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Alex Malek and Will Bradley

Alex Malek and Will Bradley both started at Microsoft straight out of school, working for the last decade as engineers on some big and important products. Malek spent his time on SharePoint and Internet Explorer. Bradley worked on Microsoft Word and Visual C++.

These days, they’re on their own. And their flagship product is called … FaceGoo.

Laugh all you want — Malek and Bradley laugh a lot these days, too — but this thing is very popular with the kids. And it has quickly become the foundation of a successful startup business.

FaceGoo is a mobile app, available in free and premium versions, that lets people turn photos of their friends into squishy virtual goo — letting them reshape the pictures, cover them with funny stickers and share them via email, social networks and soon via mailed postcards, through a partnership with Postcard on the Run that Malek and Bradley are working to implement.

FaceGoo has been downloaded more than 10 million times in 10 languages across the iPhone, iPad and Android. Robot Wheelie, the Seattle-based company that Malek and Bradley started last year, is already profitable.

They have since followed up with a second app, FatGoo, that lets users automatically pack extra pounds onto pictures of their friends with “fattening templates.” The app uses specialized facial detection technology, an example of the serious behind-the-scenes technical work that goes into helping teenagers poke fun at their friends. FatGoo will also leverage the mailed postcard feature.

In a bigger sense, the startup is a good example of what a small team — just two people in this case — can do in the era of mobile app stores, low-cost cloud computing resources, and the widespread availability of third-party services for everything from logo design to product localization.

So how did they do it? What have they learned in the process? Continue reading for excerpts from our conversation.

How do you come up with an idea like FaceGoo?

Bradley: We had other ideas for other apps. I got the SDK for the iPhone, and I was playing around with OpenGL and trying to figure out what we could do with this to achieve our bigger goals, and halfway through came up with this funny physics engine. It was really a prototype for a spring-loaded physics engine. And I had loaded in a picture of this guy I found in National Geographic or something, and it was just a face. I showed it to Alex and I was laughing and we had an ‘aha’ moment: “Why don’t we just do this as a start?” It wasn’t your typical software cycle where you’re like, “Let’s satisfy this need.” We just stumbled upon something that made us laugh.

How did you develop it from there?

Malek: It was a bottoms-up thing, where the market — 13-year-old kids — would tell us, hey, I really like this, but I wish I could do this. So the original app was a little bit different than what it is today. The whole face would move like liquid. It wouldn’t stay still. People wanted it to stay still so they could stretch it. And then they were like, “I wish I could could put funny things on it.” I don’t think they told us exactly what that meant, but then we put these stickers in there. And then it turned into a big hit after we put the stickers in.

Really? The stickers were the killer app on the FaceGoo?

Bradley: That’s when it became a big deal to us, in terms of sales. (Sticker packs sell for 99 cents inside the app.)

Why was that such an important feature?

Malek: 13-year-olds like to make their friends look bad, is what we’ve learned.

Bradley: Somehow we’ve tapped into the evil tweens.

So what does it say about you guys that you created this?

Malek: It was the antithesis of our day jobs, so it was a good escape. At that point, I was working on IE, the 9 release, which was a real grind, because we were working on the 10 release in parallel. Will was working on Visual Studio. Both of us were working really hard. Somehow we decided that writing more software in the evening was an escape. I don’t understand how that logic works. Those were tough days, actually. Once we started liking it, then we started working really hard.

Is this a competitive space?

Malek: There are about five FaceGoo-like apps. We’re the most successful in that space. In the FatGoo space we’re not yet the No. 1 app. But we think we have the best app, easily.

How do you feel about sharing revenue with Apple and Google from in-app purchases, like the stickers?

Malek: They take 30 percent, which is a lot. But then again, the opportunity is only there because of the work they did. I don’t think we begrudge that 30 percent. With Google, I don’t know if I’d say begrudge, but they do less for you on Android, in terms of helping you as a developer. So the cut doesn’t feel proportionately as fair. It’s the same, 30 percent. And of course, they are really the only advertiser player in town. So actually Google makes way more money off of us than Apple does. Our main ad systems are AdMob and AdSense, both Google. The ads have done very well on iPhone. They’re actually much less competitive on Android. That’s an interesting observation to me. Google ads on Android pay about 1/3 what they do on iPhone — the amount advertisers are willing to pay for the ads.

As a company, you haven’t taken any outside investment.

Bradley: Some of our friends have gone the route of getting investment money, hiring and hiring, going bigger. We’re trying to see what we can do organically, scaling through our products rather than throwing money at the problem.

I wonder how a VC meeting would go for FaceGoo and FatGoo. 

Malek: We’ve had ideas where we would need 10 people. We tend to table those ideas. We’ve already worked on big teams. There’s always a trade-off. A problem where you really need 10 people is a very large-scale problem in my opinion. A problem where you need 10 people, you’re trying to basically exit, in the end.

Where do you go from here? Do you stay in the ‘goo’ genre? Is it a genre?

Bradley: We’re thinking about shifting our gears more toward games. I think entertainment/toys is our cash cow right now, so we’re not going to leave it behind. I’m sure we’ll come back to it. And we’re working right now on updates to both of these apps.

Malek: We do have some new goo ideas, but I think we want to take a break (from goo).

Bradley: We’ve sorta cornered the market in goo.

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