Courtesy of Smack, Inc.
By Polina Marinova
December 19, 2016

You might have seen people excitedly tweeting in the last two weeks that “group FaceTime” is finally here. But make no mistake – it’s not tech giant Apple behind this new iMessage-based app. It’s three guys in Boston you’ve never heard of.

Giuseppe Stuto, 27, Frank Iudiciani, 23, and Kevin Flynn, 32, are the three co-founders behind the hot new live group video chat app, Fam. Launched on Dec. 5, it has already been downloaded more than 1 million times and has received hundreds of thousands social media mentions, Stuto says. As of today, Fam is featured in the No. 2 spot under “Top Free Apps” in Apple’s iMessage App Store. (For an explainer on the iMessage App Store, read this.)

Fam is a big deal because users don’t have to venture outside of iMessage, Apple’s instant messaging service. Unlike competitors such as video group chat app Houseparty, Fam lives in iMessage the way your GIF or Bitmoji keyboards do. Once you download it once through the new iMessage App Store, you can start video chats with up to nine people at a time in your existing iMessage conversations without opening a separate application. Because it runs through iMessage, it can only be used in conversations with other iPhone or iPad owners.

All of this started in September when Apple opened iMessage to developers as a platform to create apps that could include stickers, text, video and audio. At the time, Stuto and his team were working on Smack Live, a group video platform where teens would broadcast their conversations publicly with other users also using the app. The three co-founders wanted to find a way to give users a more private experience exclusively for their family and friends.

“We were trying to think of solutions to build a home for these people who wanted to use it as a private group FaceTime feature,” Stuto says.

Within two days, they had a working version of the Fam app. And within four days, they submitted the first Fam iteration to the iMessage App Store. “Fam was literally a weekend project,” Stuto says.

That weekend project has taken a life of its own and exploded in popularity, particularly with 13 to 22-year-olds. Though Stuto would not disclose the average time users spend interacting with the app, he said it was “millions of minutes” of video streams per day.

Smack Inc, the two-year old company behind Fam, had raised about $2.1 million in venture capital for its previous group chat apps Smack Live and SmackHigh. But since the launch of Fam, the founders had to raise an emergency interim round of financing to keep the new app afloat. “We literally wouldn’t have been able to afford our server costs for next month,” Stuto says.

Flybridge Capital, Boston Seed Capital, and Wayne Chang, who led Smack’s seed round, have re-committed in the interim round. Stuto says he’s speaking with more investors about a Series A round, which will likely close in 2017.

There are a few more kinks the company has to iron out. Right now, there are numerous steps a user has to go through to download the Fam app. (Here’s a preview: open iMessage, click the dark gray App Store icon, click the 4 dots on the bottom left, scroll left or right to find the Fam app, once you see the “create group video” button, click that button. Got it?) Still, the app has gotten more than a million downloads in spite of this.

Two, it doesn’t run on background meaning that if you want to open another app, like Facebook or Snapchat, the Fam video chat will terminate.

The Fam team is already working on solutions. The company will soon release a standalone iOS app that will take care of both issues outlined above. The iOS app would come bundled with the iMessage app, automatically installing it in the user’s iMessage. It will also allow Fam to run on background.

The biggest question mark is what’s next for the 14-day-old app. Will Apple build its own group video chat tool and eliminate the need for a product like Fam? Right now, the likely answer is no.

If Fam is successful, it gives Apple the ability to tout the innovation coming out of its new iMessage App Store. It also doesn’t hurt that millions of people are spending more and more time in iMessage.

“[Apple] is opening up to a whole new wave of innovators and product builders,” Stuto says. “We’re fortunate enough to be here at the early wave, and I think Apple sees that.”

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