The 80s was the era of excess and vibrancy. As Gordon Gecko from the 1987 film Wall Street put it, “Greed is good”. But as the 80s jumpstarted the colorful leg warmers phenomenon, it also started the GIF trend, one that would dip beneath the waters of pop culture and make a resurgence in the 2010s upon the rise of the smartphones. What made GIFs so popular? First, they had a unique appeal – packing lots of information or something funny into a short animation. Next, with the introduction of smartphones, short form content began to take off because it was easy to watch. For example, if you were in line at Starbucks for a coffee, you could go onto Reddit and watch 4-5 GIFs before you had to order.
Only, in most cases, you probably couldn’t look at those GIFs. They took too long to load. Two avid redditors in Edmonton realized this, and figured that the GIF was only popular for what it represented, short form silent animations, not for its format. Realizing this, they created a free video encoding platform that would turn a video into a GIF like format, best suited for the platform it would go on. These days, their free tool has expanded and become the biggest GIF search engine on the internet, but it had a much simpler start.
The Gfycat Encoding System
After the great migration from Digg to Reddit, Dan Mceleney and Jeff Harris saw the problem with GIFs. They were large files. There weren’t that many colors. People liked them, and they were good to view in a variety of circumstance, but they took too long to load.
What made Gfycat so special was its cross platform capabilities. You would start with a specific file format and upload it to the platform. Gfycat would then speedily change the filetype to match whatever the user had chosen in the beginning or to match the platform they wanted to use it on. For example, if you uploaded a .mov file, Gfycat could change that into a GIF, mp4, or WEBM. What this meant was that even though the file format might not have been a gif, it kept the essential qualities of one: short, silent, animated, and interesting.
Using this new tool, Dan Mceleney and Jeff Harris started Gfycat, disseminating it on different subreddits (reddit communities). As Dan explained, “We selected different subreddits that we thought would benefit from it and we sort of said, ‘Hey, you really like this GIF; check out Gfycat, it’s the same thing!’ And later people thought it was amazing. It looked better, and it moved faster.” Dan, who was already an established member of some subreddits was able to gain many users from there. They even got banned from some communities because people were using Gfycat to create bots to spam certain subreddits and the moderators thought Dan and Jeff were manipulating them.
Most of the traction the company gained in the beginning was from this grassroots movement on Reddit. Many people liked the tool, and told others about it, slowly increasing the popularity and gained a life of its own.
Gfycat started off as a garage project in Edmonton, more of a tool to help those who needed to reduce the file size of the GIFs that they wanted to share. As they grew, they had to figure out ways to sustain themselves. Dan pointed out that, “We saw a progression from a utility to more of a social GIF platform, and we thought the best place to be would be Silicon Valley.”
Down in Silicon Valley, a consultant helped introduce Gfycat to some people who might be good for the business. Through a serendipitous meeting with Richard Rabbat, they were able to move the business there. With the entrance into a new world filled with wealthy investors and a diverse startup culture, they incorporated in 2015 and were able to engage in a series of important business partnerships.
Getting these partnerships, like many other aspects of business, was not easy. It involved lots of cold emailing, networking, and in person meetings. It took building a strong relationship and trust for things to actually begin taking off. All the hard work paid off, and Gfycat all of a sudden saw a huge change. They got a Reddit bot. Working with Microsoft, they were also able to get functionality there. They have a large presence in Skype, and most of all, they were one of the first apps to launch in conjunction with Apple’s iMessage. Even more, they were also able to create partnerships with major film studios. This skyrocketing fame allowed them to pursue other areas to expand the humble GIF into.
Creating Mass Appeal
One of the most interesting things that Gfycat has been able to do is host a hackathon. On January 28, 2017, they started a 24 hour hackathon to encourage people to use the Gfycat API and SDK to create all sorts of creative projects with. The rules were simple: come in with an idea/design; program; give a five minute presentation. Many of the projects that were submitted were incredibly creative. They ranged from a neural network to suggest memes and a virtual reality gif explorer. The event was a success and showed the increasing interest in both Gfycat and creative applications of the GIF format.
Besides a hackathon, Gfycat has also expanded into the movie industry, and more specifically, marketing for films. Partnering with big studios, Gfycat helped revolutionize a new way to advertise films: through GIFS. These days, movie trailers usually range from one to two minutes and require audio for the full experience; the only problem with this old-school method is that most people these days don’t have the time or motivation to look at them. What Gfycat hoped to do was to bring these trailers into GIFs, shortening them down so anybody could watch them with their limited schedules, and pack a lot of action into a short animation.
From Tool to Experience
Gfycat has come a long way. Much like the GIF started out as a humble animation and has exploded onto pop culture and the world around us, Gfycat’s story also shows parallels. From a small cramped office, they’ve expanded, communicating between two teams in Edmonton, Canada, and Palo Alto, California. They’ve gone from a free tool on the internet for people who wanted to make a fast-to-load GIF to a silicon valley startup, set on revolutionizing the way people experience content.