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Coubism: can a Russian start-up go viral with its video app?

Coubism: can a Russian start-up go viral with its video app?
L to R: Mike Marked, Dmitry Chernyshev, Igor Gladkoborodov, Anton Gladkoborodov, Anatoly Shakhazizian, Alisa Bloch, Theodore Konukhov and Mikhail Tabunov

The growth of online video has been nothing short of meteoric. Looking to tap into this market are the founders of Coub, a video app that's proven to be a hit in Russia. But can they succeed elsewhere?

17 October 2013

As online attention spans get shorter and shorter, more and more content is packaged to provide instant gratification. Our love for snackable videos is the ultimate manifestation of our diminished attention spans. We can’t get enough of them, a phenomenon capitalised on by BuzzFeed and their endless Gif-filled lists on topics such as Awesomely Awkward Attempts At Being Sexy. This past year has been marked by the dramatic entrance of video-creating apps such as Vine and Instagram Video, both vying for global dominance. In August, the founders of YouTube joined the battle of the brands with their contribution, MixBit.

Struggling to be heard against this backdrop is Coub, a Moscow-based start-up founded by tech-entrepreneur brothers Anton and Igor Gladkoborodov, 33 and 30 respectively, and developer Mikhail Tabunov, 24. Coub’s Gif-like video creation service lets users create looped footage of up to 10 seconds long. What marks it apart from other platforms is the option of adding an entire music track to the looped video. The overall effect is mesmerising: before you know it, you’re watching a rabbit taking a bath in a sink (see Coub 1) or an enthusiastic Nets fan screaming perfectly in time to Highlander by Swedish metal band Lost Horizon.

Although there’s a proclivity among users for the comedic, the type of content produced is varied. Coub is used to loop snippets from cartoons such as The Simpsons (think Homer on a wrecking ball to Miley Cyrus’s song Wrecking Ball) and to create teasers for fashion collections. It goes without saying that videos of cute cats and semi-nude women abound (the most popular Coub, featuring a half-naked girl gyrating in her living room to Boom Boom by the Justice Crew, has had more than 4.5 million views). Since its launch in April 2012, Coub has chugged along quietly while amassing a sizeable following. There are now just under 20 million unique visitors to its site each month and more than 166,000 Coubs have been made to date.

Coub 1

Given that Vine, Instagram Video et al offer roughly the same service, differentiation has proven to be key to winning users. Just like the uber-rich who compete over the length of their superyachts, the video creation industry too suffers from “mine is longer than yours” syndrome. Vine offers users six seconds of video, Coub follows with 10, Instagram Video with 15 and finally MixBit with 16 (although the latter allows users to stitch clips together to create a video of up to 68 minutes). What distinguishes them further are the additional features they provide. Instagram has 13 filters and a basic editing service while MixBit’s slicing and remixing tools are more advanced. With Vine and Coub, users can loop videos for that hypnotic Gif-like effect. Given the stiff competition, what chance does a Russian start-up have of making it?

Co-founder Anton Gladkoborodov is optimistic, and if his track record is anything to go by, he has reason to be. Gladkoborodov, who has a degree in economics, has worked on several high-profile projects in Moscow, including the hugely popular youth culture website Look At Me. What started out as magazine in 2006 has since transformed into a mini-media empire with a catalogue of titles under its belt. At the time, Gladkoborodov’s singular vision — focused on creating a social network that would reach a vast audience — meant that an online magazine simply didn’t have the scale he was after.

“A Coub is like the Harry Potter photos that come alive”

“Every media outlet has a limited audience,” he says, speaking from his office in central Moscow. The office is housed in a characterful old apartment with wooden floorboards, ornate doorways and a fireplace in every room, a rare find in a city where half the population still live among Soviet-era soft furnishings and the other has swapped the chintz for sleek, contemporary interior design. With not a woman in sight — the only female employee is currently in New York — it is a distinctly male environment. At lunchtime, 15-odd employees sporting hoodies and trainers huddle around boxes of piping hot pizza. While some work for Coub, others are involved in Piston, a mobile gaming studio, launched for love rather than money, says Gladkoborodov.

Although he says he has no regrets about leaving Look At Me in 2008, Gladkoborodov’s departure was poorly timed. Not long after, the global financial crash plunged the world into crisis. Unable to sell his stake in the magazine, he ended up renting a box room from his brother, Igor, while contemplating his next move. It was then that fate stepped in: Igor, a programmer by background, was approached for help with an online portal that sought to aggregate and create education-related content for a Russian audience. Shortly after, Anton joined the team.

Coub 2

That project became hit website Theory and Practice, which today publishes all manner of content from video lectures about the war in Syria to information about scholarships at Oxford University. Gladkoborodov left this venture too when in 2012 Theory and Practice was acquired by Dream Industries, a Moscow-based tech company which was run at that time by a divisive chief executive officer who was eventually ousted.

Even though he had discussed the idea for Coub with the other founders of Theory and Practice, Gladkoborodov says that they only really understood his vision after Twitter bought Vine in October 2012. “A Coub is like the Harry Potter photos that come alive,” he says. “Motion posters are essentially Coubs and they’re everywhere, like the Burger King poster you see in the streets with steam rising from the burger.”

“Coub is less about creating a social event and more about creating media”

Coub’s major flaw is that it is currently only a web app and not available on mobiles, something its founders hope to remedy soon. In a way, the decision to start with a web app captures what it is that separates Coub from other video creation platforms. “Coub is less about creating a social event and more about creating media,” says Gladkoborodov. Although it’s possible to use your own footage or animations to create a Coub, the preference among users is to mine the rich seam of video content already available online.

The option of including an entire song to your video is key to understanding what makes a Coub a Coub and not, say, a Vine, which only allows for a clip of music to be added. The best Coubs pair found footage with tracks that transform the mood of the original video by using a range of techniques from juxtaposition to pathos. A clip of chickens from a Mercedes-Benz commercial matched with Gwen Stefani’s Hollaback Girl (See Coub 2) gives the impression of a crew of hip-hop dancing hens. Another, of a group of adorable Chinese schoolkids headbanging along with a bear in a zoo (see Coub 3), is paired with Witness by Roots Manuva to hilarious effect. Beneath each Coub are links to the original video and the song, making the platform an effective way of discovering new music. And, if you think you can do better, you have the option of re-using the video or track and twinning it with something else.

Coub 3

In this way, Coub embraces the ethos at the heart of remix culture, which encourages the creation of artworks from other artworks. Remix culture builds on the idea that the very act of hearing a song or viewing a painting is itself a creative process in which the spectator interprets what they are consuming. Take this one step further and allow the spectator to build on what they’ve seen or heard and what you essentially have is a culture that promotes sampling and mashups and their corollary, collaboration and creativity.

The numerous memes that result from a single Coub are testament to this. One of the most popular is a series of Coubs featuring celebrities and heads of state like Barack Obama, Vladimir Putin and Angela Merkel, motioning with their hands about a foot apart, set to Mickey Avalon’s song My Dick. Another set of memes was inspired by a Coub inspired by a YouTube video of Barack Obama set to Get Lucky by Daft Punk that went viral.

Coub 4. My Neighbour Totoro in 10 seconds

The catch, of course, is that not everybody subscribes to the remix culture. Not hard-nosed intellectual property lawyers nor the majority of artists who work in the music or entertainment industries. Despite this Gladkoborodov maintains Coub can work to their advantage. “Coub is a great thing for copyright owners because we link to their movie or music, which you can then buy,” he says. “I think that Coubs can eventually drive music sales.” On the back of this theory, one of the newest trends among Coub junkies is the 10-second miniature movie (See Coub 4): a lightning fast digest of a film that looks as if someone forgot to take their finger off the fast forward button.

Despite the competition, Coub has not gone unnoticed. The company’s early success, albeit predominantly in Russia where around 70% of their audience lives, has already won them $1m of investment from Moscow-based venture capital funds Phenomen Ventures, investors in cab app Hailo, and Brothers Ventures, founded by serial entrepreneurs David and Daniil Liberman. “We believe the two brothers are the most talented entrepreneurs in Russia, so we decided to invest in them,” Daniil says over Skype. “We also believe Coub will be the new music video channel, the new MTV.”

The growth of online video has been nothing short of meteoric, a fact illustrated by a set of extraordinary statistics: 28% of Google searches are for YouTube, which now boasts 1 billion unique visitors a month; an internet user watches an average 186 videos a month; over 90% of internet traffic is video content; every five tweets now contains a Vine; and, by 2017, it is estimated that two-thirds of mobile data traffic will be video. What these figures overwhelmingly point to is a shift from reading to watching online, a shift that the founders of Coub are hoping to tap into. And, with Gladkoborodov on board, this seems entirely plausible. “We want to grow not only in Russia but also in the US,” he says. “We want to be everywhere, in every market.”