How a 24-year-old raised $6 million from VCs like Ashton Kutcher for a singing-selfie app after 200 investors said no
Table of Contents
- Toronto-based startup WOMBO has raised $6 million from investors such as Ashton Kutcher.
- CEO Ben-Zion Benkhin was so confident in WOMBO that he dropped out of school to launch the startup.
- WOMBO’s lip-syncing app now has 49 million downloads, but 200 investors initially rejected it.
- See more stories on Insider’s business page.
Ben-Zion Benkhin just knew he had a smash hit on his hands.
The 24-year-old had been studying artificial intelligence at the University of Toronto. But last year, he’d left school in order to devote his full attention to building an app called WOMBO, which would animate selfies to the tune of popular songs.
Investors, however, weren’t convinced. That is, until WOMBO hit 9 million downloads in just two weeks.
The startup has now raised $6 million in seed funding from a group of venture capital firms and celebrities – including Ashton Kutcher (whose VC firm recently had another investment clinch a SPAC deal that values the company, Acorns, at $2 billion).
‘I know this is going to blow up’
WOMBO came to fruition in just a matter of months. Benkhin, now the company’s CEO, had noticed a similar concept floating around: syncing videos of people with music so that it appeared like they were singing the lyrics.
Given his familiarity with AI, he knew that pulling that off required some hardcore coding skills. If there was a tool that could let anyone do the same without any technical skills, it would be a surefire success, he thought.
In the fall of 2020, Benkhin recruited a few college students, including Paul Pavel, now head of operations, and Angad Arneja, now head of people, to work on the app with him. While most of his collaborators juggled app development with classes, Benkhin decided to drop out.
Arneja warned Benkhin that dropping out to build the app was “risky,” Arneja told Insider.
But Benkhin didn’t feel that way. “I decided the day after I had the idea that if I didn’t do it, someone else was going to do it,” he said.
Instead, he doubled down on his belief in himself and his idea and poured CA$40,000 dollars (about $33,000 USD) of his savings into the app.
Pavel’s parents put in thousands of their own money, too.
200 rejections from VCs
By the beginning of 2021, WOMBO was close to launch. In order to boost WOMBO’s development resources, Benkhin decided to pitch the app to investors. He ended up with a stream of rejections – 200 of them, by his count. Sure, Benkhin had AI knowledge, but he had little business experience, and he didn’t have a formal strategy for getting people to use his app.
But he persevered and one of his pitching sessions landed him a referral to Launch House, a live-in community of founders based in a Beverly Hills mansion. Jacob Peters, the founder of Launch House and the cofounder of software startup Commsor, saw potential in Benkhin’s idea.
For a month, Benkhin moved into Launch House and worked alongside 19 other startup founders who sat in on pizza-fueled brainstorming sessions for his app. On the last day of February, WOMBO was ready to launch.
Benkhin and his collaborators texted the app to about 10 people, a few of their friends. In a week, WOMBO had gotten 500,000 downloads. Another week later, the count had jumped to 9 million.
With those kinds of numbers, investors started paying attention.
Alex McIsaac found out about WOMBO after a friend of his forwarded the company’s pitch deck. McIsaac, a Toronto-based partner at Global Founders Capital, a venture firm that has backed Away and HelloFresh and has 16 offices worldwide, had personally taken an interest in artificial-intelligence companies and found the app intriguing.
He contacted Benkhin through LinkedIn and their conversation left him even more impressed with the company.
“I was blown away by what they had built,” McIsaac told Insider.
Global Founders Capital led WOMBO’s $6 million round alongside Sofreh Capital, the family office of angel investor Shervin Pishevar.
Sound Ventures, the VC firm co-founded by Kutcher and talent manager Guy Oseary, participated as well, along with Launch House; Buckley Ventures, the VC firm founded by Product Hunt CEO Josh Buckley; 468 Capital; gaming entrepreneur Gabe Leydon; and a group of entertainers and media executives.
WOMBO has now gotten 49 million downloads and attracts between 1.6 million and 2 million active users around the world each day, according to the company. The startup plans to hire more engineers and is in the process of securing licensing deals for the music in its app, Benkhin said. It also hopes to expand its library with songs that appeal to users in different geographic regions.
The future for AI in entertainment
The allure, Benkhin said, is in making an animation that is realistic enough to be entertaining but not so true to life that it triggers fear.
As AI has gotten more sophisticated, concerns have risen about falsified images or videos being used to tarnish people’s reputations. On WOMBO, users choose from a select list of songs, and the app generates an avatar with distinct movements that are meant to be humorous and not 100% lifelike, Benkhin explained.
“No one hates laughing,” Benkhin said.
On a broader scale, WOMBO’s founders and investors see the company expanding how artificial intelligence is used in everyday life, especially for entertainment.
In the future, Benkhin said, the technology could allow television viewers to insert themselves into the action on-screen, simply by taking a selfie. Peters imagines it transforming the world of social-media influencers, by allowing one persona to be present in multiple spaces.
Right now, McIsaac told Insider, most of the funding in AI has gone toward enterprise applications. But he sees that changing in the next few years as apps like WOMBO catch on.
“We’ve only reached the tip of the iceberg today,” he said.
I gave it a test drive and it made me laugh
After spending 10 minutes installing and trying the app, my verdict is that it is fun and funny. I could see myself adding it to my list of entertainment apps, sending videos to my friends now and then. I simply uploaded a photo of myself and chose a song. The app animated the image so it looks like I am singing the selected tune.
Below is a lip sync of me singing Olivia Rodrigo’s “drivers license.”