What Happened To Yik Yak? Why Did It Fail?

Executive Summary:

Yik Yak is an anonymous social media platform that allows users to read messages from others in proximity.  

Yik Yak failed because users moved on to other platforms, due to countless cases of cyberbullying, the removal of anonymity, as well as not having a sustainable business model.

What Is Yik Yak?

Yik Yak is a social media platform that allows users to post anonymous messages, a so-called yak, in text-based format.

Every user that is within a five-mile radius of the person that sent the message can then see and react to it. The previous version limited the radius to 1.5 miles. Users can also zoom out and check the nation’s highest-voted posts.

Reactions occur in the form of up- and downvotes, a mechanism that is similar to Reddit. The posts with the greatest number of upvotes then appear on top of the user’s feed (under the Hot section) for 24 hours.

Messages themselves can also be sorted by their publishing time. Users can, furthermore, comment on any given message.

The old version of Yik Yak allowed users to create usernames and sync their phone numbers to their accounts.

Yik Yak is currently solely available on Apple’s App Store and can only be accessed via your smartphone. Previous versions also included an Android app.  

Exactly why there are two different versions of Yik Yak and how the first one failed to capitalize on its nationwide hype will be the purpose of the next chapter.

What Happened To Yik Yak?

Yik Yak, formerly headquartered in Atlanta, Georgia, was founded in 2013 by Tyler Droll and Brooks Buffington.

Both founders spent the first few years of their lives abroad as both of their fathers held jobs in countries like Argentina, Mexico, or Sweden.

Their respective families eventually moved back to the States where they ended up spending their high school years.

After graduating, Droll and Buffington both enrolled at Furman University, a college with 2,700 students based in Greenville, South Carolina.

While Droll initially enrolled at Furman to study premed, he soon found himself being drawn to computer science, which he eventually majored in. Meanwhile, Buffington pursued a more traditional degree in accounting.

In one of his CS classes, Droll got acquainted with Dougie Warstler. They both decided to join Kappa Alpha, one of their school’s fraternities, where Wrastler chose Buffington (who had already been a member) to be his fraternity brother.

In spring 2012, Droll and Warstler teamed up to create an iPhone app called Fry Cook, a game that was part of a class project. Being newbie developers, the game never took off.

However, it did light a spark in their desire to keep on exploring other business endeavors together. They ended up recruiting Buffington as a third co-founder and, in June 2012, formed Locus Engineering LLC as a company vehicle for the various ideas they intended to explore.

The next project they released was called Dicho, a quick-polling app that allowed users to create and answer questions. Despite their best efforts (the team even handed out merchandise on their campus and held interviews with various media outlets), the app only made it to about a thousand downloads after one year of work.

Droll and Buffington eventually graduated in 2013 while Warstler still had one year to go. The former was even accepted into med school but dropped out to pursue different app ideas together with Buffington.

The duo then moved in together and spent the next few weeks discussing ideas. They eventually landed on the concept of a local-based messaging board, the blueprint for what would grow into Yik Yak. Droll built the first working prototype in October 2013.

Funny enough, Droll’s mother was the one who came up with the app’s name, which is based on a 1958 song by the band Coasters called “Yakety Yak.”

On November 6, 2013, Yik Yak officially launched as an iOS app on Apple’s App Store. Interestingly enough, the app was initially part of a little lie the founders had told their former fellow students.

Buffington and Droll said that they had built the app as part of a request made by Harvard students. They assumed people would be automatically interested, in large parts due to the movie “The Social Network.”

Less than two weeks after releasing the app, more than half of Furman’s students were already using it (which were more than they had managed to attract with Dicho after one year). From there, the app simply took off like a wildfire.

However, not everything was going according to plan. Over the past few months, Warstler stopped putting in any work and became more and more distanced from the project. Around Christmas 2013, Buffington and Droll repeatedly asked him whether he would consider being bought out, which Warstler consistently refused.

At the turn of the new year, the duo incorporated a new company under which Yik Yak would be operated and told Warstler that he was out. The pushed-out and disgruntled founder eventually filed a lawsuit in November 2014, being represented by the same law firm that Reggie Brown hired in his lawsuit against Snapchat founders Evan Spiegel and Bobby Murphy.

In the meantime, Buffington and Droll were busy expanding the app’s presence. They marketed the app at colleges in the south, for instance by retrieving emails from student organizations and notifying them about the release of Yik Yak.

By the end of January, Yik Yak had grown to over 100,000 users. The small team was able to secure a $20,000 seed investment from Atlanta Capital, which allowed them to move into their first office.

While user growth was stellar, another, even bigger problem would soon take center stage. College students were not the only ones that took a liking to the app. Instead, high schoolers became an even bigger cohort.

Unfortunately, these high schoolers quickly began abusing the app, for instance by bullying their fellow classmates. Dozens upon dozens of incidences led to a nationwide outcry of teachers who openly demanded to ban the app.

To the founder’s credit, they did react swiftly. By March 2013, they had successfully implemented a solution that prohibits users from posting messages if they were located within or in proximity to a high school campus.

Those good deeds were quickly rewarded. A month later, in April, the founders were able to raise a $1.5 million seed round. Nevertheless, they weren’t the only ones being rewarded. Around the same time, competing for anonymity apps Secret and Whisper managed to raise $8.6 million and $21 million, respectively.

