How Two Guys Built the Ultimate GIF Search Engine
One afternoon in December, Giphy’s two dozen staff members gathered around a long picnic table in their Lower East Side Manhattan office for a year-in-review meeting. The multicolored Christmas lights and six packs of Shiner Bock in the spacious, ninth-floor room made for a festive vibe—as did the 3D poster of a cat dangling from a wine bottle. Alex Chung, the 40-year-old co-founder and chief executive officer, stood next to a whiteboard, scrawling numbers charting the company’s growth. “We’re the biggest Internet startup people are seeing right now,” he said. “We, like, did it.”
Giphy—that’s a hard “G”—really, like, did do it. It’s become the go-to library for GIFs, the seconds-long, looping video clips that people text when words are too hard to conjure or quick shots of a shivering Leonardo DiCaprio in The Revenant just better convey how cold you are; the startup reached 95 million unique visitors per month in 2015, quadruple what it did in 2014. And Giphy has become an adviser to movie studios and TV producers who want your texts to include their content, which they are turning over to editors to splice into a million little pieces. Advertisers and political campaigns are asking for advice, too, on using the technology to sell products and candidates. Giphy closed the year with a deal that lets users create Star Wars-themed GIFs, and it’s finalizing plans to live-GIF the Oscars and the Super Bowl.
The company’s rise has helped make the format a culturally relevant (some might say vital) communication tool—a mostly wordless way to emote via text, Snapchat, Gchat, or e-mail. Search the database, and you can express sadness with a wistful Homer Simpson; an “OH. HELL. NO!” with a wide-eyed Jennifer Lawrence; and if you’ve completely lost your mind, there’s always the demonic cat shooting laser beams out of its eyeballs at flying cucumbers. “It’s communication with a wink,” says Marc Simons, co-founder of New York and Los Angeles advertising agency Giant Spoon.
The ability to find all of this in one place is partially the result, of course, of alcohol. Over drinks in the winter of 2012, Chung and a friend, Giphy co-founder Jace Cooke, 34, extolled the power of GIFs in a postliterate society, when technology will advance so far that reading and writing won’t be necessary. Chung spent the next few days seeing if there was a tool to create and share the clips, but it didn’t exist. “That’s when I got excited,” he says. “You never get to do something first on the Internet. Everything has been done.”
At the time, Chung was taking a sabbatical. He’d founded several startups, including a social network called Fridge that Google acquired, and had developed software for MTV and hardware for Intel. After years of jumping from gig to gig, he needed some rest; that meant training in Brazilian jiujitsu, in which he holds a second-degree black belt. When he wasn’t kicking ass, he was writing code, creating software that could comb Tumblr, Imgur, and other websites and organize the videos under searchable keywords such as “cat” or “puppy.”
Once he had a working prototype, Chung sent a link to a few friends—who sent it to a few friends, who sent it to a few friends. Within hours, Giphy had more than 30,000 page views, and tech sites such as Gizmodo and Mashable were writing about it. (All press is good press: Gizmodo’s headline was “The First GIF Search Engine Is Hilariously Bad.”) “People were yelling at me because the site was so slow, but it was just a silly hack,” Chung says. “We thought it was something that was going to make us Internet-famous for a day. But by 5 p.m., we had multiple offers for investments.” The ridiculousness of building a business on loops of a Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle inhaling pizza wasn’t lost on Chung. But now he had a not-so-silly $1 million from Betaworks, which had also invested in name brands such as Kickstarter.
One of the first people Chung called to join Giphy was Adam Leibsohn, an Amherst College philosophy major and tennis star. Leibsohn, 34, was working at an ad agency when he met Chung through a mutual friend; now he’s Giphy’s chief operating officer. Over a Jameson and a Guinness, he echoes Chung’s original brainstorm, attempting to explain the company’s mission by invoking Ludwig Wittgenstein, the Austrian-British philosopher who died in 1951, well before GIFs were invented. (GIFs have been around since the ’80s and gained popularity more than a decade ago as a way to personalize a MySpace page. The format fell out of favor along with the doomed social network, but breezy, image-driven sites such as BuzzFeed have given them a second life.) Wittgenstein believed that written language leaves too much open to interpretation. GIFs are more efficient, Leibsohn says, because they fill in interpretive gaps. He leans back on his bar stool, like a graduate student satisfied with his explanation, and it isn’t clear to what extent he’s joking. “I’m completely serious!” he says.
Giphy creates clips in-house, but it also relies on its algorithm to bring them into its database. Editors are constantly combing through them, making sure there are no glitches or porn and that the collection is up to date. (Keeping sex and nudity off the site is a tough job, they say.) “There isn’t a 1980s reboot series, or a new album that drops, or a Kylie Jenner moment that happens that somebody at Giphy doesn’t see,” Leibsohn says. Some employees say they can’t go a few minutes without watching video that makes them think, That would make a great GIF. “My attention span has been demolished,” says Tyler Menzel, Giphy’s editorial director, who determines what goes on the home page.
Right now the business is focused on growth, not revenue. Leibsohn and Chung say they could generate cash by allowing advertisers to target people based on what images they’re hunting for, the most common business model for Internet companies from Google to Snapchat to Twitter, but the two worry it would turn off fickle users. “There’s a lot of ways for us to make a lot of money, but instead of spinning our wheels doing it, we’re trying to get really big,” Leibsohn says. They’ve got the runway to give it a go: Giphy has raised $24 million, and another sizable investment round is in progress.
You don’t have to be an Austrian-British philosopher to get why the money’s pouring in. Big brands, such as Subway and the NBA, are seeking advice; Victoria’s Secret had Giphy reps on hand to live-GIF its most recent runway show, getting backstage clips of Kendall Jenner taking a selfie and lingerie-clad models dancing; and HBO tapped Giphy to help with a Game of Thrones contest. (Giphy has discussed becoming a studio for companies that want GIFs for product pitches.) Even staff members from Hillary Clinton’s campaign stopped by the office not long ago for pointers on what makes a compelling clip—soon after, Hillary for America shared GIFs of the candidate doing a blasé shoulder dust at a Benghazi hearing.
Giphy hasn’t cornered the GIF market. San Francisco startup Riffsy, which simplifies adding GIFs to texts, has attracted millions of users. Giffage introduced a GIF “keyboard,” and even Google has taken stabs at building a search tool. But Chung isn’t worried. “You need to be a part of pop culture, and when we look at San Francisco, most of those startups just don’t get it,” he says. “That’s why fashion doesn’t come out of San Francisco. Google has no sense of cool.”
Giphy certainly strives to hone its main point of differentiation. Every July the staff goes to Los Angeles for the month, renting a house with a pool for the team to live and work in—but mostly live. Not shockingly, this isn’t Giphy’s most productive stretch. During the year-in-review meeting, Chung showed a growth chart tracking back to 2013. He pointed to areas each year where expansion flatlined. “This is July,” he said. Or to GIF-ify what he was getting at: Popsicle with sunglasses, Will Ferrell cannonball, dancing backward-hat guy.