Startup stories

Happy Goon’s image recognition and AR tech brings greetings cards to life

Startup stories, Hull, Leeds, Early Stage

Kane FultonKane Fulton, February 12, 2018

This article was originally posted on the Tech North website.

New York and Hull is an uncommon pairing of cities for two co-founders to base themselves in, but the transatlantic approach works for Happy Goon’s Tim Mutlow (CTO) and Colin Hughes (CEO).

The startup uses a combination of image recognition and AR tech to bring greetings cards to life through a smartphone camera and Happy Goon’s app. Mutlow and Hughes, who met at a mutual friend’s wedding, devised the idea after chatting on Facebook.

It was when Hughes moved to New York to be closer to his creative agency’s clients that the pair saw strength in separation. We spoke to Mutlow to find out more.

What problem are you trying to solve?

Tim Mutlow: The problem with cards today is that they’re part of a stagnating industry. There’s no forward-thinking or innovation as such – people are buying cards online but they’re all staying the same.

There’s a wonderful amount of e-cards out there, but they don’t have the same sentiment – you can’t receive them through the post, write a message or put them on your shelf. We’ve combined the two.

“We have the best of both worlds – Colin gets the Brooklyn Bridge and I get the Humber Bridge!”

How are your cards different to regular ones?

The core aspect to our cards is that they appear magical, like the newspapers or photos you see in the Harry Potter films. 2D animations come to life on a card’s surface in a way that’s seamless – you don’t see the disjoint between the physical and digital.

There’s a few things other customers can do with them. For example, you can have an innocent-looking card that appears normal on a shelf until they choose to show its risqué animation to somebody!

It’s all about our customers sharing the experience – it’s an inherently viral product. Instead of people getting cards and saying ‘that’s nice’ and putting them on the shelf, they’ll get all their friends to come round and look at them.

How do you create designs to work with the tech?

We use a wonderful piece of image-recognition software which is more of a computer vision toolkit with augmented reality on top. We always start with the first image of the animation, which is the card design, and then make the animation come out of that. We use characters in our designs as they are easily recognisable by the algorithms we use. The app develops a feature vector, which is just a way of describing an image in a way that a computer can understand. It can only see in black and white but can do things like enhance contrast and detect sharp corners.

Why did you split the roles between New York and Hull?

Mutlow: We wanted to keep the company over in New York to take advantage of its investment, pitching and startup opportunities. Doing the development in Hull made sense as it’s low-cost and has the emerging high-quality C4DI tech centre. We have the best of both worlds. Colin gets the Brooklyn Bridge and I get the Humber Bridge!

Has that separation presented any challenges?

It’s been difficult to straddle the two sides of the Atlantic at times. There’s an obvious culture difference in that Americans are reluctant to buy cards online. They tend to be stuck in their ways and want to go to a shop and find the right card, rather than online, whereas in the UK everyone’s sort of Moonpigged-it-up! There’s no such equivalent in the states, so it’s not taken off over there. It’s been a difficult one to pioneer, and we have a limited marketing budget so unfortunately that market has been difficult to penetrate.

In terms of picking our card categories, we know that big events like Valentine’s Day – which we’re running a 75% sale around – do better than everyday things like get well soon, or thank you, etc. People tend to send a bunch of flowers or buy chocolates for those – that’s the same in both countries.

Happy Goon CEO Colin Hughes (left) and CTO Tim Mutlow

What’s the story behind the company’s name?

A ‘goon’ is essentially that little bit of you that’s crazy and comes out when you’re with people you trust – you let your guard and barriers come down. We wanted to have that as the character, hence the little green goon in the logo. Everybody has one and they’re all a little bit different – at the end of the day we want to make our customers smile.

Have you had any investment?

We had a successful crowdfunding raise on Kickstarter of around $15,000, which was essentially for marketing and getting the product over the line. Apart from that we’re bootstrapped. We built it out of love, blood and sweat – and now we just need to tell everybody about it.

Has being based in C4DI helped you?

My nature is to try and do things on my own a lot, but I’ve been talking to people more, reaching out and showing them the product. That our tech can recognise individual cards has wide-ranging implications for different industry uses, so we’re looking into that with packaging manufacturers like Trident, so the links through C4DI has been great. RB, who are running a mentorship programme at C4DI, are interested in working with us.

What’s on the horizon for Happy Goon?

We have a long to-do list. We’re currently looking at running a second promotion on SweatCoin, which we previously partnered with before to give away cards for free. We’re also looking at running another Kickstarter campaign, and we have developed our online shop to go into the app , which is the next big thing to make buying our cards more seamless.