Knowing when to trust your gut

Melanie Aronson, founder and CEO of Panion, pictured holding up a smartphone which is showing the Panion app logo

writer icon Kay Lagercrantz     Dražen Lovrić   |   Startups     🕐 11. Oct. 2018

The journey for startups is plagued with struggles, and machine learning-based app Panion has faced challenges of its own.

Panion is an app designed to help people find new friends, matching them together with others in their area who share their interests. It works much in the same way as Tinder, people can choose to match or not match with others and, following a match, can initiate a chat and arrange things to do together.

Realising the need
The app was born out of necessity. Its founder, Melanie Aronson, explained how difficult it was to settle in Sweden after she moved there. Originally from a small town outside of Boston, Massachusetts, Aronson journeyed to Sweden on a Fulbright Scholarship, to research integration and immigration at Lund University. This was during 2014, at the height of the refugee crisis in Europe.

“This is when I realised loneliness was a huge issue for people relocating to, and within, Sweden”, she said.

Closed doors
Aronson was no stranger to this loneliness. Since her arrival in Sweden, she also struggled with building friendships. The doors can feel very much closed to outsiders, and Sweden has a reputation for being a difficult place to make friends. 

“I’ve never had a problem in any other country I’ve lived in”
, Aronson observed. She saw a need for an app, something along the lines of popular dating app Tinder, but for making friends instead.

The idea came to her when she saw friends using Tinder, despite the fact that they were happily married. When she questioned their use of the app, they explained that they were desperate to meet people.

The idea grew
Aronson shared her idea for the app with her acquaintances. They too were immigrants who were also feeling lonely. From that point onwards, the idea was somewhat forced into becoming a reality.

“I started getting phone calls - ‘so when’s your app ready?’”
Aronson recalled. She explained to them that she was not going to make the app, she just wished the app existed. After repeatedly being told “you need to build it”, Aronson went ahead and made it happen.

Artificial Intelligence
Panion uses machine learning. A carefully designed algorithm proposes compatible friendships based on a number of variables, such as how long someone hovers over a specific profile. There are also categorical matches and keyword matches. The algorithm even evaluates based on what sort of profiles the user interacts with.

“We’d like to eventually need the user to tell us less, and to give them more”
, Aronson explained. She does not want users to be in a position where they have to reject a potential friend.

Rather, the algorithm will recognise that by not interacting with them, the profile was less relevant. Then it can subsequently show more relevant profiles first.

“We are rethinking how people should interact on our platform, to provide a friendly and non-judgmental environment”
, Aronson said.

Aiming for perfection
Before the beta-version of Panion was released, Aronson wanted it to be perfect. “I kept wanting to like, improve, improve, improve”, she said. The developer on her team said to her that she needed to “get it out there”.

Aronson saw the value of getting a version of the app up and running. “You need to get out there to see what’s wrong. Because you might change something that was never wrong”, she explained.

Testing is complete
Panion has now undergone the testing phase. User feedback stated that there were some things that simply had to be fixed, such as the ability to chat with people without the need to have a mutual match.

This is something that Aronson agrees with. “We’ve realised that with friendship, mutual matching as a filter is not as necessary as with dating”, she concluded.

The testing provided Aronson and her team with lots of feedback on what could be improved. What followed was the dilemma of whether to go ahead and start marketing Panion, or to wait until the improvements are addressed.

To market or not to market
“Your inclination is to be like, OK, let’s fix all those things before we market”
, she said. While others were advising her to get to marketing right away, her gut instinct was telling her to take the time to mend the issues brought up by testing. “We know what’s wrong”, she explained.

Yet, fixing the drawbacks in the app was not going to happen overnight. Aronson described it as “a very big structural change”.

For Aronson, addressing the issues brought up by testing would mean keeping the users that Panion already had. This user-retention was important to her, more important than racing ahead to find new users.

iOs and Android
When in its beta version, the app was only available for iPhone, which lead to a lot of complaint from Android users. While Aronson understands their frustration, she turned the negative into a positive, pointing out that this means there is a demand for Panion.

Since the user-testing, Panion has had a huge makeover. The new app retains the same concept, but with more features. The adaptations are based on the user feedback. The new release of Panion is scheduled for next month, and it will be available for both Android and iOS.

What next for Panion?
The Panion team is expanding, and their next move is securing further investment. “I really want to find the right investors that add what we need to the team”, Aronson said.

They are also looking into other situations where their app could have a positive effect. One such place is large companies and universities. Aronson believes that they should take more responsibility for preventing loneliness in the workplace, and on campus.

These institutions could potentially use Panion as a service for their employees or students. Doing this could improve the wellbeing of many. It would also address the importance of integrating new students and employees - people who otherwise risk being left out in the cold.

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