Liz Gannes

Recent Posts by Liz Gannes

What Hypergrowth Looks Like: Inside GIF Creation App Cinemagram

Ten days ago, the social video app Cinemagram was hovering around No. 50 in the iOS U.S. photo and video category. The company needed about eight Amazon servers to keep itself running. It had a respectable number of downloads, but no real pop.

Then it released a new version that, among other tweaks, required users to create accounts in order to use the app  – effectively making Cinemagram a social network rather than just a GIF creation tool.

Temo Chalasani

The pickup was nearly instant. Cinemagram shot up to the top of the App Store — it went as high as No. 2, and is currently No. 4. The five-person company needed as many as 720 Amazon servers before figuring out how to be more efficient. They’re now at about 300.

Today, the app is nearing five million downloads, with hundreds of thousands of daily active users growing at a rate of 10 percent to 15 percent per day, according to internal metrics.

(Check out the App Annie charts to see how things shot up shortly after the new release on Oct. 10.)

I met Cinemagram founder Temo Chalasani for a hurried lunch amid Amazon outages on Monday, during which he described a bit more about how his company emerged from relative obscurity to madcap momentum.

To be sure, it’s entirely unclear what angle this particular growth event will look like in a few months. Will this be the beginning of the Cinemagram hockey stick? A spike that recedes back to normalcy? Will everyone get caught up in the “is-it-the-next-Instagram?” hype and then regret it?

Chalasani is the first to admit that there are many mobile social video apps. And many of them are trying various tricks to make video more snackable and mobile-friendly — for instance, Vine, which was recently bought by Twitter before even being released, promised to make it simple to make little video summary highlight reels.

And, actually, when I first talked to Chalasani in April, he wasn’t calling Cinemagram a video app. Rather, it was a GIF creation app. Basically, you could make a sort of hybrid photo-video where you animated one part of a photo while leaving the rest frozen by “masking” it. The effect can be really cool and mesmerizing when done right.

It turned out that people liked creating these nifty, artsy GIFs, but they also just liked making short, silent personal videos. A few months ago, Cinemagram started offering the option to post straight videos without doing the GIF animation trick. Today, 75 percent of Cinemagram videos have no masking effect.

Still, the original concept of animated GIFs provided some constraints for videos that actually work nicely on mobile phones. Cinemagram’s “cines” are limited to two seconds, and are silent. They’re so short that they’re basically just moving pictures. And they automatically repeat, so they’re easy to tune in and out of.

“This is not the kind of video you would find on YouTube,” said Chalasani.

Rather, it’s the kind of video that’s incredibly easy for people to make and watch on mobile phones.

Chalasani pointed out that two seconds is actually a normal limit for the length of a shot you’d see in a movie — only a professional editor would cobble tons of these little shots together.

A couple seconds is not enough for a plot, but you can maybe get across an emotion or a mood.

As such, cines tend to be quite personal. But like any other social network, Cinemagram benefits from the halo of celebrity users. Below is a popular cine of rapper Tyga’s brand-new son, from a few days ago.

So is that the lesson, then? Slap a social network onto a nifty video app and you’re done? Maybe, but it wasn’t just that, Chalasani said.

For instance, one other recent trick that helped boost Cinemagram growth was better social sharing. Of the major social networks, only Tumblr supports GIFs. So Cinemagram made a sort of widget that makes its videos play in Facebook news feeds.

TechCrunch’s Kim-Mai Cutler also notes that Cinemagram isn’t the only mobile social media iOS app that seems to be growing like a weed; Snapchat is another recent standout. (Super-secret tip: For more on Snapchat, come to our Dive Into Mobile conference next week.)

Cinemagram raised a $1 million convertible note over the summer, and much of the team is in the process of moving from Montreal to San Francisco. Currently, my Cinemagram feed is jam-packed with Silicon Valley investors giving it a whirl.

Besides the VC money, Chalasani and the team do have some semblance of a business plan. They already have a relationship with Red Bull to make highlight reels out of user-submitted cines.

But right now they’re just trying to keep up with hypergrowth.


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The problem with the Billionaire Savior phase of the newspaper collapse has always been that billionaires don’t tend to like the kind of authority-questioning journalism that upsets the status quo.

— Ryan Chittum, writing in the Columbia Journalism Review about the promise of Pierre Omidyar’s new media venture with Glenn Greenwald