App Team Takes Online Sharing to the Next Level

Team Coub / Eric Panov

Although the market for online video sharing is highly competitive these days, the Russian video creation and sharing service Coub is serious about its international expansion, confident that its "coubs," looped videos of up to 10 seconds long with musical tracks often added to them, have sufficient potential for conquering audiences all over the world, not just in Russia.

Inspired by remixes and GIF animation

The popularity of "coubs" can be understood based on people's recent online behavior. First, Internet users' attention spans have been recently getting shorter and shorter, urging those who create videos to try to say as much as they can in as little time as possible.

Second, since various kinds software for video and audio editing have become widespread, people have actively been making videos, using source material that they didn't film or record by themselves.

The idea of working with source material produced by others has its roots in the remix culture, which, having originated in the Jamaican dance halls in the 1960s and 1970s, became especially popular in the 1990s, thanks to the rise of powerful home computers with audio capabilities and the arrival of easily available software, which introduced the concepts of samplings and mash-ups

Another influence on Coub creators was apparently GIF-animation, a basic animation technology that became widespread back in the 1990s, when the Internet was quite slow by contemporary standards, and watching regular animated videos, let alone sending them over email, was a bit of a problem. However, the attractiveness of GIF animated files wasn't limited to their technical ease and relatively small size, as some people later discovered.

From local projects to a global one

The idea of "coubs" was one of "crazy ideas" by developer Anton Gladkoborodov, says his brother Igor. "Both of us have liked GIF-animation since childhood. This is a compact, but, at the same time, very capacious media format."

The two brothers founded Coub in Moscow in 2012. The team's third original member was computer programmer Mikhail Tabunov.

By the time of launching Coub, Anton and Igor already had an extensive experience of launching online projects, with several successes under their belt.

Anton, an economist by training, was one of the founders of Look at Me, a very popular youth culture online magazine. Launched in 2006, "Look at Me" soon expanded into an online publishing house that puts out several titles. Anton, who stayed with Look at Me for its two initial years, was also involved with the console game company Piston Games.

He and Igor, a computer programmer by training, first joined forces in 2009, when they launched Theory and Practice, a web site "for exchanging knowledge," as it positions itself. Theory and Practice, which publishes information on all kinds of education events, from lectures to master classes and conferences in various areas of knowledge, quickly became a huge hit and was later acquired by the Moscow-based tech company Dream Industries.

Still, although highly successful, none of those projects had much potential to go global, and the brothers' ambition was just that.

"All the previous successful projects, in which we took part, were rather media-focused and local, not really suitable for large-scale expansion," says Igor. "But we wanted to launch a global project that would be of interest to users all over the world."

Offering what the competitors do not have

In 2012, the area of online video creation and sharing certainly looked very promising as more and more people were making and sharing videos online, taking advantage of constantly-improving technology.

However, soon enough Coub found itself competing with very strong players, such as Vine, launched in June 2012 and acquired by Twitter later that year, Instagram, owned by Facebook, which incorporated an option for sharing videos of up to 15 seconds long in the summer of 2013, and MixBit, a video-sharing service, launched by YouTube's co-founders last year.

Certainly, Coub could hardly compete with such heavyweights in terms of financial and other resources. But the company's founders are confident that they have something unique to offer to its users, earning a competitive edge over the bigger players in the sector.

"Videos on Instagram or Vine could only be of interest to your friends and acquaintances," says Igor Gladkobrodov. "Those services can develop only within their own ecosystem, and their format of video is very limited."

"On the other hand, Coub was specifically developed to allow users to easily create and distribute coubs out of various video and audio sources," he goes on to say. "That is why coubs easily go viral and are interesting to people far beyond your circle of friends."

What also marks Coub apart from other platforms, is the option of adding an entire music track to a looped video. Users have certainly been making use of this option, which the competitors don't offer. For instance, Vine only allows a user to add a clip from a music track.

