How the B-School Dropouts at Bump Are Filling a Big Gap in Mobile Communications

9/13/10Follow @wroush

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contexts. So they built an application programming interface (API) that lets other company’s services tap into Bump’s software back end. And they put together an SDK that third-party developers can download for free, allowing them to build Bump-like features into their own apps.

Already, roughly 100 apps in the iTunes App Store have Bump baked in. The most prominent is probably PayPal’s app, which lets users send money to one another’s accounts by bumping their phones. A slightly more frivolous example: Boink, a “sexual compatibility calculator” that uses a bump as a prompt to compare users’ preferences in bed.

“The original motivation for Bump was that there should be a universal way to do all these things,” says Lieb. “So we want to build a platform that includes our app and a bunch of other apps that all use the same technology.” For now, most third-party services can use the Bump API at no cost, but in cases where the system is being used to generate revenue, the startup may ask for a cut of the profits. “If somebody is making money off it, we probably deserve to share in some of that,” Lieb says.

New features and new operating systems. The 2.0 version of Bump for iPhone, released in July, includes a scrolling list of what Lieb calls “mini-apps.” Right now there are only four—for sharing contact cards, photos, social networking IDs, and calendar events. But the company will be adding more of these mini-apps to allow more types of sharing. “I can’t say what’s on our roadmap, but we have a user feedback forum in the app that lets users say what they want, and a lot of those things we’re going to be building,” Lieb says. The most popular ideas on the forum right now: the ability to bump to share songs, videos, notes, and games.

Speaking of games, Bump has an extra feature on Android phones: the ability to share apps such as mobile games with friends. (To be precise, users of this feature share links that lead their friends back to the Android Marketplace app store, where they can buy or download their own copies.) On Android, 30 to 40 percent of all bumps are app-sharing bumps, “which is really interesting,” Lieb says. That’s a feature that might eventually come to the iPhone version of Bump, depending on whether and when Apple introduces features such the ability to give apps as gifts.

Then there’s the world beyond iOS and Android. “We are on two of the major smartphone platforms now, but we could be on loads of other operating systems,” says Lieb. “We have decided to do Android and iPhone really well for now and then go to these other platforms,” including—eventually—BlackBerry, Palm, and Symbian. The company might even create versions that work on phones without accelerometers.

Grow first, monetize later. When I pressed him about monetization opportunities, Lieb said the company has “a set of different ideas,” but would mention only two: collecting fees from some certain revenue-generating licensees of the Bump API, and charging for the ability to share certain types of “premium content.” But like many early-stage Web and mobile startups, the company is clearly more focused on accumulating more users than on asking them to pay for stuff.

“Our goal is really to create this engaging platform that people are using every day, and if you do that there lots of ways to monetize,” says Lieb. “I don’t want to compare us to Facebook or Twitter, but they really focused on building great products first, and then figured out ways to monetize. Had they not done that, they would probably not be where they are today.”

Lieb argues that Sequoia Capital’s investment was a vote of confidence in this strategy. “They look for companies that can be big, important companies,” he says. “We think Bump can be that. We think Bump can fill this big gap in the core connection technologies for mobile.”

Meet David Lieb on video (recorded August 17, 2010—approximately 2 million downloads ago!):

Wade Roush is a contributing editor at Xconomy. Follow @wroush

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