Emoticons in South Korea are sophisticatedly designed to express people’s emotions and feelings, so much so that mobile users here sometimes only use the mobile stickers to chat on mobile messengers or social media.
Users often see themselves reflected in the various characters, including personified animals and animated objects.
Such a mobile trend, however, does not seem to have gained traction much in the West despite the massive user base of Facebook, WhatsApp and Instagram.
In order to spice up the global mobile scene with diverse emoticons, Seoul-based startup Stipop launched an emoticon platform in 2017, targeting global mobile users.
Stipop co-CEO Cho Joon-yong delivers a speech at TechCrunch’s conference in September in the US. Stipop
Co-CEOs Park Ki-ram and Cho Joon-yong said the mature emoticon market in Korea is what made them start their business here, instead of startup hubs like Silicon Valley, and that they believe emoticons designed by Koreans have lots of potential in the global market.
“If we had run a business in Silicon Valley where there are a couple of emoticon startups, we would have become a mediocre company rolling out me-too emoticons and services,” said Cho, adding “Since we are based in Korea, which has seen surging popularity of mobile emoticons in the past decade, we have been able to meet seasoned Korean authors and introduced unique emoticons to the global markets,” they said.
Contrary to general perception here that Korean emoticons, which are mostly cute, smiley and chubby characters, would not appeal to global mobile users, the co-CEOs said mobile characters made by Korean authors are actually pretty popular in other regions too since they are considered unique and exotic.
The domestic character market, including mobile emoticons and character products, is estimated to be worth 12.7 trillion won ($10.8 billion), while the global character market is thought to reach 202 trillion won, according to state-run Korea Creative Content Agency.
For mobile messenger firms Kakao and Line, emoticons have become a crucial part of revenue sources as they earned 100.5 billion won and 197.3 billion won, respectively, last year with their character businesses.
Kakao’s revenue from the character business, in particular, increased tenfold from 2015 to 2018.
The Stipop co-CEOs forecast the global emoticon market would further grow in the coming years and said they want to ride the wave.
Stipop co-CEOs Cho Joon-yong (left) and Park Ki-ram participate in TechCrunch’s conference in September in the US. Stipop
The startup focused mainly on the US market first, due partly to a lower language barrier -- as the co-CEOs had studied in English-speaking nations in their younger years. They have, however, recently found increasing demand for mobile emoticons in other regions like South America and India.
Since January this year, the number of Stipop users jumped by some 50,000 to 60,000 as it started beefing up marketing promotions in the emerging regions.
In 2 1/2 years, the company grew by 14 percent a week on average -- US accelerator Y Combinator considers 7 percent as a good growth rate and 10 percent as exceptional.
With the current growth trend, Park is confident the firm will be able to have two to three million users by the end of this year.
The Stipop app is available on both Apple’s iOS and Google’s Android platforms, but users need to install the Gboard virtual keyboard app when they are Android phone users.
When asked if the installation of Gboard could be a sort of barrier for Korean users, since most of whom are not familiar with the keyboard feature, the duo said it is a not a problem at all.
“We are mainly targeting global markets where more than 100 million users have downloaded the virtual keyboard app,” Cho.
WhatsApp users can utilize Stipop emoticons without installing extra apps.
The Korean startup has recently started running a monthly subscription model in which users can download an unlimited number of emoticon packages by paying $3. Half of the profits from selling emoticons is given to creators.
The co-CEOs also said the company plans to open a pop-up store with a big retail company, and integrate its emoticon services in chatbot solutions operated by businesses in the coming months.
Lotte Accelerator, an affiliate of retail behemoth Lotte Group, Korea University Holdings, an investment unit of Korea University, and fund operator Korea Venture Investment are some of Stipop’s investors.
By Kim Young-won (firstname.lastname@example.org)