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HOW SAN JOSE’S KIKA USES EMOJIS TO TAKE OVER THE WORLD


Inside the downtown San Jose offices of Kika Tech, the first thing you notice are the emoji pillows.

Kika staff members holding illows with emoji faces

Staff of Kika Tech with emoji pollows

They’re all manner of happy faces: Ecstatically laughing. Smirky. Sad-faced. So-angry-it-looks-like-it-will-pop.

Kika knows a thing or two about these cultural icons of our smartphone-addicted times. In just a few years, it’s become a leader in the emoji space, with a keyboard that’s been downloaded more than 400 million times. And it’s branching out beyond simple emojis as it plans to hire 50 employees at its new San Jose home.

“If our product just lived off emoji, we would have been obsolete a long time ago,” said Tami Zhu, general manager of Kika Tech, in an interview. “So our product development has extended beyond emoji. We’ve signed key partners like FC Barcelona and Real Madrid, added different skins and stickers. And we’ve signed deals with Hollywood for movies like Wonder Woman and Despicable Me.”

Kika isn’t a household name – yet. But the keyboard is among the most popular on the Apple and Android app stores. It boasts 60 million active users, who fire it up 120 times a day. That’s 50 minutes per person per day of usage, the company says.

At the center of the product’s popularity? The emoji, which has exploded in usage in the last decade as emoji options increased exponentially. (There are 2,666 emoji in Unicode Standard as of June 2017, according to Emojipedia.org.) That’s created a space for Kika’s keyboard, which provides an intuitive way to organize them all. But Kika also goes beyond stock keyboards (which usually include emoji input) to include custom emoji, proprietary stickers, skins, text emoticons and soundboards.

Zhu came on board a few months ago, with a blue-chip tech pedigree that includes key roles at Excite@Home, Aol Ventures and IAC/InterActiveCorp.

I sat down with her inside the company’s headquarters at the entrance to San Pedro Square to learn more about Kika’s growth, its plans in San Jose and her most-used smiley.

Tami Zhu, general manager of Kika

Tami Zhu, Kika Tech general manager

What makes Kika stand out?

“The No. 1 differentiator is we support 150 languages. That’s very difficult to accomplish, and it allows us to address large markets that have different languages within them. In those markets – India –

there’s so many different languages. We also support mixed language (where someone is speaking in multiple languages in the same sentence).”

Kika was actually founded in China, but now you have moved the headquarters here, to San Jose. Why?

“Our company is one of very few Chinese companies that doesn’t have market in China, but is only overseas. Our No. 1 user base is in the U.S. That’s why we wanted to be here, why we are moving the talent and executives to here. You’ve got to hire locals. We want to understand how Americans want and use our product.”

Tell us about your growth plans. 

“When I started we only had two or three people. Since then we hired a whole bunch of new colleagues, in media sales, marketing, product and business development.”

You’ve been launching partnerships with movie properties lately. What’s behind that?

“Different brands have different motivations. Movies have media budgets. If I have a media budget, I know I need to spend on Google, Facebook, Yahoo. Kika is another platform. ‘Hey, if we have partnerships with Kika and people use it so often it really brings the mindshare of the potential audience.’”

Why downtown San Jose?

Compared to San Francisco, this is still relatively affordable. For our employees, downtown in terms of ordering food, working out, getting on public transit is very convenient. On Fridays I can barely find people, I’m like, where are you guys? They’re at the farmer’s market.”

What’s your go-to emoji?

I like the sneaky-look emoji. It’s the one with one eye closed, smiling, with tongue out.