Tyler Droll and Brooks Buffington typify the 20-something tech founder of today. Last fall, Droll, then an aspiring doctor, dropped out of medical school to join Buffington, a college fraternity brother who fled the finance industry, to start Yik Yak, a location-based iteration of anonymous social networks Secret and Whisper.
Today, the two founders find themselves at the center of one of the quickest growing and most divisive trends in social media: anonymity. The company, which raised $10 million in June, has developed an app that serves as a local chat room of sorts where users can post whatever they want anonymously and only nearby users will see it.
“The idea behind it came from something we saw on our college campus,” Droll told Street Fight. “[At Furman University, where we went to school] there were a couple of really powerful Twitter accounts followed by thousands of students, run anonymously. They were able to make those witty comments about social life on campus and campus news and instantly be heard by thousands of students.”
Droll figured that despite the fact that only a select number of Twitter accounts made it big, there had to be more worthy voices on campus.
“My thought was there has to be more than five funny kids on a campus, and everyone should have the power to say a funny comment and have it heard by thousands of students instantly,” he said. “Why can’t we connect people based on location instantly?”
Since then, Yik Yak has evolved into a popular platform for students to communicate with one another anonymously. The app fences off different locations to let users engage a hyperlocal community that is likely to share certain interests like events, the weather, or nearby restaurants.
The goal was to create “a place where like-minded people could talk, using location as the common denominator,” Droll explained.
“It’s kind of a throwback to CB radios that truckers use where if you’re on the right channel you can communicate with anyone,” said Buffington, who serves as the company’s COO. “Pretty much every social network out there is a closed network, which limits who you can interact with. We make sure it’s open so news travels faster. You get different opinions from different people from all walks of life, where on Twitter you may only be following people that are just like you.”
So far, Yik Yak has focused on college campuses as the prime target for the app. The company developed a campus representatives program that helps build the community in different campuses, and from there a lot of it is just word of mouth, says Droll. Once a campus starts using Yik Yak, it just spreads.
Droll and Buffington also plan on doing some more marketing like traveling around campuses on a bus throwing parties for students.
While college campuses are the ideal audience for Yik Yak, Droll and Buffington also believe that cities and other contained areas are natural extensions. For instance, Disney World or Bonnaroo would be prime locations for Yik Yak. It’s all about benefiting from people around you that you may not necessarily know already.
“Location is first for us, anonymity is second,” Droll said. “That real cornerstone of our app is connecting people based on hyperlocal location.”
Any yet, anonymity is crucial to Yik Yak to give users a sense of privacy and comfort. When you’re sharing with someone who is nearby, it may not feel safe to reveal your identity.
As of now, Yik Yak has not monetized at all. The team has raised $11.5 million in funding which is holding them over for now. But once they solidify user growth, Droll believes there’s a large opportunity to hyperlocal advertising.
“You have Groupon and other sites with hyperlocal ads and people go to those apps for ads,” Droll said. “We can add in hyperlocal ads right next to hyperlocal content. You’re reading all this funny news and you get a promotion for a restaurant that’s half a mile away.”
Rebecca Borison is a Street Fight contributor.