Turning great companies into true franchises

As Airbnb, Uber and Snap gear up for potential, and actual, IPOs, public investors are asking a key question: Can these former startups build more than one breakout product?

It’s easy to see why. While building just one successful consumer product is hugely valuable — evidenced by Twitter ($12 billion market cap), Pinterest ($11 billion), Dropbox ($10 billion) and Square ($5 billion) — when a company creates two or more breakout hits, the rewards are staggering. Consider the market caps of the few companies that have released more than one successful consumer product at scale: Google ($550 billion+), Apple ($626 billion+), Amazon ($367 billion) and even Facebook ($342 billion), albeit largely through M&A.

Uber, Snap and Airbnb fall, interestingly, into an unusually valuable middle category, valued between $30 billion and $70 billion. These companies have created massively delightful first products, but in far larger markets and with stronger strategic advantages than the aforementioned single-product companies. Furthermore, each has experimented with new products in the hopes of achieving Google-level greatness.

What will determine whether Uber, Airbnb and Snap truly become long-term franchises versus single-product companies? The answer lies in how they handle certain key operational challenges as they scale.

Pitfalls of the second act

When consumer companies like Dropbox, Airbnb and others set out to make their next hit, new challenges present themselves, many of which I’ve witnessed firsthand:

  • The Safe Bets Fallacy: Initial success with one product generates a natural instinct to protect or extend that product versus inventing something new. With larger and growing organizations come competing agendas amidst limited resources, and it gets easier to greenlight something safer.
  • The Magic Touch Fallacy: After one big hit, founders begin to believe they possess unusually strong product invention skills (which they often do). However, the unfortunate result often is that they’re less likely to evaluate whether a new product really stands on its own merits because they assume they know what consumers will like.
  • The Golden Channel Fallacy: The fallacy of believing that because you have hit Safe Bets your brand will carry the day in bringing new users to the Magic Touch. Using your existing product as a channel is almost never adequate in today’s mobile app world, because switching costs are so low and substitution is rampant (few SF dwellers these days only have Uber or Lyft on their phone).
  • The Adjacency Fallacy: It’s easy to make the case on a slide that executional synergies exist between an existing and new product (for example, cross-sell existing users on new products, or driving meaningful business model advantages from existing infrastructure); in practice, for most companies, that’s much harder to achieve.

Do note that we’re talking about consumer products here, not enterprise products, where providing a “whole product solution” and capitalizing on existing sales channels often makes building product extensions an excellent strategy. 

Delightful versus strategic: A framework for the second product

An overly simple but useful way to characterize how great second products are made is to think about them along these two axes: Delightful and Strategic.


The Delightful axis captures all the things that attract tens of millions of users to a great consumer product: The sense of magic on first use; the careful and systematic re-evaluation of the entire user experience that enables that magic; the attention to design and detail that supports the feeling that the user can do something previously never possible.

The Strategic axis includes all the business stuff: Network effects that underlie unusually low customer acquisition costs and winner-take-all dynamics; the ability of a product to monetize via sales, subscription and advertising, among other means; the leveraging of an existing brand to win new users, or the logic behind extending a product portfolio to maintain a longer-term customer relationship.

Let’s explore the four quadrants:

  • Fail (Not delightful and no strategic value): The product fails. Usually the lack of strategic value and opportunity to truly delight the customer is obvious only in retrospect. These projects are often powerful executive one-offs or represent an ill-conceived competitive response (Facebook Poke).
  • Trivial (Delightful to users but little strategic value): These products could be popular with users, but drive little real enterprise value or lasting impact. The Apple Watch, for example, has many advocates, but it’s hardly become the image of rekindled innovation and platform expansion Apple hoped it would.
  • Valley of Meh (Good strategic value but not delightful): Most sophomore efforts end here for the aforementioned reasons. These products may be developed thoughtfully but lack the creative spark and high customer experience bar that leads to a second breakout success.
  • Success (Both strategic and delightful): A rare quadrant that drives extraordinary value, populated today by the most respected tech companies. We’re currently witnessing unusually strong product innovation by the likes of Amazon and Google, and they’re enjoying unprecedented market power as a result.