Literally just two months after the initial seed funding, they managed to raise another round that netted them $10 million. The funding round allowed the founders to finally take a salary and hire their first employees.

The fundraising came at a strategically important time. Just weeks later, the summer break led to a major decrease in user engagement since most college campuses became empty. Luckily though, many students began promoting the app in their respective hometowns.

Fueled by a slick app redesign that was released in July as well as the word-of-mouth push, Yik Yak took off across the nation when the fall semester began. Yik Yak generated close to 100,000 downloads a day and became the no. 3 app in Apple’s App Store, even surpassing platforms like Facebook or Twitter (which the founders always cited as their inspiration).

For the coming months, Yik Yak stayed on top of those charts. The biggest stamp of approval came in October 2014 when Facebook, known for notoriously copying other startups, launched an anonymous messaging board called Rooms.

As a result, the team was able to raise its third round in 2014. In December, Sequoia Capital vis-à-vis Jim Goetz (who also led its WhatsApp investment) invested $61 million into Yik Yak, valuing it at a whopping $400 million.

It didn’t take too long for the company to hit the news cycle again. In February 2015, reports emerged that Yik Yak was automatically downvoting any mention of a competing platform, thus censoring speech. The team, again, swiftly responded by introducing different downvoting reasons, such as “Offensive content” or “Spam.”

Nevertheless, there was one problem that the founders just couldn’t wrap their heads around. High schoolers weren’t the only ones that posted offense and potentially harmful content. Instead, college students had an even bigger field day with the app.

Students had not only posted racially or sexually discriminative content but even used it to announce school shootings (in those cases, Yik Yak worked together with the police to find the anonymous poster).

The most tragic case likely occurred in May 2015 when Grace Rebecca Mann, a junior at the University of Mary Washington and a member of Feminists United, was killed the month prior by a member of the rugby team. That member allegedly and incorrectly assumed that Feminists United was using Yik Yak to suspend the team’s players.

As a result, many colleges outright banned the usage of Yik Yak on their campus. However, the app could still be used via a cellular connection. Google took it a step further and even delisted Yik Yak from its Play Store.

Just another social media startup that came crashing down: Friendster

Despite the public backlash, the founders insisted on keeping with the app’s anonymity. That only changed in March 2016 when the company introduced usernames, which they could optionally create.

But even sticking to its anonymous roots could not stop the app’s demise. By April, its longstanding CTO Tom Chernetsky had left the company. The app itself dropped from the top of the app charts all the way into irrelevance.

Around the same time, Buffington and Droll finally settled their lawsuit with alleged third co-founder Warstler for an undisclosed amount. Unfortunately, there likely wasn’t much for Warstler to claim anyways.

By August, the team had scrapped the last traces of the anonymity that made it so appealing. The released update required users to not only have a username but also complete it with a photo. The company, furthermore, introduced phone verification.

Interest began to fade further and further. In December, the company laid off most of its employees and only kept its engineering team around. The founders threw a last Hail Mary by introducing an app called Hive, a Slack-like messaging app for students.

Despite their best efforts, Yik Yak had to shut down a few months later in May 2017. FinTech giant Square acquired the remainder of its assets, namely its Atlanta-based engineering team, for just $1 million.

Yik Yak’s founders consequently moved on. Droll continued to experiment with various startup ideas while Buffington worked for startups in the scooter and social media space.

Most thought that this would be the end of Yik Yak. However, in a surprising turn of events, the app returned to Apple’s App Store in August 2021. The newly released app did share a lot of similarities with its predecessor while putting an increased focus on community guidelines and safety.

Regardless of its noble intentions, even the newly established Yik Yak quickly began experiencing the same issues. Just weeks after launching, Oklahoma Christian University banned the app from its campus due to multiple instances of cyberbullying.

Why Did Yik Yak Fail?

Yik Yak failed because users moved on to other platforms, due to countless cases of cyberbullying, the removal of anonymity, as well as not having a sustainable business model.

First and foremost, it is important to understand just how competitive the social media space is. With regards to Yik Yak, it had to fight for attention not only with direct competitors like Secret or Whisper (which all raised tens of millions) but also the likes of Facebook or Twitter.

As such, there has to be some distinctive feature or community appeal for users to repeatedly turn on your app.

In the case of Yik Yak, it was two factors: for once, the company solely focused on college students. While this had some major drawbacks (such as a lack of engagement during semester breaks), it did ensure that most users had commonalities between them.

The second appeal was the app’s focus on anonymity. For better or for worse, users did value the ability to speak freely without almost any form of repercussion. However, that anonymity soon led to countless instances of cyberbullying to the point that police had to get involved.

After all, people can also take in so much toxicity. However, the app’s move away from anonymity did end up alienating even more of its users. The founders failed to realize that despite some of those toxic messages, engaging in an anonymous was indeed the biggest draw for many users.

Lastly, Yik Yak also had to shut down because it simply did not generate any revenue. Despite raising $75 million, if you hire some of the best engineers from companies like Google, that money will only last you so long.

The decision to monetize later on was clearly inspired by Facebook, which took over from Myspace in large parts because it remained ad-free until it reached a critical mass of users.

Hi folks, my name is Viktor! By day, I lead a tech team of 10 for an e-commerce startup. At night, I work on expressing my weird thoughts through this blog. And if there's time, I cuddle my cat..