From WhatsApp to Viber, Slack to Snapchat, messaging apps are a dime a dozen. Same goes for video chat apps and apps that enable easier collaboration between work colleagues or between service providers and their clients. With the market so saturated, each of these apps are having to add new features and functionality to distinguish itself from the others. What Sydney-based startup Blrt has done is taken various aspects of messaging, video chat and collaboration apps, and created a new communication experience.
Founded by Anurag Chakradhar, Blrt allows users to talk, point and draw over websites, images and documents so that all parties involved in a project or conversation are in sync. The startup claims that its technology includes all the benefits of phone calls, emails and video conferences, while removing the limitations of each. For instance, emails can’t convey emotions, phone calls aren’t visual, and video calls use a lot of bandwidth. The latter two also require people to be available at the same time.
Blrt, on the other hand, allows users to be visual by capturing hand gestures as well as drawings over web pages, images and documents. It conveys voice by allowing users to record what they want to say over their actions. And like emails, ‘Blrts’ can be sent to another person or a group of people asynchronously.
Chakradhar said the idea to create Blrt came about six years ago, shortly before the iPad came into existence. He was trying to create a solution that enabled seamless collaboration between remote teams.
“I don’t believe there was anything around that allowed people to communicate the way they do when they meet face-to-face. When we have face-to-face meetings, we point at things, we talk, we scribble over things – this allows us to clarify what we’re trying to communicate. The idea was that technology should allow people to do this without needing to be in the available at the same time and [present] at the same place,” said Chakradhar.
He created a rough prototype on a computer, but felt that, as a device, the computer was incompatible with the concept he had in mind. This is because not all computers had microphones and cameras built into it, so using Blrt would have required additional plug-in tools.
The idea was put on-hold until the first iPad was released into the market about a year or two later. However, it wasn’t until the second and significantly improved iPad came out that Chakradhar and his team were able to properly pursue Blrt.
“An iPad is ideal for this, because you’ve got the screen real estate to actually nicely point and draw, but then when you’re starting a conversation with other people, you have to have other devices as part of it. We quickly created the user experience for an iPhone and then we found that even if one person in a particular conversation was on Android, then they would not be able to use Blrt, so we started working on Android as well,” said Chakradhar.
“What we have now is an app ecosystem that works across Android and iOS tablets and mobile phones … One of the key things that I wanted to deliver was this notion of having everything you’re doing saved in the cloud so that you’re not in a position where you have to save a file on your device or attach a file to an email and then send that file through Blrt … Also, all of the data is encrypted [before it stores] in the cloud.”
At the moment, users can only add people to a conversation using their email address, but Chakradhar said they will be adding new functionality that allows users to add people using their mobile phone number.
“It becomes a cloud conversation. If you log out of your iPad and log in to your Blrt account on your Android phone, all your conversations will just appear,” said Chakradhar.
What’s interesting about Blrt is that despite feeling like video, Blrt messages take up a fraction of the bandwidth of video. In fact, according to Chakradhar, Blrt messages are up to 50 times smaller than video, at about 100 to 150 kilobytes per minute. What’s the secret? Blrt messages are not videos.
“People immediately think this is video because Blrts play back like a high resolution video,” said Chakradhar.
“The problem with video is that it’s got 25 frames per second. Each frame has a million pixels in it, and each pixel takes up 1 byte of storage. More pixels means higher the resolution and larger the file size. The longer the video, the bigger the file size.”
What Blrt does is it stores hand gestures as vector data and computer code instruction.
“Instead of storing pixels, it returns the original document. Say you’re talking over a 20-page .pdf document. The document itself may only be 1 megabyte, so the Blrt starts out at 1 megabyte, and then on top of that you have your voice which we record and you have hand gestures,” said Chakradhar.
“Blrt technology encodes all the hand gestures in a real-time fashion in the computer code, so all these things come together to form, for the end user, something that looks just like a video but it’s really not a video at all. It’s delivered at a fraction of the bandwidth. Because we’re not storing pixels and we don’t have to actually compress. At the end of the day, Blrts look really clear because the starting elements are static objects like documents or images or web captures.”
Chakradhar stressed he’s a firm believer of the agile development methodology – that is, embracing incremental, iterative work cadences, rather than sticking to a grand plan and building something only to find out customers don’t want it. By embracing the agile philosophy, Chakradhar said the company was able to recognise high value pain points and deliver value to Blrt’s early adopters.
“We do the whole design, development and deployment cycle in monthly sprints. We put out a rough version of the app or feature; we give access to a couple of hundred people and they give us feedback … Over the last year, we have continually refined the user experience to something that now several thousand people are enjoying,” said Chakradhar.
At first glance, Blrt may seem like ‘just another communication app’, but it has some very specific and interesting use cases and has attracted diverse customer segments.
Blrt’s initial target market was freelancers, particular those working in the design industry. Chakradhar noted that freelancers make up about 30 percent of Australia’s workforce; in the US, the percentage slightly higher and is expected to grow to about 50 percent by 2020.
A number of reasons were identified as to why freelancers are ideal users of Blrt: they don’t work out of offices and meeting rooms; they use mobile devices heavily; they have clients all over the world; and they value clarity of communication because they don’t want to be in a position where they’re not delivering on what their clients are expecting.
“Say you’re a graphic designer and you need to present a design to your client, the last thing you want to do is flick it over email because you know that first impressions count. When a client receives that design, they make up their own mind; they haven’t heard from the designer as to what the thinking was behind the logo or behind this design layout, which is why creative people always prefer to present in person. But meeting in person is not always possible,” Chakradhar said.
