Their disappointment was loud and clear.
Apple had just finished its big WWDC presentation last week on Monday, June 5, and it became apparent that the West Coast tech giant wasn’t going to release a feature for iPhone that many fans were clamoring for: group FaceTime.
One user on Twitter summed up this sense of injustice, which has since been retweeted over 1,000 times.
The ability to use Apple’s mobile video chat software with multiple people at once seemed like a simple request, to the point where multiple tech blogs teased a potential announcement coming from Apple. But it never came.
The thing is, there actually is a “group FaceTime” app available on iPhone — it’s just not made by Apple.
The app is called Fam, which lets up to 16 people join a video chat group, and it has already found success, registering over 4.3 million users in its first seven months — a growth spurt that nearly killed the startup that made it, until some investors swooped in with some much-needed capital. The app’s traction has even caught the attention of Facebook, which mentioned the app and a competitor, Houseparty, in a survey sent to teenagers about group video chat.
Created by a Boston startup called Smack, Fam’s early success is putting a spotlight on the Boston tech scene in an area that it’s not well known for: social media. While social media giants like Facebook and Twitter dominate the West Coast, Boston has far fewer companies representing the industry, much less successful ones, which includes Jobcase, a LinkedIn-like site aimed at blue-collar workers.
Smack didn’t come across this success overnight. Instead, Fam is the result of continuous iterating and the ability to learn from failure. In all, it took the startup more than three years and four products to stumble upon a hit. Coincidentally, Smack shares some DNA with the group of people who have been making noise about the need for “group FaceTime” app: It all started on Twitter.
More specifically, Smack started in late 2013 as a series of Twitter accounts that would post anonymous messages by high school students that became so beloved that people still reminisce about accounts to this day. The idea behind SmackHigh was simple: students submit an anonymous message through Twitter or a website; after being reviewed by a moderator, the message would then get posted to SmackHigh’s account. In a way, it was like a simplified version of once-popular anonymous messaging apps like Yik Yak and Secret, both of which have since shut down.
“It was just a Twitter account where teenagers would submit what was going on at their high school and rival high schools,” Giuseppe Stuto, who started SmackHigh, told me when I visited the startup’s office a couple of months ago.
I pointed to a printed-out tweet behind him in the company’s conference room: “Like that?”
There are actually multiple large printouts of tweets about SmackHigh in the office, all of them raving about how awesome SmackHigh’s Twitter accounts are. The tweet I pointed to said, “smack highs tweets complete my high school experience.” It had 99 retweets and 312 favorites. Another said, “I love how smackhigh has become a teenage empire.”
“That was actually a testament to how people would feel,” Stuto said.
Part of what made SmackHigh appealing was that the content of the messages was able to avoid the bullying, harassment and racism that plagued apps like Yik Yak — so all that was left was cheeky, light-gossip banter. It was able to do this because of more than 7,000 high school students across 26 states who volunteered their time to ensure that submissions met the company’s posting guidelines.
SmackHigh’s fast growth — its collection of Twitter accounts reached 1.1 million users in late 2015 — propelled the company to raise a $1.65 seed round as it was going through Techstars Boston, a startup accelerator that started in Colorado. From there, Stuto, along with his co-founders Frank Iudiciani and Kevin Flynn, had big plans to take that excitement and usher users onto actual apps that promoted the same sense of community as the Twitter accounts. But it would take more than a year for them to find another hit.
One thing that Stuto, Iudiciani and Flynn noticed about the Twitter accounts is that individual tweets would often generate their own conversations between friends. It was that insight, plus the fact that it was difficult to retain and keep engaging users through Twitter accounts alone, that drove Smack into app development.
After making an app version of the SmackHigh experience was short-lived, Smack decided to make a group chat app called Smack Chat that launched in November 2015. Like its first app, however, it didn’t take off.
“We didn’t have nearly as much critical mass as we had with the SmackHigh Twitter accounts,” Stuto said, “but they were fairly engaging, [though] for a short period of time. So for the first 24-48 hours, users would spend hours on it, but then lose interest. From a short-term engagement standpoint, it was cool, but lacked critical mass in user acquisition, adoption and retention.”
That’s when Smack started to look into video.
The first result wasn’t Fam but Smack Live, an app released in October 2016 that lets people broadcast live video to their friends and host them as guests, almost like a TV show. While the app was fairly well received, it didn’t become a hit. “Users who do use it, use it for hours and hours on end, but it didn’t really reach a critical mass audience because it lacked the viral effect,” Stuto said.
A lot has happened since Apple and Android launched their app stores nearly 10 years ago. Namely, both stores have become oversaturated — Apple now has over 2.2 million apps while Android is approaching the 3 million mark — which is why apps more than ever need to get that viral effect to have any chance of success. Luckily for Stuto, Iudiciani and Flynn, that’s exactly what happened next.
