Last week, Realqaiqai, the Instagram handle for Qai Qai (pronounced “kway kway”), the doll turned social media star belonging to Olympia Ohanian, the 3-year-old daughter of tennis star Serena Williams and Reddit cofounder Alexis Ohanian, posted two, side-by-side images summarizing the doll’s evolution. “How it started” was the headline over a photo a brown-skinned baby doll wearing a purple tutu. Next to it was another line, “How it’s going,” above an animated Qai Qai with a decidedly sassy look on her face, striking a pose and flashing the peace sign. The post received nearly 20,000 likes.
Qai Qai’s journey from a doll that first showed up in Williams’ social media feed in 2018 when the tennis player uploaded a video of Qai Qai lying forlornly on the ground, into a spunky, animated character that now has her own Instagram and TikTok accounts with over 3.2 million followers, is largely the work of a new, entertainment tech startup called Invisible Universe.
Founded by former Snap executive John Brennan—and with $8 million in funding from Initialized Capital and Ohanian’s Seven Seven Six fund, Williams, Will Smith’s Dreamers VC, Cassius Family, and former Zillow CEO Spencer Rascoff—Invisible first conceived of the idea of turning Qai Qai into an animated character with her own sly sensibility and righteous dance moves.
“I was talking to Alexis and starting to notice that Serena would post about tennis, her fashion line, and people in the comments would be like, ‘Where’s Qai Qai?'” says Brennan. “People were really into this character. That’s when the lightbulb went off. I realized that people were falling in love with this idea of a doll that had a personality.” Animated Qai Qai was thus born and given her own social media accounts. Today, her followers are greeted with a steady churn of posts and videos: Qai Qai deadpanning meme-ready lines (“Me right after I tell my friends my presence is their gift”—as she sips juice from a wine glass; posing with Williams and Olympia in matching bathing suits; and bumping and grinding to the latest dance trend.
Now the plan is to take the more fully rounded character and expand her into an animated franchise that doesn’t just exist online, but in TV shows, movies, books, and more.
This notion of birthing characters on social media alongside influencers like Williams—who have massive followings to plug into—and then moving those characters into more traditional lanes, is the core mission of Invisible, which is striving to become “the Pixar of the Internet,” says CEO Tricia Biggio, a former senior VP of unscripted television at MGM. “We want to launch indelible character IP in a world where people are actually spending more and more of their time.”
Brennan said the idea for the company first occurred to him when he was at Snap, heading the company’s sports partnership division. While working alongside Snap’s AI and Bitmoji teams to secure licensing deals, “It got me thinking more generally about this idea of character IP on the internet,” he says. “Our phones are now the most popular screens in our lives. And for better or worse, social media is the most popular app on those phones. It didn’t make sense to me that 99% of household, animated IP had still only come from movies, TV, and publishing. Why can’t the next Toy Story come from Instagram or TikTok?” (Although those are Invisible’s primary platforms right now, the plan is to be platform agnostic.) It also didn’t make sense how much money is generally poured into producing animated films and TV shows that may or may not resonate with audiences. The low cost of making animated characters for the internet, and being able to experiment with them—and tweak them based on feedback and commentary that appears in real time—seemed like an obvious innovation.
“It takes four to five years and a couple hundred million dollars to launch a franchise, only to find out it actually didn’t covert to merch sales,” says Biggio. “We can work in 30 to 60 days at a fraction of the cost.”
Invisible has already launched a handful of characters who are building up fans on social media and testing this premise, including Squeaky & Roy, two plush besties who live in the home of TikTok sensations Dixie and Charli D’Amelio; Kayda & Kai, Karlie Kloss’ virtual assistant-slash-robot and docking station; and Crazynho, a happy-go-lucky monkey who lives with Brazilian soccer star Dani Alves. Invisible plans to launch more characters later this year with celebrities including Jennifer Aniston. The actress, who is also an investor and advisor to Invisible, said it was “exciting to add creating an animated character to my résumé.”
The process is to team with an influencer whose brand fits with Invisible’s, and then creatively collaborate on a character which is brought to life by Invisible’s in-house team of illustrators, 3D artists, and animators. “Our bar is not just, oh, you have 50 million followers, you have 100 million followers,” says Brennan. “It’s incredibly important from a value and brand perspective that you’re the kind of person we’re going to collaborate on a piece of IP that can go the distance and truly be family friendly.”
Invisible has created its own proprietary workflow optimization software that allows its team to create content at the fast-paced rate of social media. For example, when Squeaky & Roy participated in a flexibility challenge on TikTok—which received 11 million views—and Invisible noticed that fans were asking for a room tour in the comments section, animators got to work. “They were like ‘Room tour! Room tour! Show us your room!'” Biggio says. “So that day we put into the pipeline a piece of content where the two characters are giving a room tour. Within 36 hours it had almost a million views.”
For celebs like Williams and Aniston, the partnership creates a new business opportunity and revenue stream, and is appealing because it involves relatively little work. Williams might send a screenshot she thinks would be great to add Qai Qai into, but otherwise Invisible relies on footage they shoot early on in and around a celeb’s house. “If you look at the last year with COVID-19, the way the animation industry blew up, one of the biggest reasons is that it’s a really light-lift ask of celebrities,” says Biggio. In addition, it’s something they can do from the comfort of their homes. “We really took a page from that and benefited from that, because it was something that people could do that was really creatively engaging but not a massive time commitment.”
Katelin Holloway, a founding partner of Seven Seven Six who sits on the board of Invisible and is an alumnus of Pixar, says Invisible represents “where the industry is moving.”
“I really see the longevity in this in the way I don’t see in traditional animation or even other creative processes that are relatively stuck in their evolution and development,” she says. “Here, you are live building, and your audience can react with a heart or an emoji. And it’s something that is so low engagement for them. You’re not dragging people into a movie theater like we used to do at Pixar and setting up big test screenings, getting reactions on storyboards, which is insane to me. Here, you double tap on an Instagram story.”