Scribbls: A big draw with little doodles

To stand out in a world that launches a new startup company, application or website almost hourly is not an easy task. Ask any of those who witnessed the Scribbls demo at the latest Minnebar in the Twin Cities, or has had the good fortune to discover the site on their own. After they stop laughing, they’ll tell you this one is a standout.

The brain child of Watermelon Sauce* cofounders Zach Johnson and Paul Armstrong, Scribbls has been bubbling under the surface for the past few years. These chronic doodlers made the site public just three short weeks ago.

The basic premise of a “scribbl” is incredibly simple. Users are asked to create doodles by using existing ones and combining them. The formula, according to Zach, is a straightforward one: A+B=C. He also notes that the University of Minnesota is actually studying something similar as it applies to nonverbal communication. Scribbls on the forefront of science? Yeah, who knew?

These scribbls play on collaboration and can lead to hilarious results. They both enjoy the proliferation of people drawing and reusing bacon on the site in their doodles: “Everything is better with bacon!” they say in unison.

Scribbls has given birth to recurring characters of sometimes mythic proportions. Zach points to his favorite, Yarzilla, and Paul notes Beerbear, while expressing his personal affinity towards Turd. I’m partial to the epic Turd battle between the Ninja Turd and the Pirate Turd. Paul even has visions of Saturday morning cartoons, though probably not ones that include Turd.

Clearly, what drives Scribbls is not a strong desire to create a world-changing, socially relevant site. Says Johnson, “Yeah, as developers we want to be proud of our work, but as a user, this is about a laugh.” Armstrong adds, “We’re not trying to solve someone’s business problems (with Scribbls). This is just entertainment.”

The first look at the site shows a very clean, clutter-free look. These intrepid doodlers want it that way. Paul notes, “We really want to keep down the clutter. It only takes away from the Scribbls.” This appealing look draws attention to the library of doodles and what the pair describes as “outcomes.”

That simplicity also carries over into how the actual Scribbl pad evolved. At one time, they had more sophisticated tools like flood-fill and multiple pen sizes, but then realized that, when you doodle in real life you don’t have those sorts of tools. Within Scribbls, there is one pencil tool and three colors, black, red and green, and you’re forced to draw your doodle as best you can. Zach sums up this approach this way: “There are plenty of tools out there that are great, and I based our site on some of them. We pared it all down to reflect drawing a real-life doodle.”

A quick glance at user-selected favorite doodles, the “Most Hearted” page, and it’s obvious the social interaction combining doodles produces some questionable outcomes. While the question of moderating doodle creations before they go live on the site has been discussed between the two founders, “We rarely have to address it,” says Zach. He continues, “When we have sent an offending user an email, which is hardly ever, they understand and we usually get something much better from them in response. Some people will be offended, but they aren’t our audience.”

Short-term goals for Scribbls are simple, according to Zach, but during our interview Paul summed up their goal: “Keep the users we have, make sure we can handle more users, and get more users.” The pair is very satisfied with their progress in gaining users and, most importantly, it never stops being funny. “I love seeing how well people get it,” says Paul, reflecting his concern that users wouldn’t understand the collaboration element.

Since they also have day jobs, when the pair gets together to work on the site (or what they call “saucing days”), they work on new features for Scribbls, including ways to share outcomes. Zach points to obvious features, such as the need to easily embed your favorite Scribbls in a blog or Facebook page, or to give users the capability to use their scribbl as a personal avatar. They also feel adding these features will lead to more viral marketing of Scribbls by raising awareness.

Beyond that? They’d love to produce T-shirts, but printing (in high quality) the fine lines of a doodle are tough to translate to a T-shirt, and they’ve been unable to find a T-shirt printing process to date that meets their high standards.

They’re committed to continue to keep the barrier to entry as low as possible. For example, asking too much information from users is not part of the plan since it causes resistance for new users. As part of their business model, social networking possibilities are interesting, but they haven’t really thought much past the fun of the Scribbls site and what people are doing on it. The goal is to get the site to pay for itself with simple, unobtrusive advertising.

For now, as the pair waits for the entire Internet to show up and start doodling, they are looking for more input. “We’re part of the audience and open to new ideas for the site. We want people to use the ‘Features Request’ link more,” says Zach. “And send more jokes,” adds Paul with a grin.

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*The name of Paul and Zach’s company, Watermelon Sauce, illustrates the pair’s concept of intent and meaning. A while back, while looking at a picture that could’ve been perceived as violent, a friend noted, “It’s not blood, it’s watermelon sauce,” and the name stuck.

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