Pia Frey, Founder of Opinary, generously took time to join us and tell of her journey from publishing house to startup chief. Opinary provide a platform for users to share their opinion on online content. Native German, Pia, along with her Co-founder brother, have developed an award winning team in Berlin. She also lives in our neighborhood, where she enjoys the peace after trans Atlantic travels.
Hello, Pia! In which year was Opinary founded and who was involved?
I started it in 2015 with my brother on a bootstrap basis before we were even founded as Opinary. For one and a half years we did it as a side project, and then it grew organically and quite quickly. Then we got a third cofounder on board, which was very good for our founding team’s internal peace and adult behavior! We also have a CTO who is also acting like a part of our founder team. So we’re making management decisions and anything on a strategic level among the four of us.
What inspired you to found a company?
In the very first place, I had no business plan or even a thought about how this should make money. I just had the idea that there is a problem that the broader public, in the open web, not speaking of social networks, is browsing content very passively and not expressing themselves. People who are unengaged don’t read deeply and are less capable of digesting complex topics, so we decided, “let’s help users to make up their minds by addressing them with questions.”
I was working as a journalist back then for Axel Springer (Die Welt), and there it just embedded itself in my work. They were interested in what we were doing, the idea of adding scalable interaction to static articles on their site, and so through Axel Springer we got access to real users by being imbedded in real content on real publisher sites. And that’s where it got more serious and we saw higher traction. I think they were in a period of trying to foster innovation from inside the company, and I was on the lowest level of the career ladder as an editorial trainee. They let me do it, or supported it very broadly, until the point where we said, “now it’s not a side project anymore, we have to work on the potential that we found, or it won’t have any potential in the long run.”
I can recommend starting something on the job, as a side project. I think many people are scared to start something because of the risk that it takes to quit your job, but you can test the potential of an idea even on a side project basis. A good idea should be worth that commitment.
Tell us a bit about your competition and why you think you are better.
I think the origin of what we’ve been doing – that it was purely user-centric, not client-centric – is still one of our biggest strengths. By having a mission of serving a user, helping them make up their minds, our technology and our strategy has been privacy-first, generating zero party data, which all play a role in a post-cookie era.
In the past, there were companies that had lots of traction with models that were purely cookie-based, and now this is getting a cut. The Opinary approach of not stalking users across the internet, but getting relevant information about them and addressing them on an interactional basis, adds to our potential.
From a business perspective, anyone is our competitor who competes for digital marketing dollars. We made the case that the path that many advertisers have been on, spending large chunks of their marketing budgets just on Facebook or Google is a very risky path, putting all your eggs in one basket. You only reach a limited set of users, because not everyone is browsing there, and you don’t control that relationship to your user when you’re going through those monopolous networks. So, diversifying the channels in which you interact and reach audiences gets a higher awareness, which plays into our favor. On a partnership side, we make our money with brands who advertise with us. We get in touch with users and get millions of users engaged with relevant questions every day by working with publishers who embed Opinary in their articles. Our competition is basically all third party content that is flying into articles.
What advice would you have for new founders in Berlin?
I’ve spent a lot of time in past years in Berlin and in London and New York, and I think Berlin is unique in the sense that it’s a great city to live. You have time to live, the city doesn’t give you the feeling of, “you need to work, work, work; you need to be the highest achiever in the world.”
You’re doing a good Berlin job when you spend Thursday night til Monday morning in Berghain and you can feel great about it – no one is blaming you! It’s less judgemental.
But on the other side, for founders, I think it’s not a place where your environment pushes you to do things and to go through these hard working periods that it costs to get something started. That’s a downside, and the amount of people that are talking about what they’d like to do but not necessarily doing it with all their time, power, and energy – that is unique for Berlin. Shielding yourself against this non-action mode is important. Talking about things can be great, but doing things is even better.
Where do you see Berlin five years from now?