Most companies end up in the Valley of Meh. That is, they fail at creating a second great product because during the product design and planning process, the natural desire to leverage the first product’s strengths, justify a project’s resources and manage risk lead to those factors seeping into decision-making. Hence, the products are either watered down to become merely modular extensions of the main product (example: Dropbox photos and music) or are not evaluated with the same rigor in terms of user experience and impact. 

A clean sheet of paper

How do founders in the growth stage avoid the Valley of Meh? One of the best methods is to approach new products with a clean sheet of paper. Ideas will come from everywhere (especially once initial success and growth attracts tons of smart young employees who want to make their mark). When evaluating new ideas, leaders should aim to achieve both delightfulness and strategic value. Some questions to ask:


  • Imagine you didn’t have your first hit. Would the new product be 10X better for the user than what they currently have?
  • If you’re in a commercial or transactional business, does the new product feel like something surprising or magical has been done (i.e. remember the first time you used Lyft or Square)?
  • What do you now know about what users find truly compelling about your first product that can help you evaluate whether the second one has legs? For example, if your real value proposition is about helping a small business grow, does your new product achieve the same level of impact on those lines, or is it really addressing a different need?
  • Would you want to start this company as a standalone? Would you invest in it?
  • Can the product be more impactful than your first product? This is a great way to ensure a second product is truly worth pursuing — and someone should be able to make the case that it’s possible. Bellweather companies have a way of building (or acquiring) products that dwarf their original hits in terms of their impact on consumers.


  • Would you have a shot at winning in that space if you didn’t have your existing brand, people or capital?
  • Could you raise money for this idea on its own merits?
  • Does the product generate useful network effects (versus merely being a single-use tool)?
  • Is monetization possible on its own with the new product, or only because it extends reach of the initial product?
  • Can the product generate viral adoption on its own, or will it rely solely on traffic generated by the first product?
  • How in a success case will the new product enhance the overall strategic positioning of the existing product: marginally or dramatically? If it’s the first, the new product may be just an extension.

There’s nothing wrong with adding great features to help a product better serve customers, or trying out interesting standalone ideas. But product extensions rarely catapult a great consumer business into the valuation stratosphere. Only capturing value on both dimensions achieves this level of success.

Expanding the mission

Sometimes this process shows that the mission of the startup was too narrow. Note how well-stated, aspirational company missions such as “Connect the World” or “Organize the world’s information” have inspired a wide array of projects that can fit under a pithy umbrella.

At Square, Jack Dorsey expanded the mission of the company from a payments focus to “Make Commerce Easy,” a move that allowed for such delightful/strategic products as Square Cash and Square Capital, both of which are now taking off and could generate multiples of the current valuation.

True franchises or just great companies?

Leadership at the emerging crop of consumer IPOs shows that they take these realities seriously. Airbnb’s Trips and Uber Eats are both ideas that on their own could create standalone businesses at scale, and could have such potential. However, because they rely on existing capabilities, without a clean-sheet-of-paper approach to ongoing product innovation, there’s a danger that they’ll achieve only add-on status.

Snap’s Spectacles, on the other hand, is more of a fundamental consumer product innovation in its own right, and the creative rollout and move into hardware suggests that leadership seeks to make every new consumer product sing for its own supper. Spectacles is, in fact, a prime example of a second-generation consumer product that is both delightful and strategic. No one would mistake it for a mere extension, and it’s quickly set a new standard for how startups with one hit swing mightily for a second.

Featured Image: Gernot Molkenthin/EyeEm/Getty Images

There’s now a Disney Princess toy subscription service

Subscription-based toy company Pley.com entered the Disney accelerator last year with a toy rental business that would ship out toys like Lego, American Girl or Hot Wheels, which could be played with, then kept or returned, starting at $12 per month. Now that the company has exited the program, it’s debuting a twist on its earlier model. Pley has just launched a Disney Princess PleyBox subscription service, where parents and children are surprised every other month with an assortment of themed goodies.

During the course of the four-month program with Disney, the company found that kids didn’t want to part with their toys, which led to the creation of the new box type.

Unlike with earlier boxes, the actual contents of the princess box will remain a mystery, after the first.