With Blrt they can also receive really concise and clear feedback from clients. Instead of sending an email, it’s easier for the client to send a Blrt saying ‘I don’t like this shade of blue on the right hand corner. Can you make it darker, like the shade of this blue flower’.”
Architects and civil engineers are also ideal users, according to Chakradhar, because they’re constantly sending annotated .pdf files via email when discussing site plans, building materials, 3D renders, and so on. Every time they add a new annotation, they have to re-send the file. Whereas with Blrt, they can talk over the .pdf. For instance, they could just say, ‘Hey, wasn’t the window meant to be on this wall, instead of this wall?’ Someone on the construction site could take a photo and respond, ‘No, the drawing is correct, don’t change the location of the window.’
Another potential user is a mortgage broker. Instead of having a client physically come in and sign a contract in-person, the mortgage broker can send the paperwork via mail, and send a Blrt to the client saying ‘You’re going to receive this document in the mail soon. When you get it, don’t forget to sign it here and here. By the way, the vendor didn’t agree to remove this clause, so it has to stay.’
Chakradhar said that even filmmakers in Hollywood are using Blrt for location scouting. Typically, location scouts, who might be travelling from Hollywood to Arizona, would record videos on their iPhones and upload them onto Dropbox. The director back in Hollywood would assess the location based on what’s been captured on video. With Blrt, they can just snap a few photos and talk over them. For instance, they could say, ‘we can shoot this sequence here or that sequence there’. Immediately, the director can respond, ‘while you’re there, can you take a photo of X from this angle to see if we can shoot this sequence’.
The education market could prove to be one of Blrt’s strongest. Students, teachers and tutors can collaborate to solve issues related to assignments or even to clarify course material when they’re not in class.
Many more examples could be presented, but as Chakradhar said, “The [user profiles] are endless.This is because Blrt provides a human way to communicate via technology.”
He believes Asia is going to be one of Blrt’s strongest markets. “What’s happened in places like India and Indonesia and other developing markets is that people have not really had the opportunity to use a computer much, but they’ve all got smartphones. They don’t assume anything. You can just explain to them ‘this is how it works’ and they’ll use it.”
“Also, places like India still have basic mobile internet connectivity in most parts of the country. We have 4G, but they still have 2G in some areas, and networks get very full as well. The fact that Blrt uses up to 50 times less bandwidth than video is a real plus.”
Comparatively, in developed markets, Chakradhar said there’s a need to educate users more thoroughly because they have assumptions about what things are and how they should work. In the case of Blrt, he was referring to explaining to users that Blrt messages aren’t videos.
Although the Blrt has thousands of users already, Chakradhar admitted that very few of them are paying users. But there’s good reason for that, according to Chakradhar: “people don’t pay for technology for at least a year.”
“If you look at the typical Evernote or Dropbox user, you will notice that they will use it until they fill up that last megabyte and then they’ll delete the files to make more space. Or they’ll find more people to refer to the service so they can get extra storage for free,” said Chakradhar.
“We’re too young for that upgrade cycle to kick in yet. We’ve got some paying customers, but the mass revenue [stream] is yet to be architected.”
At the moment, Blrt operates on a freemium model. At no cost, users can have unlimited conversations, but can only invite five people to a conversation and each message in a conversation is capped at one minute. For US$12.50 a month, users can talk for 10 minutes at a time, add 20 people to a conversation and have additional security features like having control over who takes part in a conversation and being able to block users.
Chakradhar is aware that most of Blrt’s users will make do with the free version of the app. However, he said apps like Dropbox and Evernote have between two and five percent of their total user base paying, and that this is enough to support the massive number of free users and still have a profitable company.
Blrt is also trialling an enterprise model. Chakradhar said they’re providing bulk licenses to enterprises, wherein the cost per license is cheaper than a typical upgrade, because in that context, the number of upgraded users will likely be 500 due to the size of the organisation. Chakradhar also said they’re working on additional functionality for enterprises so they can control their own ecosystem within Blrt.
Blrt also has a closed API that has only been provided to a select number of people. In addition to individual and enterprise upgrades, Chakradhar believes Blrt’s API will be the company’s third source of revenue, though it’s not necessarily clear how.
One of the biggest challenges startups face, according to Chakradhar, is getting distracted, especially during customer identification and validation phases. “You get a lot of feedback from people who have their own agendas. You’ll be asked to create a thousand features and [implement] all kinds of different things. But you have to focus on the core problem that you are trying to solve.”
“For us, it’s about replacing the need for face-to-face meetings … It’s not about adding all kinds of features, only ones that support the core mission.”
He added that in Australia, startups are encouraged by investors and the broader ecosystem to prioritise revenue growth over user growth. While Chakradhar doesn’t deny that revenue is important, he feels that prioritising revenue over user growth limits Australians from creating ‘big vision’ products.
“Not many people have the balls to say ‘we’re creating something that millions of people could use in so many different ways, there will be many different ways to monetise it. Let’s not get stuck on revenue, because this is something huge we’re building’,” said Chakradhar, who remains laser-focused on user growth.
Blrt has raised two rounds of seed funding to the amount of $650,000, and is currently looking to raise an additional $2 million. Chakradhar said how the money is spent will depend on how much is raised in current round. If Blrt does manage to raise $2 million, it will be used to expand into different markets and target different verticals within those markets.
Featured image: Anurag Chakradhar, Founder of Blrt. Credit: Michele Mossop.