Back in April, Marvel — the UK startup that lets you turn sketches into app “prototypes” — had just one and a half month’s runway left after burning through the majority of a £60,000 investment from Haatch. At one point, the burgeoning company even took out a Wonga payday-style loan to stay afloat whilst frantically re-writing the service to help keep up with demand.
Today, however, Marvel’s fortunes are looking decidely up. The London-based company has raised a £525,000 seed round from Connect Ventures, app studio ustwo (makers of iOS game Monument Valley, amongst other endeavours), and various angel investors, including Roberto Bonanzinga, Andy McLoughlin, Richard Fearn, and Jeremy Yap.
That’s a pretty decent list of backers from the London tech scene and it’s certainly noteworthy to see ustwo invest (who I understand are also users of the service), given they know more than a thing or two about app design prototyping.
To that end, Marvel co-founder Murat Mutlu tells me that the startup’s mission going forward is to “lower the barrier” to prototyping.
“As everyone is becoming more and more entreprenurial it’s becoming clear that prototyping goes far beyond designers,” he says. “Prototyping will become as important as ‘learning to code’ whether you are a kid or a founder, everyone should be able to bring their ideas to life quickly and easily.”
To achieve this, Marvel’s web, iOS and Android apps let you turn sketches, wireframes, and Photoshop files into a tappable (or clickable) demo of how your app will work. It does this by letting you add ‘hotspots’ and transitions to your images so that the resulting prototype can be navigated as if it were an actual app.
Specifically, the mobile apps enable you to photograph a paper (or back of a napkin) sketch and — in the latest update for iPhone and iPad — draw directly on the screen with your finger or a capacitive stylus.
In addition, the whole thing is built on top of the Dropbox API, so that any changes you make to your ‘screen’ images, even via another app such as Photoshop, are synced with Marvel. This also means the startup is able to offer its core service for free without limits since it isn’t having to shell out for cloud-storage.
However, it’s Marvel’s dead-pool dodging backstory that is perhaps most interesting. Like many startups, Marvel started out as a side-project and as a way for its founders — who, along with Mutlu, are Brendan Moore and Jonathan Siao — to scratch their own itch, but soon developed into something bigger.
“After spending most of our summer evenings and weekends in 2013 working on Marvel, we finally had something we could ship around October last year. Immediately after we announced it had launched, someone posted it on Designer News (a popular ‘Hacker News’ style site for designers) and suddenly we had nearly a 1,000 users within a couple of weeks,” explains Mutlu.
That traction confirmed to the trio that Marvel could be a ‘thing’, so they started looking for investment. Eventually the startup secured a very modest funding round from incubator Haatch, allowing the team to go full-time with a runway of around 6 months. But things didn’t quite go to plan.
“Straight after the funding, we ran into trouble, the site was falling apart with the increase in projects and images being added. We had to make a choice, spend months rewriting the platform and delay any revenue generating features we had planned or patch things up in the hope we’d get investment further down the line,” says Mutlu.
The team opted to do a complete rewrite but this meant that by the time they were done they had less than a month and a half cash remaining. To help stretch this out further, the startup got “scrappy” and managed to haggle free hosting and discounts on everything from office space to analytics, although that wasn’t enough to stop Marvel temporarily falling back on a loan from Wonga.
“Around this time, Marvel had reached 20k users and thousands of projects every month and still just the three of us juggling things. I was running around London pitching to dozens of seed investors as time was running out. Luckily we met Connect Ventures at the right time, they spoke the same language as us and it was the perfect fit. Then we added the brilliant ustwo, Roberto Bonanzinga, Andy McLoughlin, Richard Fearn and Jeremy Yap to our backers.”
That backing will enable Marvel to grow its team of developers and designers to take the product to the “next level”, says Mutlu, and continue a growth trajectory that has just seen the service hit the 60k user mark, adding 200 users per day. Meanwhile, over 2 million images have been synced to Marvel.