Disney says that each of its boxes will include a mix of items that go beyond toys alone. The first box, for example, ships with a t-shirt, book and role play item, in addition to toys. Plus, the box itself turns into a castle that can be decorated then used as part of kids’ play. Future boxes will also transform in this way, turning into things like a boat or carriage, the company says.

The boxes help Disney not only by being another means to sell its merchandise, but they can also help it promote upcoming films. For example, the initial princess box being offered is a “Beauty and the Beast” themed package. While the box itself is inspired by the animated classic, it’s no coincidence that the live action version of the movie is preparing to release stateside next month.


One of the problems with getting a toy subscription service off the ground is the fact that many parents – the real demographic being targeted here – don’t want to be tied into a monthly service. Kids have enough toys as it is, they’ll argue, we don’t need more.

Pley’s subscription tacitly acknowledges those concerns by having its box ship every two months instead of every month.

The box itself is $24.99, which comes in well under what it would cost to buy the items separately at retail, which could be another draw.

Still, the market for toy subscriptions remains unproven. Pley today has grown its service to 150,000 subscribers since its launch in 2013, but, like other subscription businesses, it faces the ongoing challenge of dealing with subscriber churn. Customers will opt out after a while, whether because their kids grow older, to save money, or because they reach a point where they feel like they have enough of the items being shipped.

Though a difficult market, Pley is not alone in trying to make toy subscriptions work. Amazon also recently announced its own toy subscription service, with a focus on monthly shipments of STEM toys.

The new Pley box is available on the company website here.

Building blocks that will turn Legos into smart toys

Circuit Cubes are promising to bring your kid’s toys to life. They are electronic building blocks that can add sound, motion, light and sensors to any creation.

The cubes magnetically snap together and are transparent so kids can see the electronic components in action.

The smart blocks are compatible with Legos and anything else your child chooses to create with, like ordinary toys or household items like milk cartons.

The co-founders are longtime educators whose goal is to get kids to learn as they are having fun.

Circuit Cubes are available now for preorder at tenkalabs.com/reserve-your-kit/.

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Here’s the 20th batch of 500 Startups companies

500 Startups’ last class will be presenting next week, which means the firm is already underway getting another new class up and running.

The majority of the startups in the 20th batch consist of digital health, financial technology and companies that supply technology and address inefficiency within the government. It’s, naturally, particularly timely. More than a third of the companies in this batch come from outside the U.S..

Here’s a quick rundown of the companies in the batch:

