourages more use. Last spring, Bitstrips increased the number of pre-customized scenes it offered users and tied them to current news events. For example, after the Royal Baby was born in July, Bitstrips users could post a comic showing with their avatar as the baby's face. "A news story breaks and we're now able to have a Bitstrip out in 24 hours that really captures it," Blackstock says. The shift inspired more strips and more sharing.
Mobile is where it's at. Bitstrips' user base grew steadily through the first part of 2013, thanks to its Facebook desktop app. But it wasn't until the company introduced its first mobile app in October that the company's recognition skyrocketed. Facebook users created about 10 million Bitstrips avatars in the first six months the Facebook desktop app was available but added 30 million new avatars in the first two months after the mobile app launched. "You can be doing something for years and put it on mobile and it can be an entirely different reaction," Blackstock says.
What are Bitstrips' goals for 2014?
Introduce new customization features. The company plans to roll out new features that allow users to get more creative with their comic strips, if they choose. For example, Blackstock says users may be able to select the outfits their avatars wear, something they currently cannot do. Since the launch of the mobile app, the company has also acquired many international users--everywhere from Mexico to Peru to Hong Kong. But the app currently only offers English captions. So Bitstrips plans to increase its language offerings as well. It will also keep creating more pre-designed scenes, as well as improving the overall user experience, and adding more ways to interact with and share content. "We're really working around the clock to make it more seamless experience for people who are using it," he says.
Find new uses for comics. In late 2013, Bitstrips began allowing users to turn their comics into holiday greeting cards. Blackstock says the company is continually looking for new and interesting ways that users can use and share their comics--and will continue to do so in 2014.
Monetize the app. While Blackstock won't reveal much about the company's plans for new products or services, he does admit that making money is an ultimate goal in the months and years ahead. The company also recently got its first injection of venture capital, receiving $3 million in Series A funding from Li Ka-shing's Horizons Ventures and plans to add more engineers, artists and designers to its current staff of about 20. Currently, the Facebook desktop app includes ads, but the mobile app does not. The app is free to users. However, Blackstock says that figuring out how to monetize the app won't happen until the company can make sure users like the current platform. "Before we really start implementing [new features], we're really focused on perfecting the experience," he says.