In August 2014, an entrepreneur wrote a suicide note on an anonymous platform. He was about to make his company a co-beneficiary of his life insurance and take his own life so that he could make it work for his investors and his company. Luckily, the person had left his email address (which was optional) in the submission form. He was contacted by the moderators of the forum and he later received the support that he needed. Thankfully, he is alive.
This anonymous platform was Startups Anonymous and the moderator was Dana Severson – also the cofounder of SA. According to their website, StartupsAnonymous.com is a community for startup enthusiasts to share stories, ask questions and offer advice free from retribution. Today on OK, Intrnt we speak to Dana about founder depression, anonymity, his experience with SA and more.
Thank you Dana for speaking to us. Startups Anonymous is simply an amazing place for entrepreneurs. It’s a place you can even visit and spend hours reading other people’s stories and responses! It makes you realize that you’re not alone!
What’s so cool to see is that I’m from Minneapolis and the issues that people have are so global and so common; no matter where you are. I was in Norway last week and I met people who’ve used SA and it’s amazing to hear such feedback. I don’t get to hear this all that much just because it’s all anonymous.
Why do you think there’s a need for something like SA?
I didn’t know there was a need! I had a need, personally. That’s all that really mattered to me. I do want to help people, but the reason it started was for a very self-serving objective: I needed to ask questions and I wanted to share experiences but I didn’t want to attach my name to it. I was looking for a platform to do that, but at the same time I wanted to get real answers from people. I didn’t want people to hold back on their answers either. Hypothetically, I’d have started a tumblr blog and had done that anonymously, the people who got back to me wouldn’t necessarily have given what I wanted to hear because they’re not anonymous.
If you choose to remain anonymous in a community that is non-anonymous, you actually have less value. I wanted to create a level playing field where everybody is anonymous and if you identify yourself, then you get less credit because you look like you’re trying to promote yourself. I did no market research since I was doing it for myself and basically created something I needed myself.
“I’m from Minneapolis & I see, the issues that entrepreneurs have are so global & so common; no matter where you are.” – @danerobert
— OK, Intrnt (@OkIntrnt) March 25, 2015
When did this begin and what was the original idea?
It started in January 2014 – just over a year ago. But the idea started much before – sometime in October 2013. The design is almost rudimentary and minimal – quite intentionally. I like the style of it not being too refined and beautiful. The blogging platform svbtle.com – the one that competes with medium.com; and even medium, for that matter; has a refined and sophisticated look that makes you feel really good about the things you write about just because the fonts are beautiful, there’s a lot of white space, the photos are beautiful. We stayed away from those attributes because it isn’t a refined approach. It’s not supposed to be that sophisticated and so we kept a more simplistic, elementary look to the site.
The website has one rule: DON’T BE A TROLL – the best rule you could have on the internet, probably the most difficult to follow! What is it that’s working for SA?
It used to be really bad when we started off. Every single post, question or comment is 100% moderated. It does not get to the site without going through one of us. Well, the comments go live but we catch them pretty quickly. We spent the first three months deleting a ton of comments. The same people – I suspect, because they were usually the same comments – would go on every post. They eventually gave up! So I just outlasted the trolls. I was the grinder at the poker table!
Now, nearly 100% of the comments are supportive comments. At least they’re not comments to tear anybody apart for the sake of tearing them apart. If somebody criticizes somebody, it has some substance to it. Now if a troll comes to the site, they can clearly see that they’re the anomaly – the minority. If they choose to be a troll, they’re going to be the only one so it’s clearly not an environment for them.
Do you do all the moderation yourself?
I do it with two other people. Nick Ciske, who is the developer for the site and Eric Stormoen who has been a contributor and is working on other ideas with us.
What’s the reach of SA right now? How many users do you have?
The funny thing is, I don’t know. People don’t have to login so we have no “user base” as such. The one thing we have is traffic and it ranges between as high as almost 80k pageviews and 500 pageviews. It depends on the question, the comments. We’ve constantly been number one on hackernews quite a few times, we constantly appear on reddit. We appear weekly on PandoDaily. But I don’t keep track of this on a daily basis. We’ve also tried ads, but nobody is clicking on the ads. It’s fine because it was a way to offset some of our expenses. Which aren’t many – pretty much just hosting.
Was there a particular moment for SA? What made it click?
I wrote a story on the site back in January last year – We’re shutting down and I’m scared. It was by far the most visited post on the site – with the most amount of interaction to date. It was probably one of my most vulnerable moments. At the time I didn’t identify that it was me, I have since come out and said that was my post. That was the turning point for SA as well because we were introduced to the world. It inspired people to create posts of their own and asking questions. We caught some attention with the media and now we’re mentioned quite often here and there. I get brought in to do speaking events – on behalf of Startups Anonymous and speak about it.
What else are you working on currently?
Eric Stormoen is working on a second vertical for us which is going to be our next iteration of Startups Anonymous. For a long time we’ve had this idea of going to other verticals – for example parents anonymous, wall street anonymous and all these different industry specific verticals. So Eric came on to launch some of those additional verticals for us. We’re not in this for the money. There’s no venture backing. However, investor Mark Cuban is involved – he’s a 10% partner and it helps. There isn’t any big exit plan with this so we don’t have a whole lot of KPIs that we’re concerned about.
We’ve already had a few failed experiments. When Mark got involved, we started going into the sports verticals – NFL Anonlymous, NBA Anonymous to name a few. We learned some stuff there – what works and what doesn’t. We even experimented with Startups Anonymous. We introduced some “experts” to answer questions that were submitted anonymously. But they were public and people knew who he was. But it never really worked because the experts are still very protective of the answers that they were giving because they still cared about their profiles. Next, we tried a two way anonymous Q & A with an expert but that too didn’t quite work. It was like a Reddit AMA.
Do you think all this information could be consolidated into a resourceful tool to support people?
I think that would be incredible. I would love to see it go there. One thing we need to work on is tagging every piece of content that’s on the site and breaking it down categorically; making it a little more consumable for the visitor. Right now the only tool you really have is the search tool to find what you’re looking for.
Is there a favourite story that you have?
That’s something I’ve never been asked before! There are a few. There’s a post about how to work with a technical cofounder. This was a personal thing for me, coming as a non-technical cofounder to get an inside perspective from a tech cofounder. Another one I particularly liked was things you should ask before you join an Accelerator. Everybody gets excited about joining an accelerator but it’s not everything that it appears to be on the surface. I thought the post was really fascinating because it told you the things to consider before joining an accelerator.
Dana has been one of the most interesting people we’ve met and extremely fun to talk to and Startups Anonymous is a very honest, genuine attempt at making a community of entrepreneurs. Anyone is free to contribute by submitting stories and confessions, asking questions or answering them.
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As part of OK, Intrnt’s efforts to connect people, we asked Dana if he would like to speak to some of our readers directly and he happily agreed! Write to us and we will contact you within a week and tell you how you can reach him!
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