Armenian startup “3 dzook” has created a technology that allows users to convert photos into illustrated portraits and videos into animations using Artificial Intelligence.
“Why 3 dzook (in English - fish) - because we launched the startup with 3 friends. Why fish - because this is a good symbol that means freedom, serenity. The fish swims where it wants, and when it wants to - it flows in opposite direction too. That’s exactly what we do," Agatha Badalyan, co-founder of the startup, says with a smile.
We talk about the path they spanned, starting from the idea to their collaboration with Snapchat.
From personal gifts to artificial intelligence-assisted technology
I am an artist, illustrator and people always ask me to take their picture. Most people love having their own picture, to be portrayed. If you look closely, you will notice that most of the paintings exhibited in the museums are portraits. This has been true centuries ago, and is continues to be true till present days.
Little by little, painting turned into a small business. With three friends, Irina Miryan, Hasmik Minasyan and I, we started making individual gifts. People would send their photographs, we would make illustrations, and then print them on different items, like shirts, mugs, and phone cases. The demand for such gifts was increasingly growing. We went on getting orders from diverse companies as well.
We had been working with HR specialists who ordered individual gifts for their company staff. Then we got to the point, when we simply did not manage to deliver the orders by painting manually. For example, right before the New Year we were contacted and asked to make 130 individual mugs in one day. This is when we started thinking about having a technology that would facilitate our work, but we had no clue whatsoever about what and how.
Fortunately, at that time we met Abel Ghazinyan, our current technical director, and he advised us using artificial intelligence (AI) that would do the work we were doing manually. That sounded quite mystic to me, and still remains so: how can some code work for you, paint in the same style that you do? Yet, it was extremely interesting. We rolled our sleeves and started working on the technology using our two-years’ database of paintings. For quite a while it wasn't working, since it was something new, never tried and tested before by anyone. The impression was that we were bushwhacking in a jungle. It took us eighteen months of trying and testing before it came to life. Before that, we had already applied for acceleration programs at the Armenia Startup Academy
. During the trainings, we gained thorough knowledge that helped us greatly in attracting our very first funding. It was in March 2020, just before the lockdown, that we rented an office space, renovated it, left our jobs to fully devote our time and selves to the startup, and then everything just shut down (laughs, author)
. Nonetheless, we managed to work quite productively over that period and at the end of May 2020 we set our foot in the market bringing our technology. First ever in the world
We stepped in the market with a web program, which had huge response. We were the first in the world to do such a thing, and within the first 3 or 4 days, over 100 thousand people from nearly 100 countries generated their illustration through “3dzook”. This was a great success for us, and even we were not ready for such huge flood of orders, where even our servers started breaking down. Curiously, we gained popularity in Spanish-speaking countries, their media immediately caught us in their headlines. After this, we embarked on creating a mobile application thus multiplying app users eventually.
Today, our mobile application has nearly 100 thousand downloads and 7-8 thousand users per month. We keep fine-tuning it technically as the market keeps changing quite rapidly. When we were just starting, this technology was still an innovation, whereas now there are plenty of similar tools at hand, therefore we need to work unceasingly. Much safer to offer illustration instead of a photograph
Frankly speaking, initially we were thinking that our works merely feature the combination of art and technology, they are interesting for people and are simply beautiful. Over time, we began pondering about the security aspect of the work we do. Now you publish a photo on the Internet and you never know who and how might use it, while illustrations are both safe and all the while reflecting your own personality.
This problem does not appear to be too relevant in the case of Armenia; here everyone shares their children's photos on the Internet, keep tagging their location everywhere they go. Despite this, we came to notice that many, especially foreigners, including quite “solid” people - businessmen, political figures, were replacing their Twitter avatars with illustrations. We regularly received letters asking us: “If I take my photo using your app, how long would you keep my illustration?” We were answering that their data would be deleted after 48 hours and we were not saving any of those. It became clear to us that people took real care for their security on the Internet. We started paying more attention to this issue, and after some research we discovered a completely different reality in Armenia, where the new generation was also quite watchful in such matters.
I have a 13-year-old daughter, and neither her nor her friends publish any real photo on social media. My daughter says: “I don't want strangers to see my face and know where am I and with whom.” We did a research among this age group, we talked to the teenagers living both in Armenia and abroad only to come to a conclusion that the majority of their peers shared one and the same view point. On being a "Snapchat partner"
Our big dream is to, one day, create a place like a social media, where people would take their photos, communicate, publish posts and all of these would happen with illustrations and animation. We realized that not only we were interested in it, but larger companies like Snapchat, also pay attention to security.
Now we are collaborating with them; we are “Snapchat partners.” Interestingly, they noticed us and contacted us offering collaboration. They helped us greatly, gave us advice. Snapchat allows creating personal lenses and we have featured our own lens on their platform. We are interested in taking our collaboration further, and presently we are developing a new product. Financing is like air and water to startups
Up till not, our app and web version have been entirely free of charge. We only receive some money only from advertising. Now we are thinking of charging for some of the styles, but we are still working on those. The search for funding is a never-ending process. Recently, we attended a very useful training organized by the Armenia Startup Academy
, where we learned a lot of new things ending up with pitching our product for financing.
As a result, we were selected and received funding from the EU4Business “Innovative Tourism and Technology Development for Armenia” project, that came at an important time. This is a joint project co-funded by the European Union and the German Federal Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development (BMZ) and is being implemented by German Development Cooperation GIZ. For startups like us, this funding is an air and water, since we do not make money and we will not money perhaps for another two years. On motivation and problems
My daily motivation is my daily duties. Once you have to do it, there is no time to think of motivation (laughingly, author)
. One thing that is there for sure - is the fear to fail, although I am very much for talking about the failures and difficulties as well.
We wake up every day and say: “What for heaven's sake are we doing?” Every day we face a bunch of issues, every day we get to solve them. Perhaps some will tell you only success stories about startups, but I want to talk about the hardships as well. Our business is related to visual arts, and everyone seems to "understand" it. By trying it only once, people may say “this is not like me”, “this is not cute”, or rate the application very low. Someone from Indonesia might complain why is the application only in English and does not have an Indonesian version? The difficulties are many and multi-faceted, we do not have a big team to study, analyze, forecast and handle everything. It is only us, the 4 co-founders and 10 employees, including programmers and marketing specialists working on “3 dzook”.
I personally want to convey this to all startups - it is going to be hard, however, if they truly want to do it, they have to do it now, as there is no future and no “later”, as the future is today. Yana ShakhramanyanPhotos by Elen Gasparyan