fbFund Winner Funji Building Avatar-Based Social Networking Platform for the iPhone

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Continuing our interview series of the 2009 fbFund winners, we now turn our attention to Funji, an avatar-based social networking platform for the iPhone that allows you (in the form of your avatar) to decorate your room and interact with other Funji users by visiting their rooms … and soon, hugging and kissing them too. Funji Home Version 1.1 is available in the iPhone App Store with Version 1.2 coming soon. We recently spoke with Shinyoung Park, CEO of Funji, about the company’s vision for bridging Facebook with mobile social networking.

Shinyoung, congratulations on winning the 2009 fbFund competition. What is Funji?

Funji is an avatar-based mobile social networking platform. We just launched our iPhone app about two weeks ago and are going to extend the app to other smart phones, including Blackberry and Android at the end of this year. In the game, you decorate your avatar in a room environment and visit other people to see how they decorate their rooms. The idea is to trigger friendship when you’re on the go.

How does the mobile aspect make avatar-based social networking unique?

Through mobile devices, people can have more personal, intimate interactions relative to traditional web environments. Ultimately, we want to be at a point where users can more easily explore each other’s rooms, especially among close friends. Soon users will be able to invite their Facebook friends and see which of them are Funji users via Facebook Connect.

What are current features of the app, and what features are coming soon?

Currently, there are two basic interactions: add a friend and leave a message. We’re seeing that the status bubble next to each avatar that lets users update their Facebook status is being used as a trigger to talk to other people (e.g., Movie this weekend? I’m bored.), and promote blogs. Back to the status bubble, Facebook Connect allows you to update your status through Funji. It’s like a visual tweet. Users can also upload photos, save them in their Funji home folders, and publish them to their Walls.

In the future, a point system and ranking will allow users to engage more deeply with the app and unlock items to decorate their rooms. There will also be different types of interactions such as teasing your friends by shaking your phone and kissing your friends by kissing the screen. Funji is about doing good for other people. These features will come as we make rooms more interactive: users will also be able to hug each other, dance with each other, and chat with each other through bubbles. Text and location-based features are also on our list.

What inspired Funji?

When I was working in Korea, I saw that the avatar market was growing like crazy and that every teenager was trying to get a mobile phone. A lot of entrepreneurs want to make people happy, so what could I do? I wanted to bring Funji users closer to their friends and family by providing a channel to talk more openly. The mobile phone is the most intimate device. People can bring it wherever they go. In the beginning, I wanted to build a hardware that people could personalize, but when the iPhone came out and had every component we would need, it became clear that we would build an iPhone app.

What were you working on before Funji, and how did you make the transition?

I had my first start up in 1999, a baby/childcare education portal, which was sold to an education company in Korea. From 2002 to 2006, I worked with mobile apps at SK Telecom, and then moved to New York to do a Masters at NYU’s Interactive Telecommunications program. There, I developed Funji as my thesis. In July 2008, I moved to San Francisco and incorporated by company with some seed funding. Our team began building the first prototype, working remotely from Canada and Korea until I finally recruited them to our San Francisco office.

What geographic and demographic audience are you reaching?

We’re targeting the U.S. market, specifically teenagers and college students.

Now that Funji has been in the iTunes store, any surprises in terms of user behavior?

The Funji iPhone app in available in the iTunes store for free. We’re getting user feedback and working on making the app more stable. We were pleased to find that users were spending 10 minutes in the game, whereas most users spent one to two minutes in other apps. Users were spending more time decorating their spaces and visiting other people.Users have been publishing their rooms 1.6 times per session.

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How will Funji leverage the virtual goods market?

The virtual goods business model is a good one. We plan to have in-app purchases and register all our virtual items in iTunes. We’ll be offering vacation, graduation, Christmas, etc. packages and feature limited and exclusive items, as well as allow users to generate their own items to sell. We may also introduce real-time virtual gifts and branded goods. With branded goods, users can choose to use their rooms as promotional tools. For example, Up could have a promotion in our app with its own characters and balloons.

As virtual goods take off, so is the payment industry. What are your thoughts around Apple’s payment strategy and future plans to integrate Facebook credits or mobile payments into your game?

In Korea, 30 percent is a lot. As the platform expands, Apple will cut less than 30 percent. As for Facebook credits, it’s possible. We want to allow as many payment systems as possible, and iTunes is the easiest for now. Eventually, mobile payments make sense too.