EMILY PRICE | DIGITAL STRATEGIST AT COMMUNITY JOURNALS
Two 2013 Furman graduates recently raised $10 million from major Silicon Valley investors to fund Yik Yak, a controversial location-based social app that allows users to post messages anonymously to other users in their 1.5 mile radius.
CEO Tyler Droll and COO Brooks Buffington – both just 23 years old – launched the app on Furman’s campus during Homecoming weekend in November 2013.
“Within a week or two, a large majority of the campus was using it,” said Buffington. “It was then that Tyler and I looked at each other and said, ‘I think we have something.’”
On the heels of a $1.5 million seed round of fundraising, Droll and Buffington can additionally cite venture firms including Azure Capital Partners and DCM as investors, along with billionaire Tim Draper, who made headlines earlier this month for purchasing all 30,000 bitcoins (a software-based currency) anonymously auctioned by the U.S. Marshals Service after an FBI raid.
Draper is also known for ventures like Hotmail (sold to Microsoft in 1998 for $400 million) and Skype (sold to eBay for over $3 billion in 2005).
Building a team
Yik Yak recently established its first official headquarters in Atlanta Tech Village. With the $10 million, Droll and Buffington are actively building a team that is “really starting to take shape,” Buffington says.
The full-time staff includes a front-end developer, back-end developer, community manager, community development manager, designer, lead digital marketer, director of operations and interns.
“We’re looking for A-level people, plain and simple,” Buffington says. “How to build out an office and a team was never something we learned at Furman, so it was, and still is, a learning process for us. Luckily we have some gray hair around us in the form of advisors and investors.”
Droll said he and Buffington “have also made it a strong focus to surround the table with extremely smart and experienced people, such as a director at Google, well-known investors, and successful entrepreneurs.”
How it began
The two initially developed the app while in school. Droll, an IT major, took a course in iPhone programming and discovered he wanted to develop iPhone applications full time. After Yik Yak seemed to take off, he decided to drop out of the USC-Greenville School of Medicine one week before the start of classes.
“On campus, there were a few very popular anonymous Twitter accounts that would tweet engaging commentary about life at Furman,” Droll says. “I knew that there were more students that could say clever things like these… but building a large base of followers is hard and time-consuming. There had to be an easier way.”
He found a way to capitalize on the conditions of author anonymity (“the content is judged by the content; not by who is saying it”) and a captive, hyper-local audience of “thousands of people around them” who could identify with specific subjects and events.
Gossip, slander and cyberbullying
Yik Yak was born, but not without controversy. Critics attack the app as lacking productive purpose and serving as a vehicle for gossip, slander and cyberbullying. High school users in particular tend to use the app “inappropriately” in ways that do not “align with Yik Yak’s mission of creating beneficial social communities,” Buffington says.
In response to cases of cyberbullying and backlash, the creators set an age restriction of 17. Since they began geo-fencing primary and secondary schools from accessing the app in March, they have blocked 85 percent of them in the U.S.
The creators want the app to be a medium for commentary on current events or other general knowledge related to the local area, and a place users can discuss both personal and community issues they may not feel comfortable addressing in an identifiable forum.
Some of the $10 million will also be allocated to continue to build the “peek feature,” a tool for glimpsing into other Yik Yak networks. This is part of an effort to build Yik Yak into what Buffington calls “a technology that fulfills a higher purpose of delivering unabridged news in real time.”
They also plan to use a significant amount of funds to market the app and build its user base. College users remain a target. Most college students “understand the importance of acting responsibly on social media and the negative impact of cyberbullying,” Buffington says. Collegiate communities are beginning to “self-regulate in a positive way” through methods such as up- and down-voting messages.
“A large user base often results in the expedited down-posting of negative and hurtful comments, which leads to the quick removal of such comments,” Buffington says. Agreed Droll, “as Yik Yak communities get larger and more diverse, the more effective these social policing mechanisms become.”