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Digital hugs: how a Ukrainian app for sharing touches captivated Americans

The Ukrainian application Obimy, a service of virtual hugs and touches, with 8,5 million users entered the top App Store in the United States, overtaking Pinterest and Netflix, reports

Photo: IStock

In September 2020, the architect and designer Zhenya Zasutsky, together with the team, presented the application to the public Obimy. With it, you can virtually express feelings - hugging, sending kisses and touches.

Over 5 million people have downloaded the app in the last five months alone. This allowed Obimy to top the US App Store's top Lifestyle category. The app has outpaced even Tinder, Pinterest and Netflix.

How the idea was born

About three years ago, Kyiv architect and designer Zhenya Zasutsky opened his phone and spent a few minutes searching through a pile of business chats and correspondence to find the last message from his wife. Then he realized that he was inundated with content, and his loved ones were lost among the heaps of messages and posts.

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Thus, the idea of ​​an application was born that would differ from instant messengers and social networks in that it allows you to maintain an emotional connection with your loved ones.

Zhenya had no experience in creating such startups. But the desire to improve and make life more comfortable - more than enough. Let's say he came to a working office, where a card was used to get into a building, elevator or office. Each time it was necessary to get it out and repeat monotonous movements many times a day.

Such an "imperfection of the system" irritated Zasutsky - and he decided to order a ring with a chip programmed like entry cards. Then he went even further: he ordered a new ring to be printed on a 3D printer, on which not only a chip was placed to enter the building, but also a sensor from a bank card.

Once Zhenya came to the office to his friends. They had a stand where you could attach a bank card and make a donation. Zasutsky applied his “magic ring” and amazed everyone with this.

“The essence of comfort is ease of use,” Zhenya explains. “The simpler the better.”

This principle for him became fundamental for the development of the Obimy application. And later, his opinion was supported by millions of people from dozens of countries. To date, more than 8,5 million users have joined the virtual hug and touch service.

How did you get started on the app?

In the biography of the Obimy application, the date of birth is September 15, 2020. On this day, the architect Zasutsky and IT company Empat presented their brainchild to the public. But, as usual, the birth of the product took place nine months before, namely in December 2019.

“It all started with a market analysis,” explains the author of the project. He brought in a development team who did the research. It turned out that potential users requested to share with close biometric data - pulse, emotional state, heart rate. Thus, it was possible to support relatives and friends, to follow their experiences.

“We decided to give people a tool that would allow them to understand others a little deeper,” Zasutsky clarifies. “After all, our emotions can sometimes say more about us than words.”

At that time, several companies had similar products. Yes, Apple Health also tracked heart rate, but apart from medical characteristics, this data was not used in any way.

Sold a house to develop an app

Empat, a service company and startup studio led by Nazar Gulik, initially became the main production site for Obimy. Later we switched from outsourcing to an in-house team.

The project team gathered gradually, now it consists of 18 people. One of the main developers, Konstantin Medvedev, is writing an application for Android and iOS, and Anastasia Avramenko closes the marketing niche. She is promoting a product that has become especially popular on TikTok.

The initial development of the product cost $40 – this money was invested by Zasutsky. Then another $20 was added by friends. But this amount could not cover all the needs for creating an application.

“Then I came to my wife and said: “Valya, we have good prospects. Here is our house near Kyiv for 200 square meters, but we can live in a skyscraper. What you choose?" We sold the house and contributed another $150 to the project. So I can safely call the Obimy application almost my own,” Zasutsky laughs.

He admits that the development process itself was not too difficult. The team held weekly strategic sessions where they determined where to move. When they saw that it would take a lot of time to develop some function, and the quality of the result was not guaranteed, they did not take on this idea.

An example of this is the Time Together feature. She had to track when people are nearby, count this time and show the result. But due to errors in determining the geolocation, this algorithm did not work correctly and leveled the importance of the feature. As a result, they decided to abandon it.

Where is the world heading that hugs become virtual?

In the spring of 2020, Obimy was test-launched among friends. It turned out that people readily share their mood and pulse, but at the same time they require more functions.

The team came up with the idea to introduce the character Obi into the application - the visualization of the user. The developers had an idea how to “materialize” emotions: they created a biometric card of a person, when touched, a list of actions dropped out. Yes, the user could be hugged, kissed or touched.

Zasutsky explains that this was a key moment in the reformatting of a simple biometric "sharing" into meaningful communication. By the end of spring, the team wrote out a new concept, reworked the design and rewrote the code in the summer. And for the autumn presentation, Obimy was shown to a wide audience.

“We were surprised at how warmly the audience took the hug. Probably, the pandemic also influenced: people could now touch, hug each other from a distance, ”assumes Zasutsky.

True, among the reviews there were also those who were dissatisfied: they say, where is the world heading, that hugs are becoming virtual? The author of the project answers: the role of application is not to replace living relationships, but to enable people to remember their loved ones and send a sign of attention. Obimy is one of the caring tools.

Ukrainian publications wrote about the launch of the application, they used social networks for promotion - they created animated videos on the work of Obimy. But the biggest effect was given by contextual advertising in the App Store.

“The mechanics of a startup depends more on competent targeting than on the mathematics of a potential sales market,” Zasutsky emphasizes. – The question of the success of the project consists of fairly simple things: can you find your user or not.

About plans

When the project became popular, they began to invest in it. For example, Goodwater Capital, which helps and advises. The total amount of expenses for the development and development of the application amounted to more than $350.

As often happens, the startup did not bring much income to the authors at first. Zhenya recalls that, like a child, he was happy with the first $200–400 of his income. The positive dynamics in the "expenses - income" section began when the number of users crossed the mark of several million.

Now the main source of income is the sale of subscriptions, thanks to which users get new colors and the ability to create their own actions. Subscriptions cost $3,49 per month, $15,49 for six months, and $17,99 per year.

According to the founder, Obimy now brings in $200 a month. But the team's plans are even more ambitious. Zhenya reviews 200-300 user reviews every week to see how the product can be improved.

It is interesting that initially the gradation of the audience, as conceived by the creators, was to cover the audience from young families to middle-aged people. But it turned out that the age of 90% of the users of the application is from 15 to 20 years old.

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When it comes to the future, Zasutsky calls the figure of 100 million. The creators of the project are going to take this bar for the number of users next year. At the same time, he names the reason why he considers such indicators to be real:

“The greatest value of the project is the team. As one kind comrade told me, an idea costs nothing, it is valuable to work on it. The idea itself to unite the world with the help of feelings would not be worth a penny if there were no people who could bring their plan to life.

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