Why Emojis Are Now Big Business

This article was originally posted on Inc.

Emojis are becoming more important than words, particularly when it comes to talking via text or social media. Twenty-four-year-old founder Travis Montaque is trying to prove it with Emogi, an advertising platform that helps brands connect with customers with emoticons.

I talked to Montaque about why emojis are some of the most emotional symbols we can use, and how his young company is using a new platform, Wink, to connect people with their favorite brands.

Inc.: When did you start your business path?

Montaque: I actually started working at Chik-fil-A at 15. I was promoted to my first leadership role, and, within a couple of years, I oversaw $7 million in revenue and hundreds of employees while helping with the company's southern expansion.

I attended the University of Miami, which isn't far from where I'm from in South Florida, and I realized that I didn't want to just help grow the company. I switched to finance and went straight into private equity investing. I was curious about big data, so, while I was studying finance and putting in 30-hour weeks at a firm, I started my first company.

We started with a curated news and video app, even though I had no background in tech. It was a lot of tinkering. Users could respond to the news posts, and we began noticing that, even if they didn't use any words, they would almost always share some kind of reaction to the story as an emoji. That's when we focused our company, Emogi, on providing 12 emoji reactions.

People began responding and reacting nonstop. It wasn't really about the content, as there were a lot of news apps even at the time, but people wanted to quickly share their feelings about something. I realized emojis were a really powerful way of expression.

I also realized that emojis are rich with data. Emogi turned its methodology toward people who want responses: consumer sentiment towards ads, giving insights into people and retooling customer engagement.

I had worked at Barclays, and then at Goldman Sachs, and then I had a great Emogi team and quit. It was a while before I could work on Emogi full time.

One of the toughest decisions is knowing when to go full time. How did you know?

I realized I was solving the right problem and I had the right team to execute it. The last point of my leaving was my raising the initial money [$200,000] from a VC. It wasn't a lot, but it gave validation that I was the right person with the right concept.

Did you always want to be an entrepreneur?

I was always entrepreneurial, from doing car washes as a kid to my later financial industry work. The big turning point was when I saw a crazy stat: Ninety percent of the world's info was created in the past two years. The first thing that rang out was information overload. I dug deeper, and saw an opportunity to [simplify communication and expression] with Emogi.

Emogi helps people express themselves, but what is the process for the brands?

Most conversations today are in characters, but we aren't there. According to our research, 50 percent of all messaging characters are emojis. Brands are missing the conversation.

Our new platform, Emogi Wink, is the first native setup for branded content: emojis, stickers, and gifs. We've partnered with messaging applications to upload brand content and help understand the context of a conversation. Along with geolocation and audience information, we leverage the data to give the right ad at the right time.

If I'm Starbucks and the messengers are talking about being tired, I can offer a coffee discount via the Wink platform. The content is triggered on any standard Unicode [mobile] keyboard, so the consumers can just keep using their favorite keyboard.

Emogi wants to help brands join the conversation, not interrupt it.

Emojis have been popular for years, especially if you look at eastern Asia. Why is this becoming a serious conversation now?

Emojis are really being driven by mobile. A big uptick happened in 2011 when Apple introduced an emoji keyboard. It was a huge tipping point!

A softer reason is that it helps people be understood by building a personal connection. Back in the day, when people talked, they did it in person and could observe facial expressions and voice tone. With the rise of digital communication, the ability to understand sarcasm and other things is harder. Emojis are introducing something back when it comes to connecting with people in a digital world.

You're 24 and have been a founder for years. How are you balancing the intense business pressure with the self-exploration that usually happens in your 20s?

Those things aren't mutually exclusive. When people have to do something difficult or are thrown into different environments, it only accelerates the way you find yourself. I remember realizing I couldn't get to where I wanted to be living in Miami, so seven days later I moved to New York. My decision to jump into entrepreneurship headfirst helped me quickly discover who I am and what I stand for. Those beliefs formed me into who I am today.

As entrepreneurs, it is rarely about the product, but the effect the product could have on others. What impact do you want Emogi to make on the world?

There is a notion that ads on mobile or online platforms are a waste of time. You have ad blockers on the rise and increasingly vocal consumer complaints. That makes me sad. When you look at the Super Bowl, you see people gathered around the television actively seeking out commercials. Ads are creative. And, if they are done effectively, people will enjoy them.

I want to bring an element of fun and joy back into mobile. Let's help brands get their message across and give great experiences to the consumer.

Meryl Natow