  • AllVirtuous — On-demand investigation platform to fight counterfeit products through crowdsourcing.
  • Alta5 — An event-driven automation platform for trading the financial markets.
  • BenRevo — Digitally connects insurance carriers, brokers, and employers.
  • Bloom Credit — Takes a data driven approach to improving the financial health and eligibility of loan applicants.
  • Boon — An AI-powered referral recruiting network that helps companies hire talent in their employees’ social networks.
  • Cadence — An API for connecting language interpreters with businesses.
  • Clanbeat — An ongoing feedback tool for monthly performance reviews targeted at managers.
  • Court Buddy — A tech platform that matches users with solo attorneys based on their budget.
  • Digital Mortar — Full customer path tracking for brick and mortar retailers.
  • EquitySim — Trains students to trade in financial markets, and uses machine learning to connect them with employers.
  • FinCheck — A conversational finance bot.
  • FriendlyData — A natural language interface for databases.
  • Funderful — Online fundraising software for universities.
  • Govlist — Optimizes government purchasing through document automation and analytics.
  • Hyphen — A real-time, anonymous employee listening platform leveraging machine learning to provide timely recommendations to Management and HR.
  • Littlefund — A smart savings and gift tool for teaching children financial skills.
  • Biomarker.io — A monitoring and tracking platform that optimizes your wellness and supplement routine.
  • Mycroft — Am open source alternative to Siri and Alexa.
  • Nazar — Agent-less database performance monitoring.
  • Numina — A sensing platform that uses computer vision to deliver real-time insights from streets and make cities more responsive.
  • Optimity — Reduces preventable drug claims costs for employers through a digital health coaching program.
  • Orderly Health — An AI-powered concierge to help employees navigate their healthcare.
  • Preteckt — A hardware and software solution that uses machine learning to predict vehicle breakdowns before they cost you money.
  • Printivo — One-stop online print shop for African designers and business to order quality prints and marketing collateral.
  • Raxar Technology Corporation — An intelligent data management platform that enables enterprise and government agencies to reduce costs, track critical assets, and optimize complex workflows.
  • Regard — Offers income insurance online, enabling individuals to get cash benefits when they’re too sick or injured to work.
  • SentiSum — An AI analytics solution helping enterprises leverage all their customer opinion data.
  • Shoelace — An AI assistant that helps e-commerce merchants launch retargeting campaigns on social media.
  • Skeyecode — Authentication software based on a new cryptography scheme.
  • Text To Ticket — Pays for user-submitted videos that catch texting and driving in the act.
  • TopDocs — A software platform for hospitals to boost revenue from medical tourism.
  • TrueCare24 — One stop shop for complete medical care delivered to home for loved ones.
  • UrbanLogiq — Applies machine-learning analytics to make city planning faster, cheaper and more accurate.
  • WellTrack — On-demand online therapy for stress, anxiety and depression to open up access to mental health care.
  • Win-Win — A sports gaming platform where users play in week-long tournaments to compete for experiences with their favorite pro athletes and influencers, while the entry fee goes to support charitable initiatives.
  • YayPay — AI to accelerate cash flow and automate accounts receivables.
  • Zyudly Labs — Provides deep learning powered fraud and cybersecurity solutions for the financial services industry.
  • VIA Global Health — A platform that connects people in emerging markets with medical supplies that are otherwise inaccessible.
  • Visabot — An AI-powered solution for streamlining U.S. visa process
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Jawbone claims Fitbit is under criminal investigation as the rivals continue to spar

The Jawbone/Fitbit ugliness appears to be continuing on unabated, even the rival fitness companies work to deal with their own financial struggles and concerns around the health of the wearable market at large. The companies have been batting suits back and forth at least since mid-2015, primarily dealing with issues of intellectual proprietary and trade secrets – the sort of charges rival manufacturers often volley back and forth.

The war seemed to have cooled slightly just ahead of Christmas when Fitbit dropped one case, citing its rivals financial struggles, which we recently highlighted in a piece about the company’s planned pivot. But in a new court filing, Jawbone suggests that its chief competitor is currently under investigation by a grand jury over trade secret theft.

The criminal investigation has been on-going for five months, according to claims found in the 27-page Jawbone filing. Fitbit, for its part, has naturally called the allegations fiction, adding that they’re essentially a rehash of charges that the ITC turned over in October.

For its part, Fitbit has dealing with its own financial issues of late. Late last month the dominant player in the fitness wearable space announced that it was cutting six-percent of its staff as a result of a disappointing Q4, though the company is pushing forward, making acquisitions and looking to build a new smartwatch.

Fitbit was even rumored to be mulling purchase of Jawbone in the lead up to its dropping of the suit, though according to our sources, those talks were fairly low-level.

Flipboard revamps its approach personalized news with new “Smart Magazines”

Flipboard is releasing a big update today, which introduces “Smart Magazines” — a new way for people to find news stories and other content tied to their interests.

CEO Mike McCue said the big goal behind this update was to answer the question, “How can we modernize the notion of magazines?” Like many print magazines, these Smart Magazines are meant help you dive deep in a specific topic, but they also take advantage of opportunities for customization and personalization.

At the same time, McCue described this update as a rethinking of the Flipboard experience for new and existing users. Right now, the main ways to browse Flipboard are to open up the many individual topics and community-created magazines, or to go to the Cover Stories section, where you’ll find a variety of stories pulled together based on your interests.

But McCue said that Flipboard’s enormous range of topics (34,000) and magazines (30 million) can be overwhelming, while Cover Stories mashes everything together, so you can’t focus on the one topic that you might be interested in at a given moment.

“Where do I go if I just want to see photography stuff?” he said. “I might follow 50 different magazines and 12 different topics [that are related to photography], so how do I see it all together? There hasn’t been a good way to do that until now.”

