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.