Giving Thanks: Felix Petersen on the New App from Amen

By David Knight |

It’s turning ‘this is my opinion and I am right’ into ‘how can I help?’ – and the Amen team believe their new app Thanks can change the way we get answers by making use of the high-quality data gathered from the millions of Amen ‘best’ recommendations.

News of the app’s existence leaked out last week, but CEO and co-founder Felix Petersen remained tight-lipped about the specifics of the product until he spoke with Silicon Allee. He says they overestimated the viral potential of ‘being right’ – and that the unique recommendation lists which Thanks can produce will help it to become a success. The veteran entrepreneur also laid into critics of Amen, dismissing those who accuse it of being overhyped as “idiots.”

SILICON ALLEE: What is it about Thanks that you think will make it a success?

FELIX PETERSEN: Thanks is focusing on answering a real question for the user. It’s focusing on utility and gives our users a real reason to come back often. A lot of Google searches actually include something like “Best Mountain Bike under 1000 dollars” or “Best Place for a romantic dinner in Berlin.” But Google is made for factual searches, not actionable ones. When we want quick orientation and ranking, we often end up with ten tabs open, which is a sub-optimal experience, especially on mobile.

But Thanks is also focusing on the question aspect. We are all experts in something and we all know experts; the guy who knows about Lisbon because his mom lives there, the foodie in Brooklyn or the girl who knows all about the best hikes in the Catskills. Thanks helps you identify these people in your social graph and ask them. And it allows you to help people in the areas that you are an expert in.

It is also a different kind or paradigm, it’s “how can I help?” instead of “This is my opinion and I am right.” We overestimated the viral potential of “being right” and [the] one-upmanship that lays at the core of the outside perception of Amen. A lot of people are not comfortable with sharing their Amens on Twitter or Facebook. Sharing a question is much more natural because if you ask a question you want as many answers as possible.

SA: Do you think Thanks offers a better mobile solution for graph search than, say, Facebook?

FP: We started working on Thanks before we knew about Graph Search and of course when I first played around with it two weeks ago or so, there was some interesting similarities. Graph Search is amazing and amazingly sticky when you play around with it. But for the moment it’s really good as an alternative interface to your friends’ data. For most recommendations we have an edge because an explicit statement is such a strong signal.

SA: What makes Thanks unique enough that users will switch over from other discovery apps?

FP: Our biggest advantage over a lot of other “normal” recommendation engines is our data. We got the fun stuff, because a lot of it is being created by our awesome Amen community. The way Amen and Thanks are designed [means] we don’t end up with your standard lists. We have things like “The best non-chronological movie” or “The best song for a rainy day” or “The best place for a first kiss in Berlin.” Who has that? I really recommend using the “nearby” feature which allows you to walk your favourite neighbourhood with a radar of the best nearby. Did you know, you just walked by “the best wig shop in San Francisco”?

SA: Have you been disappointed with the performance of Amen over the last few months? What problems has it faced?

FP: Amen is still going strong and continues to have strong engagement and retention numbers. In fact, some of the numbers we saw after launch were only comparable to Facebook or Social Games. We were initially very happy with the start because our goal was to have a sustainable base for growth and not create something super viral that doesn’t keep the users engaged like some Facebook Platform fads or certain games. But then it kind of plateaued and we couldn’t get it truly viral. The high engagement in the service – 90 percent of all users were contributors – never translated into a bigger footprint on the overall Web that would have created strong viral loops.

But then we saw people use the platform in an unintended way. Instead of saying “X is the best Y,” they posted “What is the best X.” We saw that these posts got a lot more responses and [more] quick[ly]. So we knew that this was a good avenue to explore.

SA: Why create two completely separate apps rather than incorporating them into one?

FP: Amen is a beautiful and simple app. And after exploring different ways on how to get a mechanism for answering questions in there, we quickly realised that we would dilute the experience too much and wouldn’t solve either use case well. So we decided to split it up. Two Apps, one service, one base of structured data.

SA: Some people, inside and outside of Berlin, have criticised Amen for producing too much hype and not enough results. Is that why you have been quiet in recent months? Does such criticism bother you?

FP: We’ve been quiet because we’ve been working. We created Amen and we really liked it and a lot of people were really excited about it and we were proud parents, so we were vocal about it. I think a lot of the hype discussion is driven by idiots that don’t know much about anything, not much about running a company [and] not much about building a simple and beautiful app. I have yet to find someone who accuses us of hype who built something cool himself. Entrepreneurs and makers tend to respect each others’ efforts. Also, I have to say that there is usually a strong causal relationship between IQ and the type of questions you are being asked. Smart people ask you “how do you grow it,” not so smart people tend to ask you “what’s the point?” I am puzzled when people fail to see the potential of having rankings for everything.