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Innovation Economy

New generation of social startups seeks mass appeal

Amino chief executive Ben Anderson (third from left) pose during a team meeting.

Barry Chin/Globe Staff

Amino chief executive Ben Anderson (third from left) pose during a team meeting.

Is it possible that the next hot social startup was hatched in a dorm room on the campus of Northeastern University?

Amino has just five employees in a shared storefront office in Downtown Crossing, but already hundreds of thousands of people use its mobile apps, which enable fans of Dr. Who, anime, or the virtual world of Minecraft to share pictures and messages.

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Amino was already generating strong buzz in April, when it graduated from the Techstars Boston entrepreneurial program, and last month, the company said it raised $1.6 million. The main investor was Union Square Ventures of New York, which also backed social media phenomena like Twitter and Tumblr.

Boston’s startup scene has always had a bit of a socially-awkward tinge, not unlike Charlie Brown trying to figure out how to talk to the Little Red-Haired Girl. While many ventures focused on sharing photos or connecting people with similar interests have been born here, few have flourished here.

Facebook’s founding crew famously left Cambridge for Palo Alto in the summer of 2004. Chief executive Mark Zuckerberg twisted the knife five years later, when he said, “If I were starting now, I would’ve stayed in Boston.” (Last month, the social network surpassed IBM in stock market value.) But we can let bygones be bygones, right?

In 2014, creating social applications that connect people in new ways means making apps for smartphones. And that’s what Amino is doing, starting with iPhone apps geared to 15 different hobbies or interests, from pets to Korean pop music.

“In your day-to-day life you may not know a bunch of people who love Dr. Who or anime,” says Ben Anderson, co-founder and chief executive of Amino. “But you can whip out your phone anytime and anywhere, and connect with thousands of people who love something just as much as you do.”

An Amino team meeting.

Barry Chin/Globe Staff

An Amino team meeting.

The apps feature an endless “news feed” of posts from others who share your passion. It’s easy to “heart” something to show that you like it, or leave a comment. You can also see who else in your area is using the app and send them messages. Anderson says that the typical user spends an average of 22 minutes a day interacting with one of the company’s apps.

There’s no advertising yet; Amino’s founders are still focused on improving the apps and building the user base.

One of Amino’s investors is Google Ventures, the venture capital arm of the search engine giant. Over the past year, Anderson says, he spent time in Silicon Valley, but didn’t feel the lure that so many other entrepreneurs and tech workers have.

“For me it was just so over-saturated that it wasn’t that interesting,” he says. “If you can create the coolest consumer app company in Boston, I think that can attract some serious talent. It can be a beacon here.”

There are certainly enough young programmers and designers coming out of Boston universities. But our region hasn’t yet produced a large-scale social or mobile company that builds stuff for consumers. Which is why Amino will have trouble finding people with years of relevant experience, once they’ve surpassed the 30 or 40 employee mark — and why Facebook would have faced the same hiring challenge had it remained in Cambridge.

Todd Dagres, a partner at Boston’s Spark Capital, says the bubbling cauldron of Silicon Valley is so full of experienced techies, designers, and marketers who understand “user growth and adoption” that it’s hard for startups not to be drawn there. His firm’s most recent investment, a mobile messaging app called Drop, just moved from Boston to San Francisco.

Aside from talent, being close to potential acquirers is also important, says Justin Siegel, co-founder and chief executive of MocoSpace, a Boston mobile startup launched in 2005. “We had a healthy business,” Siegel says, but California acquirers “want to be able to incorporate you into their team,” and Asian acquirers who wanted a mobile beachhead in the United States “didn’t want it in Boston — they wanted it in Silicon Valley.”

MocoSpace, which focused on playing games and connecting with others, raised $10 million in funding and at one point reached nearly 1 million users a day. But it launched in the era before smartphones, and the company wasn’t as well-equipped to compete with thousands of other apps once app stores emerged.

Siegel bought the company back from investors in 2012, and says he’s now “trying to figure out how to reignite the momentum.” MocoSpace is down to 14 employees, from a peak of about 55.

Another local startup, Smack High, is just starting to talk with prospective investors. It built an app to facilitate communication between high school students. Co-founder Giuseppe Stuto says there are nearly 13,000 registered users.

Letting teenagers post content — especially under assumed names — can be dicey. (Sample message: “The only passing that goes on around [name of high school] is a pregnancy test.”) But Stuto says he plans to screen anonymous messages and create incentives for student volunteers to flag inappropriate material.

Like Anderson, Stuto says he’s focused entirely on attracting users. Eventually, he says, advertisers will come, since “marketers don’t have great channels to reach this demographic.”

Stuto and Anderson were both in high school when Facebook was launched. “Facebook has never not been a part of my adult life,” Anderson says. And having grown up in the social media milieu is a massive advantage when you’re trying to create the next big network.

Scott Kirsner can be reached at kirsner@pobox.com. Follow him on Twitter @ScottKirsner and on betaboston.com.
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