Q&A With Whisper CEO Michael Heyward: We Are Your 'Stranger on a Train'
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Whisper is like bathroom graffiti without the germs. Secrets and rumors spilled on the anonymous confessional app are all degrees of dirty, hilarious, hostile, heart wrenching, and they might be true. Or not.
Whether you lie or tell the truth on Whisper doesn’t matter anyway, according to Michael Heyward, the app’s 26-year-old co-founder and CEO. The whole point, he says, is to get whatever you want off your chest without the fear of being identified, tagged, checked-in or @-mentioned.
Whisper was built to be the opposite of identity-driven social platforms like Facebook, Twitter, Foursquare, LinkedIn, Instagram and Pinterest. That means no names, no profiles, no followers, no embarrassing online trail for lovers or bosses to trip over.
It’s a brilliantly simple formula -- one that reels in 3.5 million page views per month and has most users coming back for a Whisper fix up to 10 times a day, including Heyward himself.
The West Los Angeles native launched the free Android and iOS app in 2012 with his childhood friend and former TigerText colleague Brad Brooks. Whisper has since raised $54 million in venture capital with no clear source of revenue as yet.
We picked Heyward’s brain this week about what’s driving Whisper’s viral success, how the Venice, Calif.-based startup handles seriously scary confessions, what he thinks of copycat apps and a lot more.
Note: Answers have been edited for clarity and length.
Entrepreneur: What inspired you and Brooks to develop Whisper? What’s the story behind it?
Heyward: I was working for Brad at TigerText [an instant messaging app designed for coworkers]. While I was there, Whisper evolved out of a series of conversations and discussions and ideas and we ended up realizing that that product didn’t fit inside of the TigerText organization, so we spun it out as a separate company and as a separate product. The idea was to return to a Web 1.0 interaction.
Whisper isn’t actually about concealing identity. It’s about a complete absence of identity. There are no names. If you think back to the first AOL-style internet interactions, you would read an article or a piece of content and that was it. It would just be read, right? It wouldn’t publish into your Facebook stream or be listened to on Spotify and all of your friends would know.
They wouldn’t know that you read this article, or liked that or listened to this or watched that. There was no social layer because it wasn’t yet the default. The initial idea with Whisper was to a return to that time.
Entrepreneur: At the April 10 TechCrunch Los Angeles Meetup you mentioned feeling “pressure” when composing a tweet. You’ve also said that sharing on Whisper offers relief, that it releases pressure and can even be cathartic. Why are people attracted to sharing anonymously?
Heyward: Anytime you have a much larger set of eyeballs on you, you’re going to feel pressure. Imagine that you’re in a room with all of your Facebook friends and Twitter followers in it. You’re going to feel stress and pressure as to what to say, and essentially that’s what you’re dealing with every time you compose a status update or a tweet. And you’re more intimate and direct in your one-on-one communication on SMS [text messaging].
The concept around Whisper is removing the concept of identity altogether, so you’re not as guarded. Whisper’s like a stranger on a train. You’ll tell strangers things because you don’t know them and it’s not really going to impact anything, like your future job search, where I told my girlfriend I was going to dinner, or that I told my mom I can’t have plans with her.
Entrepreneur: What are some of your favorite Whisper shares so far? Can you share some stories of confessions or admissions that really struck a chord with you?
Heyward: Yeah, I think the amazing thing about Whisper is that it touches on the entire range of human emotion. There are things that are really funny, like this one share that says, “I’m scared that my headphones are gonna fall out at the gym and everyone’s going to hear that I’m listening to One Direction and I’m a guy.” That’s something that everyone can relate to -- not necessarily the One Direction part of it -- but this idea of being embarrassed by our choices.
Sometimes it's the shares where people ask really interesting questions, like “If you had access to a time machine for a day, what would you do with it?” Some people will come back and say, “Save my grandmother from the Holocaust” and others might say, “Not lose my virginity to that so-and-so” or “Never marry my wife” or “I wish I waited 10 years to have kids so I could have had more time to myself.”
I also see really serious interesting things on Whisper from soldiers all the time, like reports coming out of Afghanistan with people there saying, “This is my fifth tour to Afghanistan and sometimes I hope I don’t make it back." We’re constantly able to flip the narrative on its head of you think something is one way, but, in reality, sometimes it’s very different.
We just did a really interesting piece with Buzzfeed looking at what PTSD [post-traumatic stress disorder] is really like for soldiers. There were zero combat-related deaths for the month of March  in Afghanistan, and that was the first month since we’ve been there that there were zero. But there were 660 suicides of U.S. war vets in that same month. That’s about 22 suicides per day. It makes you stop and think, “Where’s the real war?”
That’s the power of Whisper, that we’re able to flip the narrative on its head. There’s not a single military base in the entire world that you could go to that doesn’t have Whisperers [Whisper users] on them, from Ft. Hood to very remote places in Africa.
Heyward on hiring and copycats
Entrepreneur: You also said at the recent TechCrunch Los Angeles Meetup that “Nobody moves to L.A. to start a tech company.” Why did you choose L.A. over Silicon Valley?
Heyward: It wasn’t a conscious choice. It was more of a natural evolution. I live in L.A. I’m from L.A. Great companies are built everywhere, though. There are great companies literally coming out of everywhere -- Colorado, Ohio, Iowa, Idaho, Florida, Texas. Yes, tech companies are forming in L.A., but I think that generally people don’t relocate to L.A. with the intent of starting a tech company.
