Jacob “Ba” Blackstock is the CEO and creative director of Bitstrips, “The world’s most popular comics app” (Hamburger, 2013).
Bitstrips began as a website where people could make avatars of themselves and put them into comic strips with an intuitive, user-friendly program. It began to make some money when they created Bitstrips for Schools, and the Ontario Ministry of Education, among others, licensed it for use in schools, but was still a tiny operation, operated by Blackstock and Shahan Panth (now VP marketing). But things really changed for Bitstips in the fall of 2013, when they created the Bitstrips app. Originally put up just for friends to test out, within two weeks “Bitstrips was the no. 1 app in 40 countries and showed no signs of stopping — even though it barely worked” (Hamburger, 2013). By the end of November, 30 million people had created avatars.
“It was like we had built this cruise ship that suddenly millions and millions of people were piling into while it was hurtling through the ocean, bursting at the seams,” Blackstock said. “And so we had to start finding engineers to start battening down the hatches and reinforce the hull and rebuild the engines.” (Karstens-Smith, 2013).
Investors started taking notice including, Solina Chau, co-founder of Horizon Ventures in Hong Kong who convinced the company to invest. Suddenly Blackstock had 3 million dollars to hire a larger staff and get more office space and, as he said, “reinforce the hull and rebuild the engines”. As of today there are 26 employees and 6 new job postings on the Bitstrips website. Judging by their job titles, about 3/4 are developers and engineers while about 1/4 are artists. It seems that Bitstrips have found a nice balance of the comic-artistic savvy that brought them their original appeal, and the computer-scientific savvy they need to keep their product operational with an ever-growing user base. They’ve recently launched Bitmoji, allowing users to create emoticons with their own avatars in it.
My personal interest in this story stems from the fact that I have known Ba for 20 years. We both came out of an underground arts scene in the Plateau Montreal in the 1990s. He and a few other successes show me that you can be successful while staying true to your art. I’ve seen Bitstrips grow in the most organic way, from a program that Ba created to animate a short film for the National Film Board of Canada about 15 years ago to the app it is today. I’m proud of him and can’t wait to see where Bitstrips goes from here.
Hamburger, E. (2013, Dec. 17). Strip mining: the rise of the world’s most popular comics app. The Verge. Retrieved from: http://www.theverge.com/2013/12/17/5220916/bitstrips-the-rise-of-the-worlds-most-popular-comics-app
Karstens-Smith, G. (2013, Dec. 13). Toronto-based Bitstrips gets $3 million investment. The Toronto Star. Retrieved from: http://www.thestar.com/business/tech_news/2013/12/17/torontobased_bitstrips_gets_3_million_investment.html