Khush rings in the holiday season with Singing Santa app

Christmastime is here, and Atlanta-based Khush is celebrating the season with the launch of Singing Santa. The interactive iPhone application features an animated Kris Kringle who belts out user-customized musical messages set to the melody of popular holiday songs, all optimized for sharing via Facebook, Twitter and email. Singing Santa is Khush's first animated character app, following on the heels of hit music creation solutions LaDiDa and Songify--a free version created for Apple's (NASDAQ:AAPL) iPhone includes two songs ("Jingle Bells" and "Deck the Halls") and offers additional melodies and dance moves as in-app purchases; a high-definition version built for the iPad unlocks all available content, and carries a price of $4.99. 

Santa's song list

Singing Santa includes two free songs with others available for purchase.

The release of Singing Santa isn't all Khush is celebrating this December. Spun off from Georgia Tech University's Music Intelligence Lab in 2009 to commercialize "reverse karaoke" technology developed by Parag Chordia (who co-founded the firm in partnership with CEO Prerna Gupta and Alex Rae), Khush made headlines earlier this month when it announced its acquisition by Smule, the pioneering mobile app maker behind music-themed blockbusters including Magic Piano, Ocarina, I Am T-Pain and MadPad. The two companies combined have generated close to 30 million app downloads, with users creating more than 350 million songs. FierceDeveloper spoke to Gupta about Singing Santa, the Smule deal and building an audience.

CEO Prerna Gupta

  Prerna Gupta

Prerna Gupta on following up the success of LaDiDa and Songify: It's interesting--with LaDiDa, it took us several months to build momentum, but now it's at a couple of million downloads and still going strong. Songify is at a couple million of downloads, too. So now we're in a situation where we're playing at a different level, and there's definitely some pressure to repeat our earlier success.

We're in this for the long run. Sometimes you feel like every time you do an app, it needs to be an immediate success. But we don't want to switch our priorities or our thinking. With LaDiDa, we believed in it, but it took us months to build an audience. It's awesome if [Singing Santa] is an immediate success, but if not, we won't consider that a failure. It just means we have to work harder.

Gupta on Khush's move into character-based apps: It's something we wanted to do for a long time. With LaDiDa, we felt like we had an opportunity to build a character around the experience, but we didn't feel ready from a development perspective. We've grown a lot over the past year or so, and we felt ready. We've built up quite a suite of audio technologies, and we felt like we'd gotten to the point where we could start tweaking our existing technologies to create a different experience. That gave us a lot of freedom to experiment.

We started work on Singing Santa last summer. It's definitely weird to think about Christmas at that time. We always wanted to do something Christmas-specific, but we always thought of it too late. You have to start early. So we started development in September, and submitted the first version to the App Store in early November. We didn't want to take the chance on approval delays.

singing santa

The app listens to what you record and repeats it in Santa's voice.

What's interesting is that our updates are going through faster than ever. We submitted three updates before we launched. That's been a huge difference this year.

Gupta on the decision to offer Singing Santa as a freemium app: The decision depends on the type of app you develop. LaDiDa has been premium for most of its life, and we built a profitable business on premium downloads, so it took us a long time to come around to the idea of free apps.  But then we took it free for a few weeks, and the download volumes were so great--it's so amazing how many more people you can reach.

Then we made Songify free, and it had an even greater impact. But monetization is still a challenge with free apps. There are known strategies that everyone uses. We're still trying to figure it out. The monetization in Songify could be better. That's still a challenge we're working through.

I don't feel every app should be a free app. The HD version of Singing Santa is $4.99. My current belief is that it's important to have both free and paid apps in your portfolio, and that you can use them to cross-promote your other apps.

Gupta on Singing Santa's fate after the holiday season ends: We have some ideas. It all depends on how things go. We think it would be neat to do something at different times of year when people aren't thinking of Santa--to see him in a different season. People love Santa, and we believe we could bring back Christmas cheer at different times of the year. But right now, we don't know.

Singing Santa - Message

Users can email a greeting or share it on Twitter.

Gupta on the Smule acquisition: We weren't thinking of selling the company. We feel like we're a pretty strange group of people faced with a pretty strange opportunity. But Smule is an odd bunch, too--they have the same vision we have, and we didn't feel like we'd ever find that again. It's so rare to find like-minded people. That alone was the strongest driving force.

When you look at the numbers, Smule has a strong userbase, like we do. But there's not a lot of overlap. Before we even started to discuss becoming the same company, we did some cross-promotion between Magic Piano and Songify, and the click-though rate was 20 percent or higher. What that told us is that there is a lot of overlapping interest, but not a whole lot of userbase overlap. We were both pleasantly surprised by effectiveness of that campaign. The apps are different, but we're both trying to do similar things. We want to bring music creation to the masses, but we're going about it through different ways.

For the time being, we're going to operate autonomously, and continue to publish under the Khush brand. There's not a lot changing in the short term. We're going to let the integration happen naturally. If we launch app where it makes sense to use [Smule's] resources, I'll ask for it. We'll share knowledge, userbases and resources when it makes sense. But I don't want to force the integration--want it to happen naturally.

It's definitely going to be different. We're a small company that's raised very little funding. I didn't have a boss--it's been me and the other two co-founders making decisions on our own. These things are all going to change. Smule has raised funding from top-tier VCs. They have a board. I now report to Smule's CEO [Jeff Smith] But these are things we talked about, and I got comfortable during that process. We have a great working relationship.

Gupta's advice for aspiring mobile developers: Getting your app noticed is really hard, even when you're a big developer. But you can't give up. Just don't expect that you're going to move up the charts right away, or that you'll stay there.

With LaDiDa, it took us months, but we didn't get discouraged. We launched in October 2009, and for the first few months, we were nowhere. We were getting a few hundred downloads a month. But in February 2010, we launched an update with new effects, and we started marketing the new functionality. That helped get us noticed. People were telling us they liked it, but they felt intimidated, so we started marketing it as an app for bad singers, and that changed the perception from [an] app only for good musicians to an app for everyone. We just had to get in front of the right people. 

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