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Talk of the toons

GoAnimate CEO Alvin Hung is revolutionising animation creation

Who doesn’t like cartoons? They are fun to watch and enjoyed by children and adults alike. However, up until recently, the problem was that no one thought it worth the trouble to use it as a medium to communicate complex ideas or products and services. That was how it looked to Alvin Hung, founder and CEO of the increasingly popular GoAnimate service, which allows people with no prior technical or creative background to easily and quickly create cartoon videos that are both fun to watch and informative.

In 2007, the then 33-year-old Columbia University graduate and Hong Kong native was on a career sabbatical with two technology start-ups – one successful, the other less so – already under his belt. The idea for GoAnimate came to him when, one day, he decided to create an animated video for his wife. He found, however, that even with his computer science degree and stint as a programmer at software giant Oracle, it was not an easy task. There were simply no tools that were readily available, easy to use and which didn’t involve a steep learning curve or high price tag.

“The opportunity was that most people don’t see anyone needing to make animations themselves,” Hung says. “It was perceived as a medium for entertainment and not something the everyday person or business would use to disseminate stories and ideas. Even today, I still think that making an animated video yourself and using it to explain your products and services is a novel idea to many businesses,” Hung says.

Armed with this idea, he launched GoAnimate with help from his family business – he’s a member of the Hung family which owns the listed Hop Hing Group in Hong Kong. The company has grown steadily since. “Now it’s become rather obvious and many people are doing it, and the reason for that is that animation is more flexible than live action. You can have things flying or zooming in and out much more cheaply. As a medium, it’s much more conductive to explaining things,” Hung says.

In 2012, GoAnimate marked 10 million videos created by its customers. It also has a modest user base of around 7.5 million, spread out evenly between individuals, business users and schools. Users are based mainly in English-speaking countries such as the US, Canada, the UK and Australia.

Hung’s product allows users, via a web browser, to navigate a user-friendly interface and to quickly create customised animated cartoon videos. First using pre-drawn sets and characters, users can set the scene for their story, then add moving animation and fill it with all manner of music and conversation, through recordings that are either pre-recorded, computer-voice-generated or from their own voice. The results are cartoons that are fun to make and watch.

The service has no advertising – it generates revenue when users upgrade from the free service they initially sign up for to a paid subscription. For individual users, this costs around US$60 a year, giving them the ability to create videos of unlimited length (free users are limited to only 30 seconds) and to download their creations in standard television definition. It also gives access to a host of extra characters and customisation bonuses.

It is costlier for business users who, for around US$300 a year, can raise the output quality of their videos to 720p, and get extra themes and tools. However, even its most premium business offering – allowing full high-definition videos and tools such as watermarks – is under US$600 a year, still cheap compared to the cost of using a creative agency. “It’s part of our vision. We want to enable more people to use us. It’s important to open up the market as big as possible, rather than to try to be overly greedy and monetise in the short term,” Hung says.

Despite the modest pricing plans and lack of advertising income, Hung says the company has long since broken even, but declined to elaborate except to say revenues were in “eight figures” in terms of Hong Kong dollars.

Although the company’s product began as a fun way for consumers to make animated videos, Hung says the future for the nimble start-up – which employs around 20 people in Hong Kong and two in the US – is to continue to expanding its offerings for businesses via greater variety in animation styles, and tools suited to the segment.

He also hopes GoAnimate will revolutionise and drive the pervasive use of low-cost animation across a variety of commercial settings. This ranges from giving entrepreneurs and kick-start projects an easier way to develop messages that have the potential of going viral on social media, to its use by medium and large businesses in creating internal training videos. Eventually, he hopes it will become a cheap and effective way to create advertising TV commercials.

In a world where people compose their own comic strips and post them on social media on the go, it might seem strange that GoAnimate currently has no presence on Apple’s iTunes Store or Google Play. Hung says there are two reasons for that. First, when people embark on long-form creative endeavours such as making animation videos, they are more likely to do so in front of their PCs and Macs, rather than limiting themselves to small and less-precise touch screens on phones and tablets. Second, it’s the product of a conscious strategic choice to target the business segment, he says, adding he would not rule out branching out to mobile devices in the longer term.


Alvin Hung shares his thoughts on things entrepreneurs must do.

Keep creating “Someone said entrepreneurs never start just two businesses; it’s three at least. If your second business fails, you must prove you’re not a one-trick pony. But if you’re successful, you just keep going.”
Get your message across “Every good thing in our world today originated from an idea. The problem is, you have to explain to the world why it matters and how it works, or nobody will care or notice. It’s often hard to get people’s attention long enough to get them to understand.”
Take on the world “We help people package their ideas in video form, to give them a chance of the world taking notice.”
Deliver value “Consumers see GoAnimate as fun, but it’s a mission-critical tool for businesses. You are seen as bringing value. It’s a better way to build a successful, more sustainable business.”