Selfie App Shots Moves Beyond Bieber With $8.5 Million in Funding

Shots co-founders and brothers John and Sam Shahidi.

Shots, a mobile app for sharing selfies, owes much of its early popularity to Justin Bieber. Now, with the help of new funding, it is hoping to break out beyond the pop star.

Bieber, one of Shots’ first investors, fills the app with backstage concert photos and selfies with celebrity friends, and occasionally reminds his 63 million Twitter followers to check his latest posts on Shots.

The celebrity endorsement has helped Shots grow to more than 5 million registered users, more than half of whom check the app daily. They can view Bieber’s updates along with photos posted by friends and family members in a chronological timeline.

For its next act, Shots is aiming to mature into more of a full-fledged social network. An update this week lets users upload three-second videos and find nearby friends using a “radar” feature, helping Shots take on more popular apps like Facebook, Instagram, Vine and Snapchat.

“People don’t come here for celebrities; they come here to see family members and best friends,” John Shahidi, the app’s co-founder and chief executive. “I kind of want to get out of the celebrity side of things and focus on product.”

To help him do that, San Francisco-based Shots has raised $8.5 million in new funding, led by Chinese venture-capital firm WI Harper. The round – which also includes Launch Fund, Upfront Ventures, 500 Startups, music producer Rodney Jerkins and the venture arm of Major League Baseball – closed in April and hasn’t previously been disclosed.

Shots came out of Shahidi’s previous startup, RockLive, a mobile gaming service he founded with his brother Sam in 2009. That company worked with celebrity athletes, including football player Chad Ochocino, Olympic sprinter Usain Bolt and soccer star Cristiano Ronaldo, to turn their likenesses into simple mobile apps.

The gaming startup had moderate success. But the brothers noticed that while the popularity of games would come and go in waves, the apps that included a messaging feature kept users coming back on a regular basis to chat. So in 2013 they pulled all of their games from the App Store, raised a new round of seed funding and created Shots to focus on social networking.

By that time, John Shahidi had become a Twitter celebrity himself. Through helping celebrities like Bieber and boxer Floyd Mayweather develop their social media presence, he became noticed by their legions of online fans, and multiplied his own following.

Shahidi’s Twitter account (@john) has more than 360,000 followers and nearly every time he tweets he gets thousands of favorites and retweets. The Twitter account for Shots, with 825,000 followers, has a larger following than Snapchat.

“They started with what every Silicon Valley entrepreneur dreams of,” said Mark Suster, general partner at Upfront Ventures, a new investor in Shots.

Already, Shots has broadened beyond Bieber fans. Less than 10% of users are also followers of Bieber on Twitter, down from more than 90% of users in Shots’ first few months.

Because the average age of Shots users is just 16, the company has worked to designed the app to limit opportunities for young people to bully one another and feel insecure. Shots does have a direct-messaging feature like many apps, but it doesn’t allow any public comments, and users can only respond to each other’s photos with their own photo, rather than text. And the short duration of the three-second videos was chosen in part because longer videos are more likely to make people feel self-conscious, Sam Shahidi said.

Vine, owned by Twitter, features six-second videos. Instagram, owned by Facebook, lets users take 15-second videos.

On Shots, no one knows how many followers users have. That’s a big departure from popular social networks, which prominently display follower counts and can make teens feel self-conscious about their numbers versus peers.

Shots chose its new investors in part to help with its plans for international expansion. The WI Harper team, based in Beijing with an office in San Francisco, promised to work with the company in the coming years to expand its service to China.

The 10-person Shots team moved down the street into a new office in San Francisco’s SoMa district this month. The company plans to add a few more engineers this year, and create an internal team focused on tailoring the app for the most popular handsets used by teenagers in different countries. In Brazil, one of Shots’ three top countries, Samsung’s Galaxy S3 Mini is the most popular phone with young people, Sam said.

Shots also plans to release a selfie-taking app for the Apple Watch.

The company makes no revenue yet, but John Shahidi says he has held talks with advertisers who are eager to reach its large audience of young users. Rather than charge marketers for an expensive full-screen ad, like the ones Snapchat is currently experimenting with, Shahidi says he hopes to come up with new ways to incorporate brands into the actual experience of sharing photos.