When Smack Live came out, Stuto, Iudiciani and Flynn noticed a certain behavior among some users: instead of using it as a broadcasting app, they were using it do to group video chat. That’s when the lightbulb went on, and it would only take a couple of months for Smack to shift gears once again and release Fam.
“How can we take the next step and test this out?”
“They would use [Smack Live] as if it was FaceTime but for more than one other person,” Flynn said. “And so when we saw that, we were like, ‘damn, we can’t have these split use cases because it’s used in a very different way. How can we take the next step and test this out?'”
At the same time, Stuto and his co-founders knew that Apple had recently opened an app store for iMessage, the instant messaging service that would become the default app for text messaging on iPhone in 2011. And they had actually been using iMessage to handle technical support issues with Smack Live users, who would sometimes add them to larger group chats.
It was that last observation that helped Smack develop an app that had the potential to go viral. Since Smack had already built the technology to support live video with multiple feeds, it only took the team a little under a month to build the first version of Fam.
As the company was nearing the release of Fam, the stakes were high. The team didn’t have much money left in the bank, only giving them a few months of runway before the company either had to raise more money or shut down. That also meant the company wouldn’t be able to spend much money on marketing at all.
So on December 5, Smack took the dive and released Fam to the wild. Knowing the power of social media through their earlier work with SmackHigh, they decided to get the word out by paying for a handful of Twitter accounts to tweet a short message with a 15-second video of Fam in action. Things quickly spun out of control.
After sending out the tweets around 7:30 p.m., other Twitter users quickly took notice and started tweeting about Fam. By 11 p.m., Fam was getting installed 624 times per minute. By midnight, the app reached 100,000 downloads. Ten days later, 1 million.
Beyond addressing a growing demand for group video chat, what also lent to Fam’s viral nature was how it works within iMessage. When someone downloads Fam, all the user has to do is open a group chat within iMessage and hit the Fam button through the app store menu to invite people to a group video. If the recipients don’t already have Fam, they’re automatically prompted to download the app when they tap on the invite — which is a big part of how Fam has gone viral.
Smack wasn’t expecting the app to become so popular in such a short period.
“It just turned into chaos, in a good way,” Stuto said.
However, there was one problem: Smack didn’t have nearly enough money to pay for an ever-growing streaming bill. It wouldn’t take too long until that money would run out, especially given the fast growth Fam was experiencing.
So Stuto and gang called up two of its investors, Jeff Bussgang of Flybridge Capital Partners and Peter Blacklow of Boston Seed Capital. “We have bills right now we can’t pay,” Stuto remembers telling them. In a normal situation, a company that isn’t able to pay its bills may not get much sympathy from investors, but it was the underlying reason — fast growth — that put Smack in this position that hooked the interest of Bussgang, Blacklowe and eventually other investors.
Soon enough, Smack brought together a $1.8 million funding round from a number of investors, including Flybridge and Boston Seed, a well as big-name West Coast-based venture capital firms like NEA, Bessemer Venture Partners and Norwest Venture Partners. The round also brought in some big-time angel investors, like DraftKings founder Jason Robins, and Wayne Chang and Jeff Seibert, the founders of Crashlytics who sold the startup to Twitter and, later, Google.
As of early June, Fam surpassed 4.3 million users, Stuto told me. But that’s far from the number of users Smack needs to call it a critical success. For comparison’s sake, Facebook and Snapchat have 1.28 billion and 166 million daily active users, respectively, numbers that don’t account for the total registered users on each platform.
“In terms of our own conviction, we’d like to do more experimentation.”
Stuto is well aware of the giants Smack is facing, as well as the fact that Facebook and other companies like Kik are working on their own group chat applications (Facebook’s, for instance, is available within its Messenger app). Despite the high level of growth Fam has experienced so far, Stuto said Smack is first and foremost focused on tweaking the app to the point where more people use it on a daily basis — in other words, achieving the startup Holy Grail of product market fit.
“We have a lot figured out, but, in terms of our own conviction, we’d like to do more experimentation,” Stuto said.
The biggest way Smack looks to differentiate Fam from competitors is focusing less on the transactional experience of communication and more on replicating the experience of what it’s like to hang out with people in real life. This means making Fam into a platform where friends can hang out and do other activities, like playing games. Fam has already developed a few games in-house, including trivia, basketball and a Pictionary-like game called Draw with Fam, but Smack is hoping to expand the platform to other developers. Stuto said he’s already in conversations with a few companies.
As Smack continues to grow, an integral question comes top of mind: Can the startup succeed if it stays in Boston? Or will it have to relocate to the West Coast to access a deeper pool of social media expertise? Stuto said Smack has no plans to move as of right now, and that he’s been able to bring in West Coast investors through connections he has made.
“We believe we have a good balance of bridging West Coast and East Coast value through the most recent investors we brought on,” Stuto said in an email to me on Monday.
For the sake of Boston’s startup ecosystem, let’s hope we can hold onto this one.