10 minutes

Get to Know Brooks Buffington

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Yik Yak co-founder discusses Southeast tech scene, future of anonymous messaging app

In the Southeast’s technology scene, Yik Yak is something of a rarity.

The anonymous messaging app has become a household name. It shot up the charts, stirred up national controversy and raised serious money from big-name Silicon Valley investors. And in a region where tech companies most often build products for other businesses, its app found an appeal with a mass audience.

The Atlanta-based company was founded by two Furman University graduates, Brooks Buffington and Tyler Droll, who toyed with building apps as students but hit it big in Georgia.

Buffington sat down with The Post and Courier during the recent Dig South conference in Charleston to discuss the state of tech in South Carolina and the Southeast, the challenges facing entrepreneurs here and the future of the company. His remarks have been condensed for clarity.

Question: Did the size of South Carolina’s tech scene play into your decision at all to move back to Atlanta versus starting Yik Yak here?

Answer: When we came back toAtlanta, it was pretty much the result of needing to live back at home. When we were starting out, actually, the Atlanta tech scene was still pretty burgeoning — at least the startup Atlanta tech scene. There had been a few big Atlanta tech companies like (security software maker) ISS or companies that had billion-dollar-plus exits but were more like (business-to-business). … There wasn’t necessarily a scene of two-people startups just going after something. …

There were certainly talks about, “Do we stay in Atlanta? Do we go to New York or San Francisco or something like that?” And then it was a very conscious decision of like, “No, we want to stay in the South and do this here.”

Q: Why?

A: There’s great people here, great talent that we knew we could — we could grab that talent a lot easier than maybe we could in San Francisco and you’re battling against Google or whoever. And then two was we didn’t want to abandon this community that had helped get usto this point. I feel like the Southeast tech scene … it’s like everyone wants to see everyone else succeed because it is such a small community. It’s intimate and everyone wants to see that one company just blow it out of the water and put everything on the map. Having that support behind was great, and we wanted to continue to be part of that and help support other companies that are starting up too ourselves.

And then the third part was us wanting to hopefully be one of those companies that hit it out of the park, and that way when kids are graduating from local schools, they can be like, “Hey, Yik Yak’s here. We can just do it here. They did it here.”

Q: Talk about the challenges of starting a company that can hit it out of the park in the Southeast, both in terms of raising money and attracting talent.

A: I think the culture’s definitely different. I would say startups in general — because they’re not a big part of the culture or business scene here like they would be in San Francisco — the idea of joining a startup isn’t as natural as it would be somewhere else, where it’s like everyone’s been a part of the startup world. So I think that there’s, I guess, something of an uneasiness for people to leave a big corporate gig at Coca-Cola or something like that and join a startup. Like it’s scary, right? I think that fear is a little bit more real in places where startups aren’t yet a big part of the culture or community. … As more and more startups start to come around and more and more people start joining them, it will eventually get to that point.

So I’d say that’s kind of the thing. The talent is certainly here. There’s no shortage of talent. If anything, there’s just a shortage of really cool companies for them to work at. So there’s the opportunity for awesome startups to get started and then get cool people to work at it because they want to work on something cool. So I think that the talent is there.

In terms of raising funds, it’s certainly a handicap compared to if you were based in Silicon Valley, but the great thing about money, too, is at the same time, it’s mobile. It doesn’t have borders or anything, so if you do have a really good product and a really good team and the numbers to back it up, then the money will come to you. But there probably is a little bit more of a handicap. Like in Silicon Valley, if you came from the right background … and you have a decent idea, you’d be ableto get money.

But I think in the South, it’s more like you have to prove yourself a little bit. Which is great, too, because in a lot of ways it’s like the companies that get to the point of raising good money in the South, it’s like they’ve proven themselves to a certain extent already. They’ve proven out that we can do this. It’s not like it’s two dudes sitting around like, “Oh, let’s make this app,” and someone was like, “Hey, here’s a million dollars! Go for it!”

