To hear imoji CEO Tom Smith tell it, the idea for the company’s app had immediate legs. From the founding team’s first discussion mid-last year about what was a seemingly simple idea — give people around the world the ability to turn any photo into a sharable emoji — there’s been a sense of urgency.

“My first thought was, ‘I can’t believe this doesn’t already exist. This needs to exist.’ Then my second thought was, ‘let’s get to work.’” That first night Smith and his team stayed up until the wee hours of the morning conceptualizing the app and fleshing out an initial, working prototype.

Imoji is a much lauded app that does something simple but extraordinarily powerful in this modern era of brief, pithy mobile communication: it gives users the ability to turn any photo into an emoji. And with its biggest update yet, made available today, the app has been transformed from a way to bolster and add context to conversations in Apple’s iMessage into a stand-alone messaging app that lets users communicate with one another directly in the app. With the additional communication functionality powered by Layer, the new version of imoji keeps more engagement inside of the app and puts content creation and sharing side by side.

imoji app with Layer

Even in the consumer messaging app space where usage numbers are often staggering, imoji’s growth would impress anyone. In the six months since its debut numbers have climbed continually, with no seasonal lulls or end in sight. Investors took notice, and Smith and team raised $2 million from Goodwater Capital and former Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers partner Joe Lacob.

Emojis and the evolution of how we communicate

Crowned as the top trending word of 2014 and officially added to the Oxford Dictionary, “emoji” describes pictographs or visual representations of emotions now an irreplaceable part of our shared online tongue. They started gaining traction in the mid-1990s, and in 2011 Apple adopted a standardized emoji library and added it to iOS5 — a supreme validation. A 2013 study asked people in different parts of the world if they’ve used emojis, and the response paints a clear picture of their staying power. In China, 83 percent responded “yes.” In Indonesia it was 84 percent and in the United States 74 percent who gave a “yes” response.

“Emojis are the first true international language,” said Smith. “And they’ve evolved our online communication greatly.”

Without the supplement of emojis, he said, so much is lost in online conversations. When you’re communicating with someone else on a mobile device, you’re not privy to context like where the other person is or what they’re doing. Words can be easily misinterpreted.

“Emojis help cut away some of that misleading content in a conversation,” said Smith. “They add humor, evoke emotion and help people connect.”

Creating a visual language with photos

If emojis have evolved the way we communicate and extended our ability to do so effectively, think of imoji as a tool to create and speak your own dialect. Globally we’re taking an unprecedented number of digital photos, a trend directly correlated to the number of mobile devices we use. Every day on Facebook, Snapchat and WhatsApp alone, 1.5 billion photos are taken. Many of our online conversations are about the very same things we take photos of — what we’re seeing, what we’re doing, who we’re doing it with.

“While emojis are great — they offer up a emotion and tone — they’re generic,” said Smith. Turning a photo into an emoji lets people insert a relevant graphical representation into a conversation. It’s the same familiar language of emojis, only highly contextual since its a graphic of the very specific thing being discussed.

And since imoji is giving people the ability to share the emojis they create with other users, the imoji community is collectively creating a massive, visual language. More personalized, specific and contextual than emojis could ever be. And the implications of such a visual language are big.

“The first iteration of imoji was about creation. Now we have millions of these powerful assets -— emojis created by people around the world,” said Smith. “The second version of imoji (available today) is designed both to let people create them, but also to share them in really unique ways inside the app.”

imoji keyboard

Leveraging Layer as a communications building block to build faster, build better

When the imoji team set a plan to enable people to communicate with one another inside the app, they looked at what they’d have to build to power such functionality.

“We understood very clearly where we wanted to go, and also understood what it would take to build a proprietary messaging system,” said Smith. “Such an endeavor would be extremely demanding and inevitably, we’d have a hard time ever building something as robust and powerful as Layer. It’s not our core competency.”

Also, and perhaps most importantly, Tom said, the team knew that leveraging Layer as a building block for adding messaging natively into their app would save a huge amount of time.

“We think a great deal about how people will use imoji to communicate. Creating a great user experience is where we want to spend the bulk of our time and effort. Layer, being so reliable and giving us so many features to play with as we design the user experience, lets us keep our focus there and add rich messaging to imoji without building it ourselves.”

“Our experience with Layer has been nothing short of excellent,” said Smith. “We see this as a long-term partnership. Photos pull a heartstring. Our goal is to strengthen that heartstring and make it easier to pull. Layer helps us do that.”

Check out imoji today in the App Store and Google Play Store.