Beating TikTok Without Breaking a Sweat
Reface Co-Founder Shares Insights

December 17, 2020

Julia Danylenko

Ukrainian face swap app hit the top at App Store. Chief Product Officer and the app co-founder Ivan Altsybeev shares the secrets of success and explains the company’s plans to create an entirely new format of content engagement
In the end of August a Ukrainian app Reface reached the top of App Store list, surpassing Facebook, TikTok and Netflix. Reface uses face swap technology. You can try on the role of Elon Musk, Captain Jack Sparrow or Madonna — provided Reface database has an appropriate GIF.

Adsider had a chat with Ivan Altsybeev, the Chief Product Officer of Reface. Altsybeev talked marketing strategy, name change, rise within the App Store, and the plans to scale the product.
Ivan Altsybeev
Chief Product Officer, Reface
Reface: Origins
NeoCortext, Reface’s predecessor, was founded by Roman Mohylnyi, Oles Petriv and Yaroslav Boyko, all three Kyiv-Mohyla academy alumni. Friends saw the first deepfakes, which were unfortunately discredited because of their use in fake news and pornography. Guys realised the technology itself is awesome, just used the wrong way.

First version of the technology was web and photo oriented: reflect.tech is still active, and you are free to match your face with a body of some celebrity, if you'd like. Eventually we appeared on Reddit, where some user matched Elon Musk’s face with the Rock’s body. Redditors sent the collage to Musk, who shared it via his Twitter page. That’s when we realized: it’s on!
And that’s also where I come into the story. At first, I was providing them with consulting services on product and UX-related matters, and later got an offer to join as one of the co-founders. I had my own vision of the product’s further development, mostly in terms of product and marketing.

I firmly believe we need to invest in video, not into a photo-oriented app like Reflect. Our technology was far from perfect back in the day, the video quality was low, but we came up with an idea — we could use GIFs! That’s more than a photo, but at the same time people don’t expect perfect quality from GIFs, you know? So a flawed technology worked in sync with a flawed GIF, and the end result was looking peachy.
From Reface to Doublicat and Back Again
We liked that Reface is a verb, and we really wanted to become a neologism like ‘to google’. We wanted to see reface as a term in the Urban Dictionary. But in the process, we decided that the name was too technological, and changed it to Doublicat, as in double and duplicate.

It did not go well. First red flag was our investors struggling to pronounce Doublicat at the meetings. “Double… cat? How do you spell that?” Then we noticed that in the App Store, people basically enter the name as they hear it and try to search for dublikat. That’s when we realized we need to bring Reface back.
The move from Doublicat tо Reface went seamlessly
It was scary: the word of mouth was our main promotion channel after all. We were afraid that people who saw or downloaded Doublicat in the App Store would be confused by Reface appearing instead.

But a major investor told us: until you have millions of users, no one will care. And we took a chance. The renaming was not advertised in any way — we simply changed the name overnight, pressed the button and began to wait for the result. It was painless.
On Marketing Strategy
They say ‘a high quality product is the best marketing’. I don’t buy that. In order to succeed, you need a solid marketing strategy. We started with Product Hunt, and chose media as the main promotion channel: sent out press releases, our media kit, and emailed the editors of all the publications that could’ve been potentially interested.

We had no product yet, so we wrote: “we are launching soon, here are our GIFs, here’s the product description, and yeah, Elon Musk retweeted us once”. We were banking on the buzzwords — Deepfake, AI, machine learning. Some media outlets left us on read, but there also were the ones that responded.

We launched on January 14th, 2020. Mashable were the first to write about us, and were later joined by The Next Web, Forbes, and The Sun.
Editors received Reface's media kit
Reface Takes Off
Lockdown made the world truly global: there are no borders, because everyone has Zoom. Doesn't matter if you are a company from Ukraine or from Silicon Valley.

So, it was the middle of summer, covid everywhere, we were working on improving the app, adapting our marketing, inventing something, and suddenly we got a new version of the technology that does a better face swap. We come up with a new format for the app and decide to move from gifs to short videos 10-second.

By mid-June, we had about 10,000 daily active users. We launched new technology, new content and subsequently began changing our marketing strategy in terms of buying. Before, we tried to buy users who tend to make a paid subscription, and then we have switched to people who simply like the application. Installs became our main marketing goal.
We wanted to see ‘reface’ in the Urban Dictionary
And the app takes off. Each video has our watermark, and the quality is so cool that we attract new people from Facebook. They make a video, share it, friends see it and go: “Oh, that’s an awesome app, I want it too”. As a result, we had 10-15 installs per attracted paid user.

