A few years ago, the idea that a graphic icon of  Stephen Curry--chewing on his mouth guard, or sweating profusely--could turn into a profitable business might have been laughable. But social media trends today have made this a reality for AppMoji, a New York-based design agency. 

Earlier this month, the startup launched "StephMoji," a collection of emojis created in partnership with the NBA star himself. In less than 24 hours, it was named the most-popular paid app on the Apple App Store. While the number of downloads is unknown, claiming the title of No. 1 app is no easy task, and it's a big indicator that the agency is making a considerable amount of money. StephMoji even topped Kimoji, a similar emoji app curated by Kim Kardashian West. (When Kimoji first launched last year, it clocked  9,000 downloads per second, amounting to a reported $1 million in sales per minute for the reality TV star.)

All said, AppMoji produces over 15,000 of these animated icons, and has scored deals with a range of celebrities with huge followings, including Amber Rose, Rick Ross, Wiz Khalifa, and Future. While customers can purchase some celebrity emojis as standalone apps, AppMoji also makes money through Moji, its all-inclusive keyboard. Oliver Camilo, the company's co-founder and CEO, declined to disclose revenue or terms of its celebrity partnerships, but he says AppMoji reached profitability earlier this year, and has been growing steadily each month. No outside funding has been raised, though the founders say they've put "a solid six-figures" worth of capital into the business.

Generally, Camilo says, working with celebrities involves revenue share agreements, and each deal is structured differently "in terms of advances or minimum guarantees." Celebrities likely get a higher portion of the sales, given the credibility and branding power they lending to AppMoji. But Camilo suggests that the agreements are more beneficial for his company (compared to other endorsement deals) thanks to the cultural significance and popularity of emojis.

"Everyone sees that there's a lot of money to be made in this. It's not just an extremely lucrative product, it's also a highly effective way for them to market to this hard-to-reach segment of Millennials," he explained. "We sometimes have the luxury of structuring deals that normally wouldn't be structured."

A solid professional and social network is another crucial factor in this market. Camilo was able to partner with Curry after being introduced through a mutual friend, he says.

Struggles within the emoji market

It's worth pointing out that AppMoji, along with competing agencies--like Whalerock Industries, the company behind Kimoji--aren't technically making "emojis"; their stickers have not been approved by the Unicode Consortium, the governing body that votes to decide which icons get adopted onto the standard global keyboard. As a result, AppMoji is vastly limited in terms of the audience it can actually reach.

"It certainly is limiting given how Unicode works," Camilo concedes. "They [our graphics] can't be used in Instagram comments, and they can't be used on Snapchat." Which, of course, is unfortunate, since that's where much of Generations Y and Z spend their time. 

Regardless, Camilo plans to pitch his company to such social media networks once he's built up a larger roster of high-profile celebrity partners. (He hints that deals with multiple soccer players are currently in the works.)

Shifting the business model

AppMoji plans to sign on more high-profile, high net-worth celebrities to beef up sales and credibility. Ultimately, however, it wants to become a marketing force by creating custom emojis for international brands -- in return for a sizeable check.

"There are so many things that can be turned into an emoji," Camilo says. "We want to be the ones to introduce brands in an effective way into people's everyday conversations. We see ourselves partnering with bigger global brands."

AppMoji's ultimate strategy of working with brands directly is different from how Unicode wants to operate. Unicode makes a point of avoiding emojis that are obviously promoting any one company--even as a number of firms have campaigned to get certain emojis on the keyboard. Havas London petitioned for a condom emoji on behalf of Durex, for example, and Cerveza India petitioned a dark beer. Both were rejected. Other corporations have been successful, however, like Ballantine's and La Fallera, which petitioned for whiskey and paella icons (both introduced just this week.) 

Of course, the success of AppMoji, even as a marketing firm, depends largely on how subtle -- and artful -- it will continue to be over time. Millennials are growing evermore weary of advertising, whether blatant or strategic, and that could put the staying power of emojis into question.

"Kids are getting smart. They can filter through what is strategic product placement," Camilo says. He's confident, however, that his company is still designing the graphics "in a way that's natural and organic."

Published on: Jun 24, 2016