By: Seth Fiegerman | January 23, 2014 (Featured on Mashable)
“When I was younger I used to get ‘lost’ in Walmart on purpose just so I could hear my name on the intercom”
“I act like I love single life. But in reality, I’d give anything to be the couple everyone stares at.”
“I won $50,000 on a scratch ticket. I haven’t told anyone yet”
If the measure of a social network is how much users share about themselves, then Whisper may already rank near the top.
Each month, millions of anonymous Whisper users share short chunks of text on top of images — or “Whispers” — about heartache, school stress, movies, drinking, and dreams. Some gush about going on first dates with crushes, others ask whether anyone else is in a loveless relationship. Some posts are fake, some are baiting for attention and some are just attempts to get laid. Many, in fact, appear to be attempts to get laid.
All together, the experience of spending time on Whisper is unlike any other major social network: It’s more raw, more moving, more vulgar at times and yes, often more addictive. You can respond to posts you like with hearts, direct message users that peak your interest, share out posts on other networks or simply scroll through the endless whispers while slack-jawed and shifting between feelings of voyeurism, empathy and disgust.
It may not sound like the best way to spend a Friday night, but the simplicity and authenticity of the service has struck a nerve with college students — 90% of users are 18-24 years old — who make up Whisper’s core audience. The service now gets nearly 3.5 billion (with a “b”) page views a month The service now gets nearly 3.5 billion (with a “b”) page views a month, according to the company, a number that most publishers would kill for. The average user spends more than 30 minutes a day in the app and 45% of users actually post content.
Armed with nearly $25 million in funding, the startup is now poaching big names from companies like Gawker and Hulu to help surface the best posts within Whisper and make them go viral outside the app as well. It is all part of Whisper’s goal to be the most powerful tool for anonymous sharing and connecting with new people.
“We see Whisper as a service that a large part of the world’s population is going to use,” says Michael Heyward, the company’s 26 year-old cofounder and CEO. “Anonymity is just going to become a bigger and bigger thing. We see Whisper as owning that medium — in a lot of ways similar to how Twitter has owned and created this medium out of 140-character broadcast messages.”
Whisper’s rise didn’t happen overnight and the idea for it did not come in a single brainstorming session. It was years in the making and like the service itself, Whisper’s backstory includes a varied and counterintuitive mix of inspirations. Whisper owes its start to many things: trash-talking girls, Tiger Woods and three generations of entrepreneurs. Whisper owes its start to many things: trash-talking girls, Tiger Woods and three generations of entrepreneurs.
Whisper is not the result of a eureka moment. It is the product of many conversations, little schooling and, yes, inspiration from other services already on the market.
The origin story of Whisper, an app used for sharing secrets profane and mundane, starts with cartoons.
Whisper’s First Breath
Heyward never liked school. He didn’t do well academically or personally. “I wasn’t bullied or anything like that, but I definitely was more of an introvert and more of an isolator,” he says. Heyward also had “really bad A.D.D,” which hurt his performance in school. So like other tech founders, including Tumblr’s David Karp, Heyward chose to skip college and go straight into the work world, or at least a version of it. He went to work with his dad.
For some, that might mean settling for an unglamorous role at a small family business, but Heyward’s father is none other than Andy Heyward, a writer and producer who friends refer to as “the godfather of Saturday morning cartoons.” Over the course of 40 years, Andy Heyward had an influence on countless children as a writer at Hanna-Barbera, where he helped create iconic cartoon characters like Scrappy-Doo, and later as a co-creator of Inspector Gadget and executive producer of Carmen Sandiego. At the time Michael was looking to drop out, Andy was running DIC Entertainment, an animation company he had bought back from Walt Disney Co.
Michael’s first project, which he undertook at the tail end of his high school career, was to bring Formula 1 racing to a U.S. television audience. DIC launched Grand Prix Entertainment, with Michael as its managing partner, and the venture acquired exclusive rights to broadcast Formula 1 domestically. Michael was an avid fan of the sport, but he admits now it was a difficult undertaking, and one that may have prepared him in a strange way for the challenges of launching Whisper.
From Sexting to Secrets
“It felt like the Wild West,” Brooks says, thinking back to when smartphones took off in the late 2000s. “It felt like a paradigm shift, like a calling.”
Eager to be part of that shift, Brooks launched an app in 2010 called TigerText that let users send messages to one another, which would then be deleted after a set time period. This was more than a year before the launch of Snapchat. (Coincidentally, Heyward also went to the same high school as Snapchat founder Evan Spiegel.) It also happened to be around the same time that text messages between golfer Tiger Woods to his mistresses leaked to the media, dominating headlines across the country.
Brooks flatly denies that he named his messaging app TigerText to play on the controversy. As Brooks puts it, his startup “got whipped up in that whole crazy thing with Tiger Woods.” For better or worse, he admits, it led to “coverage and notoriety.” Publications like The Huffington Post and Time ran headlines suggesting that TigerText would be great for Woods and other “cheating spouses” to carry on affairs.
Michael, meanwhile, had moved on from working at his father’s company and spent much of his time traveling, hanging out with family and mulling over possibilities for everything from online video to social media. In early 2011, he reached out to Brooks to say that he was interested in the space and had some ideas. Brooks, who had recently raised $1.9 million for TigerText and would go on to raise another $13 million down the road, invited him to join.
“I believed that when we were together, things happened,” Brooks says. At first, Michael focused on marketing and customer acquisition efforts at TigerText, but the pair brainstormed ideas and found themselves having more conversations about what was wrong with social media.