So a Smart Magazine revolves around a broad topic, like technology or cooking or photography or sports. Each magazine starts off with the big stories of the moment, things that hopefully everyone interested in that topic will want to see. Then as you move past the first few pages, you start to see content that’s more tailored to your personal interests — for example, your tech magazine might start out with the same headlines as everyone else, before moving on to articles focused on startups and venture capital.

To help users create these magazines, Flipboard is launching a new one-screen Passion Picker where users can identify the topics they want to follow, then further customize their magazines by adding things like specific publications, YouTube feeds and Twitter hashtags and accounts (tweets from topic experts are included in each magazine). Over time, the magazine should get even smarter based on the stories that you like and add.

McCue said he expects most users to follow just a handful of Smart Magazines — “People are interested in lots of things, but they’re only passionate about a few” — which is why there are only nine slots on the home screen. You can create more than nine Smart Magazines if you want, but then you’ll have to go to the Magazines section of the app to find them.

Beyond this update, I was curious about the role that McCue sees Flipboard serving when more and more of our news consumption is happening through our Facebook and Twitter news feeds.

“I just think that there’s a very large population of people who want to go to a place where there is a collection of stories about the thing that they really care about — not just a random collection of stuff,” McCue said. “I just think that’s a truism.”

He added that after the November election, with its accompanying debates about fake news and filter bubbles, he felt “a renewed sense of purpose.”

“We really think of ourselves as being a platform that is informing and educating and inspiring readers,” he said. “We’re agnostic in terms of the right or the left, but we’re not agnostic in terms of truth or fiction … We don’t create the content, but getting the right mix of stories to people so they can get a sense of perspective on what’s going on, that’s something we take very seriously.”

The new Flipboard is available for both iPhone and Android.

Facebook Safety Check now lets locals find and offer Community Help like shelter

Instead of sending thoughts and prayers to crisis victims, Facebook now lets you share food, transportation, and shelter. You know…things that will actually help. Today Facebook is expanding its Safety Check that allows friends to declare they’re safe after a disaster with the launch of “Community Help”.

The feature adds a page to Safety Check where locals can offer assistance to people nearby, such as baby supplies, water, or a room in their home. Victims can search through these categorized posts and connect with providers over Facebook Messenger. Community Help launches today in the US, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, India, and Saudi Arabia for natural and accidental disasters. After a few weeks of testing, Facebook hopes to roll it out to all countries and include purposeful man-made disasters such as terrorist attacks.

“We want to create a space on Facebook…that connects communities in the aftermath of a crisis and helps people feel safe faster, recover, and rebuild” says Facebook Safety Check product designer Preethi Chetan.

Facebook Gets Involved

Facebook first got involved in crisis safety back in 2011 with the distribution of Amber Alerts in its app that the company says have since helped rescue three kidnapped kids. After the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge went viral on Facebook video and raised $200 million, Facebook built the Donate button and fundraiser pages to make charitable giving easier. Facebook also added suicide prevention tools that offer resources to people who suspect a friend might be at risk for self-harm.

Meanwhile, Facebook noticed a trend around the 2011 Fukishima earthquake. People were using the social network to tell friends they were safe, so it developed the Disaster Message Board. After the 2013 Boston Marathon bombing, that product was evolved through one of Facebook’s internal hackathons to become Safety Check.


At the time, Facebook employees had to assess reports of crises themselves, trigger Safety Check manually, and select who could use it to mark themselves as safe. 4.1 million people used Safety Check after the Paris terror attacks. But to scale the product out, and make it respond faster with better accuracy, it needed to become more automated.

Yesterday during a press event in San Francisco, Facebook revealed how its streamlined Safety Check, reducing human involvement to just overseeing the feature for quality assurance.

It now receives verified alerts of crises from global reporting agencies NC4 and iJET International, giving the crisis a title and location while preventing fake news from becoming a Safety Check. Facebook then monitors for posts mentioning terms related to the disaster type in that area. If lots of people are posting about the situation nearby, Facebook Safety Check is automatically triggered, urging these users to mark themselves safe and ask nearby friends to do the same.

