How this startup went from Microsoft’s Kinect Accelerator to creating a kickass iOS app

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Inside the War Room at Freak’n Genius HQ, where the Seattle startup community helped promote YAKiT.

freakngeniuslogo1If you haven’t heard of Freak’n Genius, well, the past week at the company will tell you everything you need to know.

The Seattle-based startup just debuted a extremely funny mobile app called YAKiT, which lets you manipulate the mouths of your family, friends, cats, dogs, celebrities and really, just about anything.

To help promote and market the hilarious app to the masses, Freak’n Genius got pretty freakin’ genius. First, the company unveiled a website called Endors.ly last week that claimed to deliver personalized messages from celebrities. In reality, this was actually all part of a marketing ploy to promote YAKiT — Freak’n Genius never had real celebrities involved.

Then, the company enlisted friends from the Seattle startup community for a “top-secret mission” called “Operation #YAKiT Launch.” On Wednesday’s launch day, around 25 “soldiers” set up shop from 1000 hours to 1600 hours at the Freak’n Genius HQ — a.k.a. the “War Room” — assuming different roles and working together to help promote YAKiT across social media, news sites and with friends and family.

But more on all that in a bit.

Perhaps the most interesting thing about the creative-minded six-person startup is how it’s evolved from the 2012 Kinect Accelerator program to creating an app first for iOS devices.

Freak'n Genius first used the Kinect to make presidential debates funny.

Freak’n Genius first used the Kinect to make presidential debates funny.

Freak’n Genius was an inaugural member of the 2012 Kinect Accelerator, a collaboration between Microsoft and the Tech Stars startup incubator which brought entrepreneurs from around the world to Seattle. There, they originally used Microsoft’s Kinect to let people crawl into the virtual skin of a variety of animated characters and then create short comedic videos that could be shared over the Web.

After the company graduated from the accelerator, Freak’n Genius was set to launch an Xbox product right about now. But once a new Microsoft executive came into the fray, the launch date was pushed back and put the startup beyond its seed round of financing.

That’s when they saw an opportunity with mobile.

“Our startup is too quick and nimble with an urgency to get into the market, and being on mobile gives us that control over our own destiny,” CEO Kyle Kesterson said.

Kyle Kesterson.

Kyle Kesterson.

Kesterson does point out that he wants to see his company eventually work with the Redmond software giant again.

“Our intention is to survive and succeed long enough to see our relationship with Microsoft and our enthusiasm for the amazing technology they’ve built and the vision and thesis we built software around, come to fruition,” he said. “It’s not a matter of ‘if,’ just ‘when.’”

So back to YAKiT. The original idea of taking shareable photos and bringing them to life was born after the Freak’n Genius team put together an app called SmackTalk’r at a hackathon last winter. The startup learned that when having a good time together, people would often make fun, prank and talk crap about each other.

“We wanted to make communication and connections with friends more fun,” Kesterson said.

As the team began to hone in on YAKiT, it wanted to do something with celebrities. Eventually, that turned into an idea of pulling of a big stunt to build attention about the app and the ability to put anything in someone’s mouth.

Endors.ly was a creative way to generate buzz for YAKiT.

Endors.ly was a creative way to generate buzz for YAKiT.

Enter Endors.ly. Last week, Freak’n Genius began spreading word about its new “service,” one that allowed personalized celebrity-endorsed messages for free. It seemed too good to be true — and it sort of was.

Everything on the website is true: Yes, you can have celebrities create messages, and yes, you can share them with the masses — but all with YAKiT.

“Everything we say on Endros.ly and every approach we have is what YAKiT is for: It’s used to send fun, creative messages to your friends,” CMO Forest Gibson said. “It’s all the same messaging, just through a slightly different lens.”

You’ll technically be able create celebrity messages by using YAKiT, but it’s just not the actual celebrity doing the talking. Just to be safe, Freak’n Genius planted a disclaimer on the bottom of Endors.ly that reads “Video results may vary between celebrities.”

