Q&A with two elusive entrepreneurs: The Yik Yak founders

As far as founders go, the Yik Yak fellas are some of the quietest. Georgia-based Brooks Buffington and Tyler Droll stayed out of the Silicon Valley limelight during the early days of their social networking app’s meteoric growth. The tech world didn’t start paying attention to Yik Yak until Sequoia’s Jim Goetz, the investor famed for backing WhatsApp, decided to throw $62 million behind them.

As a result, the Yik Yak story hasn’t really been told. What do Buffington and Droll care about? How did they make their app go viral on college campuses? Who is this forgotten third founder suing them?

For those unfamiliar with Yik Yak, the app lets people see and publish short posts within a 10-mile radius around them. If it succeeds it could give people a brand new way to communicate. The premise is powerful enough that Twitter unabashedly ripped it off with its new location-tweet feature.

But Yik Yak has a long way to go before it can be declared a success. It’s facing all sorts of challenges, from cyberbullying critiques to growth questions. Outside the college fishbowl, do strangers have enough in common for location-based social networking?

We’re going to talk about these issues and more when I interview Buffington and Droll at SXSW on Monday, March 16. The guys haven’t done many live interviews, so we’ll cover a lot of new ground. I intend to say “Brooks Buffington” in a British accent as many times as possible.

In the meantime, here’s a taster Q&A with the dynamic duo. It’s been edited for clarity and length.

What did you think when Twitter previewed a new feature that’s basically a Yik Yak rip off?

Buffington: We did not know that was coming, but it was pretty cool to see.

Did it make you nervous? Twitter is bigger, more powerful, and has more money.

Buffington: They tried location before, tagging location to tweets, and I don’t think it worked before.

Droll: [Location] can be hard to do but we already have this foundation, with the reputation of location being the core part of the app.

Buffington: In terms of growth, [Yik Yak is] not like the traditional model where I can use it across countries with my friend. You can’t have your cake and eat it, too. Us being so location-based has helped us carve out this space.

What does your product pipeline look like?

Droll: We released a new update, a notification center within the app. It lets you quickly get back to the yaks. This is all about increasing the user experience, making the app easier to engage with. I think that will be the next twelve months. Making the app easier to use while retaining its simplicity.

People have less in common with nearby strangers once they leave college. How are you going to grow outside the college demographic?

Buffington: On the community development side of things, we’re going to continue to focus on the college market. A lot of colleges have only had it for one semester. We want to become this concrete product for college students, like Facebook. They stayed in the college market for awhile, completely saturating it.

I think a lot of [the demographic spread] will happen naturally. I use it all the time: Where should I go eat or what should I do this weekend? When I’m in areas that are super-dense in Soho, Yik Yak acts just like it does on a college campus. Location is a commonality between most people.

Why not try to expand to other demographics now?

Droll: Facebook didn’t reach a billion users over night. They started somewhere and executed beautifully and were patient and focused on that. We’re taking a page out of that book. Let’s not lose touch with our core users and what they like. Act simple, be patient and make the best experience possible.

Buffington: It’s a mindset from the beginning. When we first geofenced off high schoolers, we were actively kicking off users. [Because high school students were bullying each other through the app, Buffington and Droll took the location coordinates of every high school in America and blocked the app from working in those places.] We were stunting growth, but it was [in order to create] these communities that were strictly engaged and long standing.

What’s your big challenge in 2015?

Buffington: Telling the story of who we are and what we do is something we can improve on. If you ask a college student, ‘What is Yik Yak?’ they’ll say it’s the best app ever and they use it every day. If you ask a parent, they’ll say, ‘I heard it’s a nasty app.’ It comes down to educating people about what our app is and the space in general.

What’s your latest growth metric?

Droll: We track by campuses. But we’re pretty much on every campus in the nation now; 1,500 campuses.

Sounds like you need a new metric.

Droll: Yeah. We have to think about that.

What’s it like having Jim Goetz on your board?

Droll: Jim’s great. He has a wealth of knowledge. It’s awesome to have a mind like that around the table.

Buffington: He’s one of these people, when you’re done talking to him you leave the room and think ‘Thank god we have him.’

What are some specific insights he’s given you?

Buffington: Tyler and I were really eager to spread across the world right away. Jim told us not to abandon our user base just yet, to focus on our current users and keep level-headed. He urged smart growth instead of growth at all costs.

Before the Sequoia funding, the tech industry didn’t pay much attention to Yik Yak. You’re a venture-backed tech company, so do you think you need to win over this market?

Buffington: We like a groundswell idea versus top-down growth.

Droll: We’re going to focus on what we’re doing in creating this great everyday use-case scenario.

Shady but smart: Secret’s CES feed copies Yik Yak for a new crowd

That savvy Secret. The anonymous sharing network, which recently redesigned its entire product to save itself, isn’t going quietly into that dark night.

It unrolled a new feature Monday allowing people at CES to view and post to an exclusive CES feed on Secret. Only those in the Las Vegas area can add content, turning Secret into a geofenced members-only club for whining about Mandalay Bay Wi-Fi, discovering the best after party, and mocking Samsung’s keynote.

A location based social feed — it’s like Twitter circa SXSW 2007. But where Twitter grew too large and noisy to deliver on its initial events flair, Secret’s geofencing makes sure the party stays small.

Yik Yak peek feature

Yik Yak’s Peek Anywhere list, with featured themes and events at the top

As others have said, it’s a “fun experiment“, one that “could give Secret an edge over Yik Yak.” There’s just one caveat: Yik Yak already has this feature. It created it months ago. (For a primer on Yik Yak, a college campus staple, read here).

