It’s been a long journey for Bubble Motion, one of Singapore’s oldest startups. The company has been around since 2005 and made its name as a voice messenger app, allowing people to send voice clips to each other within text messages.
Unlike with an MMS, the service requires no data. A user dials *7*, follows the phone commands and speaks. The recipient gets a text and “retrieves” the message by dialing another code to listen to the message. It’s a circuit switched call, so it works on feature phones.
According to Bubble Talk’s CEO, Thomas Clayton, this was instrumental in the service taking off in emerging markets in Asia, where smartphones didn’t (and don’t) hold the lion’s share of the mobiles. This allowed it to accumulate 100 million unique users in these markets.
But about two years ago, the company decided to move from the voice messaging model to a service called Bubbly, functioning more as a Twitter for voice, blasting voice messages to subscribers at once.
“It has zero attention from us now,” said Clayton, of the old service. Bubbly, on the other hand, has added a million new users each month to hit 25 million right now.
But Bubble Motion didn’t abandon its old phone-based platform. Bubbly works with feature phones in the same method, where users can record their voice by dialing a code and speaking, and subscribers get a text with a link that will dial Bubble Motion’s servers to have the message play back.
The company has released apps for Android and iOS devices, but it isn’t swayed by the world’s infatuation with smartphone apps yet, said Clayton.
With about 5 percent of its user base on the smartphone app, the rest are busy subscribing to celebrities and broadcasting to friends via their feature phones, he said. “It’s nowhere near plateauing in the sign-ups we’re getting from feature phones, either. Of course I’d like everyone to go to the app because it is easier to engage users, but feature phones remain a huge base for Asia.”
And unlike with smartphones, where users have become accustomed to ads in exchange for using it for free, Bubbly is a paid service to subscribe to celebrities. Feature phone users are charged a fee per celebrity, per month. Smartphone users get it free for the first month, before it becomes an all-you-can-eat plan for $0.99 for six months. The company also sells upgradeable packs for its voice filters.
Bubble Motion also reaches out to users via operator partnerships-necessary because it needs to colocate hardware with the telcos for all the calls, unlike with smartphone apps. The operator partners help to push Bubbly in their markets. The company has tie-ups with most of the big operators in the region, and has focused on India, Indonesia, the Philippines, and Saudi Arabia in the Middle East. It plans to launch with all the telcos in Thailand and Vietnam soon, as well as in Japan.
When I point out that today’s messengers have ironically employed the one-to-one voice texting that Bubble Motion helped pioneer seven years ago, Clayton shrugged it off, saying the decision to move to a broadcast system was made four years ago. “None of the WeChats and KakaoTalks existed then,” he said.
Still, the company’s plans to rope direct messaging into its functions in the near future point to them trying not to exit this scene fully, while the market warms up to voice clips.
Bubble Motion will also add a “visual component” to the service in an upcoming version of its smartphone app, he said.
Last year, the firm raised $5 million from JAFCO Asia and $10 million from SingTel Innov8, Infocomm Investments, Sequoia Capital, Palomar Ventures, and NFC.
Other investors include Comcast, Northgate Capital and Infocomm Investments. The company is headquartered in Singapore with operations in Silicon Valley, India, Japan, Indonesia, Thailand, and the Philippines.