Look For The Helpers

Now, instead of Facebook’s crisis assistance ending there, it’s galvanizing local communities to support each other in tangible ways. Chetan’s team travelled to Chennai, India to watch how locals organized grass roots relief efforts through Facebook to learn what their product could do to make support simpler. The result was Community Help.

After users mark themselves safe, they’re shown a special page and feed related to the crisis. If they’re victims, they can post asking for help in one of around 10 categories including food, shelter, water, transportation, and pet supplies. Those in a position to help can then search this feed or post what they can offer, and get connected to victims over Messenger who can mark their requests as completed.


While this is the kind of assistance that was already happening through Facebook’s News Feeds and Groups, the company is taking extra precautions as it provides more organizational infrastructure. It includes stranger-danger tips to victims and providers, like that they should always meet in a public place, and research who they’re meeting ahead to make sure they look real and trustworthy. Brand new accounts or ones Facebook finds suspicious aren’t allowed on Community Help.

Hopefully Facebook will eventually link its charitable giving and crisis aid features to let people from afar contribute monetarily even if they can’t open their home or deliver necessities in person.

While social media has become a hub for grieving and information sharing in the wake of crises, much of the outpour of empathy goes unharnessed. Community Help could focus the human spirit towards making a real difference for victims that goes far beyond shallow clicktivism.

Twitter Steps Up Efforts to Silence Trolls

Twitter on Tuesday announced yet another crackdown on abusers.

With the goal of making Twitter a safer place, it has come up with new ways to

  • Prevent the creation of new abusive accounts;
  • Make search safer; and
  • Collapse potentially abusive or low-quality tweets.

Twitter also pledged to persist in its anti-abuse endeavors, saying it would keep rolling out product changes, some more visible than others, and updating users on its progress every step of the way.

Twitter “is more vulnerable than other social media because people expect it to be their link to the world, and not just their friends,” noted Jim McGregor, a principal analyst at Tirias Research.

“People use it for news and for access to quick gossip,” he told TechNewsWorld, adding that its open-ended structure makes it an easier target for abuse.

Latest Offensive

Twitter will identify account owners it has suspended permanently and block them from creating new accounts.

That might be a reaction to the creation of multiple fake accounts last fall, after Twitter had suspended several accounts linked to the alt-right movement, which is known for advocating white supremacy and other extreme views.

Those suspensions came amid mounting criticism of the company’s failure to expunge harassing, racist, sexist and anti-Semitic tweets from its network.

Safe search involves filtering tweets that contain potentially sensitive content, as well as tweets from blocked and muted accounts, from search results. However, users would have other ways to search for and access those tweets.

Under the new system, potentially abusive and low-quality replies will be collapsed, although they will be available if users want to seek them out. This change will roll out in the coming weeks, Twitter said.

Protection or Cybergagging?

“Ultimately, determining what constitutes cyberharassent or any kind of inappropriate behavior on Twitter is a subjective undertaking,” said Michael Jude, a program manager at Stratecast/Frost & Sullivan.

“As soon as you introduce subjectivity into regulating Twitter, it loses its appeal,” he told TechNewsWorld. “One person’s freedom of speech is another person’s microaggression. Twitter’s best bet is to say, ‘Abandon all hope ye who enter here.'”

Getting around the problem of subjective judgment will be difficult, McGregor suggested. “How do you decide what’s appropriate or abusive, and what’s not? You need to have a context for the conversation and the relationship.”

Friends would couch statements in terms that might be considered inappropriate when relayed to a stranger, he pointed out. “For example, I could tweet the word ‘s**t’ to a friend in response to something he’d said or a news item we were discussing, and it would be all right.”

Using artificial intelligence to filter out potentially offending tweets isn’t going to resolve the issue, because “AI systems have to learn like humans do, and no AI solution will really work unless you have a finite number of inputs,” McGregor pointed out.

Twitter’s Battle Against the Trolls

Twitter in 2014 suspended several accounts for violating its rules after actor Robin Williams’ daughter Zelda publicly quit the site due to hateful tweets about her father’s tragic suicide. She later reactivated her account

Another victim, Imani Gandy, had been harassed since 2012 by someone with the handle “Assholster,” who created up to 10 different Twitter accounts a day to hurl racist invectives at her.

