Iron Man 3, Man Of Steel, The Avengers 2, Watch Out: Here Comes Tapastic (Interview)

It brings together the seemingly disparate worlds of crowdsourcing and comic books. It's considered the YouTube of webtoons. It might very well give Marvel, DC and the other titans of superherodom a run for their money (until they inevitably get involved themselves).

It's Tapastic: The first open publishing platform for indie webcomics in the U.S. and it's available now on desktop web, mobile web, iOS and Android.

Launched five months ago by erstwhile Samsung and Google content manager Chang Kim, Tapastic refreshingly infuses the DIY spirit into the realm of webcomics in a vie to give amateur and professional comic book artists alike the ability to gain distribution for their artwork in a way never thought possible before.

We sat down with Tapastic CEO and founder Chang Kim to pick his brain about his favorite webcomics, the ever-growing need for open platforms, the singular ecosystem of startups and what his unique vision is for a distribution model that finally gives comic book artists of all walks of life a chance to reign heroic.

iTech Post: What exactly does "Tapastic" mean?

Chang Kim: "Tapas" is a Spanish finger food. The meaning behind that is, as the world goes mobile, I think the content goes smaller and smaller. So it's kind of like this "bite-sized" media content over mobile and web ... So, if you have like a few minutes, some time to kill, rather than playing games - which is all good, too - you can consume this interesting content on Tapastic, as well.

iTech Post: Can you describe Tapastic as a site?

CK:  We're trying to build something like a YouTube for web comics and visual stories. What we do is provide a venue for individual artists so they can start publishing their content for free.

iTech Post: Do users need to be a member of Tapastic?

CK: They can join the service and start publishing today! It's publicly available.

iTech Post: What was it that brought you into web comics as a medium to distribute?

CK: I wasn't necessarily reading a lot of comic books when I was growing up. But, recently I discovered a lot of great web comics. The distinction is the format being available on web and mobile instead of comic books. There's also a distinction in genre or subject, too. One example is theoatmeal.com. I'm such a big fan of the site because it touches on subjects that everyone can relate to.

One time, this guy was talking about Nikola Tesla and this single comic strip led to the building of a museum for Tesla. And who would've thought a comic strip would lead to something like this? That is actually showing the power of visual stories. I don't think it would have had the same reach through text alone.

iTech Post: Why is that?

CK: It's kind of hard to say. But we're visual beings. The stories, when they're conveyed in a visual format, carry more power than, say, a wall of text. If you put the same thing in the visual format, it's a much more easily readable and digestible format. That was our observation at Tapastic.

iTech Post: How then did your interest in visual stories and web comics lead to your development of Tapastic?

CK: I was trying to find out if I could find a good place where I could discover a lot of web comics and start following them. I haven't really found any good place, so that's how I got started.

iTech Post: How do you feel web comics, which have been quite proliferate in other countries, will continue to grow in the U.S.?

CK: In Korea - and me, personally, I was born in Korea, so ... [laughs] - their term is "webtoons," so it's almost like a Korean term, and they are phenomenally successful and popular. Everyone is reading webtoons a lot in Korea. Popular on the web and on mobile devices. Like if you go to subways, there are lot of people playing games on their devices, too, but many, many people read the web comics on their mobile devices, also. I was really intrigued by that. I was wondering why this was really popular in Korea and if there was any way we could launch something like this in the U.S. or globally.

iTech Post: Were you confident about this right away?

CK:  Actually, I was a little skeptical - the culture is different. But when I started talking with those people who were running those things in Korea, they were the ones who told me there was great potential even outside of Korea. I discovered the Korean comics culture and industry was pretty much the same as here five, six years ago before webtoons changed all of it.

iTech Post: How do you mean?

CK: Five, six years ago, before webtoons, people were still consuming comics through books in Korea. According to one study, 93 percent of the comics industry here in the U.S. is print-driven. Which doesn't make sense because print media is dying. So that's really surprising. And now if you look at the Korean market, because of the webtoons, everything has become really mobile. There's no print market left. And I think the same changes will be coming here too. So, that's the format.

iTech Post: There are no other open publishing platform sites for web comics in the U.S. yet?

CK: Theoatmeal.com or Penny Arcade are sites that are done by individuals but are not necessarily platforms. Just this guy who has great content and started his own website and those websites have become popular. They're not crowdsourcing or open platforms. There are also comic aggregation sites, but when I look at those sites I think they're really stuck in the 90s. There's a lot of content, but the UI is pretty crappy and not necessarily the optimal experience.

There are other sites like deviantART, which is a very big community but not necessarily geared to web comics. Actually, a lot of our artists are coming from the deviantART world saying, "Oh, my god, we're looking exactly for this."

iTech Post: Why did you decide now would be the time to create Tapastic?

