Today Polar announced that it has raised $1.2 million in seed funding for its free iPhone app, a social voting app that lets users provide their opinion on everything from movies to music and products. The funding round was led by Battery Ventures, and also included participation from Yahoo! founder Jerry Yang and several other investors. Polar launched in November 2012 and amassed half a million user votes within its first 11 days in the App Store, hit three million votes in month two, and is now pushing six million total votes.
CEO and co-founder Luke Wroblewski was formerly the Chief Design Architect at Yahoo, and an entrepreneur in residence at Benchmark Capital. Prior to launching Polar, Wroblewski launched Bagcheck, a platform that let users collect items in a “bag.” The company was acquired by Twitter in August 2011, and while co-founder Sam Pullara joined Twitter’s engineering team, Wroblewski decided to focus on building another company. That company is Input Factory Inc., which Wroblewski said is focused on “creating big value from micro mobile interactions,” and Polar is the first product.
Rather than giving products or items a rating like a thumbs up or down, Polar asks its users to provide their opinion on simple polls. It’s an either-or vote, so users can say they like Batman over Superman, or McDonald’s over Burger King. Or they can vote for less tangible items, for example saying that the new BlackBerry devices will or won’t succeed. Users can submit their own questions, respond to featured polls, and view the results to see what others have voted. Like most other social apps, users can share their polls on their social networks, and view what topics are trending in the app.
“I do have sort of a thesis which is backed up by data that mobile is really a form of entertainment for a lot of people,” Wroblewski said in an interview. “That was definitely part of our approach to how we designed the application. We designed it to be fun, we designed it to be engaging, we designed it to be something you could pick up and put down quickly, because that’s how people use these devices anyway.
Wroblewski said the funding will be used for hiring, since it’s just him and co-founder Jeff Cole working on the product full-time, as well as some contractors. Right now there are no paid features in the app, and Wroblewski said right now they’re just focused the user experience. There are a couple likely monetization channels Polar could explore, namely paid polls, for example if ABC wanted to poll users about the Oscars during the broadcast, or by monetizing the data they’re gathering on the backend.
“We definitely believe at a very high level that this ability to capture really lightweight bits of data from people throughout the day anywhere and everywhere they are, that’s very, very powerful, especially when you mix it with being able to then go and gather insights on the backend and mine that data and figure things out,” he added.
When it comes to ratings apps, there are a bevy of competitors, from Swipp’s apps that let users offer their opinion on people, places, and things, to Xen’s ratings platform that lets users specify whether they love or hate something in order to built out their personal interest graph, to Thumb’s simple thumbs up/thumbs down ratings app for iPhone and Android. Then there’s Oink, a social ratings app launched by Digg founder Kevin Rose that shut down in March 2012 after failing to gain traction.
The problem with ratings apps is that often until products are rated by a solid base of users, there’s a lack of content users can browse, since while some users might rate a restaurant, others are more interested in what others think of it and whether they should try it out. Polar doesn’t seem to have that problem, both because of the traction it’s seen to date, and because users can create polls as easily as they can respond to them.
While Polar’s early traction is impressive, the company will need to figure out a way to monetize while also keeping users engaged, lest it end up like Oink. Similar to how Oink was the first product of Kevin Rose’s company Milk and was by many accounts a test, Polar seems to be a hypothesis executed by Wroblewski to see if these kind of “micro-action” apps have a place in the App Store. For now, it seems to be a test that’s working, and while he said they might create additional products in the future, for now the focus will remain on growing Polar.