Interview with Vaidhy Murti
Vaidhy Murti is currently the co-founder and CEO of Friendsy, an app that facilitates the creation of connections between college students. As a student at Princeton University, Murti worked with others to create Friendsy, which went on to find success at eLab, Princeton’s accelerator, as well as among venture capitalists and in leading technology publications. Murti graduated from Princeton in 2015, and continues to work on expanding Friendsy.
BT (DiGennaro): What was your experience like at Princeton? What was your intended career path?
VM: In terms of intended career trajectory, I really had no idea. I had programmed a little bit before and had programmed smaller things in high school. I liked the idea that you could have an idea and build something, so computer science was definitely something that appealed to me… I came in as an engineer, but I wasn’t really sure, so I just took a variety of classes. Then I took COS 217 [Introduction to Programming Systems] and COS 226 [Data Structures and Algorithms] my freshman fall and spring, and I really liked both of them. I liked the idea that I could major in something that felt natural to me. Writing code, building projects; it just felt really natural. Then, I took [Information Security] with Ed Felten, this was COS 432, and that’s when I made the big decision to really dive into computer science. In terms of what I was involved in, I did a variety of things on campus. Probably my favorite thing was this program where you would coach middle school kids’ basketball teams, so my freshman year, I coached a team of sixth through ninth graders. We went undefeated and we won our little title, so I was really excited about that! That’s one of my fondest memories. Other than that, I played cricket and dabbled in [Princeton South Asian Theater] and Bhangra. I was involved in a variety of things like that, but I wasn’t in too many intellectual clubs. I just did things that I thought were fun.
BT: How did you first come up with the idea for Friendsy?
VM: The idea really came from the fact that you’re surrounded by all these amazing people at Princeton. Everybody has these great stories, everybody’s really talented, and they all come from different walks of life. I felt that, the first few weeks of my freshman year, everyone was open, everyone was smiling, and everyone was really friendly. You could go and sit down with somebody random for a meal and it wouldn’t be weird. But then, after those first few magical weeks, it kind of felt like everyone got cemented into their circles, and it was harder to branch out for everyone. A few of the best friends that I met I met in such random ways, but they changed my life a lot. Part of the idea behind Friendsy was that you’re surrounded by all these amazing people at school, and too often, people don’t take the initiative to branch out. I wanted to build a better way to meet the people around you, and to do it in a risk-free way. I wanted to facilitate more of those random chance interactions, and make it easier to meet other people on campus.
BT: Once you had the idea, how did you make it a reality?
VM: I basically got a couple of my friends involved. Mike Pinksy and Anand Shah were two of my good friends at the time. Mike was passionate about the same idea of connecting people in college, and Anand actually wasn’t, but he just wanted to be a part of the startup. The three of us were just like, “okay, let’s do this”. I was actually the only one with technical experience, so for the next five months, I was just building Friendsy out of my dorm room. I made a first version, a web prototype, where you could fill out a specific profile with your email address. You could indicate your major or your clubs, and then you could search the entire directory to find someone in a particular organization. There was that powerful search functionality, and for each person, you could indicate your levels of interest in them, ranging from friendly to romantic. You could indicate if you wanted to be friends with them, hook up with them, or go on a date with them. The idea for Friendsy was never for it to be a pure dating app. That’s a big aspect of it now because that is a big part of the college social scene. But the idea was to classify connections that you might normally have, and let people make their intentions clear, so there’s no sense of confusion. The idea was the same double-blind match-making concept that Tinder has now popularized… If you both indicate interest, there’s a match, and if not, your secrets are safe, so it’s risk-free. We launched Friendsy at Princeton in May of 2013, and we registered 1,000 users in the first week. That was a quarter of our campus if you discount graduating seniors, so we were excited about that. From there, we launched at Dartmouth… and we had a lot of success there. Over the course of the next year, we picked up a handful of schools, and we ended the year with about 10,000 registered users in total. We started building our iPhone app and our Android app because that’s when websites were kind of going out of fashion and everybody started having smart phones. That’s also when we were accepted to eLab for the first summer, which was awesome. ELab was in their second or third year. They gave us housing, an office space, and a stipend in exchange for nothing. I was very happy with that experience, and I made some pretty valuable connections there that I’m still in touch with. After that, we started launching at more schools, and we kept adding to the product as well. For example, we built our random chat feature, which has become really popular. It lets you anonymously chat with another college student in real time. You just push a button and it pairs you up with somebody random. We continued to add to the product, and in the fall, we expanded to another twenty to thirty schools. We grew to about 20,000 registered users. After that, we decided that we wanted to allow people to interact between schools. One of the issues with the product at the time was that you could only see people from your school. In areas that were concentrated with a lot of schools, people had requested the ability to connect with people from other schools as well- Boston, for example. We built that into the product, and we did a nationwide push in March of 2015. It started going well. With this new regional expansion mindset that led to cross-pollination between different schools, people started talking about it, and it started growing. Within the next six weeks, we added another 50,000 registered users, which was really big. That led to a lot of activity, and that’s when people started hearing about us. We got written up in TechCrunch and a few other big news outlets, and then investors started learning about us and reaching out. Within the next three months, we had closed a deal with Lerer Hippeau Ventures and Slow Ventures for $500,000. After that, we came into the fall with a much bigger team and with money, and we were very excited to launch Friendsy nationwide, but we were met with many