Urturn, the social expressions platform that soft-launched as stealthily as possible last year by intentionally hiding under a really boring name, is getting ready to turn the volume up to 11 to start seriously recruiting teens and trend-setters to its meme-stuffed, fashion-friendly, music-loving platform. Today it has announced a $13.4 million Series A funding round, led by Balderton Capital with a $10.7 million investment. The private equity arm of Debiopharm Group invested the remaining $2.7 million. As part of the investment, Balderton founding partner Barry Maloney will join the Urturn board.
The London-based startup, which also has an office in the Valley, is also launching an iOS app today, funded by its Series A, to extend its web-based platform to mobile. An Android app is also in the works, due later this year. Prior to the Series A, Urturn had raised around $500,000 in friends/family funding.
So what exactly is a social expression platform? Urturn — pronounced ‘your turn’ — is best described as a viral meme-generator. It offers both a social toolbox for creating and sharing ‘expressions’ with other users, with support for sharing these out to other social networks such as Facebook, Twitter and Pinterest, and also a space to hang your creations and browse others (and/or follow celebrity users or your friends). It also has its own bookmarklet browser button to make grabbing source material for meme-making purposes even easier, as Pinterest does.
Expressions is Urturn’s term for the visual composites that are its social currency. These often start with a photo but can also include multimedia elements like video and audio, which are then augmented with text or doodles or other graphical elements, by a user selecting the relevant template. So, instead of having to go to Google to copy and paste the meme du jour to post to Facebook or Twitter, Urturn gives its users the tools to make their own version of that meme. Or something else entirely.
The image at the top of this post is a basic example of an expression created with Urturn — by first uploading a photo and then adding a series of pointers to the image. Other templates currently available on the site include doodles, collages, quotes, speech bubbles, hashtag tags, cartoon elements (such as the Bunnify expression, below right) and more.
There are also templates that support interactions, such as love it/leave or this/that which ask other users to vote on whether they like whatever else they’re seeing in that template. And templates to incorporate multimedia elements, as noted above. In short, everything an angst-ridden teenager needs to express themselves online. Or a fashion blogger to ask their followers which slacks they dig.
Another core piece of site apparatus is Urturn’s ‘Your Turn’ button which encourages the viral component by letting users click a button to easily create their own version of an expression that someone else has made — leading to waves of similarly themed expressions to be generated by, for instance, fans of the musicians who have a presence on the site.
The main topics Urturn is focusing on for now are music, fashion, beauty and art & design. It notes that it has received “significant interest” from the music industry as a new way for artists to connect with their fans. Artists already signed up to the platform include Alicia Keys, David Bowie, One Direction, Green Day, UNIONJ, Ellie Goulding, The Gossip, Carly Rae Jepsen and Kendrick Lamar. Urturn has also attracted interest as a blogging platform to engage with readers from fashion magazines such as Cosmo.
Urturn is not currently breaking out its total user numbers but says its biggest markets globally are the U.S., followed by the U.K. and then South America.
The original idea for Urturn stemmed from a sense of frustration with the limitions of existing social tools as a medium of expression explains Stelio Tzonis, CEO and also the co-founder pictured top, left, with Urturn’s fashion & lifestyle hire, Sophie O’Kelly.
“We were sharing some stuff on social media like Facebook, Twitter. And the frustration we got is most of the time we wanted just to play around with content, like taking an image and doodling on the top, or writing something. And you end up having to take the picture, go to Photoshop or whatever, so all the work flow were really complex,” he tells TechCrunch.
“We just want to be more expressive. Sometimes you just want to have a picture and ask something to your friends, or put a quote on it, or point to something. This is really what we mean by be more expressive.”
Urturn plans to open up its templates feature in future via an API, to further expand the scope of the expressions it offers.
“Social networks really enabled the way to connect people with friends and followers, and a way to share with like, reblog, repost, retweet. Other things like this. But when you come to express yourself it’s really limited,” Tzonis continues.
“What we saw was unlimited ways to express yourself. And what we were dreaming is to have a palette [of templates like Urturn's expressions] — if you want to record you just find something to record, if you want to create a quote, if you want to share some music, you want to point something you want to doodle, and we believe that there is unlimited different numbers to express yourself. That was really the beginning where everything started with Urturn.”
Balderton’s Maloney says the fund saw a lot more in Urturn than just A N Other photo-sharing social network/comms network. “We see it as a medium for self-expression which we don’t think has been done very well yet,” he tells TechCrunch. “Photos are an important part but it’s not just photos. What we liked about it was it brings together the idea of music, goes into segments like fashion so for us what grabbed our attention about it was the engagement that’s possible, when you can really use self-expression to engage with our audience.”
“The social networks that are out there do a great job at what they’re designed to do which is communicating. What this one really does is it gets to the heart of self-expression and we think that’s where the value is,” Maloney adds. “The way the audience has taken to the tools, the way they’ve made them pretty simple to use, they way they’ve presented them in a multi-fashion, multi-dimensional way where you can almost drop and drag any of the connotations that you want to get that engagement going, and then to watch the users that are on, how long they stay on, and what they’re doing are all really great early signs for us of something that’s got great potential.”
Urturn’s Tzonis says the startup is still exploring monetisation strategies, with possibilities under consideration being promoted posts, much like Twitter’s promoted tweets model. But the first order of business is to scale up the number of Urturn users and grow the community.
“There are a lot of different opportunities to monetise this because it’s so expressive, that we have a lot of brands asking us [about Urturn]. It’s a lot better than an ad because an ad it’s just broadcasting something. Here you have the audience that just take your message and do it their own way, so when you see your feed you don’t see again that ad — you see ‘hey, my friend has done that with that product’ or whatever,” he says. “If you have an audience you will get revenue from it… We have a lot of opportunity and people are coming to us with ideas directly.”