This 19-Year-Old Aims to Stop Bullying With an Anonymous Smartphone App
At 14, Brandon Boynton considered killing himself. Here's how empowering other victims of bullying through his software startup turned the teen founder's life around.
Opinions expressed by Entrepreneur contributors are their own.
Brandon Boynton contemplated ending his life when he was 14. He'd been physically and mentally tormented by bullies throughout the eighth grade, in person and online, and he worried he couldn't take one more dig.
"I was a weird kid in middle school," the Pendleton, Ind., native, now 19, tells Entrepreneur. "I looked weird, I sounded weird. I was really shy and scared of everyone, right up until I started to come out of my shell and decided to run for class president. I was like, "Hey, this could be a new me.'"
Pushing down feelings of "self-doubt," he swallowed his fears and taped up election campaign posters all around his school. "They ended up in urinals, torn up all over the ground," he says. "People wrote mean, hurtful things all over them. I was proud that I went out of my comfort zone to put them up, but, what they did, it just tore me up and upset me, to put it lightly. I wanted to see the people who did it punished, not in an evil way, but just in a way that would address their behavior and make it stop."
From that day forward, Boynton's eighth-grade year, which he describes as his "most miserable ever," only got worse. His bullies became crueler and grew in number, as rumors spread that he'd snitched on them by name to administrators. It was true. He did, via his school's anonymous bullying incident reporting system. (He didn't tell his parents until much later.) In the short term, he came to regret it, even if it was "the right thing" to do.
"I experienced verbal, social, emotional and physical torment," he recently wrote in a deeply personal Surety Bonds small business scholarship essay. "Overtime, these experiences had a profound impact on my feelings of self-worth. My confidence had been destroyed and thoughts of suicide began to creep into my daily thoughts."
Removing stigma from asking for help.
The incident reporting system at Boynton's middle school was no more than a box on the wall. Many U.S. schools situate these types of "bully boxes" around their campuses to encourage students to anonymously report bullying -- without their names, but with the names of their aggressors -- ideally so they can feel safe coming forward and avoid retaliation. "We had one on the wall of one of the most populated areas of the school," he says, "but kids made fun of it, and it had a lot of negative social stigma around it."
Boynton slipped in a note describing his situation. But he didn't feel it was as effective as it could've been, had it been better implemented in a more modern and tech-related way.
Meanwhile, his parents, Chad, a law enforcement officer, and Tonya, a fourth-grade teacher, encouraged their son to channel his emotions from that "extremely dark period" in his life into uplifting, confidence-building pursuits. After exploring mobile app development for more than a year, and with his parents' love and support, he found the strength to combine his two biggest passions -- helping others and writing code -- into a business.
Two years later, Boynton did just that. In 2013, when he was 16, he founded MostBeastlyStudios LLC, the rising, Indianapolis-based mobile app startup behind The BullyBox, the bullying prevention and anonymous reporting app that he launched shortly after. He is now the nascent company's CEO and lead developer, heading up a remote team of five 1099/W6 subcontractor developers. Their mission: Build "apps that make a difference. Not games. Apps that improve lives."
On top of alerting school officials to student reports of alleged physical, verbal, cyber and emotional bullying, The BullyBox provides students with a safe, anonymous outlet to tip teachers and administrators off to a host of other serious school safety concerns. Among them are weapons-, drug- and fight-related threats and incidents.
"I figured I'd spin school bully boxes in a positive way that people would be more likely to take seriously and use," he says. His hunch proved right. Many people have made use of his innovative take on the bully box concept. Some 100,000 students in 22 U.S. states, and in New Zealand, Spain, France and the United Kingdom, are currently using the app.
Where passion meets community support.
The BullyBox was not Boynton's first attempt at channeling a technical hobby into career. "I thought that I was going to be a YouTube sensation," he says. "I saved up my money to for video editing software and I got really into it, running around shooting my friends with Nerf guns and videoing it. It was fun, but, looking back, the videos were the cheesiest, worst things that I've ever done."
Boynton wasn't the only one to think that, which he found out one embarrassing afternoon at school. He'd posted a school project video on his YouTube channel and stood before his entire class to present it. When the clip finished, one of his goofy Nerf battle videos auto-played. It was too late. The damage was done.
"From then on, people made fun of me, commenting on YouTube and at school about how cheesy and stupid my videos were and how stupid I was, and it hurt because I put a lot of time and money and effort into my videos. I thought I was going to make it big, and I really put myself out there and got rejected."
Things have changed since then. On July 1, 2015, while Boynton was still a one-man shop and a senior in high school, he overhauled The BullyBox and released an updated version. He credits this accomplishment -- no small one for a time-strapped student, fitness fanatic and member of the school band -- partly to his parents cheering him on and partly to his enrollment in the Young Entrepreneurs Academy (YEA).
Lucky to have parents who will drop everything and travel across the country with me when great opportunity calls. pic.twitter.com/hfqor5d6VZ— Brandon Boynton (@bboynton97) May 6, 2016
In case you're not familiar with YEA, it's a nationwide nonprofit initiative that aims to mold students in grades six through 12 into "real, confident entrepreneurs." The year-long classroom program, offered by Boynton's local chamber of commerce, teaches aspiring kidpreneurs to "generate business ideas, conduct market research, write business plans, pitch to a panel of investors and launch their very own companies," per its website. Some of the successful young entrepreneurs we've previously reported on at Entrepreneur are also YEA graduates.
