Computing meets comics: Robert Grant's software firm plasq combines photos, funny pages

Robert Grant the Lead developer for Plasq works at him home office. (Grace Beahm/postandcourier.com)

As a lad growing up in England in the 1970s, Robert Grant remembers going to the arcade and feeding 10-pence coins into the machines. In return, he got his “brain candy” in the form of Pacman, Space Invaders and Pong.

The teenage Grant didn't know how programmers created those escapist worlds; he just thought it was “so awesome” and wanted to do it himself.

“I knew it was coming out of somebody's mind,” Grant said this month. “It was just you and this blank thing and you could create the whole world from nothing.”

So he learned how to program from computer magazine guides and fell so deep into the thrall of the “feedback loop” of writing code and seeing the graphic result on screen that he failed his high school exit exam. But Grant had discovered what would become his lifelong passion and livelihood.

Decades later, after coming to the United States and working a series of programing jobs, Grant, 46, is doing what brought him that youthful joy.

His company, plasq, which he runs remotely from his Mount Pleasant home, has one main product, Comic Life, which basically allows users to take their photos and make comic strips with them.

“It's a very simple concept, but we were the first ones to do it,” Grant said.

It was a roundabout route that brought Grant from London to the Lowcountry and to refining a hit comics software from the comfort of home.

He managed to parlay his programming skills into admission to and degrees from a couple of Britain's polytechnic colleges and was working in London when he met Myra Seaman, an American studying abroad. She brought him back stateside to Los Angeles in 1990 and eventually became his wife.

While Seaman studied medieval English literature in Southern California and then Portland, Ore., Grant worked for Xerox, doing user interface for its new network print server, and then Northwest Natural Gas, trying to stave off the Y2K threat.

Seaman was hired at the College of Charleston in 2000, bringing Grant and their now-teenage daughter to the East Coast. He telecommuted for a while, first for database specialist Informix, then for IBM when it bought Informix amid the bursting of the dot-com bubble. But he wasn't happy.

Meanwhile, Steve Jobs had returned to Apple after his own stint in the computing wilderness, and when Apple came out with the iMac and OS X, Grant realized what he really wanted to do: programming on Apple's new platform.

So he quit his well-paying IBM gig and launched Granted Software. Grant was cruising along, making reasonably successful shareware, “living the dream of programming in my underwear,” when one morning in August 2004, the idea for Comic Life hit him.

“I was trying to think of what's next and I had the inspiration to do photo comics.”

Not a comics fan, per se, Grant just figured this was the simpler alternative to making movies.

“It struck me that digital cameras ... were becoming dirt cheap and parents didn't mind their kids taking tons and tons of photos,” he said.

Grant collaborated with some other guys he'd met on the Internet, and Comic Life became one of several products in the portfolio of their new company, plasq. That was in April 2005.

The big break came when Grant received a call from Apple inviting him to come to the company's Worldwide Developers Conference that June. Grant wasn't planning on going, but Apple insisted, so he flew out to the Bay Area, fully expecting the consumer electronics giant to bestow some great honor upon his comic creation.

But when the best technology adoption award winner was announced, it wasn't Comic Life, and Grant was momentarily crushed. Just minutes later, however, there was another opportunity for glory, as Apple picked the best software new to OS X. Comic Life won.

“It was pretty mind-blowing,” he said of walking up on stage to accept the accolade.

That changed the whole balance of plasq, Grant said: “Basically this product went from zero to stratospheric.”

Apple bundled Comic Life with all its Mac computers for more than a year, and “our sales exploded,” Grant said. “They sent us large checks every quarter.”

When that golden goose died, plasq managed to hatch a new one: volume-licensing Comic Life to schools. Developing a Windows version of the software only helped the effort. “That's where we really sort of exploded again,” Grant said.

Students from Canada to Australia now use Comic Life. “Anything that can be done with pictures and words they want to use Comic Life to do it.”

But with success came a new challenge. One of plasq's original founders, an Australian named Cris Pearson, devised an image-sharing app called Skitch that he envisioned as another big winner for plasq.

Grant, however, was concerned Skitch was eating up too much of Comic Life's revenues and would tug the company into the web-hosting business, which they did not have the expertise or capacity to execute.

Pearson eventually split off, and Evernote bought Skitch, but Grant still regrets the extended time plasq spent deliberating about its direction.

“I'm frustrated where I feel like we missed a few years in the wilderness,” Grant said. “We got a rocket boost from Apple” and then “spent a couple years dilly-dallying.”

So even though the company still has employees in France, Norway and Tasmania and a year-old headquarters-type office in Portland, Grant insists on focus.

“Skype is the glue,” Grant said of the team's regular conference calls and around-the-clock web chats.

Plasq came out with Comic Life 2 earlier this year and is working on what Grant calls a “common core” for Comic Life across all platforms.

Growth possibilities also include making Comic Life into a storyboarding tool for filmmakers. But Grant doesn't want to turn it into a “kitchen sink” product and lose ground to competitors.

“We're trying to take a leaf out of Apple's playbook,” Grant said. “It is very hard to have a successful product. Lightning doesn't strike twice in the same place very frequently. We have a hugely successful product in Comic Life. We need to focus on it and continue to build upon it.”

Perhaps improbably, that preoccupied British teenager seems to have become something of a standard, middle-age American suburban dad. He likes his life and wants to keep it.

“I spent 20 years not liking what I did,” Grant said.

Now, he sometimes works weekends but still enjoys it.

“I feel guilty, I guess, because it's intellectually challenging, it's not exhausting. What's better?”