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ASKfm CEO Janis Grivins: “The Essence of the Product Has to be Simple”

Janis Grivins rose from product designer to become chief executive of ASKfm, a social network where users can ask and answer questions. Since its 2010 foundation ASKfm has amassed over 200 million users, and employs over a hundred people from its headquarters in Riga, Latvia.

In this fireside chat with Red Herring, Grivins explains how his company has enjoyed a surge in popularity amid the COVID-19 pandemic, how data is helping shape his understanding of the platform – and how it’s vital to keep ideas simple, and direct.

Red Herring: What is ASKfm – and which kinds of questions currently trend on the platform?

Janis Gravins: I think most importantly, ASKfm, is a place where young people—Gen-Z, millennials—come to receive attention from other people.

Most people who come into contact with the product superficially believe it to be like Quora for teenagers, or something like that. But in fact, by far most people are not asking questions that require specific knowledge. The dominant amount of questions are social. They’re about yourself: your experience; your views; personal advice.

One of the most popular questions that we have is ‘How Are You?’ It turns out that this is a question that people love to answer – and they love to answer it over and over again.

That’s my point. It’s not about about how to fix the the engine of a Ford Mustang. It is about how I’m feeling, how I can help you, what I think about things. My priorities, beliefs, values and so on.

RH: How does that shape up with other media platforms?

JG: In the 90s and Naughts, when magazines were much bigger, psychologists researched a paradox that young women read Cosmopolitan and enjoyed it. But they also grew unhappy, because they saw peers who were well-off with great jobs, traveling a lot and in excellent physical shape. They were reading it and thinking, Oh, I’m not like that. But they still enjoyed it.

And I think nowadays what happens on social media, it’s pretty much this. And with the influencer cult even more so. You’re exposed to people who look great, communicate great, and get tens of thousands of likes and comments. And if you are not popular, you just see a massive gap.

And what we’re bringing, is that you log in and somebody asks you. That’s the difference between us and some Q&A sites: you want to pick a question and you answer. The questions always arrive in your inbox. You know this is a person who wants to know something about you in particular. That’s the ‘How are you?’

RH: How did ASKfm’s product design philosophy change?

JG: I am constantly reading books, watching lectures, seminars, blogs, communicating with people. It is my firm belief that the essence of the product has to be simple Many people don’t believe that, or they haven’t realized it.

It’s not about the amount of features or possibilities that makes a product great. It’s about understanding the core, and what it does for people. When we started, we didn’t realize what our core was. At first we thought it was about everything.

Later we realized it was mostly about friends. We built a sustainable product, based on the value that you’re finding something out about your friends – because eventually you run out of questions pretty fast.

Still, I was sure this wasn’t the core. So one day I made a simple experiment. We have this feature called Photo Polls: You put out two pictures and people can highlight one or the other. I placed a Photo Poll with the question: Do you prefer to ask questions? Or do you prefer that other people ask you questions? I marked one of the pictures as a question mark, and the other as an exclamation mark.

Believe it or not, people mostly clicked on the exclamation mark. They want to answer. They don’t want to ask.

Our analysts then started checking the data. They came to me and said: We never really paid attention to this, but the fact is that the actual asking segment of the product is about ten percent, and 90 percent of people are answering questions. So it’s probably wrong to believe that that the core of the product is that you can find things out.

Ninety percent of people just love it when something arrives in their inbox and it’s a question about themselves. For me, this is the moment which I find most valuable in my journey.

RH: That’s a huge and fundamental pivot.

JG: Yeah, absolutely. I think it also illustrates how when you work with a product, you should never rely on a single source of data. And I’m not even talking about software or hard data exclusively. I’m talking about the fact that you need to combine.

You need to combine the hard data that you have, with the insights that you get from your analysts, with feedback from users – with a certain amount of intuition. When you have these all in one line, you understand that you’re onto something. If it’s just hard data that supports it and nothing else, then you need to question the data.

RH: The coronavirus pandemic has supercharged a lot of tech companies, like Zoom. Did ASKfm get a shock from the current climate?

JG: We’ve all heard about Zoom getting a massive attraction because of the current crisis. But Latin America-wise, we’ve also enjoyed massive attraction – probably not even smaller than Zoom.

Latam has lot of young people aged 20-25. They were very active social media users when they were 16, but as they grew older their activity decreased.

Then, the President of Mexico announced that all schools and universities were going into quarantine. We basically launched this joke that being quarantined feels like school, so why not reactivate your your ASKfm profile?

This got picked up by by some meme accounts which were like, ‘Oh my god, Don’t check my account! It will be so embarrassing because I haven’t posted anything since I was at school and I don’t even remember what’s there…So don’t open it!

Then there were like thousands—if not tens of thousands—of shares on Facebook. And people started coming. And because they started coming, they started checking their profiles. At first it was a small spark. But when they started sharing this stuff, friends came who were not even on the product before. We started rocketing up the App Store and Google Store.

There are two mains opinion-leader countries in South America: Mexico and Brazil. As Mexico grew, it ignited others. After a couple of days we were trending in quite a few other countries – in some of them as number one.

Then it triggered runs in the States, because of the expat community or ties with family or friends. I think it’s an interesting growth case: What happens in a region when you hit one large country? It decreased gradually of course. But the boost we received was still pretty spectacular.

I think that how our engineers managed it was another miracle. The traffic increase was like 20 times overnight. That’s quite a surprise for your back-end, your servers. What can happen is that the product just can’t handle the load. You might have a spike of activity, but you have no product. So basically, it’s a waste.

I was extremely grateful to our engineering team. There was hardly any sleep for two weeks while they handled it! It reminds you that while marketing and PR are important, you should keep doing your homework with engineering.

RH: How did you capitalize on all that traffic?

Overnight we enabled our so-called ‘VIP’ program. With all the incoming traffic, we were instantly landing them in a way that we could offer them, who would most likely want to become our VIP users – to receive different perks and to continue asking good questions.

We got tens of thousands of applications for the VIP program, which allowed us to retain the most active, the most affluent and the most engaged part of this large incoming community. And despite the fact that the trend has declined, we have retained the most active people. And they’re continuing to engage users. The next step is further vital solutions: Invitations, referrals, content-based and so on.

RH: It was good timing too, considering ASKfm is in its tenth anniversary year.

It reminded me of a story about BMX. The first Olympic champion was from Latvia (Māris Štrombergs, in 2008). In 2012 he won again. But afterwards a journalist asked, ‘Wouldn’t you admit you actually got a bit lucky?’ It was true: his competitor had fallen. But he looked at the journalist, poker-faced, and said: ‘You have to deserve that luck in the first place.’

That’s how I see it. Our marketing was ready. Our engineering was ready. I think we deserved it. Yeah, it was the anniversary coming. And we got lucky too.

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