“Community” is a word that bounces with a beat when speaking with Brooks Buffington and Tyler Droll, the founders of the social media app, Yik Yak. It drives their focus, inspires product development, and centers them amidst occasional controversy. It’s not a word you necessarily hear with earnestness among typical startup superstars, but then again, Buffington and Droll are a bit different. The young duo is elusive, rarely swagger-rolling into tech junkets and usually shying away from the press. So, when they were asked to don their signature turquoise socks on stage at South by Southwest (SXSW) it came with community on their mind – this time, to celebrate Atlanta through the city’s Choose ATL campaign. (Okay, and to share some major Yik Yak updates, too.)
Buffington and Droll give Hypepotamus the high view on what motivates them to pursue great work in Georgia.
Why headquarter and develop a company in Atlanta?
Droll: We grew up in Atlanta and went to high school here, went away to college nearby, and later moved back. We launched Yik Yak through the awesome energy around Atlanta at the time, including the Atlanta Tech Village, and we’ve continued to roll with that. Atlanta has a great tech pool from local universities. It also gives us a unique perspective in the tech industry versus coming from the typical Silicon Valley mindset. It is a unique lens to approach problems and has been a very nice culture to grow in.
Buffington: Obviously, being inserted in the Atlanta tech scene has really helped us. Everyone is willing to help each other and lift each other up, and that has helped get us to where we are today. If we were in Silicon Valley or New York, where it is more cutthroat, it would be very different. Atlanta is a smaller, more collaborative community that wants to help people succeed. Having those people behind us and lifting us up has been great. Growing under the radar instead of growing out west where it is hard to pop out of the bubble has enabled us to do a lot of great things.
Yik Yak is only three-years-old, and during this time has encountered more press attention than most companies do in a lifetime. How do you balance scrutiny and praise, and move forward to produce a fun and worthwhile product?
Droll: Being focused on our mission, our north star internally, and expecting that there will be praise and scrutiny along the way. We’ve been lucky to interact with great people in the Atlanta community and beyond who can provide advice and help us keep things in perspective. Really it’s about knowing what we want to achieve – making the world feel small again – and staying laser focused on that mission.
Buffington: Every day in the office we hear great stories coming in from campus reps and Yik Yak communities around the country. The favorite dining hall employee at University of Georgia who gets daily shout-outs from adoring students on Yik Yak, the user at University of Warwick who had pizza delivered to someone he didn’t even know because that user had posted about having a bad day, the student who was able to do a jump for a dead car battery after yakking about the problem. It’s about seeing those stories and helping to accomplish connectivity among local communities.
Recently, you added handles to Yik Yak. What was the motivation for this and how will this feature improve use?
Buffington: They add a lot more context to the feed. About a year ago we added reply icons. Previously there was no way to know who was saying what, it could be ramblings by one person or conversations with more than one. Icons added structure to these threads, users could tell when they were talking to the same user in a conversation, and replies doubled as a result. Naturally, through communities, people are yearning to have a personality or be known through that community. Professors may want to share a post and have their students know it’s them. In Atlanta, a user called “deepsnackthoughts” posts about hole-in-the-wall food spots. That’s how handles were born – to meet a hunger for context within the feed. Just like reply icons, handles allow people to feel more connected within their community, making the world feel like a smaller place.
Droll: We have a big network of campus ambassadors that help market the app, and we let them funnel the feedback and what features they would like to see. We use that network to get some really good user feedback, as well as doing broader user research run in-house, to develop changes. Whatever we build, it is to help connect local communities.
This is what makes us unique – the ability to casually interact with people around you. It can be easy to connect with people around the world, but not the people within your environment, in the same traffic, same apartments, same office park. We are at a time in which technology and location services can make that happen. We are seeing some powerful examples, such as seeing campuses rally together through March Madness and others organizing blood drives.
Speaking from a leadership voice, what gets you going or excites you to continue building Yik Yak?
Buffington: It goes back to the use cases and how we can affect so many people’s lives on a daily basis. Just a week or two ago, one of our campus ambassadors told us how a student was able to locate their lost cat using Yik Yak. That’s why we’re doing this. These sorts of use cases are not possible on other forms of social media. It’s what keeps me going every day.
Droll: One thing, in addition, is just walking through the office. We have over 50 people working toward the same goal. They could be working on something we are rolling out next month or a feature that is yet to be defined, but it’s all pushing to the same purpose. There is a sense that anything is possible.
[Image Sources: ARPR Choose ATL and Yik Yak]