Business & Real Estate

Mountain View High grads launch popular Genies avatar app

Courtesy of Akash Nigam
Akash Nigam launched an app he created, Blend, while a student at the University of Michigan years ago. Blend evolved into the avatar-customizing Genies, which has propelled the Los Altos native, pictured recently, and co-founder Evan Rosenbaum onto the Forbes 30 Under 30 list for Consumer Technology.

On any given day, mobile app Genies CEO and co-founder Akash Nigam could be meeting with a famous pro athlete or social media influencer hoping to have his or her face transformed into a virtual avatar powered by artificial intelligence.

“The cool thing about this company is that a lot of these influencers or celebrities reached out to us themselves,” the Los Altos native said. “We were contacted by a number of people that range from (NBA player) Russell Westbrook to (musician) Shawn Mendes. When they learn more about the company, they end up investing. A lot of them have now become friends with (Genies), and a lot of them are just fans.”

Genies, which officially launched in November after three months of beta testing, has amassed more than 1 million users, each with a unique clone that the app customizes. The app propelled Nigam and co-founder Evan Rosenbaum onto the latest Forbes 30 Under 30 list for Consumer Technology.

Nigam is no stranger to entrepreneurship. The 26-year-old, who graduated from MountainView High School in 2010, started the Kick Lead Dream soccer camp while in high school. The camp for low-income students is still around today. Before that, he ran a lemonade stand that featured signage and music.

“Even when I was a young kid, anything I would do, I would do it myself,” he said. “I was always starting new things, (and) I knew that I was interested in starting a business. I wanted to start something that was going to be relevant and impact as many humans as possible.”

He initially realized his goal while attending the University of Michigan, creating the messaging app Blend. With a semester left before graduation, Nigam dropped out of school to pursue the app. Although he valued his education, he believed that for Blend, the time was now.

“Time is always of the essence, especially in an ever-changing, fast-paced market like tech, especially consumer tech,” Nigam said. “We decided to just jump on it and risk it all. A lot about starting a business is being as risk averse as possible and understanding that big opportunity only comes from big gambles.”

However, Nigam’s parents wanted him to finish school. They drafted a contract, allowing him to take time off if he could raise $3 million for Blend. Nigam embraced the challenge.

“I appreciated (the challenge) because it definitely put something out there for us to attainably go reach,” he said. “Once we started raising the $3 million, we raised it from some of the top venture capitalists in the world. That’s when it (went from) something of fantasy to reality, and everybody just got behind it with all of their unwavering support.”

Growing company

As the company grew, Nigam hired more people. Los Altos native and Mountain View High graduate James Andrews joined the company in 2014, before it evolved into Genies (adopting much of the proprietary technology that powered its predecessor). Allison Sturges, the company’s director of marketing, is also a Mountain View High grad and Los Altos native who came aboard five years ago.

Blend was renamed Genies soon after Nigam received an acquisition offer that he declined so he could build “something bigger,” taking advantage of the company’s familiarity with the millennial demographic.

Andrews, who graduated from Mountain View High in 2011 but did not know Nigam then, dropped out of the University of Colorado at Boulder to work on Blend. He is now Genies’ head of product. For Andrews, incorporating aspects of Los Altos culture into Genies has differentiated the company from other traditional technology ventures.

“I love Los Altos,” Andrews said. “The tech aspect is just one piece of that. The music, fashion, lingo (and) food also drive massive cultural trends around the world. (I) love bringing as much of that as possible into our company and products. It’s a large element of the unique culture we have at Genies.”

Nigam remains focused on growth. He plans to visit Asia this month to promote the app to broaden the user base.

“We want Genies to live everywhere,” said Nigam, whose company has offices in San Francisco and Los Angeles. “We vehemently believe that avatars are going to be the next form of communication, and that humans no longer want to use themselves or even words to connect. Our goal is to be a No. 1 (avatar) company by the end of the year, and I think we are well on track to do that.”

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