The Story Behind YFly: Interview with Co-founder and CEO Drew Levin
Drew Levin talks about the inspiration behind the social networking site, why this one is different from the others, and what Nick Lachey is doing to get the word out.
After reading about the popularity of social networking sites and their potential danger for teens, I spoke with Drew Levin, the co-founder and CEO of newly-launched YFly.com (created with the support of AJ Discala and Tom Petters) to find out how this site is different from others.
Levin and co-founder Daniel Perkins also gave me access to the site, which is normally off-limits to parents and other adults, so I could experience first-hand the features that set this site apart.
Before I went on the site, I wasn’t sure what to expect. After all, the home page is simple and some of the other public pages are still being created. But once inside, I was impressed.
Of all the teen blogs I looked at, none were the same. A template serves as a design foundation for each teen’s site, and the personalization of background, fonts, colors, images and videos gives each a unique look. The originality some of these kids showed in personalizing their space was amazing. But not only is there a lot of opportunity to customize each space, the set-up is a cinch. After just a few moments of playing around, I already had the hang of it.
Aside from the visual aspect of the site, YFly also provides teens with other ways to interact. They can chose who on the site gets to read their blog, which online group they want to join or create, play one of the many video games offered in categories such as action or adventure, text message each other (see the video on the home page for how this works), and a bunch of other things.
I also had the opportunity to speak with attorney Parry Aftab, who developed the privacy and security features on the site. Aftab, a leading Internet safety expert and the Executive Director of WiredSafety.org, explained that by educating parents and teens about Internet safety, predators have less of a chance to lure teens into unsafe situations. (WiredSafety also has a division called Teenangels, which is a group of 13-18 year-olds trained in online safety and privacy, as well as a companion site, Katiesplace.org, for victims of Internet sexual exploitation.)
Aftab stressed the importance of giving kids something constructive to do with their time (“keep them busy, keep them safe”), which YFly provides. She also mentioned that one of the biggest mistakes teens make online is sharing too much personal information. To discourage this behavior and at the same time teach them how to protect themselves, YFly asks teens to ThinkB4UClick, urges them to put their best foot forward (BFF) and includes such features as a “Don’t Be Stupid” button that reminds teens to think twice before they upload content to their site.
The site also offers teens a Cheat Sheet, courtesy of Aftab’s WiredSafety organization, that educates them about the three biggest risks associated with social networking use, namely ID theft, sexual predators, and cyberharassment/cyberbullying. Detailed tips on what not to do online are also presented.
Furthermore, YFly has an escalation plan in place that ranges from completing a “Report Abuse” form to contacting the authorities when necessary.
Bottom line: Teens are given a ton of reasons to go to YFly and connect with their peers in an environment away from parents’ prying eyes, but safe from predators. And parents can feel comfortable knowing that YFly’s fundamental concern is protecting teens from cybercreeps.
Here is the full interview with Drew Levin. I appreciate his candor and willingness to share the very personal events that lead to the creation of YFly.
AW: How did you come up with the name “”YFly”” and how did you develop the idea for the site?
Levin: The “Y” stands for youth and “fly” stands for cool. With regard to how the site came about, it actually started when I was back in college at the University of Florida. There were other sites popping up at the time — Friendster was the first one I’d seen — and I really thought it was a cool way to meet people. However, what I saw that it wasn’t doing was enhancing the ability to communicate with others; it was really just simplifying the process of finding new people.
What I thought of doing was taking the whole six degrees of separation that was built into these social networks, and around that platform build in cool communication tools — which we’ve done with text messaging and things like that.
Danny [co-founder Daniel Perkins] and I, and my best friend John, started talking about how to set this all up. The three of us know each other because John had been my best friend since we were five years old, and Danny and I met while we were both at the University of Florida. Each of us knew the junior high and high school mentalities very well, since we had just recently been in those environments ourselves, and we really wanted to improve the way kids were connecting.
Anyhow, I went abroad to study in Florence, and during this time John came to visit me to start working on the business plan for YFly. But while he was there he was senselessly killed. That was a very tough time. My family, or course, was there to help me, but so were Danny and John’s father, Tom Petters.
Tom opened his arms. He knew about our business, and he funded us in September 2004 so we could do the research for it and develop the product. We also developed a foundation in John’s name which sends kids to college for four years and helps them study abroad. So we’re doing everything we can to carry on John’s legacy. It’s John that’s driving us to succeed and do as much good as possible.
That same September we also started doing our research and conducted focus groups. Other social networking sites were becoming more popular, but our kids were blatantly telling us that what they wanted wasn’t out there. They weren’t being satisfied.
So we built our technology specs on what these kids told us. What they really wanted was three things. First and foremost, they wanted better ways to connect to their friends, cooler ways. They loved our text messaging idea. Two, they wanted to be able to customize their profiles; they wanted to express themselves very easily and in as many ways as possible — the more bells and whistles the better. And third, they wanted to have their own environment. They didn’t want to be a part of everybody else; they wanted to have a site specifically for them. They didn’t want to feel they were a part of some huge community where they were nobodies, and they didn’t want to be approached by perverts.
And the parents we met while conducting the teen focus groups would tell us, “I’m just so scared on the Internet, I don’t understand it. It’s a scary world and I don’t know how to tell my kids to be safe.”
These kids’ parents grew up in a time where they wasn’t the Internet. They were never taught how to protect themselves online. They were taught traditional lessons like running away from strangers, not taking candy from strangers, not letting anyone in your house when no ones home, things like that. However, parents can’t translate those lessons to the online world, and they don’t understand the online world for the most part. So there’s a knowledge gap.
