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China's top app inspired by manga

Erick Guo left Asia's largest internet company last year to build a team of artists and engineers who could create smartphone applications inspired by Japanese comics. The 25-year-old and his team ended up with China's hottest app last month and are working on their next hit.

The free app, called MYOTee, lets people design avatars, or digital images, of themselves and friends that can be used for instant messaging or on social networks. It topped the Apple and Google Android app stores in China in June, with the software downloaded 36 million times.

Guo, who had previously worked at China web giant Tencent Holdings, developed the app by inviting Hong Kong T-shirt artist Peter Lee to join the team and create digital versions of his designs. With backing from venture firms such as IDG Capital Partners, Guo's team at Lemon Tech is seeking to follow MYOTee's success with new products such as mobile games.

"We hope to become the youth market's favourite technology company," Guo said in an interview over instant messaging.

MYOTee, known in Chinese as Lianmeng, lets people customise cartoon images by choosing facial features, hair colour and accessories like hats or sunglasses. What has helped it gain momentum is that the avatars can be used across social media, such as Tencent's WeChat messaging service which has about 400 million users.

The avatars, with designs similar to Japanese manga comics, can bring a more intimate, playful feel to messaging over smartphones or other devices.

"The style of it is a cultural thing here because we grew up watching Japanese animation," said Yan Yan, the Shenzhen director of entrepreneur community Startup Grind. 

Though an early version of MYOTee was released in December, it did not really take off until May, when a redesign brought an easier-to-use interface and changes to characters. 

MYOTee overtook GameLoft SE's Rival Knights for the top spot in the Apple store on June 9, according to Distimo, an app tracker. Later that week MYOTee passed Tencent's QQ instant message app to lead the larger Android market.

Guo's challenge now is to make sure his company avoids becoming a one-hit wonder, like so many app developers before it, said Yan. Though MYOTee does not generate any revenue, Guo has a bit of a cushion because of the venture capital backing.

While hard work could bring them to a US$100 million valuation, Guo, who gave up a sizeable bonus by leaving Tencent, said his motivation is more simple and that he is not entertaining the idea of being acquired.

"The reason I left Tencent is because I wanted to follow a life in comics," he wrote, the words accompanied by his MYOTee avatar sporting a lopsided grin and a pitchfork.