3 Reasons App Startup Amino Planted Roots in Boston & China

Running a company that has employees located on opposite sides of the globe can be a daunting endeavor fraught with logistical challenges and the occasional cultural disconnect.

Those potential pitfalls didn’t faze Amino, the mobile app startup that has firmly planted one foot in Boston and the other in Shanghai, China.

It helps that co-founder Yin Wang is a native of China who spent more than a decade in the U.S. while earning a PhD in computer science from Northeastern University in Boston and cutting his teeth at EMC and Google. That means Wang understands both countries’ cultures better than most, Amino co-founder and CEO Benjamin Anderson says, and it gives the company an edge as it tries to boost the popularity of its apps among users worldwide.

“That’s the only way that this works,” Anderson says during an interview at Amino’s headquarters near Boston’s Chinatown neighborhood. “If I were a solo founder and trying to start a team in China, it would not work. It would be very, very difficult.”

Anderson and Wang came up with the idea for Amino (which is technically incorporated under the name Narvii) while they were both students at Northeastern. The company develops mobile apps that connect enthusiasts of niche topics ranging from TV shows (think “The Walking Dead,” “Doctor Who”) to broader subjects (science, art, food, etc.). Amino is trying to create a new version of the online fan forum for today’s mobile-first consumer.

The company launched in 2013, went through the Techstars Boston program in winter 2014, and raised more than $8.3 million from Venrock, Union Square Ventures, Google Ventures, and others. Amino has yet to generate revenue, Anderson says.

The bulk of Amino’s capital came from a $6.5 million funding round announced last month. Some of that money will be used to hire more people in the U.S. and China, Anderson says. The plan is to double the 10-person Boston team, which includes employees in operations, product management, and sales and marketing. The four-person software development team in Shanghai could grow to 14 over the next year, Anderson says.

Plenty of U.S. tech startups have set up shop overseas, of course, but often their purpose was to contract with offshore (usually cheaper) developer talent. It’s more than that for Amino, which established a global presence early and is making that an integral piece of the company’s strategy and culture.

“We really like having a leg in China because it allows us to be multi-continent and be international from day one,” Anderson says. “And it gives us a very global lens and allows us to see the greater opportunity outside the U.S.”

Amino’s global approach sounds similar to that of Yottaa, a six-year-old software company that also opened offices in Boston and China (Beijing, specifically) early on. But Yottaa closed its Beijing office earlier this year as it consolidated its engineering team in new, larger headquarters in Waltham, MA, spokesman Tedd Rodman says.

Having an overseas development team worked when Yottaa was a small, early-stage startup, but the model became more difficult to manage as the company grew, co-founder and chief technology officer Bob Buffone says in an e-mail message. Earlier efficiencies disappeared, it grew harder to overcome the time difference, and the engineering team struggled to quickly respond to requests from sales, marketing, customer support, and operational staff located on the other side of the world. “This is far simpler—though by no means simple—in a larger organization with an ingrained customer base and a mature product,” he adds.

It was also a challenge to maintain a cohesive company culture as both offices grew, Buffone says.
Achieving synergy became “difficult to impossible,” Buffone says. “As Yottaa built up parallel development organizations, instead of a shared sense of ownership and culture of collaboration, we were faced instead with a Hatfields vs. McCoys battle over ownership, who set standards and how, and also how to collaborate on shared projects.”

Amino will likely face some of the same challenges as it expands, but Anderson is optimistic it’s taking the right approach. Here are his top reasons for building a startup from two continents:

1. Chinese developers are hungry to build something.

Anderson insists that hiring a development team in China is not about saving money on salaries.

“A few years ago, yes, that would’ve been higher on the list of reasons to go to China,” he says. “But because that market is expanding so rapidly and mobile developers are in such high demand, the costs are not that advantageous.”

Anderson believes there are many quality software developers in China whose talent is being under-utilized by large Chinese companies. “There’s a shift in mentality happening now in China, where people want to get more involved in startups,” he says. “I think that trend of people wanting to leave these big companies, join something that’s young, fun, and exciting, is really advantageous to us.”

It’s also harder for young startups with fewer resources to recruit and retain top developer talent in the U.S., Anderson says. But there might be a silver lining in this obstacle.

“Developers here in the U.S., I feel, have been so heavily sought after and desired by companies that they’re rock stars,” he says. “Sometimes it can be difficult to work with rock stars. I can speak from my experience working in the music industry.” (In college, Anderson ran a marketing company, HypeGenius, which serves musical artists, their managers, and other businesses.)

Chinese developers, meanwhile, are more humble, Anderson says. “That may change in the next couple of years in China, where they’ll become rock stars as well. But they just have a different mentality that makes it much easier to work with them.”

2. China is ahead of the curve on mobile.

Anderson believes that Amino and other U.S. mobile app companies can learn a lot from China.

“They kind of skipped the desktop Web and went straight to mobile, which allowed them to make a lot of innovations in that area,” Anderson says.

He’s not alone in making this observation. Andreessen Horowitz partner Connie Chan, for one, made the same point in an August post dissecting the massive impact of … Next Page »

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Jeff Engel is a senior editor at Xconomy. Email: jengel@xconomy.com Follow @JeffEngelXcon

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