If hype equalled success then by rights Amen should have been as big as Twitter. After all, at the height of their media powers as Hollywood couple, Ashton Kutcher and Demi Moore where using and promoting Amen, one of the hottest startups to emerge from the primordial soup of Berlin’s young startups scene. But $3 million in backing from the likes of Dave Morin and Index Ventures, not to mention the Hollywood pixie dust still couldn’t make, what was – admittedly at the time – a radically different looking social product turn into a Twitter or a Facebook. Thus, today it’s announced that Amen has been acquired – not by one of those latter companies – but by an older, fellow Berlin-based company, Tape.TV. Terms were undisclosed and the team as it stands will shift over to Tape.
Providing “a way for users to voice strong opinions” the Amen app had – almost – a perfect launch. It started with amazing buzz. It then seeded a large beta group of people who loved the quirky interface and the battle-like way you would tell friends about the best or worst things in the world such as places to eat, drink, live. Users would respond Hell Yes or Hell no – at the time it was innovative, fun and refreshingly simple.
As I sat in the Lois Cafe, just up from their first office on GormannStrasse in Summer 2011, Co-founders Felix Petersen (CEO) and Caitlin Winner (CPO) excitedly demo’d the app to me prior to its eventual launch in the Disrupt stage in San Francisco that September. It seemed they, and co-founder Florian Weber – were really onto something – a catchy, addictive way to rate people, places and things. It certainly appeared like they had a dream team: Petersen had founded Plazes, an early location based social network, Weber had been one of the first engineers at Twitter, while Winner was an MIT grad and a renowned product guru, formally with Nokia.
And they had some firepower, raising $3 million from Ashton Kutcher’s A-Grade Investments, Index Ventures, Sunstone Capital, Dave Morin’s Slow Ventures, SoundCloud’s Alexander Ljung and Eric Wahlforss, and Berlin investment leader Christophe Maire. Even Madonna’s manager invested.
Amen’s launch at Techcrunch Disrupt in 2011 also fired the starting pistol on a new boom in the Berlin startups scene which, after giving birth to bigger companies like Soundcloud, Wooga and ResearchGate, started to see an explosion of mobile apps. Amen was joined by Toast, EyeEm, Moped, ReadMill and Gidsy, among others. An Amen was also seeing US-based startups appear which were ploughing the same opinion-based social furrow, such as Oink (from Kevin Rose’s abortive Milk Labs project) and Stamped (later acquired by Yahoo).
Despite the well-funded competition, Amen kept on going.
“We were part of the first in mobile social cycle in Berlin along with Moped and Gidsy,” Petersen told me in an exclusive interview. “The original concept was slick and simple and we figured if you couldn’t do it with that then it would be very hard to establish a new social network.”
“I would not change a thing. We created some great addiction. I know what I would do differently, but pivoting would not have added more to it. I had issue with Plazes – adding features later on doesn’t work,” he said. “We said Amen would either take off they way we envisioned it or we should just shut it down”.
Ultimately, with the acquisition, it hasn’t quite come to that, but it’s clear that the early enthusiasm around Amen didn’t translate into a product of Twitter proportions.
In June 2012, when Amen reached one million “Amens” it still hadn’t reached a million users. Indeed, it never hit the Appdata leader board and XYO listed a total of 121,000 downloads, despite good reviews.
It was clear the Amen app as it stood was having difficulties. A pivot of sorts produced a new ‘sister’ app based on the Amen data. “Thanks” was a discovery app instead of a ‘battling’ app which exposed all the great recommendations from Amen about the best of everything – largely what people want anyway, given that most people consume content rather than contribute it. Thanks was closer to what Amen promised to be, and included far better location features.
However, it’s clearly hard for any startup to get traction for a whole new branded service with a different name.
It subsequently emerged that Amen was in acquisition talks. TechCrunch understands from sources close to Facebook and Yahoo that Amen was approached about an acquisition. In at least one case discussions reached a relatively advanced stage before ending, in part, due to legal and immigration issues.
Then in June reports started to emerge that cofounder Caitlin Winner had left the startup, moving to the US to work for Facebook.
As any founder knows, acquisitions get tough when founders depart.
But what has happened may be the signs of a new kind of startup ecosystem in Berlin – one where larger, more successful startups start to acquire their smaller counterparts.
Tape.TV – largely unheard of outside the huge internal German market – has had a slow but steady growth, and gradually booked significant revenues from its media partners and music labels, who pay to break new artists on its site.
What it doesn’t have is a genuine technology platform, apps or as much social know-how as it could use, and that’s where the Amen team can now slot in.
CEO and co-founder Conrad Fritzsch Pictured below) tells me: “Tape.tv´s strength is content. By acquiring Amen we will be able to offer a more personalized tape.tv and enable our users to start a dialogue with and about the content. Thereby we will become the first truly social music television.”
Petersen says: “Tape TV could be the new new MTV.”
Tape has raised $6.2 million from Atlantic Capital Partners and German angel investors – and it has international plans. TechCrunch understand that investors in Amen were happy with the deal all round.
Indeed, as Petersen says: “The Amen mechanic in connection with music will make a lot of sense on the product level. TapeTV appreciates the potential of the product. A lot of Amen will find it’s way into Tape.”
The question is, where to now for Berlin’s ecosystem, now one of its loudest rising stars is gone? We could be seeing the end of a cycle in Berlin and the start of a new one. Certainly the US exit route still looks tough for only a lucky few. For now, failing startups like Gidsy are being acquired by other German-based firms. Of the rest of the 2011 vintage, Toast closed, while EyeEm, Moped and ReadMill continue. So far.
Unfortunately, the tantalising prospect of Amen becoming the next big social network (and out of Europe no less) did not come to pass.
As Petersen ruminates: “We didn’t manage to build a second version fast enough. But it’s tough – Foursquare has spent $44 million turning around its perception as a game to a utility. But no-one has taken that opinion space, yet…”