“To me, it just felt like all of my friends’ lives were not nearly as good as they were projecting them to be,” Michael says. “It just felt like there was this huge white space of all of this stuff that people think, but don’t necessarily say out loud or share.” “It just felt like there was this huge white space of all of this stuff that people think, but don’t necessarily say out loud or share.”
That feeling crystalized for Michael in the summer of 2011 when he spoke with his sister’s friends, who were younger than him and in college. “I remember having a very distinct conversation with them about one of their particular friends on Facebook,” he says. “They said some mean things about this girl, but basically the gist of this was that it wasn’t a real representation of what was going on with her.” And that feeling was reinforced when he spoke with people older than him like Brooks who disdained the “look-at-me” sentiment on social media.
The original plan was to build a service around messaging, but with more of an emphasis around connecting people. “Group messaging was all the rage [at the time],” Brooks says. “We actually thought from the beginning that we would have messaging as a leading product feature and we didn’t even have it in the product for the first six months.”
They kept talking, evolving the idea throughout the summer of 2011. They took notice of PostSecret, a very similar online community for sharing secrets, and Chatroulette, an online service that let strangers chat with each other. But they focused on a mobile-first experience, both because of the growing use of smartphones and because they believed it would be easier to restrict some of the more offensive users who made Chatroulette a nightmare to use.
“There were a lot of ideas that were spitballed,” Brooks says. In the end, they focused on creating a “simple, easy-to-use way to express something in conjunction with an image.” After months of being incubated at TigerText, Whisper officially launched in May 2012. Fittingly for something called Whisper, the app got off to a very quiet start.
“It’s really hard to launch a sports franchise in the U.S.,” he says. “I think it’s easier to launch a social network than make soccer popular in the United States.” “I think it’s easier to launch a social network than make soccer popular in the United States.”
He continued to work at DIC after graduating high school and it was there that he had his first experience working with Brad Brooks, an investment banker who grew up next to the Heyward household in Beverly Hills, Calif., and joined DIC in 2000 to help Andy buy it back from Disney.
“I’ve known Michael literally since he was just a baby. His dad was this mentor to me and I was a little like a mentor to Michael as well,” says Brooks, who is 17 years older than Michael. “He’s just always someone who has been very creative. He shares a similar kind of gene to his dad that way.”
Brooks left DIC in late 2006 after helping it go public on the London Stock Exchange and returned to finance. He initially returned to working in finance, but then in 2010, he was inspired to take the leap to work on his own startup. A few months later, Michael came calling.
The Market For Anonymity
The day Whisper launched, the app was downloaded 20 times. Michael estimates that 18 of those downloads were from people he knew.
“It was probably months before we got over 100 downloads a day,” “It was probably months before we got over 100 downloads a day,” he says. That changed in late 2012 when college newspapers started to write about the app. The Daily Collegian at Penn State highlighted the app in October 2012 with the headline: “Whisper app allows students to share secrets.” UCLA’s newspaper followed suit in December with a story titled: “Whisper app builds community through shared secrets.”
The irony of Whisper taking off at colleges despite Michael never having attended one wasn’t lost on the startup’s team. As they courted more schools, he says, “the joke was that I didn’t just go to one college, I went to 30 different colleges.”
By early 2013, the app had generated enough interest among college students to crack the top list 100 in Apple’s App Store. Jeremy Liew, a partner at Lightspeed Venture Partners and the first investor in Snapchat, discovered Whisper around this time when it was trending in the App Store. As Liew recalls, his firm noticed the app on a Monday. The next day, he met with Michael and Brooks. By the end of the week they had finalized funding terms.
Whisper raised a $3 million Series A round in April of last year from Lightspeed and other investors, and went on to raise another $21 million in funding six months later with a valuation rumored to be as high as $100 million.
“I think that Whisper has the potential to be a web scale (100 million-plus users) app,” Liew told Mashable by e-mail. “‘Secrets’ are a universally compelling form of content, and the app shows the growth and engagement to support very large scale.”
When asked how Whisper fit in the landscape of social apps that includes Facebook and Snapchat, Liew offered the following breakdown:
I think about Facebook as the “journal of record for your real life.” Journal of record implies permanence, and “your real life” implies real ID. Change permanent to impermanent, and you have Snapchat, where people are sharing ephemeral communications with their real life close friends. Change real ID to anonymity, and you get Whisper, where people are sharing thoughts that they may be shy about sharing with their real life friends, but getting a empathetic response from the community. Both are addressing different problems.
As Whisper’s popularity grows, so does the scrutiny around it. There have been reports in recent months that the app has caused “disturbances” at schools and been used for virtual bullying. Some have also expressed concerns that it could be used by predators. Ask.fm, another social network where younger users post anonymously, has been plagued by teen bullying.
Whisper tries to combat this with a team of 92 moderators — all based in the Philippines — who police offensive content, though it seems likely some things will slip through the cracks.
But perhaps the most common question asked about Whisper these days, with the exception of “What is it?” and “Should I be worried about my kids using it?”, is “How will it make money?” For this, at least, Michael has a convincing answer: they already have.
Prior to the most recent round of funding in September, Whisper experimented with charging users to send messages and generated “six figures” a month, according to Michael. While the startup has no immediate plans to begin monetizing again, he notes that there are opportunities to turn Whispers into “native content” and make money from users connecting to one another.
“The good thing about Whisper is that we are connecting you with people you don’t already know. That’s a very proven business model,” Michael says. “We don’t need to reinvent the wheel there.”