That’s a good question. So most likely more gentrified, more expensive, more coffee places where you get your oat milk blah blah latte. I don’t think that it’s going to lose its anticapitalist mindset; I don’t think that it’s getting particularly more crowded. I think with pricing for infrastructure, living, food, it’s moving much closer to the levels of other big capitals. The mindset I think will stick with this place.
The kinds of people that will continue to move to Berlin don’t necessarily carry this socialist, anticapitalist mindset, but the city itself has its own DNA and character that overshadows even people who move here. I don’t know many other places where you can breathe the very adventurous history of the city as much as you can in Berlin and that is diminishing the attitude of other people moving to Berlin who might want to establish a new and different mindset. I think the vibe, the character in Berlin is too strong to be changed by people who spontaneously move here. When I’m working at the weekend or if I leave the office at 9 PM I feel that I’m working against the rhythm of the city. I think there is a sloppiness and a provincial-ness to Berlin that won’t change too much either, and it can be terrible when you face it: not very service-oriented, not very practical, not very urban but there are sides to it that I really like.
Are there any individuals or groups who are particularly influential to you in Berlin or in your time as a founder?
So I know that there is a founders’ scene in Berlin, but I’m not too engaged in that. Partly subconsciously and partly consciously, because too many people are speaking about what they want to do and don’t do it. And then it’s very male-dominated as well, but there are also female founders’ circles that I do engage in. I follow Verena Pausder and the Founders of Edition F – they started about the same time as we did. It’s definitely nice to have them here I think by just following what they do online definitely helps you to get a perspective that the problems that you’re going through are not unique, and that helps. Still I don’t see myself as a core of these circles, partly because I just don’t spend too much time here, and then I do really enjoy spending time with really different people who are not entrepreneurs, who are not founders.
Combining different perspectives helps, and I think Berlin is not necessarily a place that mixes people at its best. When I’m in New York at a party it’s much more likely that I see bankers and people from fashion and people from NGOs at the same place. And in Berlin it’s much more homogenous, at least where I spend time.
Could you name one particular moment that’s been pivotal during your time in Berlin?
I can think of two moments. So the first one was when I realized that this lofty idea actually had potential. I do have many lofty ideas, and I’m always surprised when one is actually meant to live. That was definitely an empowering moment, and I never saw myself as an entrepreneur before I realized this.
The other pivotal moment came very recently when we realized, after this period of experimenting across many levels, we now really need to focus. It’s like a maturity period of startups where there is a comedown to reality and you need to make sure that what you’re building is here to stay – and that needs focus. I think it’s a very healthy period but it comes with killing darlings. For me and I think for many founders and visionaries, focus is harder than having the boldness to do something.
Do you think Berlin’s informal nature and unique history has been a positive aspect of your time in the city?
Yes, especially as I lived in Munich before that by accident for university. Munich is much more streamlined in how to behave and how not to behave. Coming to Berlin gave much more freedom of stating, “that’s who I am and that’s perfectly fine.” I think it’s also a matter of age and becoming more confident with oneself, but the city definitely reinforced this realization that it really doesn’t matter what anyone else thinks. And I think that attitude in Berlin has had a very positive effect.
I don’t believe that Berlin is this startup capital that it claims to be. I think from soft factors or attitude and atmosphere, you can argue for it, but definitely not from all these infrastructural factors. Like we had to find new offices, and there were lots of great places but the internet wasn’t working well enough. Even here we had to rebuild it completely so that it could drive a tech company. That’s a basic thing that should be a given.
What is your favorite spot in the neighborhood?
I love the street I’m living on, Schröderstraße. It’s very pleasant – it’s Teletubby land! It has a very unique spirit; it’s way too pleasant to be real. My direct neighbor is a hair stylist. He cuts your hair, even mine, based on your astro sign. He’s called an Astrofriseur. I love the street, especially when I’m coming back from lots of traveling, it gives me loads of peace.
Finally, Coffee, Tea, or Club Mate?
Tea. I’ve pivoted to tea!
Thanks to Pia for contributing to our neighborhood interview series.
Curious about Opinary? Sign up for their newsletter
Interview: Andrew Haw
Photography: Nora Brown