New York-based Amino Apps has raised a Series C $45 million funding led by GV, Union Square Ventures, and others to reach a total valuation of $72.4 million. Founded by Ben Anderson, CEO and Yin Wang, CTO in 2014, Amino apps is a platform that allows users to anonymously join and participate in communities.
Anderson and Wang conceptualised Amino Apps when they came across thousands of attendees at Anime Boston, an Anime convention, in 2012. When they noticed the enthusiasm of the attendees, they wondered what if they could create a convention-like community digitally – one that didn’t require a ticket or a costume and could be accessed from anywhere.
The idea clicked as the concept of communities – established and popularized by Reddit on computers – hadn’t been explored for smartphones. In 2012, the founders launched two apps – K-Pop (Korean pop) and Photography. The idea was simple: standalone, user-generated communities with their own independent apps to discuss their specific interests. Like any other social network, users here could scroll through curated posts, message privately or in public chat rooms and see posts from people they followed.
But unlike other social networks, the community here bonded and grew over a closely-experienced and shared interest. By 2014, Amino had grown to 15 apps. It also raised a $1.3 million Series A funding led by Union Square Ventures. A year later, Amino had 41 apps. Since then, the company raised a $6.5 million Series A in 2015 and a $19.2 million Series B led by Venrock and GV in 2016 respectively.
A Constellation of Apps
Amino Apps is constantly compared with Reddit because of its online-forum format but the similarity is limited. Amino Apps has consciously been more aesthetic, mobile-first with no web presence, and has features – such as chat and quizzes – to suit the younger audience. Its varied and numerous communities are also focussed on, as Anderson said, on teens with “extremely specialized interests… and have difficulty finding any friends in their real-life communities”. Toby Stein, VP of Operations put it best: “By creating interest-based communities on mobile that allow people to interact in real time around their interests, the goal is to recreate, year-round, that fandom-convention atmosphere and the types of relationships it enables.”
While investing in the company, Union Square Ventures spelled out the Amino Apps thesis: that for communities on mobile devices, hyper-specific is of more value than general; that a series of apps is of more value than one; and that people are looking to build online relationships through the phone now, not just on the computer.
It’s this feeling of common interest, relationship and the unwavering interest in the topic – from K-Pop, Harry Potter, to veganism – that has created flourishing Amino communities. While the company started off as a disintegrated community space where if a person wanted to join a new community, they would have to download a separate app, roughly two years ago, the startup brought in two fundamental changes.
First, they built a centralized app where every community of their ballooning 200 communities could be accessed. Second, they removed themselves as gatekeepers. Until then, the Amino executives had decided what a new community should be and when to launch it, but in 2016, the company decided that the users – and not them – should be making that decision. Today, its most popular communities are niche interests such as Anime (1,839,093 members), K-Pop (580,434 members), Pokémon (969,705 members) or video games like Doki Doki Literature Club (133,505). The LGBT+ community is popular too with 545,756 members. While communities on topics such as feminism, anarchy, socialism, bitcoin exist, they appear deserted in front of the other, vibrant communities.
The Amino Shelf Life
There’s so much happening in a community that it can be overwhelming. As soon as one joins a community, a popup welcomes the user, introducing her to a leader, moderator and talking about the general rules of the group. In K-Pop, for example, people exhibit their fanart or writing and nominate each other to be featured on the community feed. There are also quizzes, polls, and an integrated Soundcloud plugin for ‘K-Pop Amino Favourites’.
Everything works through constantly-updating guidelines that warn against, say, sexualizing minors. There’s also a K-Pop Amino Database for moderators, called leaders and curators, with tutorials for blogging, chats, weekend nominations, and even takeovers for when it’s time to decide who would be the next leader. Team Amino, while no more controlling communities, gently nudges the users to join more communities or start a new community. It’s the moderators who play a crucial role in ensuring that the community remains a habitable space. But not all communities match everyone’s sensibilities. K-Pop is an insanely popular community but harmless in front of others that focus on the bizarre – such as paganism, witchcraft, to “holosexuals,” people who are sexually attracted to holographic images. Naturally, Amino Apps has not been immune to criticism or questions about censoring content, trolls, cyber crime, etc. Some parents have left reviews saying the app is not safe while some have said “it should be fine as long as you monitor what communities your kids are in”. The app, however, has been praised for allowing users to remain anonymous and for creating a community where people can be unihibitively expressive.
Several startups have built communities to sell their products, but the six-year-old Amino Apps had an enviable following but not a revenue model for its first five years. It has now brought in some gamification to earn money through premium membership and brand collaborations. Users can earn coins by performing certain tasks such as watching a video or downloading and running an app. The coins help users buy a membership which gives them access to stickers, moods, custom chat bubbles, high-res images, badges, among other features.
The Amino Apps app has 10 million downloads on Playstore with a highly positive rating of 4.8. The company claims that its users spend between 40-70 minutes on the app every day. It is possible that the time is even more, especially if the user is a lonely teen with a slew of niche interests.