Janky and Guggimon, “synthetic” celebrities conceived in a studio and big on social platforms like TikTok and Instagram, where they exist as influencers with millions of followers, hyping up other brands, music acts and themselves, are soon coming to a streaming screen, and maybe a Whole Foods, near you.
Superplastic, the startup that created and develops the characters, has raised $20 million led by Amazon’s Alexa Fund, a strategic investment that will see Superplastic and its characters initially collaborating on an animated comedy series with Amazon Studios, and working closer with the retail and internet services behemoth as it looks for more ways to connect with younger consumers.
“Amazon is everywhere,” Superplastic’s founder and CEO Paul Budnitz said in an interview, highlighting its investor’s reach in media, commerce, logistics and technology as all areas where Superplastic has something to gain. “And as an IP company, to me it’s interesting what can we do with Whole Foods.”
The round is being described as a Series A-4, and Superplastic is not disclosing its valuation (nor has it ever from what we can see). Amazon is a previous investor, and others in this round speak to a bigger opportunity Superplastic is taking to bring in strategic backers that will help it build out more character-based products — the “Superplastic character universe,” as the startup calls it — across platforms such as games and other social networks. They include Craft Ventures, Google Ventures, Galaxy Digital, Kering, Sony Japan, Scribble Ventures, Kakao, Animoca Brands, Day One Ventures and Betaworks. Superplastic has now raised $58 million to date.
Amazon’s interest in Superplastic also underscores a recurring theme in tech right now: we’re seeing increasingly blurred lines between media and technology, where one is being leveraged to disseminate the other, in today’s digital landscape. (That’s a theme that has come up in other developments: take, for example, yesterday’s news that BuzzFeed and OpenAI are collaborating on a new quiz format.)
On the one hand, Budnitz sees Superplastic and other companies like it as this generation’s Disney: beloved characters with a universe of experiences built out around them. In today’s world, that experience, and the beloved characters themselves, inevitably have a major tech component.
Budnitz says there is a whole team of quirky and creative humans who workshop all of the concepts that go into building out the characters of Janky and Guggimon (and a third called Dayzee). That is then fed into what he described to me as its built-from-the-ground-up tech platform that helps the company quickly put together videos and other experiences where its characters interact with brands, other influencers and the world at large. Amazon in part will be helpful on this front, he said. Superplastic is built on its own tech stack, but “Amazon is the perfect partner” to contribute more cutting-edge technology to continue enhancing that. Superplastic is also hosted on AWS, he added.
Budnitz is a longtime entrepreneur who has a track record both in merchandising and the highs and lows of trying to build social and viral experiences online. He founded the “designer toy” brand Kidrobot, which is still going; and was also the person behind one of the first attempts to rattle the social hegemony by way of “ello,” which flashed and then fizzled, a cautionary tale for all the efforts currently underway to build the “next Twitter” in the bleak Elon Midwinter. In a way, Superplastic is the product of that past experience, mixed in with how people engage online today and those blurred lines between media and tech.
Budnitz makes a point of not being a personal user of social media. “You won’t find me on any social media at all,” he said. But he and his team are very much aware of the role that social media plays in their business.
“If the assumption is that you want to be a billion-fan mega star, you have to be on social,” Budnitz said. It’s there to build audience but also to figure out what Superplastic should be doing. TikTok, which is by far the company’s biggest platform right now he said, is very useful “as a place to gather signal,” he said. “The usage and momentum on there provides insights about how a piece of content will play with all of our audience. That matters to Amazon.”
Indeed, for Amazon, Superplastic is part of a new stage of interest for the Alexa Fund. As we noted in a recent profile of the fund and interview with its founder, Paul Bernard, it very much started out as a vehicle for backing and incubating startups to help the company build out its voice/AI ecosystem, but more recent investments have also leaned heavily into the company’s media business and startups that can help bolster that.
On top of that, the company is looking at more ways to evolve with how consumers are evolving. Amazon might not own a TikTok or Instagram, but an investment in Superplastic gives it another entry point into connecting with and building products for that younger demographic.
“To help evolve Amazon, we need to be increasingly paying attention to what is resonating on those social platforms,” said Bernard.