When John Kim and his team were working on a community-based application called Smile Mom — which was designed to connect nearby moms — they ran into a problem: They wanted to integrate messaging, but couldn’t find an off-the-shelf solution they liked.
They ended up building one themselves, and that led a bunch of friends to ask to use the service. So Kim and his team decided to pivot the company toward building just that. The result was Sendbird, a software development kit that enables developers to quickly build chat tools for their services. The company comes out of Y Combinator’s most recent class, and is launching today.
Kim’s background is in gaming, so it’s a problem that he knows well — and an obvious one, to be sure. As gaming has generally shifted to mobile devices, the need for communication across those games is increasing. That’s doubly so for studios that are producing a big portfolio of games that still want to connect players across multiple games in order to keep a sense of continuity across those titles. Kim, originally a pro gamer, sold his last startup — a gaming studio called Paprika Labs — to GREE in 2012.
“We’ve been building this for a couple times when we were building our social game, we had to build this chat functionality every time,” Kim said. “We felt like it was re-inventing the wheel every time. Even though chat is really important, as a startup you have limited resources. You want your product guys and engineers focusing on what matters most. ”
Initially, Sendbird was focused on small- to medium-sized businesses, but a meeting with Parse co-founder Ilya Sukhar led them to start looking more closely at enterprise customers. In reality, businesses have been communicating with consumers all the way back when SMS was the primary mode of text communication on cell phones.
Working with enterprise customers, in theory, offers an opportunity to operate at a larger scale than going directly to smaller app developers — and generate more revenue. Sendbird operates on a paid subscription model, where the pricing varies based on the number of users who are using the chat services and what level of support companies are looking for.
“It’s a natural evolution to how technology is distributed from consumer to business side,” he said. “I hope we’re at the right time.”
If this all sounds familiar, it should. There’s a competitor that’s raised a hefty $22 million called Layer, which won TechCrunch Disrupt in 2013. The operations are quite similar, but Kim’s argument is that Layer doesn’t have the same functionality on a per-chat basis, like having an unlimited number of people chatting in the same room.
Still, Layer has plans that allow unlimited monthly active users. There are other potential competitors, as well, like if Twilio were to release a similar service.
Sendbird has 15 employees, and started in Korea. Now it’s based out of San Francisco, largely because the company hopes to build a global-based presence, and San Francisco is home to many business-to-business software startups and is “at the top of the food chain,” Kim says. Part of the reason is that building a startup out of Korea became tough following the subprime mortgage crisis.
Sendbird is live in 340 apps now, Kim says. He also says Sendbird has around 2 million monthly active users chatting through its platform. The company is working on bot integrations, much in the same way Slack has, where users can tie third-party services into the messaging portions of an app.