Kik Messenger, the six-year-old standalone messaging app primarily used by U.S. teens, is no longer growing, says CEO Ted Livingston.
Perhaps just as concerning: Kik has also noticed a “tiny dip” in usage by teens. The app’s core user demographic has become Kik’s calling card when differentiating itself from the crowded messaging industry.
“I would definitely rather be growing. Obviously,” Livingston told Recode bluntly, but with a smile, from a chatbot conference in Austin this week.
Livingston says that Kik is a victim of what he called “the app slowdown,” or the trend that people are downloading fewer and fewer apps than they used to.
“The app slowdown is across all of the apps, and no one is really talking about it,” he added. “At this point, your best bet is how well [you can] hold onto the people you have.”
Kik claims 300 million registered users, but doesn’t break out how many of those are active users, or people who open the app at least once a month, which is the metric we see from larger players like Facebook and Twitter.
Admitting your consumer app company isn’t growing is not common among startup CEOs. In fact, it’s the kind of information you usually hide deep in the back closet so you don’t even have to look at it. (See: Twitter.)
But Livingston is not a common startup CEO — he’s much more open and opinionated than most — and he also isn’t too concerned with Kik’s user-growth plateau, primarily because he’s so darn bullish on the future of messaging in the U.S.
What keeps Livingston so positive is the idea of the chat platform, or bringing other services like hailing an Uber, buying and sending flowers, or booking an airline ticket into your messaging app.
Facebook opened up its messaging app, Messenger, to these kinds of experiences in March. Kik has offered a messaging platform for years, and believes chatbots will be one of the keys to automating some of these services.
“The good news is: One, we were right, chat is going to become a platform,” he said. “Two, we are one of a very few number of players who [have] a really true consumer chat platform. It’s really just us and Facebook in the West.”
Other messaging apps like China’s WeChat and Line in Japan do something similar, but the model is very new and totally unproven in the U.S.
Livingston is banking that will change. The future of his messaging company literally depends on it. But he isn’t concerned about it happening overnight. Instead, he just wants to convince others that messaging is the future, even if it’s a distant future.
“It’s not important for us that it happen any time soon,” he said. “But it is important to us that other people, other investors, realize how big the impact is going to be in the next few years.”
In the meantime, Kik, which has 100 full-time employees, is going back to the basics. Livingston said that while they’ve spent the last couple years trying to build out the technology to support extra services, he’s now ready to improve Kik’s core chat experience.
And while it’s common for companies that hit a wall on growth to look for more funding or an acquirer, Livingston says Kik is not actively seeking either.
“We always look at all the options,” he said, mentioning how the company hired the investment bank Qatalyst Partners when it raised $50 million from WeChat parent company Tencent last August.
“What are all the options to win? Do we sell? Do we not sell? Do we finance? Do we not finance? It’s been true since the beginning,” he added. (Kik is not currently working with Qatalyst, he added.)
But no matter how you frame it, Kik needs a boost. Perhaps not right now, but as we’ve learned from Twitter, stagnating growth usually means the vultures start to circle.
“We need people to see what we see, see what Facebook sees, see what WeChat sees,” Livingston said. “Which is [that] chat is the next once-a-decade platform.”