In its “Peek Anywhere” section, Yik Yak users are prompted to check out feeds from geofenced areas around events like college football games and music festivals. The Featured peeks change day-by-day depending on what’s happening, and allow people to get a glimpse of the action on the ground somewhere. Yik Yak, in turn, probably got its Featured Peeks idea from Snapchat’s Featured Stories.

Secret, for its part, says it has been thinking about event-based feeds since March 2013, when it played with a location feature at SXSW. When I asked Secret co-founder Chrys Bader whether Secret copied Yik Yak with its redesign a few weeks ago, he deferred.

“If you look at any text-based social network, it’s all text,” Bader pointed out. “I suspect Yik Yak and Secret will diverge a lot over the next six months.” He wouldn’t elaborate, but hinted that Secret’s upcoming design and feature changes will focus on other contexts besides location.

Regardless of whether Secret is ripping off Yik Yak, it’s a time honored truism that the tech company that succeeds is the one that executes the best, not necessarily the one that executes first (see: Facebook v. MySpace; iPad v. many tablets that came before).

If Secret can spread through the tech crowd to other demographics, perhaps it could beat Yik Yak at its own game. After all, Yik Yak has largely ignored the Silicon Valley audience until this point. Instead, it has grown virally the way Facebook did, through college campuses.

By launching an events based feed at CES, Secret might get a leg up on the early adopter audience. Assuming that Twitter circa SXSW 2007 is still something people in tech want.

Wearable design, Misfit and the age of the glanceable UI

A second generation of wearable computing is emerging that focuses on design and a so-called glanceable UI. Valley startup Misfit Wearables is leading the charge, and trying to create a new type of user experience.

Why isn’t the future of work top of mind?

From one perspective. last week’s ‘big story’ was the continuing fall-out and discourse about Marissa Mayer’s ‘no remote work’ diktat. I added a bit of fuel to the fire with Cultural change is really complex contagionWhy are disengaged employees disengaged?, and Why work doesn’t happen at work. But since I analyzed that issue at some length last week, I’ve decided to talk about something different.
Last week, SxSW ramped up, with the event’s curious admixture of tech Mardi Gras and the search for the next-shiny-app. I decided, several months ago, to sit out SxSW, for a variety of reasons.
SxSW obviously jumped the shark a few years ago. In Jan 2011, I wrote about SxSW:

Stowe Boyd, Why I Am Not Going To SxSW
I have attended SxSW Interactive a few times, and I’ve found it to be a high-tech Woodstock, without the mud or the music. Just lots of people milling around, and queued up for the parties, the after parties, and the after-after parties.
The selection approach for the talks is all about popularity, and there is no obvious thematic control, and no MC, so the sessions are very uneven. Some can be great, but the majority are a rewarming of shopworn topics. The most popular talks are too crowded to admit all those that want in, so you’re lucky if you get into one in five of those.

By a curious turn of events, I had clients who wanted me to meet with them during SxSW that year, so I wound up in Austin during the event, but without a pass. And I found that sort of interesting, since I could observe the goings-on without the same expectation of attending a conference, but more like an errant anthropologist. Again, in an odd twist of events, I was asked to be on the program committee — which meant a free pass in ’12 — and I accepted thinking that I might have some impact on the program. And, I also had a panel accepted for ’12 (with Dave Gray, Megan Murray, and Gordon Ross), so I had reasons to attend.
But there were only a small number of sessions that appealed to me last year, and some I couldn’t get into because Interactive has become just way too packed. I looked carefully at the program, and there just wasn’t enough that I wanted to see to make it worth the money, time and travel. So, although I am still on the program committee, and I have a free pass, I opted to not go.
But I want to use that as a pivot point to ask a related question: why isn’t the future of work more of a burning issue? Why aren’t there more sessions at SxSW on social business, why aren’t more social business vendors out there promoting their vision of the future?
Perhaps the acquisition of Yammer, Podio, and Socialcast has made social business software seem like ‘business as usual’ and not as likely a breakthrough in productivity as apps like Tempo or Mailbox.
I think there is a huge dislocation going on. Issues like Yahoo’s ‘no remote work’ ban are top of mind, as are the societal stressors like our increasing work/life imbalance, the freelance economy, the downsides of temp work a la Amazon distribution workers, and a long list of others.
We seem to be lacking a positive vision of the future of work, one that would make it more interesting. In business terms, some set of ideas that would put the future of work in the black, and pull it out of the red.
I’ve written a bit about open work (see Open work is the next high water mark for social business), but absent some actual software products being developed to implement that (where are you, LinkedIn?) it’s just a handwave by a futurist.
What I think is needed is a better understanding of what is going on, in the office buildings and home offices across the country and across the world, to help people understand that we aren’t just being blown before the winds of a precarious economy, we are actively headed somewhere, even if we haven’t been able to say exactly where that is.
So I think that the fact that this critical and timely discussion isn’t occupying top of mind in the business world reflects a failure of people like me to do our jobs, which is to try to make sense of the large trends shaping the world of work, and to cast those in terms that help others to take affective action. And specifically, to make clear where we are headed, and why. I promise to rededicate myself to that task.

The internet of BBQ: GigaOM hits SXSW

Here’s a roundup of all of our coverage from SXSW — both the legendary Interactive section and the relatively new education conference. Sorry, no up and coming musicians.