Leslie Jones, a Saturday Night Live cast member, temporarily quit Twitter last year after being deluged with hundreds of racist and abusive tweets. She returned after an outpouring of support.

Twitter permanently suspended conservative commentator Milo Yiannopoulos this summer on the grounds that he had subjected users to targeted abuse.

Twitter over the years has introduced a laundry list of new measures to curb the abuse.

The frequent changes are necessary, according to Laura DiDio, a research director at 451 Research.

“Twitter has to update its rules to reflect the changing times,” she told TechNewsWorld. “Nothing’s 100 percent foolproof.”

Richard Adhikari has written about high-tech for leading industry publications since the 1990s and wonders where it’s all leading to. Will implanted RFID chips in humans be the Mark of the Beast? Will nanotech solve our coming food crisis? Does Sturgeon’s Law still hold true? You can connect with Richard on Google+.

FaceApp uses neural networks for photorealistic selfie tweaks

Why so serious, Donald Trump? Maybe you’d find less need to reach for ALL CAPS as you compose your tweets if you smiled a little more? Go on, have a go… There, not so hard was it!

Okay, okay, if you’re finding the vision of Trump’s visage with a smile on it generating ‘uncanny valley’ levels of unease and creepiness you’d be right.

The smile is FAKE NEWS folks! Created, after the fact, by a photo-realistic face-morphing iOS app, called FaceApp, which uses neural networks to edit selfies — letting users bend reality in a few choice ways, such as by adding a smile, or shaving off a few years or applying a beautifying ‘hotness’ filter. Who said augmented reality requires donning a pair of goggles?

FaceApp is being developed by a small team out of Saint-Petersburg, Russia.

“We developed a new technology that uses neural networks to modify a face on any photo while keeping it photorealistic. For example, it can add a smile, change gender and age, or just make you more attractive,” explains founder and CEO Yaroslav Goncharov, a former head of department at Yandex who is funding the project out of his own pocket.

Selfie beautification apps aren’t new of course. Recently a veteran of the category, Meitu, that’s been popular in China for years picked up some steam in the US — offering a ‘vaseline screen‘ style effect to soften and smooth skin tones and add kawaii glints to eyes.

Another example, Lollycam, also offers beautification filters plus the ability to augment selfies in all sorts of creative ways with additional cinematic effects.

And that’s just two of the indie options kicking around the category — which also includes plenty of sophisticated in-house selfie-styling options at social sharing giants like Snapchat. But the enduring popularity of selfies suggests humanity’s inner Narcissus remains prone to being tickled by tricks and tweaks that can put a new spin on the presentation of self. So the ideas keep coming.

Goncharov also says FaceApp is taking a different tack by not applying a filter to selfies. Rather it’s using deep learning technology to alter the photo itself.

“Our main differentiator is photorealism,” he tells TechCrunch. “After applying a filter, it is still your photo. Other apps intentionally change a picture in a way it is entertaining, but not a real photo anymore (Meitu can make you an anime character, Prisma turns it to art, MSQRD adds cartoon masks etc.).

“We believe that such entertaining effects are subject to trends, but photorealism is timeless.”

“In addition to a sound product concept, we think that we are quite ahead in terms of technology. As far as I know, there are no products or research papers that can claim similar quality on this task,” he adds.

Whether photorealism really is timeless in an era of increasing reality augmentation remains to be seen. But Goncharov reckons he has a viral hit on his hands, saying FaceApp has racked up more than a million downloads just two weeks since launch (the app is iOS only for now).

Countries where it’s been making the biggest splash so far include Japan, Netherlands, Hong Kong, Norway, Russia, and Argentina, with Goncharov noting the app has topped the App Store charts in four countries, and made top iOS app in the Photo & Video category in seven so far.

Another Russian-made photo-altering app, Prisma, which uses AI to apply style transfer art effects to images, also picked up steam quickly last summer, grabbing 1.6M downloads for its photo-tweaking tool in a week — going on to pass more than 70M downloads (and bag ~2M active daily users) within six months, with copycats aplenty. (Prisma has now launched a social-sharing platform of its own to try to turn a photo feature tool into a fully fledged community.)