That was a big thing for us — when we had first started, we actually had some numbers behind us. We had Furman using it. We had Wofford using it. I think C of C had just started to pick it up, so when we started to raise our first small round from the Atlanta Tech Village, they were like, “There are actually numbers behind this.” In another world, it might have been like, “Oh that’s a neat idea. Here’s some money; try it out or whatever.”

Q: On the flip side of that, I’ve heard the Southeast has helped some consumer apps take root and that you all really blew up with college students because of spring break. Is there an advantage to being here in that sense?

A: Totally. … If I was in Silicon Valley and we were trying to start Yik Yak there, there’s so many other companies trying to do similar things — startups in general — that it’s very tough to break out of that bubble. And everyone’s going to the same schools trying to make it happen — Stanford or Berkeley or wherever. So the fact that no consumer startups were really around here, and none of them were targeting campuses like USC or UGA or places like that, it made us unique in that way. … We weren’t fighting against anyone for share of attention. And then those students, they’re a more accurate representation of real college students. The people that go to the Harvards or Stanfords or places like that aren’t necessarily the best representation of college students. I think since we proved that it worked with regular students in the Southeast, that was a sort of sign that it was going to work elsewhere.

Q: So about Yik Yak: You recently launched a chat feature that requires you to register a username. That seems like a departure from the model of anonymous posts. Is that a direction you’re going to continue on?

A: For us, it’s always kind of been about location and building things that help you connect with the people in your area in better ways. And whatever we do is going to help move toward that end goal. … It was just this idea of when you can go a second layer deeper with the people in your community, you kind of start to develop this rapport, and even within a small span like a reply thread, it’s kind of like, “Oh, I get this person’s personality in a little bit of a way.” … People were still wanting to be personalities in an area, like seeing a professor sign off on a reply … or seeing a student put hashtags at the end of each of their posts because they want people to know that this is me creating this content, (to) recognize that I’m a cool content creator in this area. …

Chat was a great building block on top of that. Now that you know who these people are, if you want to start a chat, it’s not like two random people connecting, it’s like, “Oh you’re this handle. I’ve seen your posts around.” It feels a little bit more personal, a little bit more intimate. …

Literally yesterday some dude posted a picture of two frogs on the feed around here, and his handle is Frog Guy. And so I just randomly chatted him, and I go, “Nice frogs, guy.” And he goes, “They’re not frogs; they’re actually dogs.” And it was just like so random, so like — so stupid. But I just start cracking up, and it was just like this serendipitous interaction with this person in the community that I thought was so funny. And then later, I posted a photo of a lizard, and I go, “Check out this little dinosaur.” And the Frog Guy comments on it and goes, “Hey, nice dog.” And so like as a result of our little interaction, now me and this person have this cool relationship within our community. And it’s like, I have no idea who this person is, but I feel a little bit closer to the community now … and I’m just stopping by for, like, two days. I think you’ll see us continue to add in these little feature sets that help you understand who are these people around me, discover these people around me, connect with these people around me and find interesting guys like that.

Q: There have also been reports over the last several months that your user growth is slowing down. How are you all addressing that?

A: We really don’t pay attention to that stuff. We’re super comfortable with where we are, and we’re at 2,000-plus college campuses not only in the U.S. but abroad, too. And to us, it’s not important to be at the top of the charts all the time because we’re in the college market. It’s a capped market. So we’re happy about it. We’re happy about how we’re tapping into that and continuing to increase engagement with these people.

We feel that if we can just kind of nail that in a really, really special way, then we can do whatever we want to. We can go wherever we want to, expand to post-grad whenever we want to.

We’re really getting hyperfocused on perfecting this scenario first before getting distracted and looking elsewhere, which we’ve seen companies do in the past — where it’s like you try to grow too big too fast, and as a result, you spread yourself super thin and kind of just flounder.

Originally posted in Charleston Post & Courier by Thad Moore.