Smule, Palo Alto, California
Nothing against iFart. Or FarmVille. Or any of the thousands of popular games currently offered as apps for the iPhone, Android, and Facebook. But let's be honest: Most of these apps are dumb.
Not that we have a problem with dumb. We respect anyone who can make money selling fart noises or virtual cabbage. But we find ourselves wanting more out of the $3 billion casual-games industry. We want to see apps that are smart and challenging, and maybe even artful. We want apps that do more than make us less bored.
That's why we love Ge Wang and Smule. The company has seen revenue grow threefold this year, to $4.5 million, thanks to its founder's knack for taking dumb ideas -- a virtual cigarette lighter; an app that makes anyone sound like the rapper T-Pain -- and making them sing.
Wang, 33, never intended to be an entrepreneur. When he started Smule, in 2008, he was an up-and-coming Stanford music professor who had distinguished himself by creating the first orchestra in which the only instruments were mobile phones. Then came an e-mail from one of his doctoral students, Jeff Smith, who had started a tech company before entering academia. "I looked at Ge and said, 'This dude is going to change music,' " says Smith, who is now Smule's CEO. "If I'm going to take another whack at starting a company, I want to do it with this guy."
Wang was skeptical but agreed to create a test product, Sonic Lighter, a 99-cent iPhone app that displayed a flickering flame. Similar apps existed, but, in a twist, Wang let users call up a map that showed every other Sonic Lighter in use in the world. It was a diversion, yes, but it was also somehow romantic. Wang had turned a rock-concert gag into a commentary on global connectedness.
Within weeks, Sonic Lighter was No. 26 at Apple's App Store. Two months after that, Wang finished Ocarina, which turns an iPhone into a flute. The app, one of the best selling of all time (three million downloads and counting), has inspired users to post tablature for thousands of songs on Smule's website.
Smule employs 25 people and continues to release titles at a furious pace. Recent hits include Magic Piano, an iPad app that lets nonmusicians perform classical music, and Glee Karaoke, which allows users to sing along with strangers all over the world. "We want to make apps that make people feel less inhibited -- to play music by accident," says Wang. "There's a little creativity in everyone. We think we just need to nudge them."