Safe to say, the network effects of mainstream photo-sharing platforms such as Instagram, where both Prisma pics and FaceApp selfies have gained eyeballs, are able to lift newcomers into the limelight relatively quickly — at least if they have something people find novel enough to share. But how sustainable such fast-rising virality is, is the key question for apps that piggyback on platform giants.

In terms of the specific technology it’s using to alter selfies in a photorealistic way, Goncharov says FaceApp makes use of “deep generative convolutional neural networks”.

“This technology is quite mature for some tasks, such as artistic style transfer or super-resolution, but has extreme challenges for photo-realistic tasks especially with high resolution images,” he argues. “I don’t think similar effects can be achieved with conventional (not deep learning) algorithms.

“Adding a smile may look like a simple modification on the surface but, in fact, is extremely difficult. Smiling is not just lips moving — the entire face changes in a subtle, but complicated, way. Also, for this effect to work on most real life photos, you need to account for too many factors: posture, lighting, skin color, shape of lips and eyes, photo quality, etc.”

Testing the app I found the quality of the results do vary a fair bit — depending on the selfie you’re applying them to and the particular effect you’re trying to achieve.

As well as adding a smile, there are options for aging a selfie, making it look younger, making it more attractive, and a gender-bending feature (changing male selfies to females and vice versa). Photos have to be uploaded to FaceApp’s servers for processing, but at the time we tested it it was only taking a few seconds from tap to finished effect.

Some results (such as the added smile) look generally more plausible than others (the aging effect is pretty obviously unreal). But at a quick glance most of the effects are at least in the photo-realistic ballpark, even if they’re also a bit surreal/creepy…

FaceApp effects

Clockwise from top left: Unedited image, female version, added smile, hotness filter

Goncharov says the team of four full-time engineers developed FaceApp’s core tech in-house, though he confirms they are using some AI open source libraries — such as Google’s Tensorflow.

“They are relatively low level/general use libraries that can be used to build almost anything,” he says, adding: “It took us eight months to release the first version of FaceApp, thanks to our prior background in deep learning and computer vision.”

He also says they have spent nothing on marketing for FaceApp at this point, with all early growth being organic, thanks to social shares. (Morphed photos being automatically badged with ‘FaceApp’ and the app pushing social share options at users immediately after they process an image will be helping there.)

How might the team monetize the app, assuming they can keep growing usage? One option might be sponsored filters, says Goncharov. “Our upcoming effects would support it in a nice way. Before we start to implement this, we need to hit quite high numbers in terms of daily active users to use this model efficiently. However, given the app performance we see, we believe that it is a viable option.”

A lot might depend on the variety and quality of the upcoming effects — i.e. if FaceApp is to be anything more than a flash in the selfie styling pan. Adding a smile to a famously grumpy selfie is fun once, but doesn’t seem to offer lasting utility.

Still, some smiles are a lot more winning than others…

FaceApp smile

Elizabeth Warren takes to Facebook Live after being silenced in the Senate

Sen. Elizabeth Warren is not someone who agrees to be shut down and put in a corner. 

After she was silenced by Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and the rest of Senate Republicans for impugning a fellow senator’s character, Warren took to Facebook Live to finish her remarks. 

From outside the Senate floor, she read a letter from the late Coretta Scott King, widow of Martin Luther King, opposing Sen. Jeff Sessions for a federal judgeship in 1986. Sessions is President Donald Trump’s nominee for U.S. attorney general. 

“Tonight I wanted to read that letter, and Sen. Mitch McConnell and Republicans came to the floor to shut me down for reading that letter,” Warren said in the live stream. 

“So right now what I’d like to do outside the Senate, I just want to read the letter.” 

King’s widow wrote at the time: “Mr. Sessions has used the awesome powers of his office in a shabby attempt to intimidate and frighten elderly black voters.”

At the time of writing, Warren’s live video has attracted 3.3 million views, 262,000 “likes” and nearly 80,000 shares. 

Sen. Jeff Merkley later managed to read the same letter on the Senate floor. 

The Republicans’ move outraged Democrats on social media and triggered the hashtag #LetLizSpeak on Twitter

Many people also shared Coretta Scott King’s letter in full: