Is simple DIY animation the next big thing? A Kingsland-based company, its high-profile investors and a handful of Hollywood studios think it could well be. Vaughn Davis pokes his nose into the calm but busy world of Trigger Happy.
Just down the road from possibly the best no-nonsense bakery in all of Kingsland (do try the custard squares!) up a flight of stairs and behind a buzz-to-enter door sits the cavernous toy-filled concrete studio of what its investors are hoping will be the next big Kiwi app company: Trigger Happy. (Provisional positioning line: “Who?”)
By the time you read this, Trigger Happy’s debut app, and the only one it has planned so far, should be just about to hit iPads around the country (but not around the world; more on that later). It represents the final step in a journey that’s involved a team of 17, investors from New Zealand and China, a hard-working lead threesome of TV and animation industry experts and a handful of content owners looking for a way to turn their annoying little characters into big bucks, albeit one small buck at a time.
The Trigger Happy journey began three years ago when co-founders Shona Grundy (now chief executive officer) and Karl Butler (chief product officer), were playing with one of the first iPads. As an experienced animator, Butler soon realised that the iPad’s decent-sized screen combined with its intuitive interface made it the perfect platform for creating animated content. The only hitch was that Apple didn’t support Adobe Flash – the simple animator’s weapon of choice – on its tablet.
Undaunted, Butler grabbed a copy of iPad Programming for Dummies (I may have made that bit up) and in six weeks taught himself how to programme on it (that bit’s true). Before long, he and Grundy had a rough idea of how their app would work and were ready to start shopping their prototype and plan for world domination to investors.
Trigger Happy’s chief product officer hard at work and adhering to the company’s strict dress code. PHOTO: Tony Nyberg
Blueprint to pitch
The path to the start line wasn’t totally straightforward though, and quickly taught Grundy that her skills as a fundraiser and pitcher were going to make or break the business just as easily as Butler and his tech team’s programming chops.
The first presentation was a bust, with the potential investor, according to Shona, just not getting their head around what it was Trigger Happy was trying to create (see sidebar on how the app works, right).
While other startups might walk muttering back to the car and move on to the next angel in the funding firmament, Grundy used the first investor’s questions and objections as a blueprint for the second version of her pitch. That iteration, along with an improved prototype from Butler, sealed the deal.
While some investors were quick to close – one essentially pulling out the chequebook at the end of an hour-long meeting – others took their time to mull over the idea. One fund that subsequently invested took four to five months to get to ‘yes’.
With first-round investors Jacom and K1W1 on board in early 2011, Trigger Happy hired its first developers and began the process of turning its prototype into a working product. At the same time, Grundy started work on the licensing deals that would be essential to the app’s commercial appeal, while also working on the second round of funding.
Opening doors in Hollywood, Grundy says, hasn’t been super-difficult.
“I just tell them I have a great idea that will make them lots of money, and it’s pretty easy to get them to agree to a meeting,” she says.
Another plus is the New Zealand Government’s support through a Ministry of Science and Innovation grant (“invaluable”, Grundy says) and informal on-the-ground support from New Zealand Trade and Enterprise (NZTE) staff in Los Angeles.
“When I turn up with Calvin [Cheong, senior business development manager/investment manager] from NZTE – and he comes along to every meeting – it makes a real difference having New Zealand Government support in the room.”
What really makes the difference though, and what has routinely turned 15-minute appointments into 90-minute meetings, is the new marketplace the app gives for studios’ animated characters.
Toon Hero uses the well-proven ‘freemium’ model (Farmville, Small Worlds, Club Penguin, etc) where users download the core app and a selection of backgrounds and characters free of charge, but pay a buck or two for new characters. The exact revenue split depends on the deal Trigger Happy makes with the studio, but after the Apple Store’s cut, 70 percent of every dollar spent is left to divide between the content owner and the app company.
With most new movies and TV ideas failing to turn a profit, the opportunity for studios to resell existing proven content with very low risk or investment has been a pretty compelling proposition.
So far, Trigger Happy has signed characters from shows including Hero 108, Geronimo Stilton, Kabillion and others your seven-year-old may have heard of, and has licensed a background image library from National Geographic (which, believe me, looks a lot cooler once you actually see Cartman wandering around Yellowstone Park).
While Butler and his team were flat out on the app (and the development team was quietly growing to number a dozen or so), Grundy was on the investment trail again and closed second-round funding in October. Investors this time included another dollop from K1W1, private money from former Burger King New Zealand co-owner Dennis Jones, a small but crucial contribution from the Ministry of Science and Innovation, and a significant investment from China-based Solution Access.
As well as being one of Trigger Happy’s biggest investors, Grundy says Solution Access will be critical to unlocking the Chinese market, partnering with Chinese content owners and developing the Chinese language version of the app.
Interestingly, Solution Access and Trigger Happy have never met, with Grundy making the deal from first meeting to signup entirely via email and Skype, simultaneously challenging the startup orthodoxy that firstly, the money is in The Valley and secondly, there’s no substitute for being there.
Another piece of conventional wisdom Grundy is at odds with is the need for incubators. While she acknowledges their value and sees the point of setups like The Icehouse for some startups, she’s less than complimentary about the way it dealt with Trigger Happy. “They just didn’t get what we were trying to do ... the one investor they had us deal with, anyway. Then when he did seem to get it, he told me it was too big, too difficult and that we just couldn’t do it.”
Not surprisingly, this was a red rag to Grundy, and left her determined to make Trigger Happy exactly the success the man from the Icehouse (“He didn’t even have a Facebook account!”) believed it couldn’t be.
“I get that it’s a long path, but it’s a clear one and we’re tackling it in slow steps.”
One of the possible threats to the business would be someone else bringing out a duplicate app, which is one reason Trigger Happy has kept a pretty low profile until now.
Now that the animated cat is out of the stock image bag, Grundy believes the combination of licensed content, patent-pending technology and a bespoke render engine that took four months to develop should keep Toon Hero well ahead of the competition.
Shona Grundy used objections and questions from her first (failed) pitch as a blueprint for the (successful) second iteration. PHOTO: Tony Nyberg
Ready to launch
Toon Hero is scheduled to hit the app store in March, but will initially only be available to New Zealand accounts. Grundy says this will help the company stay close to the first users and establish a local community of Toon Hero creators. The other upside, of course, is that any initial stumbles will be less visible to overseas media and potential investors. And what does success look like?
“We don’t plan to struggle along for eight years ... we’ll know in 18 months if this is going to work or not. It’ll either be a hockey stick or a flat line – there’s no in-between.”
Assuming the launch is a success, Trigger Happy expects the average user to spend around $5 a month on characters and backgrounds, with each one costing from $1 to $3. Grundy sees licensing and developing these as being the company’s focus for the next few years, with new character sets being released every three months or so. Create your own character options are also an option down the track.
Meanwhile though, with the ink barely dry on Trigger Happy’s second funding round, Grundy is already pressing the virtual flesh and chasing round three.
“I’ve been advised that 90 percent of a startup CEO’s job is making sure cashflow continues ... but to be honest, that’s just about my favourite part of the job.”