Ask any developer and they will tell you that it’s extremely complicated to make something very simple. That simplicity may turn out to be the biggest challenge for the startup Qriously, which replaces mobile ads with short, targeted questions to survey users.
Just seven months old, Qriously has piqued the interest of both commercial and editorial clients, running targeted campaigns variously asking for the response to ads (Do you like the new Gatorade ad?) and reaction to tech news (was buying Skype a win or fail for Microsoft?). Clients pay per answer, but Qriously also offers the tool free to developers so they can solicit feedback from users within their own apps.
With a modest 90-second delay between publishing a question on the system and seeing the answers roll in, Qriously also experimented by asking for feedback during a tube strike, when location-tagged answers produced a near real-time map of the worst affected parts of London. Though the editorial possibilities seem obvious, Qriously is quite understandably concentrating on commercial clients with budgets to match.
The genesis of the idea began in 2007 in China, where co-founders Christopher Kahler, Gerald Müller and Abraham Müller built Urbian, a location-based mobile business that was a kind of Foursquare before Foursquare. It was a brave, or possibly foolhardy, decision for a team that now admits it just didn’t understand Chinese internet users or the Chinese market – dynamics that have defeated even the biggest tech giants.
“We thought it was the most exciting industry in the world in the most exciting market in the world, but we were too naive,” says Kahler. “We were ruled by western aesthetics and western functionality, and basically had to trust the team to Chineseify it. That was challenging.” In spite of the painful lessons of Shanghai, the trio managed to raise two rounds of venture funding and discovered, somewhere in the ashes, the concept for Qriously.
With the VC funding running out in early 2010, Kahler’s team focused on building a series of profitable Android apps that included brain training and puzzle games, a travel guide and a camera app. Urbian’s attention to user experience and interface design gave it a significant edge over some rather mediocre competition on Android. But out of these rather random experiments came one important observation. “Building all these free apps we questioned whether ads were really the sole form of monetisation,” says Kahler. “People have a voice, so is there a way to capture and monetise that instead? We thought about how we could ask people what they think, and started trying a few things out. When the answer rate went through the roof, we knew there was something there. There’s an innate desire for people to express themselves, to make their voices heard.”
What they had devised was a simple interface for asking any short, targeted question to a mobile app user. The team went home to Austria in March 2010 to refine the idea, and by Christmas that year had raised .6m from the venture firm Accel to set the company up in London – although Kahler isn’t bowled over by the capital’s startup scene.
“It’s not a great place for development. There’s a lot of talent but it’s very expensive and you compete with the banks for developers, and as it’s a hot place for startups developers are very aware of the opportunities.”
He says he was reluctant to raise funding because the team felt better motivated and inspired by having to bootstrap their work. “There’s a freedom to that. When you have an investor there’s accountability – entrepreneurs by definition don’t like being accountable to anyone but themselves. But we knew the idea was huge and that we need to scale to fit the space – we were like cold gas in a hot room and needed to expand.”
What Qriously now offers is a lightweight tool to measure public sentiment. Its competition includes giant research firms like Nielsen – who are able to provide far more in-depth and traditionally robust research for clients. But Qriously has some critical advantages in being real-time and, by being on mobile devices, has location options so granular that answers can be gathered even from one street.
It took three major iterations of the service to simplify the interface this far. Qriously has deals with several mobile ad networks, including MoPub, that are incorporating Qriously and helping expand its inventory. At the moment, the service can field 1,000 questions a day in the UK and clients use a simple web dashboard to compose and publish questions. Developers build Qriously into their Android and iOS apps using its software development kit, and an estimated 5m devices have used the service already.
“It seems simple, but communicating the value of what we’re trying to do is really challenging,” says Kahler. “As soon as clients see answers to their questions coming in in real time, they totally get it. But helping them make sense of the data, helping them create the question – all those things we are still trying to solve.” The goal, he says, is to create accurate results that can be condensed into a simple, actionable fact. “Ultimately, when clients can act successfully on our data that is what gives our company value.”
Kahler claims Qriously compared results of its surveys with Pew and Forrester reports and found they corresponded to within 5%. He won’t say anything about revenues yet, but the investors have clearly been shown some impressive forecasts. Qriously is in a subset of the international mobile advertising market that is now worth .5bn, and set to rise to bn by 2015. Future revenue streams could include a freemium or subscription offering for consumers, and the team is already developing a consumer-facing tool that will let users share results with friends.
Qriously will also start to offer clients questions targeted to specific groups, so a fashion question is shown to users who have responded to similar questions before. Doesn’t the area of personalisation and user history bring Qriously dangerously close to Facebook territory?
“Any form of traditional market research company would be our competition if they didn’t move so slowly,” says chief commercial officer Adam Paulisick, a former commercial director at Nielsen. “The competition will be if Facebook comes more towards the mobile experience, or if someone else encroaches on that space. But people are looking to see if we succeed or fail first.”
The million dollar question, concedes Kahler, is whether Qriously can maintain that simple interface while adding value to its results by deepening the range, meaningfulness and context of its data. Perhaps that’s the next question to ask its users.
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