Most of our traffic is organic, but without the right marketing kick, probably nothing would have happened. We tried a lot of approaches to find the local tactics that worked.
The jump from 10,000 daily active users to 2-3 million occurred in three months. We realized that people definitely need our application.

This meant a fundamentally different company strategy was needed, with less effort on B2B: we are the app company, and around this we build a strategy, model, and so on. The boom had started with Asia. We did not focus on it purposefully: the Asian market perceived us better, there was a lower cost of attraction, so we allocated larger budgets there. Thailand took off first. Within a week, we got to the first place in the App Store there. An unrealistic amount of traffic was pouring, Thai media, bloggers, YouTubers wrote about us. It’s a shame we did not understand a single word in Thai.
Ivan tried on the shoes of Brad Pitt
And Oleh Vynnyk
Challenge the Everest
At some point, we realized that Asia is cool and all, but we are aiming at the Tier1 market, the most competitive in the world.You can be successful anywhere, but if you are not successful in the US, you are not in the big league. And we have defined our Everest is to succeed in the App Store in the US. We tried different approaches — improved the product, content, marketing. At some point, an unexpected problem arose: there were so many users that our servers could not cope. All ML processing takes place on Google servers, and all technology runs on video cards. There was a moment when Google ran out of spare graphic cards in the region because of us. It all got sorted out, but when you get a message like that, the initial reaction is wow.
They say ‘a high quality product is the best marketing’. I don’t buy that
On the one hand, growing is great, on the other — it’s painful as hell. Your rocket has already taken off, but you also are still building it on the fly. Something falls off, you glue it back. It has nothing to do with logic, processes, Scrum or agile. Everything is burning, hell all around, and here you are, trying to build something.
Reface team
This feeling was especially raw back then, now it’s a bit easier. But the level of challenges today is nothing like we’ve seen before. We managed to get into the US, TechCrunch wrote about us, a ton of celebs offer to collaborate with us. One post in their Instagram costs hundreds of thousands, and they contact us themselves just to get into the app. They like our mechanics so much they want to be a part of it. That’s when we realized it was all worth it.
Mad Max turned into Mad Mel
What’s Next
It’s all about vision. We’ve raised the bar for our goals. Yes, we managed to create an app that became popular worldwide, but what comes after?

We thought, “what are we going to do when the hype dies down”? And decided to set extremely ambitious goals. I don’t like comparing our product with TikTok, but when TikTok was starting out, no one really understood what it was either.
When TikTok was starting out, no one really understood what it was either
We want nothing less. We are building a content personalization platform. People are much more eager to engage with content they are featured in. I like a video much more if there’s my face in it. With the help of machine learning, we personalize a person’s experience — and that’s but a fist step in the list of technology we plan to introduce in a span of a year.
You can try being John Wick
Or sing like Dorn
A Ukrainian Company Fit to Challenge Giants
We want to present people with an opportunity to create via machine learning. TikTok proved there are creative people who make interesting stuff, and there also are people who like watching interesting stuff being made. We believe we can give people the instruments for creating unique content for others to watch. Our goal is a platform with user generated content that will, in due time, attract both brands and advertisers.
That’s where we aim, and we are adapting our vision in order not to fear such an ambitious goal. After all, our app was created merely months ago. We’ve gone through two big growth spurts, and we aim to create a new platform and a new format of content engagement. We want to build an awesome Ukrainian company that will be able to challenge the top tier giants.

Besides the technology and product, one of our main goals is people. We need to unite as many ambitious Ukrainian professionals as possible. We are hiring, we are in dire need of spare hands and brains. We need to find these people and unite them under our cause.
Blitz round:
— How many people manage your marketing?
Our in-house team consists of five people. If we include PR and communications, that’s eight or nine. Plus 10+ people in content overall.
— Where do you get the GIFs from?
We work with Tenor: we have integrated their API, and now our users have access to all the GIFs in their database. We are trying to move from GIFs to videos currently.
— Name your top 3 choices of influencers Reface collaborated with.
Miley Cyrus, John Legend, Justin Bieber.
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