Can FotoSwipe Do Right What Bump Did Wrong?
Raleigh-based photo-sharing startup has 'magic' technology its founder thinks just might make it a viral success.
BY LAURA BAVERMAN
Filed Under: NEWS: Startups
When serial entrepreneur Sylvain Dufour first demonstrated for me his new photo-sharing app FotoSwipe, my first thought was, Bump.
Similar to bumping mobile phones to transfer a photo or contact card from person to person, FotoSwipe lets you swipe a photo (or several) from one phone to the next, regardless of model of phone and cellular provider.
We've heard a lot about Bump Technologies' once innovative mobile file and photo-sharing technology in the last year. Google acquired the company in September 2013 for around $35 million (It raised nearly $20M in venture capital) and notoriously shut down the service four months later.
Its biggest criticism was that bumping didn't work on every device—it worked best with phones that have NFC chips (which iPhones do not). Competitors also created easier-to-use sharing apps, like Apple's AirDrop and ProxToMe, which uses Bluetooth technology to detect devices within a 250-foot radius to allow file-sharing.
With just-launched FotoSwipe, Dufour is trying to solve Bump's challenges and offer an even simpler solution than the others, one that could get 10 or 20 million users around the globe and attract potential acquirers.
He's spent the last year building an app with patent-pending technology that allows seamless swiping between two devices when they're next to each other. In recent weeks, he completed the Groundwork Labs pre-accelerator program and raised $250,000 from seed investors, funds he'll use to market the app and drive user adoption around the globe.
He's starting with photos because that's what we all share the most of—he's also spent a decade developing and marketing apps to consumers.
But investors like local angel David Gardner see much greater power in the application. Imagine coworkers swiping documents to each other in a meeting, no computers required. Or negotiating to buy a home. Or a retail associate sharing a coupon to a customer in a store. Or making a payment for a good or service with a single swipe.
"There are multiple paths to success so if one doesn't work, you can take the other one," says Gardner, who declined to share the size of his investment in FotoSwipe but admits he wished he'd funded the entire round.
Neither man is focused on a revenue stream for FotoSwipe.
“We're not requiring users to sign up, no premium services or in-app purchases. We want to make adoption of this product absolutely frictionless,” Dufour says. "What matters is how many people we can attract on the product.”
Dufour, the serial entrepreneur
If you're questioning how Dufour will make that happen, it might be helpful to know a bit about his background.
The man moved from France to California in the early 1990s after earning degrees in applied mathematics and computer science. He jumped right into what was later known as the dotcom bubble—his first startup Pagoo, a voice-over Internet protocol business similar to today's Vonage, raised $53 million (in four rounds) in just 18 months, employed 170 people and then failed to meet its revenue projections. What Vonage offers today for $10-$20, Pagoo sold for $400.
The assets were sold to RingCentral in 2002, returning a bit of money to investors, and the entire staff was laid off.
“It was a great idea with a good team, but 10 years early,” he says. It was his very expensive crash course in starting a company.
Dufour wasn't too early for his next entrepreneurial effort. After a move to Miami—he vowed to leave Silicon Valley forever after his company's boom and bust—he launched 995SOFT, which built mobile apps for PDAs. The bootstrapped company sold in just two years after he developed 30 applications for the Palm Pilot and Pocket PC.
He stayed on with the new French owner for a year and then jumped right into the next wave of mobile development—games and apps originally for Blackberry, and then iPhone, Android and Kindle. The greatest success of his new company called Mobigloo was Pinball for Android, which earned about six million downloads. A traffic simulation game called Bad Traffic for both Android and iPhone was downloaded about two million times.
Launching mobile apps provided his education in consumer marketing.
“I learned to do mobile consumer-facing applications, work with all the blogs and journalists, get iPhone reviews, Blackberry reviews. I went to mobile conferences,” he says. Those are all tactics he'll pursue again with FotoSwipe.
Dufour built up Mobigloo from 2007 till May 2013, when the idea for FotoSwipe came along. It was a good enough one, he thought, that he stopped making new apps and games to focus 100 percent of his time perfecting the technology. His family had made their vacation home in Raleigh a full-time one. He'd build FotoSwipe in the Triangle.
FotoSwipe was good but not good enough.
Dufour studied Bump's technology and marketing strategy as he developed his own. He learned that 95 percent of files shared through the app were photos. In its best year, a billion photos were bumped between devices. When the site shut down, there were many upset people.
"They proved there is a market for it," Dufour says. "That's what they did for us."
He learned a lot about the technology's flaws—some people didn't like bumping their phones against stuff and that multiple bumps were often required for a file to transfer.
He set to work from June to August last year developing technology that would work all the time. The first iteration was built for Android devices but worked only when both phones were connected to the same Wi-Fi network. It was nice, but still limiting.
“I wanted a very good consumer application that was appealing to 100 percent of the people,” he says.
By December 2013, he'd developed a prototype that allowed photo sharing between Android and iPhone, over different carrier networks and wi-fi. The two people don't need to have any prior relationship, and there are no settings to change. He applied for a patent for the technology. It covers the transfer of data from one screen to another using drag and drop when the devices are in proximity. About 20 different factors are incorporated, including the direction the phone is facing, various sensors and geo-location.
"The Bump guys were dependent on hardware and NFC was flawed," Gardner says. "If you think about social collaborative stuff, and currency, you've got to be able to use it everywhere or it has no value. What Sylvain has done that is so amazingly cool is he came up with a technology that is totally heterogenous."
Here's a video demonstration:
This month, Dufour hopes to get about 2,000 users on app. He'll fix any problems and have a larger product launch in weeks to come.
That's where the new funding comes in—Dufour expects to hire a marketer, freelancers and interns to help with social media and public relations. He'll continue to tweak and upgrade the technology himself.
Its that unique skill set of marketing and technology prowess that attracted Gardner to invest.
"Sylvain is the real deal. The guy is a great mobile app coder, a seasoned business man," Gardner says. "It is very unusual to have all those skills in one package."
Both men admit their goal is a lofty one—its rare to find a fast-growing consumer app in the Triangle. But the response from early users has given Dufour some added confidence.
"I can see the faces of people when I demo it—they think it's magic. They think it works and they think they would use it," he says. "For the first time in all my businesses, I think this one has a strong ability to become viral."
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