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Xtranormal, the populist Pixar, plans expansion to Facebook, YouTube and the iPhone

Posted by Scott Kirsner  March 1, 2011 01:46 PM

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By now you've probably seen a video made using Xtranormal, a simple online tool for creating animations. Maybe it was the one featuring a mobile phone salesperson trying to sell an HTC Evo phone to someone who came in to buy an iPhone 4, which has racked up 12 million views. (Foul language warning on most of these...)

Or this conversation between a Tea Partier and an "average American."

Or this collection of "stupid questions VCs ask."

I hadn't realized that while Xtranormal's development team is split between Montreal and San Francisco, its lone investor so far is Cambridge-based Fairhaven Capital, and its current CEO, Graham Sharp, who joined last spring, is based in Marblehead.

Fairhaven partner Dan Keshian tells me that the firm initially invested in 2007, when the company was building a tool that professional content producers might use as part of their storyboarding process, or even for creating inexpensive and quick finished animations for the Web or broadcast television.

But by the time Sharp took over from founder Richard Szalwinski last year, Sharp says, "The fact that they'd created this brilliantly simple user interface to allow you to create animation was sort of its downfall. The professionals thought it was too simplistic. You had libraries of characters and backgrounds, and the libraries were never quite enough to cover what a professional animator of moviemaker wanted to do."

So last year, the company began to focus on enabling amateurs to create their own online animations. More than ten million have been produced so far. The new business model is all about selling virtual assets — namely, access to certain sets and characters.

"We're acutely aware that we don't want to be a fad," says Sharp, "so we have to constantly refresh the content, and make the technology more accessible."

On that front, Sharp says the company is working on ways to integrate its animation-generation console into sites like YouTube and Facebook. As on Xtranormal's site, that'll allow users to simply pick a location, select characters, and start typing their script.

"We're also beta-testing an iPhone app that we're going to launch sometime in March," Sharp says.

As Xtranormal is used to produce more videos that turn into viral hits, Sharp says that maintaining the infrastructure to support the site's success may prove a challenge. As a result, he says the company may raise more funding soon — an he expects to bring in a firm other than Fairhaven.

I asked Sharp whether his discussions with prospective investors ever get uncomfortable, given the popularity of the "stupid questions VCs ask" video above. "I've had several VC meetings where I've used that video to open the meeting," he says, "and to a man, every VC I've shown it to takes it in the spirit it was meant, and thinks it's hilarious — because of course it doesn't apply to them." (Asked whether he'd ever asked any of the questions, Keshian said, "Never.")

Xtranormal has about 30 employees. Aside from Sharp, the only other employee based in the Boston area is Bruno Langlais, who is responsible for marketing and business development.

(An aside: Sharp formerly was a vice president at Tewksbury-based Avid Technology, which sells hardware and software for producing audio and video. He said that while at Avid, the company had briefly considered buying Xtranormal.)

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About Scott Kirsner

Scott Kirsner was part of the team that launched Boston.com in 1995, and has been writing a column for the Globe since 2000. His work has also appeared in Wired, Fast Company, The New York Times, BusinessWeek, Newsweek, and Variety. Scott is also the author of the books "Fans, Friends & Followers" and "Inventing the Movies," was the editor of "The Convergence Guide: Life Sciences in New England," and was a contributor to "The Good City: Writers Explore 21st Century Boston." Scott also helps organize several local events on entrepreneurship, including the Nantucket Conference and Future Forward. Here's some background on how Scott decides what to cover, and how to pitch him a story idea.

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