Today, there are two versions of The BullyBox: the free version for iOS and Android and the paid premium version, The BullyBox Pro, which costs schools $499 per year per school building and is free for enrolled students to use. The Pro version includes data analytics reporting and enables students to attach photographic "evidence" to reports. Additionally offered with the premium version are warning phone calls to school administrators. The calls are automatically generated when certain keywords, such as "gun," "kill," and "bomb" appear in student BullyBox reports. Both versions of the app must be adopted by participating schools via online registration in order for students to use them.
To Boynton, and to many other victims of bullying, The BullyBox is more than a mere reporting tool. It's an instrument for empowerment and healing, he says. "It gives those being victimized by bullies a voice, the ability to be empowered "up-standers,' instead of powerless bystanders, without catching a bunch of negative flack for speaking out."
His inspiring anti-bullying creation isn't his only successful mobile app. The Curfew Buddy is one of several other helpful apps he's coded and launched through MostBeastlyStudios on the heels of The BullyBox.
The idea for The Curfew Buddy, which Boynton entered into a recent Congressional App Challenge put on by the U.S. House of Representatives, occurred to him one night after his parents punished him. They grounded him for forgetting to text them them when he'd arrived at the movies. "I thought, "What if there was an app where you just put a pin down where you're going to go?'" he recalled during a live televised interview on CNBC. "The app will text your parents when you get there, it'll text your parents when you leave and it'll also text them when you get home." Another common teen problem, solved.
Growing a business while growing up.
Boynton, one of 200 student recipients of Apple's WWDC Scholarship in 2014, declined to share any revenue or net profit stats with us. "While I appreciate your interest in our financials," he says, "without talking to my advisory board first, I'm not in a position to share that. I will say, however, that we have experienced very high growth over the last year." He points out that his startup is partnering with a distribution firm to manage sales, and that he pays himself a small salary, though "not anything I could live off of alone. Enough to go to the movies every now and then."
Like most entrepreneurs, seasoned and not, one of the problems Boynton consistently faces while managing his business is how to effectively juggle competing priorities, personal and professional. Both spheres overlap daily as a result. "I do my work-work during study period at school sometimes and my schoolwork when I should be working," he says. "Like any startup CEO, I wear a lot of hats, only I squeeze in business meetings after school and I have to know when closing a sale is more important than a calculus assignment. It sucks, but sometimes it's worth not scoring a good grade to score a big sale."
On the cusp of adulthood, Boynton says while he appreciates the catchiness of buzzwords like "kidpreneur" and "teenpreneur," he prefers to identify himself as social entrepreneur. Furthering his mission to inspire positive change in the world, when he's not busy running his startup, he travels the country delivering speeches that encourage kids to turn their ideas into businesses that address social, cultural and environmental problems. He also makes time to visit schools to discuss bullying and how to help stop it. Additionally, as a spokesperson for YEA, he mentors program participants on how to successfully balance academics and entrepreneurship, a tricky tightrope walk that isn't always easy for him. Or for his friends and girlfriend.
"Overall, my friends are supportive, but they can get a little annoyed with all the business meetings and commitments that take me away from socializing," he says. Nearly missing his senior prom is a prime example. Two days before the milestone dance, often considered an American rite of passage, Boynton received a call from an event organizer asking him to speak at a conference -- 568 miles away in Rochester, N.Y.
"I frantically searched for flights that could get me there and back in time before prom, but none of them could," he recalls, laughing. "So I ended up getting a rental car and driving up there the night before the event, all night. I got to Rochester around 1:30 in the morning, spoke at the conference the next day around 7 in the morning, slept for a minute, left that night and then drove eight hours back to the prom. I just made it and went to that half-asleep. Then post-prom went until 3 a.m. I got home around 4 a.m. It was exhausting."
Such is the hectic life of a young entrepreneur, racing in different directions at all hours, but at least his girlfriend wasn't mad at him. "Thankfully she's very understanding, but I don't think she would've been if I'd missed prom. That might've been bad."
Up next for Boynton, already in the thick of the 24/7 entrepreneurial grind, is yet more work-life balancing, likely even more intensely than before. He graduated from high school in May of this year, and this fall, he'll be busy pursuing both tech and business degrees at Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis. "Hey, I figured going into business for myself wouldn't hurt when applying for college scholarships," he admits. Once again, Boynton's hunch was right. The university offered him "very close to a full ride." To top it off, the Lilly Endowment, Inc. foundation also awarded him a four-year, full-tuition college scholarship.
Good guys don't always finish last. Boynton didn't. He's going to college for free, room and board included. Still, he says he won't be talking up his scholarships or startup success on campus, citing concerns about being harshly judged by his peers again.
"I'll try and keep it on the down-low," he says, "because it'll just lead to people not wanting to associate with me or thinking differently of me, and I don't want that."