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Inside the “War Room.”

The marketing ploy definitely worked. Hundreds of requests have come through, including many from Seattle entrepreneur Neil Patel, co-founder of KISSmetrics. Patel emailed Kesterson with extreme excitement and ended up submitting 20 of his own “celebrity-endorsed” messages.

“We were looking for scrappy ways to lead up to the launch of YAKiT,” Kesterson said. “Once people have YAKiT, then they don’t have to wait for celebrities and their time to turn around a message. They can then create the message themselves.”

So with that buzz, the startup went into Wednesday’s launch with some momentum and it continued throughout the day thanks to “Operation #YAKiT.” Everyone from big Seattle social media influencers from Jason Mesnick to Colin Christianson, to company investors like Virl Hill all camped out in a War Room complete with military canteens, smoke, chow and beer rations and battle swag.

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People were grouped into roles like “Information Officer,” “Military Strategist,” and “Head Hoofer,” all with the task of helping promote YAKiT in one way or another. So far, so good: #yakit was trending in Seattle on Twitter and the app is already in the top 200 for the App Store’s photo/video category.

Canteens for the Freak'n Genius "soliders."

Canteens for the Freak’n Genius “soliders.”

Freak’n Genius has lots of monetization plans for the future, including having curated content available for users, making multiple mouths move and producing longer YAKiT clips.

Even businesses have approached the startup looking for ways to make meetings and presentations more lively. Freak’n Genius is really trying to bring a new breath of air to the way people communicate one-on-one digitally. YAKiT is essentially a tool that gives emoji’s life and color with a funny twist.

“I’ve yet to see someone use YAKiT for the first time and not have a smile coming from their face,” Gibson said.

Allowing people to be creative and helping induce laughter — that’s really what the company is all about.

  • This Is my Disqussion

    Ah, well this now makes sense why all the reviews are positive and certainly fake. I guess that’s what you get from a war room full of people endorsing an app!

    • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=94500172 Kyle Kesterson

      Hey This Is my Disqussion, that’s a fair assertion. But to clarify, we only had 25 people in the War Room, some of which didn’t have iOS devices. We’ve already been seeing many people whom we don’t know that are having a great time with the app and leaving genuine feedback. The only negative review was from somebody who wasn’t clear on how to click “Use” when selecting a photo, but this is how we learn and make the product better. :)

      The War Room was amazing, and the support of the community was amazing. It’s absolutely what’s needed to become a blip in an ecosystem of over 700k apps.

  • TacoTime

    Why don’t you name the Microsoft executive?

    • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=94500172 Kyle Kesterson

      Steve Ballmer.

  • BaitAndSwitch

    Very disappointed. I signed up thinking I’d get a real celebrity endorsement and this company had successfully built a marketplace for celebrity endorsements. Instead I got some weird South Park-esque video. If it wasn’t free I would’ve sued them for false advertising. Not to mention they’re probably using celebrities’ images without their permission. As a consumer I was confused and thought it was a legitimate endorsement. If I was a lawyer, I would sue the crap out of this company.

    All hype, no real business. I hope JibJab decides to do a mobile app and put this company out of business..

    • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=94500172 Kyle Kesterson

      With Endors.ly, we played off of being “technically” accurate in our description, but misleading in a fun way. It was meant to be a harmless and fun gag to highlight a use case for the app, meaning you yourself can use and abuse any image of whoever, however you’d like.

      In our fantasy scenario, someone would order the celeb message to send to a friend, and friend would get this silly video with no context, then cause a little stir in discovering what happened, but ultimately prompt a conversation and a few laughs.

      Please let me sincerely apologize that the REAL Sarah Michelle Gellar didn’t ACTUALLY endorse your Ju-Jitsu website.

  • Jonathan

    You guys did a great job, whoever you found to do the voice for mine was pretty good.