Frontback almost never happened. Now it’s got 1M downloads, 75% monthly growth, and an Android app

By Michael Carney , written on April 16, 2014

From The News Desk

Breakout mobile photo sensation Frontback is an app that almost never happened. It’s a fact that seems mind-boggling given that the company raced past its one millionth download in late March and has now doubled its user based in the last eight weeks and tripled the number of photos uploaded and viewed monthly since the beginning of the year, reaching 17 million images in March.

Frontback's accidental success is the result of a failed Tumblr competitor called CheckThis launched in Brooklyn in 2011. Last summer, with just a few weeks of cash left in the bank, CheckThis and now Frontback founder Frederic della Faille was sitting around his apartment bored and discouraged when he began began casually mashing together photos of his view and his facial expression. He tagged the photos #frontback, and then watched with amusement as the hashtag and the photo-style grew organically and became the first thing to really catch on in CheckThis’s two year history.

The team dropped everything and with just four weeks of cash in the bank banged out a MVP version of the Frontback app (iOS only to start), launching last summer. The app was an instant hit that was downloaded more than 200,000 times in its first month. Celebrities like Jack Dorsey, Ashton Kutcher (who’s now an investor) and the Prime Minister of Belgium were all early users. The app got a secondary bump in popularity after August’s Disrupt conference, where investors reportedly began cornering the founders backstage.

Today, Frontback is launching its first-ever Android version of the app which should provide another wave of growth.

So the question is, what’s underlying Frontback’s wild popularity and what has the company done in the last three months to pour gasoline on the fire?

First and foremost, the product taps into a genuine human need to tell stories in an authentic and compelling way. This is something that can’t be faked or growth-hacked, and it’s something that prior hits like Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and Snapchat have all offered in spades.

“We’re always getting compared to Instagram and Snapchat,” says Frontback Head of Marketing and Growth Spencer Chen. “And I think that’s fair to some degree. Instagram is about the best of your life – it’s curated and filtered. Snapchat on the other hand allows you to be the real you, because things disappear. In that sense, I think we trend toward Snapchat’s psychology, but Instagram’s aesthetics.”

But even with its organic appeal, Frontback has done more than sit back and count its downloads. Following Disrupt, the company went heads-down building out what it viewed as its true Version 1.0 product, which didn’t launch until January. In the interim, the company largely ignored user acquisition and retention. But what it did do was make friends in high places.

“Behind the scenes, we were really nurturing our relationship with Apple,” Chen says. “Being featured in the App store was the output of that work, but a lot more goes into it.”

Frontback was able to offer Apple something that it desperately craves, Chen explains: international appeal. In its early days, as many as 75 percent of Frontback’s users were international, particularly in key growth markets like Japan, China, and Brazil, where photography is extremely popular.

“This really spiked Apple’s interest,” he says. “They even created a Selfie sharing section recently and we were featured there as well.”

The combination of the redesigned app, which added a public feed, in addition to the existing follower model, and the Apple-powered promotion put Frontback on a rocketship trajectory over the first quarter of this year. The company is now a top 10 app in the the App Store’s Photo and Video category in 92 countries. Since February, 53 percent of new user signups have come from outside the US, with 16 percent in China, 8 percent in Brazil, and 4 to 5 percent in each the UK, Canada, and Japan.

Over the same time, the company's celebrity user base has grown to include Snoop Dog, MC Hammer, Mila Kunis, Joe Montana, and iJustine, among others. Frontback doesn’t actively court celebrity engagement, Chen says, but their impact on adoption is a welcome one.

“The celebrities are savvy and they never really saw Frontback as a selfie app,” he says. “They see it as a way to tell stories and to express a moment better than they otherwise can.”

Frontback was the subject of acquisition rumors in recent months, with Twitter being the most commonly cited suitor. The company won’t comment on these reports, and Chen only said, “there were some pretty strong rumors going around, but I’ll leave it at that.” Industry sources tell Pando that there was smoke behind this fire and the talks, which occurred prior to Twitter’s November IPO, featured a firm offer at a valuation just under $70 million for the beta-stage app. By comparison, Twitter acquired Vine for $30 million pre-launch.

Frontback has raised $3.9 million to date from investors including Betaworks, Lerer Ventures*, Index Ventures, SV Angel, Crunchfund*, A-Grade, Garry Tan, Alexis Ohanian, and other individual angels. The company has recently settled into its San Francisco headquarters after being distributed between New York, Brussels, and Silicon Valley previously. Despite the rapid growth, the team remains just eight people – including only one Android developer – although expect that to change soon. The lean operation is also a function of Chen and della Faille’s desire to stockpile cash to spend on user acquisition.

“We’ve been heads-down trying to get our product right for the last six months and we didn’t want to disrupt that by bringing a bunch of new people,” Chen says. “Now we’re getting to the point where we’re ready to staff up and scale.”

Frontback’s new Android app is feature-complete with its existing iOS version and even adds one heavily requested feature that’s yet to reach the Apple platform. Android users will have access to a draft mode which makes offline use (such as when in areas of poor service) possible for the first time. This is important because Frontback still doesn’t let users import photos taken elsewhere – or add filters for that matter – features that it’s unlikely to ever add, Chen says, given the overwhelmingly positive user feedback over their absence. The Android version is also the first to feature a self-timer.

Today, Frontback is more than a mobile photo utility. The platform has developed into its own community. The company has even seen offline meetups planned in places like Japan and Russia to for the platform’s most active users to gather in person. In that way, this community is more reminiscent of Instagram than it is of Snapchat, with an orientation toward discovery and building new relationships. Frontback users broadcast their stories to a wide audience, giving their fellow users a glimpse into their lives. Just as importantly, they are able to provide more context through superimposing two opposing photos than would be possible in a traditional single-focus image.

Unlike Instagram, and Facebook before that, the culture and ethos of the Frontback community is far less vanity-focused. Maintaining that attitude of humor and vulnerability may be the young company’s biggest challenge as it scales. But doing so, if it’s able, may be the very thing that makes it a breakout success.

*Lerer Ventures and Crunchfund are investors in Pando.