Lara Croft

Talking Tom is rich: Outfit7 wants to turn smartphone characters into Saturday cartoons

May 25, 2011: 1:38 PM ET

The App Store is turning into a proving ground for Saturday morning cartoons, which means the screeching cat and his friends could soon be on a TV, cereal box and onesie near you.

FORTUNE -- Andrej Nabergoj has spent the last year turning a $60 cat into a millionaire. He's the CEO of Outfit7, the company that makes the talking-character apps your three-year old has likely been teething on for the past few months. All of Outfit7's apps follow the same formula: grab a 3D model of something adorable -- an animal, a fairy, a Santa Clause, whatever -- have them do adorable things when somebody touches them, and have them parrot back whatever someone says into the built-in mic in an adorable voice. If this sounds reductive, it's because it is. The apps don't really do much. Besides sell. Outfit7 says people have downloaded nearly 110 million Outfit7 apps, and they bring in millions of revenue every month. Adorable!

This all started when Outfit7 bought that $60 cat. It was over a year ago, and Outfit7 didn't exist yet. Nabergoj's goal has always been sheer volume. But OutFit7's founder, Samo Login*, didn't want to make a game, worried that there'd be too much competition. He came up with the idea to make non-game apps based around a character. And who most easily relates to characters than your kids?

So off Nabergoj went to find Outfit7's mascot. He eventually found a feral cat at Turbosquid, a 3D model marketplace. For $60, Login bought him, named him Talking Tom, and handed him over to Outfit7's developers, who created a set number of animations, coded the voice talkback, and published the app in July 2010. Within the first 13 days, one million people downloaded the free app. It was so successful Nabergoj went on a hunt to find the anonymous designer who created the cat model. After almost two months of searching, and what he says were calls to "the Russian secret service agency," Nabergoj found his man, Andrey Kravchenko, in Ukraine. Nabergoj brought Kravchenko into the company.Now, 10 months after its debut, there are more than 55 million copies* of Talking Tom scattered across the world. And, as is now part of the lifecycle of any popular thing on the Internet, a community of people has emerged on YouTube who upload custom videos of Tom reading a script in his trademark helium screech. Even more confusing/surprising/worrying, many of these videos get hundreds of thousands of views. People are scripting elaborate monologue sketches, casting Tom as their lead. In the most-watched video (more than 1.2 million views), Tom sings a squeeky ode to Jesus. In another (more than 450,000 views), he sings Justin Bieber's "Baby."

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