CK: If you think about serialized comics, it's the kind of content that is good for mobile consumption. You can scroll down and see the strips go by. A year ago or two years ago, not everyone was using tablets. All these environmental changes like that are making a perfect storm for companies like us.

iTech Post: Especially in light of what's been happening as of late with more and more films being based on comics like "Iron Man 3," "The Avengers," "Man of Steel," and others, where do you think the world of comics is going in the U.S.?

CK: The traditional comic book industry will remain strong. There's really big companies behind it like Marvel and DC Comics. I don't think they're going to go anywhere. They're multi-billion dollar companies. But, they're controlling something like 90/95 percent of the market, and we're really focused on the other possible market.

iTech Post: That market being ... ?

CK: There are a lot of artists who have really great stories of their own and when it comes to letting the world discover those stories, there's really no good channel right now. There's digital and there's print. If I'm a comic artist and I have my own story, where do I go with that? If I go to Marvel or DC, I get hired as a "penciler," maybe. If I go to the next stop, mom-and-pop publishers, they don't necessarily have the distribution power. Some publishers even ask you to pay your own money to get your comics published.

So you turn to digital and there's no good platform yet, so that's why you start your own site. But if you go that route, you have to be both comic book creator and site manager where you have to design your own site and be administrator of it, so on and so forth. If you look at these individual websites, they're really crappy. What they want to do is they want to monetize their small traffic, so you'll see like eight different ads ...

We're really trying to provide this platform so people don't have to worry about the technology side. They can focus on what they do best, which is to create the content.

iTech Post: Speaking of Marvel and DC, has there been any interaction between Tapastic and these companies yet?

CK: Not yet. Again, we're pretty new. I wouldn't bar the possibility of us working together, though.

iTech Post: How would that work?

CK: What we can do with Marvel, DC or other content providers is we can take the content and chop it up into a weekly model. We also plan to build "freemium" model where because we have the episodes, what we can do is up to Episode Three it's free, but after that you have to pay a little bit of money to unlock it. This "freemium" model is used by gaming companies already.

iTech Post: If you're working with Marvel and DC or other big companies, though, how are you going to work to keep their content from taking over your site?

CK: In terms of the number of participant artists, we've grown a lot. Now we have about 2700 individual episodes updating regularly made by about 200 different artists. Along the way, bigger indie guys started joining our site and started publishing. That creates sort of a proxy case to "What if the big guys come in and start deluging the site?" But with those bigger indie names we've already had joining, t worked out great because what happened was there would be a guy who would come in and bring in a lot of traffic, and the readers would then stumble upon other series.

We have "Recommended For You" or similar series to the ones people are looking at. So there's this "trickle down effect." People come to watch this content, but hopefully they'll see these other guys, too. That's what we think will happen with Marvel and DC getting involved, if they do.

iTech Post: Where are most of your artists coming from?

CK: Our artists come from 158 different countries all over the world. But, mostly they're coming from the U.S. Right now, the site is 100 percent in English but in the future we have a plan to globalize the site. We allow the artists to upload their original language version. By default, it's English content but there is an option to see the original language, too.

iTech Post: How will the monetization work?

CK: We have advertising - experimental ads that we started about two weeks ago - and the other is the "freemium" stuff we just talked about. Those will be the two major business models. Right now we're really interested in growing our readership.

iTech Post: Does any of that trickle down to the artists?

CK: We're actually very committed to that. We are committed to revenue share. What we do now is we actually pay out the artist based on the traffic they're bringing in. This is the precursor to the full-on revenue share we're working to integrate.

iTech Post: What was it that brought you from Samsung and Google to deciding to do your own company?

CK: Between Samsung and Google, there was a company that I co-founded in Korea. That was my first startup experience. But that company got acquired by Google in 2008. That was really the "a-ha moment." That was an amazing, fun ride. I knew down deep in my heart, one day I would start my own company again. I was at Google for almost four years. I wanted to try out something different. I was in the content business all along. At Google, I was running blogger.com/blogspot. At Samsung, I was running mobile content.

iTech Post: What's your vision for startups in general, especially as we're still in the wake of 2008's economic collapse?

CK: One thing I realized when I was in Silicon Valley, everyone was thinking the same way. Sometimes it's almost funny. "Oh, my god, there's no future in this or that ..." The group/herd mentality. If you talk to a lot of investors in Silicon Valley now, everyone and their mother ends up talking about the same thing. As an entrepreneur, you've got to keep pushing your own thing no matter what other people are talking about. There's always great companies to be formed. There's a lot of white space to be filled out. Even now. That's my take!

iTech Post: Where do you see Tapastic going?

CK: Again, going back to the company name, Tapas Media, I envision a world where if people have five minutes to kill, I want them to consume our content. We have a lot of great content that can be really fun, but you might also learn something there too. They can be educational comics, and they don't need to be just about math or so forth. In the future, as we have more and more content like this, instead of just playing games and trying to fight against your computer, why don't you actually learn something? It can be five minutes of fun, but it can be about learning, too.

I'm envisioning a world like that, and we are at the center of it.

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