We also knew that at some point in the process we needed to bring a safety expert on board. So we built the site first, launched the beta version in September 2005 — which did very well — and then started bringing together all the right people to take this out to mass market.
AW: Can you tell me how AJ Discala, Nick Lachey and Parry Aftab got involved?
Levin: I was at a conference in West Palm Beach in early October 2005 held by Tom and Petters Group Worldwide, which owns Polaroid, among others. AJ was doing business with Tom at that point, and Tom introduced us.
I took AJ through the site and touched on how we wanted to build in safety features, but weren’t sure where to begin. AJ suddenly said, “You’ll never believe what just happened to me. I’m sitting at lunch with Nick in L.A. and this woman comes up to Nick and says, Look, I’ve never done anything like this before, but Nick, I have to tell you, your name is one of the more prominently used names on the Internet by predators as a means to lure kids offline. Nick was disgusted that his name was being used in such a way, and we asked what we could do. Parry dropped her card and said, “I’d like you to do a PSA or whatever else you’re willing to do to help.”
Fast-forward a month and Danny and I meet AJ. We realize this is an opportunity. All the stream of events that had brought Danny and me to where we were, plus meeting AJ though Tom, and AJ and Nick meeting Parry, this meant something. AJ called Nick, we flew right out to L.A., and Nick was on board. Then we got in touch with Parry and she agreed to join us.
AW: Can you tell me about some of the safety mechanisms on the site, such as Don’t Be Stupid and BFF?
Levin: Those programs were the brainchild of Parry. They’re educational tools that are put in teen speak that bridge the gap between what parents can’t teach kids and what we’re teaching them about online safety.
AW: Underlying the site is obviously the desire for safety and meeting the needs of the kids, which is greater connection and customization and personalization. How do you meet both the safety needs and the “coolness factor” kids expect?
Levin: That’s the money question. And the answer is that the site was developed 100% based off of what the kids wanted; safety was brought in later during October 2005 with the help of Parry. So it’s a cool site that happens to have safety built in.
AW: Is there any role for parents in all this? Is there any way for parents to help out?
Levin: We’re going to give parents their own educational tools. We want to teach them about online safety, so we’re going to have a section on the site for parents to learn about what social networks are and how kids use them — I’m not sure that most parents understand what kids are doing on them — so they can reiterate a lot of the lessons that we teach on our site to their kids at home.
But can parents go on the site and play around? No, because we don’t want adults there. That’s a kids site and if we let the parents there, then any other adult predator could get in and it would be a lot more difficult to manage.
AW: It sounds like you are also saying that if there are parents on the site, it would loose its “coolness factor.”
Levin: Absolutely, it would be gone.
AW: We talked about how Nick Lachey got involved with YFly. Is he going to take an active role in YFly, is he going to use his celebrity to get the word out, or is he even going to be talking online with some of the teens who sign up?
Levin: All of the above. Of all the celebrities I’ve met, Nick is the only one who is so down-to-earth. Because he is a celebrity and a lot of people listen to him and respect him, that’ll help him get the word out.
Nick has also given us several ideas for the site that we’ve implemented. He wanted to get the acoustic version of his new song on the site, so we’re going to do that. He designed the T-shirts we’re passing out. He stays involved in exactly what’s going on, he knows about every upcoming feature on the site and everything that’s happening. I’ve just been blown away by him.
AW: Are you going to bring any advertising to the site?
Levin: We will be working with hand-selected advertisers and the most-appropriate brands for YFly. We’re going to be working very closely with the advertisers we select.
Advertisers have to meet three criteria before we let them on the site: One, it’s got to be beneficial for the advertiser. Two, it’s got to be beneficial for the teens. Three, it’s got to be beneficial for us.
I’ll give you an example. We’re connected to Polaroid through Tom Petters and we have a program on our site called the Picture of the Week. Each week a funny picture goes up and every week the kids can go online and submit their own caption. At the end of the week everybody votes and whoever had the funniest caption wins. However, before the caption is submitted, each teen selects which prize from Polaroid they’d want to win. Polaroid is getting all this great information on what kids like and getting great product brand line awareness, and the kids are having fun and loving it.
Those are the types of programs we’re going to offer, what we call immersive advertising.
AW: Kids have to enter the name of their school when they register on YFly. Are only public schools part of your program or are private schools also covered?
Levin: Both public and private.
AW: Do you have any plans of going outside the U.S.?
Levin: It’s a longer-term goal.
AW: What are some of the different groups the kids can get involved in online?
Levin: The kids have complete control to become their own experts, they can blog about whatever they want and develop a huge following on the site.
Some of the kids are really remarkable, and to be able to express themselves in a positive way — as Parry says, without having to “pose sexy” and do other things that aren’t appropriate — will help kids get positive reinforcement from their peer groups.
AW: If you spot something on the site that just isn’t right, what is the mechanism to take care of that?
Levin: We have an escalation plan that Parry has developed. What sets us up from other social networking sites is that we actually follow-up if there’s a report about cyberabuse or something else.
AW: Is there anything about the site you haven’t mentioned yet that you want kids to know about?
Levin: Yes, that would be the group text messaging, which I personally use every day. We’ve been able to allow users to create a group and invite their friends to join this group by creating their own text messaging address and naming it whatever they want, such as mybestfriends[at]yfly.com. And whenever they send a message from that address it gets sent out as one message, regardless of how many people in your group receive it. It only costs you one message based on the standard text message rates you have on your cell phone. It’s also a great way to connect when you’re making plans to get together.
AW: Thanks so much for your time, Drew. I really appreciate it.