Anime and manga fans from all over the world are coming together thanks to Kitsu, a website launched by Josh Fabian.
“We are kind of a two-sided marketplace, in that we’re a utility the same way that IMDb is, but we’re also a social network in the way that Facebook and Twitter are,” says Fabian, who maintains Kitsu (formerly known as Hummingbird) out of the Blairsville home he shares with his wife, Ashley, and their three young children.
Named after the Japanese term for a fox’s bark, the platform allows anime and manga enthusiasts to chat online, look up reviews and information, and follow the latest news on films, series and publications. After three years in development, Kitsu now has around 150,000 users worldwide.
“I think there are just three countries we don’t have users in,” says Fabian, who built Kitsu with two other employees located in California and Australia.
Anime refers to a type of Japanese film and television animation that ranges broadly from the dark, mature themes of films like Akira or Ghost in the Shell, to more kid-friendly fare like Hamtaro, a TV series about a cute hamster. The genre closely relates to manga, which is a style of Japanese comic books and graphic novels.
Fabian believes Kitsu could better serve a growing demographic of anime and manga fans who flock to sites like the streaming service Crunchyroll, which he calls “Netflix for anime.”
His own interest in anime started when he a kid watching Dragon Ball Z with his friends in Derry, a small town located 45 miles east of Pittsburgh. Fabian connected with “more reserved, introverted kids” who felt different for liking geeky pursuits like video games and anime because he also felt like an outsider.
“I was adopted, and my parents are white and I’m black, so growing up as a black kid in Derry was sometimes really hard,” says Fabian, adding that he was one of maybe two or three students of color at Derry Area High School. “There wasn’t a lot of diversity.”
He felt the need to build Kitsu as a way to help people share their niche love of anime and manga culture.
“Unless you’re at a convention, you’re really not surrounded by people who are into the same thing as you,” says Fabian. “For some people, they go on message boards and connect with other fans, but it’s not a modern way to communicate. And the problem we’re trying to solve is making it easier for people to communicate.”
But the road to Kitsu wasn’t an easy one. A high school dropout who left during his senior year, Fabian struggled for years to make ends meet. He worked at Radio Shack and did freelance web design work to support Ashley and their first child. They also relied on assistance like food stamps to get by.
Finally, he hit a breaking point.
“I had to go to one of my close friends and ask him if I could borrow money to buy diapers,” says Fabian. “I still cringe thinking about it.”
After an unsuccessful stint at a West Virginia company, he scraped together $8,000 in tuition to attend a three-month backend design course in Chicago called Code Academy. From there, fate quickly bounced him from a high-paying position at a startup called oBaz to a lead designer job at Groupon, which acquired the fledgling company in 2011.
“It was such a crazy blur,” says Fabian. “It all just snowballed.”
After two years working for Groupon, Fabian decided it was time to embark on his own project. He and his family moved back to the Pittsburgh area, and soon Kitsu was born.
Currently, Fabian and his team are working to improve Kitsu’s role as a source for anime and manga information, which could range from reviews to trivia and quotes. They’re also focused on ensuring the social aspect of the platform is a space free of online harassment and bullying, which has plagued sites like Reddit and Twitter.
“It’s not something that has happened often, but as we scale, it becomes more of a concern,” says Fabian. “We’re actively working on it before it becomes a problem.”
After a short time being online, Fabian already sees how much of an impact Kitsu has on the anime and manga community.
“A couple of weeks ago, a user reached out to thank me for building the platform because they met their girlfriend on the site and they’re now moving in together,” says Fabian. “To get to the point where it’s affecting people’s lives around the world is humbling. It makes it seem like much more than just a website for fans of cartoons.”