How Golden Kitty Winner, Slash Keyboard, joined forces with Giphy.
From ideation to acquisition, Slash Keyboard
's lifespan lasted a total of about a year and half. The product's quick path to exit was one of the first things I noticed looking back at the story of Slash.
Founded by serial entrepreneur, Cem Kozinoglu
, the mobile search keyboard launched in September of 2015. To use it, “just tap slash” to start searching the Web, YouTube, Spotify, and so on, right inside your iOS keyboard.
At the time, Apple had just opened its API to allow for custom keyboards, so mobile keyboards were new and buzzy, and big tech makers including Apple and Google were still fumbling on the UX for their own native keyboards. The Slash team was living in New York City and was going through the Techstars accelerator. Slash had also gained the attention and investment of Giphy co-founder, Alex Chung.
From launch to Golden Kitty statue
“We had a strategy,”
said Cem about Slash’s launch on Product Hunt. This included launching early in the day and mobilizing the team’s community to support the launch right away for quick traction (these are things we at Product Hunt tout now as typical best practice
for launch day, by the way).
Slash took #1 on the leaderboard that day.
“We got around 20,000 downloads from Product Hunt,” explained Cem. “I remember because that was very impressive for us. So it gave us an initial boost along with the App store.”
The team also gained new relationships with investors, competitors, and customers who provided feedback. “It was a rude awakening because we didn’t really have great retention,” said Cem, “but people were genuinely trying to help and give feedback about the product.”
A handful of months later, Slash won a Golden Kitty Award
and Cem says he remembered when it arrived to the office.
“We had something physical we could hold. It was very supportive,” he explained. Cem also recalled what the award meant at a time when many considered living in Silicon Valley to be THE place to run a startup.
“We took a photo and Alex Iksold, [who was Managing Director of Techstars in NYC at the time], literally said ‘We're bringing consumer back to New York.’”
Exit through the GIF app
Despite my own excitement as an avid Giphy keyboard user to hear about Slash Keyboard’s acquisition, Cem seemed reticent at first about his own feelings.
“Well, I wish it wasn't an acquisition. I wish we became, you know, the next Google of the world,” he said.
It’s not about regrets. He speaks highly of the team and deeply enjoyed his time at Giphy, noting that with the first visit to Giphy’s office, he felt at home. Instead, the feeling is more of a double-edged sword, and it’s one I’ve heard expressed by other extremely successful founders who exit by acquisition.
For one thing, investors aren’t taking risks to get their money back, or even 3x their investment for that matter. Many acquisitions are not the end game stakeholders want, and founders feel the weight of that disappointment.
On a more personal level, the grand ambitions a founder has for his or her product/idea are brutally equalized by the reality of difficult-to-solve tech, a harsh market, or both.
For Slash Keyboard, the tech was certainly a challenge.
“I’m not going to lie, we couldn't accomplish the perfect autocomplete. That was our biggest challenge of all. If you didn't have a great autocomplete, swipe typing would have been very hard to win,” admitted Cem. The challenge of building a great autocomplete into Slash Keyboard was escalated by a monopolized market. While Apple may know your typing history, that data is not made available to third-party makers (in part for privacy reasons), which puts those makers at a disadvantage for perfecting tech such as autocomplete.
Distribution was also a challenge. Although texting + search would seem like a multiplayer activity, Cem explained that most content shared doesn’t produce the kind of virality that would drive a friend to go, say, download a new keyboard (the exception was the virality of fun things like gifs). And, as it turned out, most people weren’t actually using Slash to serve up searched content, like articles or restaurants, to their friends anyway. “That was only 3% of the usage. Most of the time people are just communicating, and the language that makes communication easier is emojis, gifs, and stickers.”
With all of these challenges — and opportunities — coming into clear view, Slash Keyboard’s acquisition by Giphy fell into place.
“Stickers and gifs offer plausible deniability for saying things that would be hard in a couple of sentences. Sending a fun gif could mean something funny, something playful, [and so on]. So we realized, we're not gonna be able to win this game against Apple, [and] technical teams like SwiftKey were getting acquired [by Microsoft]. Google came out with Gboard. So talking to Giphy made a lot of sense. They have the best gif search engine out there, and stickers, and content. And we know how to build keyboards. So why not specialize on bringing this into a everyone’s phones?”
Giphy acquired Slash Keyboard at the beginning of 2017. The team of five at Slash became part of the team. Cem took the role of Director of Mobile at Giphy and lead the team in building out Giphy’s keyboard products and SDKs to support Giphy’s many partnerships (keep in mind all those other apps where you can access Giphy’s keyboard, like Facebook Messenger, needed development work too).
Cem and his newest app
At this point in his journey, Cem is no stranger to acquisitions, even though at this point he says of his newest venture (we’ll get to that) “acquisition is the last thing on my mind.”
He first started learning programming at home in Turkey, out of a book his father bought him for his birthday. In time Cem built his first search engine called Turkvista and moved to the U.S. to get his degree in computer science. Then the first startup he worked at as employee, a Norwegian company focused on search, was acquired by Microsoft in 2009.
After working for a while as a search consultant at Microsoft, Cem moved on to co-found a company called Boomset, an events tool for on-site badge printing. Though he put aside his work on Boomset to go all-in on Slash Keyboard in 2015, Boomset got its own exit just last year after being acquired by Hopin
All of Cem’s experience in communication tools, consumer apps, and search has set him up to tackle a new messenger app called Ghost. Ghost lets you send anonymous messages to friends and family. As Cem learned with gifs, communicating with words and sentences can actually be limiting for people or situations that are inherently uncomfortable, and anonymity offers another way of circumnavigating those types of interactions. An example Cem gave is students working on homework who might be afraid to ask questions for fear of sounding dumb. “With Ghost, they can actually have conversations with their classmates without getting judged.”
The makers of Ghost have been beta testing with university students and are working through both the technical build (expect web3 tech without the web3 lingo) as well as the policies and procedures necessary to prevent/stop bullying that’s baked into apps offering anonymity. Cem expects Ghost to launch in the next couple of months.
“I just want to stay on consumer,” he said. “Even though that means you're going to have to fail 10 more times, 20 more times… with every fail you're learning something. Maybe back in the day, I was afraid to fail and it felt glorious to have a win. This time I’m just going to continue. Even though I don't like this comparison, the best cockroach in consumer wins, and you just have to continue and continue and try to survive in every condition. Consumer is one painful hobby, and I'm just going to continue trying.”