Our Text-To-AR App Got 25K Users Within Two Months Of Launch

Published: April 14th, 2024
Darya Sesitskaya
Founder, Shader
from San Francisco, Калифорния, США
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Hey there, I'm Darya Sesitskaya. For more than 10 years, I’ve been focused on product design, startup growth hacking, and developing products around computer vision and AR/XR.

Today, I'm thrilled to be the founder and CEO of Shader, a cutting-edge startup based in San Francisco. We're shaking up the tech scene with our groundbreaking text-to-AR technology, which is making it easier than ever for anyone to create stunning AR effects without needing design or coding skills.

Shader was born in 2022, stemming from the collective expertise of a former Snap AR team specializing in real-time, personalized AI effects.

What sets Shader apart is its simplicity – unlike other complex design platforms, we're all about empowering users to freely express themselves with just a few simple prompts.


Imagine this: You're soaking up the vibes at Coachella with your crew, and you want to jazz up your video with a cool cyberpunk mask. No need to scour the internet for the perfect fit – just whip out the Shader camera app, type in "make me more cyberpunk," and voila! Instantly shareable creativity at your fingertips.

At Shader, our mission is clear: to democratize creativity. We're all about making AI effects accessible to everyone, regardless of their technical prowess. With a focus on user-friendly design principles, we're here to inspire and support creativity in all its forms.

We've been fortunate to garner support from some stellar investors, including Betaworks, Greycroft, Differential Ventures, Mozilla Ventures, and On Deck. And our journey is just getting started – from being finalists at the AWE USA 2023 Startup Pitch competition to being featured as the Product of the Day on Product Hunt, we're thrilled to be making waves in the tech world.


What's your backstory and how did you come up with the idea?

Darya Sesitskaya, founder and CEO of Shader


From a young age, I've been captivated by art and harbored dreams of launching my own business. Hailing from a family of entrepreneurs in the quaint town of Pinsk, Belarus, I initially pursued my ambitions by earning a degree in mass communications from the European Humanities University in 2012.

Venturing into the realms of marketing and advertising, I honed my skills over five years, crafting innovative social network promotion strategies for renowned brands such as Danone, Nestlé, KIA, Volkswagen, and Pernod Ricard, thus paving the way for my storytelling career.

In 2018, my growing passion for design led me to transition my career trajectory by joining WANNABY, a promising startup, where I assumed the role of UX/UI team lead. Juggling responsibilities in PR, product development, and management, I guided designers while pursuing a Design program at UC Berkeley.

During these two years at the startup, I learned a lot, and couldn’t stop thinking about the idea of running my own business one day. At WANNABY, we built incredibly realistic technology that helps people try on sneakers just with a phone camera. Our cutting-edge features provided users with an understanding of the shape of the shoe model, which encouraged them to buy it after the try-on experience. My team's contribution helped us build an awesome partnership with Gucci and Adidas, culminating in the startup's acquisition by Farfetch for a staggering $24.5 million.

In 2019, I obtained an O1 visa, and I embarked on a new chapter in the United States. Two years later, I found myself at the helm of product development at Snap’s Lens Studio, serving as the AR Platform Design Lead. My primary focus was on refining and enhancing the usability of the web version of the AR object creation studio.

Drawing from my rich experiences at WANNABY and Snap AR, I took the plunge and established Shader in 2022, ready to embark on the next thrilling chapter of my entrepreneurial journey.

We began with the soft launch of our website and quietly started building our user base. From April to December 2023, we engaged potential users through our website, Discord community, and Twitter, attracting 1500 eager individuals ready to test our product.

Take us through the process of building the first version of your product.

Initially, I prototyped and designed the first version of the app demo myself. This helped me test my hypothesis with potential users and conduct product design research before we integrated the working demo with the initial code.

Later, founding developers from my previous startup, WANNABY joined our team, and together, we began incorporating AR features, leading to the creation of the first mobile AR creation tool. Leveraging the expertise of one of our developers in computer vision for AR, we swiftly developed and implemented more complex technologies.

Undoubtedly, the most challenging aspect was creating avatars that accurately resembled users. Various factors, such as lighting conditions, diversity, and skin types, posed significant challenges in facial scanning. Ensuring inclusivity was a top priority for us from the outset, and we dedicated all our efforts to building an inclusive camera starting from the very first version.

I've been bootstrapping for almost half a year, investing my savings in the initial expenses of my first startup. It was a huge risk for me, as I don’t come from a wealthy family and moved to San Francisco from Belarus with just around $5,000 on my credit card. I know what it's like to live with a lot of roommates and struggle to find a job during COVID-19 times, but I've always kept going and never given up. So, I don’t recommend this path to any immigrant, unless you're crazy enough and truly believe in your idea.

But perhaps because of that very reason, I found the right people who joined me as founding engineers and agreed to continue working on my vision for free until we could raise our first fund. Also, as a first-time founder, I certainly sought answers to many questions about fundraising but learned everything through my own personal mistakes.

After a lot of practice and changing our pitch deck probably more than 500 times, we were accepted into the awesome program by Betaworks, a New York-based fund. It was relevant to our AR/AI industry, and we were lucky to be chosen. Through this program, we raised our first $610,000 from Betaworks, Greycroft, Differential Ventures, Mozilla, OnDeck, and a couple of angels. Currently, we are ready to fundraise for our Pre-Seed round again, but now with our progress and vision to achieve the next milestone.


Describe the process of launching the business.

We began with the soft launch of our website and quietly started building our user base. From April to December 2023, we engaged potential users through our website, Discord community, and Twitter, attracting 1500 eager individuals ready to test our product. As time went on, this number grew to 2500, something that proved valuable in attracting investor interest.

