After Jay Coatta’s 16-year-old daughter won a tennis match, he received a text message from her that was filled with smiley-face emojis and other expressive icons.
Coatta was thrilled for her but frustrated. None of the emojis — cartoonish images that come installed on many smartphones — conveyed his daughter’s expressions like her own face could.
When he mentioned that to a friend, Jon Christensen, the two experimented to see if they could build a phone feature to allow customizable emojis. That’s when Phoji — a blended word of “photo” and “emoji” — was born.
It took two years to develop the app platform. While the original idea hatched out of interpersonal communication, the company has two different types of uses: person-to-person and business-to-consumer. Phoji is getting revenue chiefly from businesses that are using it to reach consumers.
Meanwhile, Christensen secured more than $1 million from investors, including angel investor Scott Honour of Northern Pacific Group in Wayzata. “They’ve come up with something really unique, particularly with how companies communicate with their customers,” Honour said.
Phoji is one of about 60 start-ups to be granted eligibility as a 2016 Minnesota’s Angel Tax Credit company by the Minnesota Department of Employment and Economic Development. This means an investor in Phoji can receive up to a 25 percent rebate on their investment. And the company will need several million dollars more to scale up nationally.
The free phone application officially launched last month and has been downloaded by 5,000 users so far. Phoji has a pending patent for the concept.
Already 50 local companies have signed up as “broadcasters” to pay for the business-to-consumer version while everyday users can access it for free. For businesses, it is the next generation of personalized push marketing as consumer preference shifts toward more direct advertising.
“Brands have found that [traditional text message-based] marketing doesn’t really work,” Christensen said, because it requires an extra step of opening an embedded link that redirects users to external websites that aren’t always mobile ready.
And so, he said, companies are looking for a more effective way to reach consumers directly.
When individuals download Phoji, they can select from which, if any, of the brands they would like to receive exclusive promotions or notifications.
As it’s an opt-in service, users can use it strictly for communication with friends and family or expand it for deals from their preferred businesses. Then, when a restaurant or business sends a user a message through the Phoji application, there is a personalized icon — maybe of the brand’s logo or an item it is trying to sell — that is often placed right in the middle of a sentence. The user can then tap on the photo to see the promotion.
People’s Organic, Renters Warehouse and Minnesota State hockey are a few of the companies paying for Phoji so far. Christensen said businesses pay anywhere from $100 to hundreds of thousands of dollars a month depending on their size and market reach.
Phoji’s viability ultimately depends on how many people download and use the app and how many brands sign up for it.
“If [the companies] get a perceived positive return on that investment,” Honour said, “and, ultimately, it has to generate profits,” then Phoji will be a success.