The copyright issue is also properly addressed, as beneath each coub, there are links to the original sources of video and audio material, such as, for instance, iTunes or YouTube.

All work with audio and video is done with an online editor. And, when it comes to creative opportunities, they are abundant, limited only by people's creativity and imagination.

A user can, for instance, film their own video, capturing a moment with just a tiny bit of motion and, as a result, create the illusion of a moving photograph. Or, it is possible to collect one's favorite movie quotes and snippets from songs, television shows or YouTube videos.

Another option would be the creating of a "never-ending" animated story.

Targeting users all over the world

In two and a half years, Coub went a long way from just another startup operated by a handful of people to a company with offices in Moscow and New York, in which investors are eager to pump millions of dollars.

"At the time of our launch in April 2012, the team consisted of six people: the three of us, designer Mike, programmer Anatoly and Alisa, who was in charge of content," says Igor Gladkobrodov. "Today, we have 30 people working in our two offices, in Moscow and New York."

Coub boasts a monthly audience of 50 million people globally, while over 600,000 coubs were made in the last 12 months.

Meanwhile, investors were quick enough to notice the promising startup. Last year, Coub attracted a $1 million investment from the Moscow-based venture capital funds Phenomen Ventures, which also invested in the taxi app Hailo, and Brothers Ventures, founded by entrepreneurs David and Daniil Liberman. Then, another $2.5 million was invested by Vaizra Investments.

Strengthening its presence in the US market is one of the company's top priorities and Coub plans to spend the Vaizra Investments cash on it overseas operation, says Nastya Popova, head of marketing, adding that further investment is being prepared.

According to Popova, Russia currently accounts for up to 70 per cent of Coub users, while the rest of them mostly come from Ukraine, Hungary, the United States and the Baltic states.

Bringing in more foreign users is currently a major task, with a special focus on the US market.

"Currently, we are focused on promotion in the United States," Popova says. "This is our main goal for the next year. Our main activities are PR, media partnership and community development. Basically, we talk to journalists and look for channels of delivering our content to users."

Apart from looking for ways to attract more users outside Russia, Coub is also focused on keeping up-to-date with the way people access the Internet as the focus is shifting towards mobile platforms.

According to Anton Gladkobrodov, Coub's main focus is now on mobile devices. "We are working on an Android App and we are making changes to the iPhone app," he says.

From cats to presidents

The most popular coubs generate millions of views and tens of thousands of likes and re-Coubs. To get a comprehensive idea of the extent, to which Coub could be used, one could check out "the best" section on the service's web site.

Among the top views coubs are, for instance, a rather literal illustration for "Ice Ice Baby," a 1989 hip hop track by US rapper Vanilla Ice and DJ Earthquake; "Russian Folk Tales Neurofunk Dance" featuring images of two women sporting traditional old Russian outfits, taken from a Russian cartoon, dancing to some contemporary techno; "Get Lucky," a series of quotes from US President Barak Obama superimposed against the 2013 track by Daft Punk.

Videos featuring Russian politicians have also made the most popular Coubs, including controversial veteran politician and head of the Liberal Democratic Party Vladimir Zhirinovsky, with footage of him set to the song "My Dick" by equally controversial American rapper Mickey Avalon. Incidentally, this track turns out to be quite popular with Coub users who also made videos of various political leaders, including Obama and Vladimir Putin set to it.

Cats, a popular subject for online videos, is also widely represented among the most popular coubs, such as a video entitled "Gotcha!" and featuring a cat caught by the lens while trying to steal some item of clothing from a drawer.

Among last year's most popular memes are videos set to the tracks Grand Theft Auto IV loading screen theme, Hypnotized by Oliver Koletzki and Optimism by Honor & B.A.N.G.

Videos in the Hidden Gems section run the gamut. Here, you can check out two dancing Quentin Tarantinos, the black humor of the animated "Cat Slap — Chainsaw" or "TV Trash," featuring The Simpsons' characters.