Following this, we officially launched our product, and we experienced significant growth. Within the first two months, we amassed 25k users. Concurrently, we leveraged Product Hunt to enhance our visibility.

Today, it's a common practice to test products with a smaller user base before releasing them to a wider audience. This approach has proven beneficial in ensuring our product meets user expectations.

I want to highlight the importance of engaging with our audience at the outset of our product launch. As the founder, I made sure to communicate extensively with them, which helped us obtain more insights and come closer to finding a product-market fit.

Additionally, I would advise fellow entrepreneurs against making hefty marketing expenses right away. Many B2C product creators allocate significant resources to marketing prematurely, only to face challenges with user retention and product-market fit.

Instead, I recommend conducting a modest marketing study and testing hypotheses with a limited budget. It’s a good time to be creative with short video content and grow organically for the first 10k users! For example, consider content creation on TikTok, YouTube Shorts, Instagram, X, etc.

We are going to implement a PRO subscription for customers who are the biggest Shader lovers. We've spent a lot of time researching what motivates people to use our app extensively and create with Shader more than twice. Now, we've found a way to add special features to the PRO version.

Additionally, we are planning to develop our own SDK/API solution, which our clients will be able to use. For example, it will facilitate collaboration and enable us to build a B2B business with video creation and streaming platforms.

Budget with precision and prototype creatively. Instead of diving headfirst into extensive product development, consider experimenting with innovative approaches. Try testing the waters with a captivating video featuring your product's illustrated prototype.

Since launch, what has worked to attract and retain customers?

Our user acquisition strategy primarily revolved around leveraging social media platforms such as Discord, Twitter, and TikTok, where we showcased product demo videos. This approach proved to be highly effective as it not only helped us attract users but also allowed us to validate key hypotheses with our audience.

Through engaging with our community on social networks, we gained valuable insights into their needs and preferences. We discovered essential features, identified areas for improvement, and understood why AR effects were essential to our users. Moreover, we were able to refine our product design by conducting polls and gathering feedback directly from our Discord community.

This successful strategy highlights the importance of utilizing social media channels for user acquisition and product validation. Startups can learn from our experience and consider integrating similar tactics into their user acquisition plans.

As for engaging our users, we're currently developing a special strategy for implementing AI-generated push notifications. For instance, imagine receiving a notification saying, "Wow! You look like a princess," you click on it, and in front of you is already a ready-made image generated by the app. This is what we're actively working on right now.

How are you doing today and what does the future look like?

Just a little while ago, we introduced the web version of our product, and the response has been phenomenal! Already, over 25k users have tried it out and shared their fantastic feedback, confirming our launch as a resounding success.


Publication of the raised news in Tech Crunch

Another big achievement for us was closing our first round of funding, backed by key investors who believe in our vision. Looking ahead, we're gearing up to focus on subscriptions and payment models to attract more users and kickstart our revenue streams.

And, further on the horizon, we're excited about partnering with major media platforms and messengers to seamlessly integrate our product into video calls and streams, taking our journey to the next level.

Through starting the business, have you learned anything particularly helpful or advantageous?

There are two crucial lessons I've learned during the development of Shader that I'd like to share with others.

The first is to be extremely mindful of your company’s finances from the get-go. In today's market, resources are limited, and the wisest decision for me was not to hire a large team right away.

Instead, I chose to proceed gradually and keep a close eye on our budgets. Even our pre-seed round indicates that smaller-scale solutions are currently more popular, and can still allow you to start making money. This has become a strong suit of our team.

The second lesson we learned stemmed from a mistake we made early on. B2C products require constant adjustments, and it's harder to develop a product with engineers who work part-time, especially if they are in different time zones.

It's an awesome idea for scaling your business and progressing with initial demos, but the initial version of an app geared towards consumers needs constant collaboration between designers and developers.


What platform/tools do you use for your business?

I think our most innovative idea is using Discord as our main communication tool between team members. This is because it also helps us stay close to our audience.

We conduct calls on Discord, see user feedback immediately, and draw inspiration from our server. It also prompts us to think about how we can improve our server and explore additional ways to bring value to our active community.

What have been the most influential books, podcasts, or other resources?

For the last three years, while I was working at Snapchat, I lived in Los Angeles. As you know, it’s the big city life - constantly spending a lot of time in traffic commuting to the office or meeting with friends.

Hence, I listened to a lot of business podcasts. A couple of my favorites are the a16z Podcast and My First Million.

Advice for other entrepreneurs who want to get started or are just starting out?

Here are two valuable pieces of advice I'd like to offer budding entrepreneurs, influenced by the dynamic landscape of venture investments today:

Budget with precision and prototype creatively. Instead of diving headfirst into extensive product development, consider experimenting with innovative approaches. Try testing the waters with a captivating video featuring your product's illustrated prototype. This not only conserves resources but also allows you to gauge potential user interest before committing larger amounts of capital.

Engage deeply with your audience. Don't underestimate the power of a genuine connection with your target market. Engage in meaningful conversations and conduct in-depth interviews to truly understand their needs and preferences. These insights not only enhance your ability to secure investments but also lay the groundwork for strategic positioning and sustainable growth.


Are you looking to hire for certain positions right now?

I'm in search of talented individuals to join our team as we embark on an exciting journey to develop the world's first no-code AR Creation Tool!

Currently, we have an opening for the position of iOS Software Engineer with expertise in Augmented Reality. If you're passionate about pushing the boundaries of technology and want to be part of a groundbreaking project, we'd love to have you on board!

Here is more info.

Shader team

Where can we go to learn more?

If you have any questions or comments, drop a comment below!