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Kik CEO: The Future of Messaging Isn't Just Messaging (Q&A)

Your chat apps may soon do a lot more than deliver messages.


To build his messaging company Kik, CEO Ted Livingston is openly turning to a common — although often taboo — source of inspiration: His competition.

Livingston, who founded Waterloo-based messaging startup Kik in 2009, has been open about his plans for the company, which he hopes to turn into a messaging platform, not just a communication app. Essentially, that means he wants to build other services like games, shopping and even banking into an app people use to message their friends.

To do this, he’s following the lead of another messaging app that’s already doing something similar in China: WeChat, owned by Chinese holding company Tencent. And Livingston isn’t shy about admitting it. In fact, he wrote an entire Medium post about it last November.

On Wednesday, Kik announced it has 200 million registered users, which certainly makes it competitive — although it’s much smaller than services like WeChat, WhatsApp or Facebook Messenger. Plus, those three services report active users, not just registered users, while Kik doesn’t.

Still, Kik has some momentum. It took $38 million in new funding last fall, and has a lot of teen users — the company claims 40 percent of U.S. teenagers are active on Kik, which is how the company plans to become the “WeChat of the West,” according to Livingston.

Below is an edited transcript of our chat.

Re/code: When you say you want to be the “WeChat of the West,” what does that really mean?

Ted Livingston: The way we think about Kik is: There are three key pieces. There’s chat on one side. There are all the services on the other side, like banking, shopping and games. Then there’s the platform, which is sort of the interface between the two. So we’ve spent a lot of time iterating on the platform piece. What’s the best interface between a chat app and all the services that want to plug into it?

You’re pretty openly trying to emulate a competitor — is that a unique stance to take?

Maybe it’s unique to admit it. [Laughs] It’s not a unique reality. The unique thing about the messenger race is that everybody is learning from each other. That is the reality whether you want to admit it or not. At this point, WeChat is very dominant in China and almost nowhere in North America. Kik is very dominant in North America but almost nowhere in China. So we’re both executing a playbook, but quite isolated from each other.

Why does the WeChat model of building services into one app work so well in China, but not as well in North America?

I think messaging in general has been much slower to take off in the West. The biggest reason for that is we already had SMS [text messaging] for free. That was one of the big advantages of WhatsApp in Europe and Africa, and WeChat in Asia where SMS is actually very expensive. The value proposition of “SMS for free” was very attractive [overseas].

The idea of a messaging platform has been much slower as well. All these consumers in China are coming online for the first time through their phones. The first app they pick is chat, and they pick their banking, shopping and gaming from there.

Compare that to the West, where people already know where they want to bank and shop and do all these things. That’s why we’re really focused on youth. Youth are the only demographic in the West who are coming online for the first time through their phones just like everybody is in China.

It seems like other companies like Facebook and Snapchat are trying to do something similar — build extra services into an app primarily used for messaging. Is this idea catching on in the industry?

It’s definitely a trend in the industry. When I read pieces about David Marcus [head of messaging products at Facebook], or I see what Snapchat is launching, everybody is moving toward this “chat as a platform” model. This is something we’ve been focused on [since 2011]. It’s just that recently, the simplest way to explain it has been to use WeChat as an example. It’s taken a long time to find the best way that services can be integrated into chat.

Is it scary or exciting to see Facebook and Snapchat trying to do the same kinds of things you’d like to do?

I think it’s both. On one side, if nobody’s following you, you’re probably going in the wrong direction. On the other side, we’ve been doing this longer than anybody and it’s now a race to get to the finish before anybody else. And we’re racing some of the top companies in the world.

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