Entrepreneur: Whisper now has 30-plus employees, including talent from some heavy hitter tech companies, like Google, Hulu, Gawker and AOL. What’s your talent recruitment strategy?
Heyward: If you have a good product that people enjoy and that people like, you’re going to be able to get good talent to want to work there. Ultimately you’re going to get people that want to be there, which is the most important thing in identifying the caliber of that talent. We place a really big emphasis on recruiting. Also, a lot of the people who work here are people that sought us out. I’d much rather have someone who has less raw intelligence, but has more determination and passion. That beats the rocket scientist every single time.
Entrepreneur: What do you think of Xiaosheng, a Chinese copycat of your app, and other Whisper knockoff apps? Do you see them as a compliment or are they just annoying?
Heyward: Imitation is the highest form of flattery. Frankly I’d be more concerned if there were no copycats because that would mean that we weren’t doing something right.
Entrepreneur: What’s the secret viral sauce to Whisper? Why is it so popular?
Heyward: I think it’s because it’s solving an innately human need and desire. The idea of confessionals has been around for thousands of years. It’s not some new utility that’s just been invented. It feels good to connect with other people and with Whisper we’re facilitating these really amazing interactions in a way that’s very simple and lightweight.
Entrepreneur: Do you think Whisper users will ever hit a wall and get burned out or maybe even age out of the app as they get older? How will you keep them coming back?
Heyward: I think this is a product that a large part of the world’s population is going to use. Anonymity’s going to be a really big deal. It’s here to stay and I think we’re really well positioned to own anonymity. A lot of this anonymity movement is a reaction to a lot of oversharing and being so interconnected.
Entrepreneur: Do you think identity-based social media has peaked, that people are burned out on having everyone know everything about them on the internet, which never forgets?
This idea of constantly knowing what’s going on with other people’s lives, but not actually really getting the full picture, just getting a highlight reel, is something that’s created an environment where people probably feel that other people’s lives are a lot better than they actually are. That could be creating a lack of empathy in the world or making people feel more disconnected or making people feel more isolated, and that’s creating a movement where people desire interacting with anonymity.
Entrepreneur: Whisper is free. Without ads, how are you generating revenue? You’ve said that ads are “definitely” coming soon. How soon?
Heyward: We continue to test different things. We don’t have any monetization tests going on this minute, as in this week, but we test things regularly. We’ve tested things in the past around user-generated payments. We’ve tested things with ads, native units. So far every time we’ve done a test the results have exceeded our expectations by at least 100 times.
As far as actual dollars generated as well as the value to the consumer as well as value to any prospective third party. These are things that have been reported on, like stuff we’ve done with Hulu and Universal Pictures. We’re always testing, but it’s not focused. There are no specific concrete plans to roll out ads in the future, though.
Heyward on handling scary posts
Entrepreneur: How much sharing on Whisper do you think is real and how much is fake?
Heyward: It’s all real. There’s no social capital being exchanged on Whisper, so you don’t have followers. There’s no links. There’s no persistent identity, so you’re not gaining anything. So, generally there’s very little to be gained by not not telling the truth. Sometimes people post things as they wish they were. For example, there was a post very early on and the user was a girl who was talking about how she thought girls in wheelchairs are really attractive. I was like, “This is some creep. We have to him off of here.” Then I was looking at other users’ posts and actually that was just a girl in a wheelchair who was trying to make herself feel like the object of affection. When an 18-year-old girl who is paralyzed and will never walk posts something like that, it is the truth and it’s a projection of her truth.
Entrepreneur: Before launching Whisper, did you consult with legal counsel about potential legal pitfalls? What if a user admits to something illegal or says they're going to do something dangerous? Are you compelled to report shares of that nature to authorities?
Heyward: We obviously comply with all legal requests and we have a whole team of people that exclusively focus on community safety. Some instances we proactively report to law enforcement, like anything involving a minor or any form of child abuse. We always proactively report that and it goes to the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children, as well as local law enforcement.
[Writer’s note: If a Whisper sharer posts suicidal thoughts or seems otherwise at-risk, the app’s nonprofit mental health awareness initiative Your Voice steps in to help.]
Entrepreneur: What’s next for Whisper? Are there any new features or partnerships or other news you’d like to share?
Heyward: What’s next for us is what’s always next, which is providing a great, awesome experience for our users. There are always new things coming, though nothing specific to talk about right now, but there’s always new stuff. We’re just trying to make the world suck less.
Entrepreneur: Do you personally use Whisper on a regular basis, outside of a professional capacity, with your work hat off, so to speak?
Heyward: Every day. Yes, all day, every day.
Entrepreneur: What advice do you have for entrepreneurs who are just starting out in the tech industry, who are entering the crowded app market and hoping to standout?
Heyward: Stay focused on your goals and what you’re trying to do, right then in that moment, always…. literally incredibly laser-focused. You’ll have so many ideas, but what makes a good entrepreneur is someone who knows how to say no to most of their ideas and just focus on the ones that are going to have the highest impact.
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Too many people spend too much time thinking about their ideas and plans and not actually enough time doing. Instead of writing up all these plans …. business plans and PowerPoint presentations and lists, just focus on what your actual goal is and just do it.