Viber acquires Chatter Commerce, the startup behind its shopping keyboard

Messaging app Viber earlier this year made its first foray into shopping services with Instant Shopping, a feature that lets you search for items for sale via a keyboard when you have the messaging app open. Today, the company is announcing some more e-commerce related news: it’s buying the startup that helped build that feature.

Viber has acquired Chatter Commerce, maker of a service called ShopChat, which was the tech behind Instant Shopping. CEO and co-founder Zephrin Lasker once described ShopChat to me as “the world’s first shopping keyboard.”

He also highlighted to me a special feature that’s been developed into ShopChat, although I’m not sure if Viber and Rakuten plan to promote this one: since you can download ShopChat as a keyboard app, in theory it means that Rakuten could use it to power shopping in any messaging and chat app, not just Viber, provided people actually have the appetite to shop on messaging apps, and to use a keyboard and not a bot to do it.

Terms of the deal were not disclosed, but Chatter Commerce already had a couple of ties to the company: not only were they already working with Viber, but it was backed by $1.25 million led by Rakuten, the Japanese e-commerce giant that also owns Viber (which it purchased for $900 million in 2014). It was a young startup, only exiting from stealth mode earlier this year.

Viber said that Chatter Commerce’s team of seven engineers, who are based out of San Francisco, are joining the company. Zephrin Lasker, Chatter Commerce’s CEO and co-founder, will take a role as Viber’s global head of e-commerce — a strong sign that the company wants and plans to do a lot more in this area going forward.

“We founded Chatter Commerce on the basis that people should be able to do much more in their chats than what is currently available,” said Lasker in a statement. “Rakuten Viber’s innovative vision extends beyond the minor details of feature optimization that most messaging apps are focused on today their objective is to dramatically expand the role messaging apps have in people’s everyday lives.”

The acquisition comes at an interesting time in the world of messaging.

We’ve reported in the last week that there are some strong signs we’re seeing and hearing that Amazon is building a consumer-focused messaging app. With Facebook also adding in more transactional features into Messenger — part of a huge expansion that has taken it beyond basic chat and into bots and other services — there is a clear trend among messaging apps to leverage engagement they already have with their users to drive their business in other ways.

Facebook is coming at it from the social angle (although, with ex-PayPal exec David Marcus at the helm, you can argue that it too has some very strong commerce pedigree). And Amazon would come at it from the commerce angle — our sources say that one of the prime (geddit?) motivations behind it building a messaging service is to use it to help with its omni-sales strategy.

Viber is somewhere in between these two: the company may have its roots as a pure-play messaging service, but ever since it was acquired by Rakuten — known as the Amazon of Japan — in 2014, I have been watching it to see when and how it would finally take the plunge into commerce.

It’s been a long time coming — three whole years — and feels a little like a defensive move, as if the company has been kicked into gear by opening moves from Facebook and others.

My guess is that Viber’s slow pace of development overall hasn’t done it any favors.

Viber stopped updating its metrics years ago and today simply describes its size as “800+ million users”, so it’s hard to know how popular it is these days compared to WhatsApp and Messenger (both owned by Facebook) with 2 billion users between them; and the myriad of other popular messaging apps out there today, which include WeChat, Line, Kik, and so many more.

And so, the move today could be an interesting sign of how the company, under new CEO Djamel Agaoua, who joined earlier this year, is working hard to position itself as a serious player once again in the messaging space.

“This investment is a new step in our journey to transform Viber into a multi-service communication platform,” said Agaoua. “We want to bring more value to our hundreds of millions of users around the world while keeping the experience simple and seamless. Chatter Commerce’s technology will actively support our vision, and their team is a perfect fit for our culture of innovation.”