The “Chief Executive Amen-er” of one of Berlin’s best-known startups talks hype, haters and why entreprenuers should be ambitious enough to leave a mark.
“We’re still very young,” Amen co-founder Felix Petersen says, sitting across the table in his startup’s white, high-ceilinged office near Berlin’s river Spree. “We get a lot of attention – people are really looking at Amen, but it’s just a year into it.”
Amen – co-founded by Petersen, Florian Weber and Caitlin Winner in summer 2011 – is an archetype for the young internet companies pulling Berlin so much attention right now. It’s social, consumer-driven, with strong design. Product-first, revenue-later, the kind of approach afforded by a few million in venture capital (in this case, $3million from Index Ventures, Sunstone Capital, Slow Ventures and Ashton Kutcher’s A-Grade).
Ambitious, too. “In the end, you’ll be measured on the amount of disruption and innovation you’ve created”, Petersen, 36, says. “Personally, I think you have to try to solve a hard problem. Both for your own sake, because at least the hard work will have paid off and you create something big, and in terms of…” he pauses. “For the sake of the internet. I don’t want to say, for the sake of the world, but it’s that dent in the universe. I definitely hold that up. I think you should have the ambition to leave a dent.”
Amen goes mainstream – “there is enough data now to deliver”
The Amen team is working to create *the* platform to express and explore opinions online. Users make short, strong, often hilarious statements about anything they like – “Steven Seagal is the Worst Actor With Just One Facial Expression Ever”, for example – that can then be disputed, agreed with and turned into lists. Questions can be posed and other users can be followed, much like Facebook and Twitter.
Petersen, who worked for digital and creative agencies before founding his first company Plazes in 2006, had become fascinated with the idea of creating a new “social object” for the web. He’d tried with Plazes, a Foursquare forerunner sold to Nokia in 2008, to add “locations” to the existing mix. With Amen, he’s trying to add opinions.
The big difference compared to Facebook and Twitter is being able to sort and retrieve those opinions, Petersen says. “Somewhere in your Twitter is the answer to ‘what’s the movie I want to watch’ but it’s buried. There’s no way to retrieve it, really. You can search for Batman and see how often Batman is mentioned but you can’t go into Twitter and say ‘according to all the people I follow, what’s the best book I should read?'”
There’s no revenue collection in place, yet, but Amen is getting ready for a step into the mainstream. In June, the company introduced an Explorer function and began to turn the data they’d collected – now up to two million lists, generated by an undisclosed number of users, mostly “early adopter” types – into a functional city guide.
“From the start people said ‘yeah, I get it, people post opinions but what do I get out of it as a user’ and I think now that potential starts to show,” Petersen says. “We’re entering the phase where it becomes more useful for mainstream users as well, where we’re creating more passive use cases for people that just want to discover good stuff – there is enough data in there now to deliver on that promise.”
Going mainstream will mean more mobile platforms, a boosted desktop browser version and more exploratory and data mining features. The next version will also add Spotify integration to Amen’s existing integration with Facebook and iTunes.
From Tonka trucks to Tokyo – and back to Berlin
The toy Tonka truck in the Amen meeting room (next to a few bottles of single malt) is a remnant of Petersen’s childhood in West Berlin. “I grew up in the American Zone in Berlin and our neighbour was the correspondent for the Financial Times,” he says. “They would always get these really cool tools from the PX, the military shop…”
He spent a few of his high school years in Chicago and studied computer science and sociology at the Technical University in Berlin (“I would hardly call that study, I didn’t finish”). He lived a few months in Zurich, half a year in Tokyo, before returning to Berlin.
If he hadn’t started Amen, he might be doing something to do with food – cooking, maybe, or running an espresso bar – but decided to stick to what he’s best at. The two things most likely to keep him up at night are his company, as one would expect, and Germany’s education system. His oldest daughter, one of two, has just started school.
“If our shit’s working then it doesn’t matter what other people say” – addressing the hype and the haters
Petersen says he’s a horrible manager but good at getting excited and inspiring others. Maybe because of that enthusiasm, he’s also good at getting press for his startup. Amen has been featured in “virtually every magazine”, as Joel Kaczmarek wrote in VentureVillage earlier this month.
Kaczmarek, the editor-in-chief of VentureVillage’s sister publication Gründerszene, is among those who’ve critiqued Amen, and the Berlin startup scene in general, for attracting too much hype without enough emphasis on business plan.
Petersen says, on balance, the hype is a good thing for Berlin. “There’s always haters, right? That’s just kind of how things are,” he says. “What Amen started last year was really good for the Berlin scene. It did draw additional attention for Berlin. It did draw additional attention for investors who are now coming to Berlin.”
Being good with the press doesn’t mean an inability to meet KPIs, either. “We are very realistic about our checks,” Petersen says. “And we ourselves have our own goals – things like retention… For us, we need to be sure our shit’s working and then it doesn’t really matter what other people say.”
As well as running Amen, Petersen has invested at an early stage in a fair few other hot Berlin startups, including Loopc.am and Gidsy, often alongside Gate5 founder Christophe Maire, and Alex Ljung and Eric Wahlforss of SoundCloud.
Berlin startups for the win – or at least for the long-haul
The current startup scene in Berlin seems more sustainable than its predecessors – the internet economy isn’t going away this time – but it still needs more big companies like SoundCloud and Wooga to really prove itself. “Is there a lot of foolish stuff that’s being founded right now? Sure. Will everyone survive? By far no, it’s probably going to be one out of ten,” Petersen says. “But if 100 companies get founded right now and 10 of them become big, then that’s definitely a substantial factor for Berlin.”
As for Amen, he and his co-founders are in it for the long-haul. “You just have to keep at it,” he says. “There are maybe some exceptions, like Instagram, but they’re complete outliers – any company that is successful you see has been developing over three, four, sometimes five, six, seven years… We’ve got a long way to go.”
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