Short film clips that play on an endless loop are one of the internet's favorite forms of amusement. In the United States, GIFs, and more recently Vines, have done an admirable job satisfying this craving. But in Russia, another service has created a unique approach to crafting viral video. Coub is a Russian startup founded in 2012 that lets users easily trim, loop, and embed video clips. Its best trick is making it simple to create a visual loop that plays along with an extended audio track, allowing users to easily generate trippy, playful, micro-music videos.
Coub says it has reached fairly massive scale, with more than 50 million unique visitors to its website each month, up from 8 million this time last year. It is on iOS and has an Android app in the works, but most of its usage still comes from the desktop, because Coub's best use case is not really creating new videos on the go, but making it easy to remix existing content. The company opened its first international office, in New York City, earlier this month, and today it's announcing a new $2.5 million round of funding as it looks to put some distance between itself and the troubled business environment in its home country.
"Coub looks like a GIF, but it's better than GIF, because Coubs have sound," said Anton Gladkoborodov, the startup's co-founder and CEO. "It's very easy to find video and trim it, simpler than making a Tweet." Coub's website is minimal, with a button for creating new Coubs and a feed displaying recent additions. There is a selection of channels to follow, featuring accounts like Visual Science, which pairs visuals of microscopic viruses with Frank Sinatra tunes. The most popular submissions to the site are an eclectic mix of psychedelic art, cinemagraphs, and pop culture remixes from film and television. Gladkoborodov, who is based on Moscow, says the company began a a purely Russian phenomenon, but now has millions of visitors arriving each month other parts of Eastern Europe.
The funding Coub announced today comes from Viazra Investments, a venture capital firm headed up by Lev Leviev and Vyacheslav Mirilashvili, the early backers of VK.com, a Russian competitor to Facebook. For years VK managed to stave off Facebook and retain its crown as the most popular social network in Russia. But at the end of 2013, the investors and founders sold off their stake and literally fled the country, with control of the service passing to cronies of Russian president Vladimir Putin. Coub's executives say they are eager to transform themselves from a Russian success story into a truly global business as a hedge against a similar fate. "Russia is not a good market, it’s not stable," Anastasia Popova, Coub's director of marketing, told The Verge. "Russia has passed some new laws that are making digital business very difficult."
Of particular concern is a new law requiring startups to house users' personal data on servers located on Russian soil, sparking fears of greater meddling from the Kremlin. All of the text on Coub.com is already in English, a move intended to broaden the audience it can reach and avoid government censorship. "Many words are banned, even for bloggers," explains Gladkoborodov. "So we have no Russian language on our website."
The company hopes its new funding and New York office will help fuel its international expansion. "Russia was kind of our sandbox," says Gladkoborodov. "Now were are experimenting with business model, trying out different things for monetization and mobile." Coub says it has recently seen a big uptick in usage from Hungary and Japan, but the main focus is still on breaking into the American market. "When you become popular in US," explains Gladkoborodov, "you become popular everywhere."