challenges. First and foremost, we had lost a lot of users over the summer. Second, we didn’t have a good handle on how to attract new users. We didn’t have a good idea of how to grow on new campuses, and we didn’t have much industry experience with marketing and user acquisition. Those two things combined led to a really difficult several months where we fell short of our targets. It was a morale-killer for sure. When you’re winning, everybody’s happy no matter what, but when you start losing, all your problems become uncovered, so that’s sort of what we faced. Over the course of the next year, one of the co-founders and several other people left, because they no longer believed in what we were doing. I was still really passionate about what we were doing, so we pushed on. We revamped the product… we kind of went back to the roots of what made us successful at Princeton in the first place. In the past, we had tried out a lot of different product features, and that was detracting some value, so we really tried to optimize the product and make it better. I started rebuilding the team, and we improved. Last summer was a rebuilding summer, and we tried to get our product out and build it up. Now, the statistic that we look at is monthly active users instead of registered users, because that gives you a good idea of the trend of where things are going. In terms of monthly active users, we had about 8,000 in August, and that grew to 18,000 by December. In January, we added a new feature that allows users to invite their friends, and we grew to over 40,000 [monthly active users], and then to over 60,000 in February. As we were on our last legs of the money that we had raised, we were demonstrating that people want to use this app. In terms of our team, everybody who works here is doing it because they know the impact that they can have. For example, one of my co-workers actually met his significant other on Friendsy, and they’ve been dating for two years. We actually have made over 2 million matches in total. We actually kind of had a crazy story. There’s one guy who applied to work for us and he told us that he met his wife on Friendsy in a random chat conversation. They went to different schools, and they ended up meeting and getting married. Now he works for us full time. Those are the kind of stories that feel unreal but allow us to continue to push on. Right now, we’re looking to raise another round of funding. The idea is to continue what we have and make it better, and get Friendsy really big around the country.
BT: In your opinion, what separated Friendsy from your competitors, such as Tinder?
VM: Well, this was started before Tinder existed. Timing was tough. Tinder was never a startup; they were kind of founded out of InterActiveCorp. IAC is a billion-dollar company that owns many different dating apps, and Tinder was an idea that somebody had there. That was one of the reasons that they were able to blow everyone out of the water; they used years and years of insights to build a perfect app that capitalizes on the human animalistic behavior of people. I think what separates us was our idea to build a really college-centric app. [Friendsy] is .edu only, and everything is super personalized to the school. You can search by major or Greek life or eating clubs, in Princeton’s case. You can find people who are real and relevant and who aren’t fake bots. Next, you can make your intentions clear. On Tinder, you don’t know why the other person is on Tinder, and a lot of times, it has the reputation of being a sketchy hookup app. I think that Friendsy avoids that stigma to a decent extent, because there are a lot of people on Friendsy who are just trying to meet new people. By allowing you to indicate what your intentions are, we try to allow you to combat that other problem. Our goal is to not be a knock-off Tinder or a knock-off dating app, it’s really to be a social app for a campus. We want to be centered around and really personalized to the campus. When we think about building new product features, that’s what we focus on.
BT: What are day-to-day operations like for you?
VM: It’s changed a lot. In the beginning, it was a lot about building the product. I’d say 90% of my time was spent physically building the product. I guess I was the most skilled developer or technically advanced person on the team, and I wanted us to have a good product. In tandem with that is talking to users and trying to figure out what they want, and looking at data and trying to see what risks are paying off. It’s changed a lot though. A two or three person team grew to a twelve or thirteen person team over E-Lab, and I had to start managing people. The larger the team gets, the less coding I do, and the more managing I do. Now, day to day, I work focusing a lot on our growth and our staff, as well as higher-level product decisions. I don’t write any code for our apps, and I write very little server code, because I have a team of people in place now who are really good at doing that. It was difficult to let go of that aspect, because the product is my baby in a sense, but at a certain point, it’s impossible to do everything yourself. You have to find our build a team of people who are also really passionate about the same things.
BT: What are your favorite parts about your job? What are the hardest parts?
VM: My favorite parts are definitely the connections. Knowing that we’ve built something that a lot of people use and a lot of people have had success with touches my heart, and I think touches everyone’s hearts. That’s why, with very little money, we’ve been able to push towards making this dream a reality. We know that every single match that’s made through Friendsy has the potential to change lives. One match and the effect of that one match can change the world so much. I focus a lot on the metrics, and right now, we’re doing between ten and twenty thousand matches every day. I try to tell the team to step back and realize every day is really significant. The impact that we’re making is the most meaningful part for me. I believe, and we all believe, that we’re making a difference in the world, and we hope to continue to make that difference bigger and bigger. The hardest parts are definitely this phase, which is very difficult. With consumer apps, there’s so many of them. People are fickle and they have so many different choices, so it’s hard to make yourself stand out in that space. It’s really difficult for me as a CEO of this team to deal with a lot of uncertainty on a day-to-day basis. Securing funding and managing the budget is my job. I have to make sure we still have money, and everybody has a job. The uncertainties associated with that can be really difficult sometimes. Sometimes, you want something to succeed so badly, and you work so hard on it and you pour your heart and soul into it, but that’s not always the way things go. There’s a lot of situations like that are difficult. We’ll work so hard on it thinking that it will drastically change the product or improve retention, and sometimes it doesn’t happen. Building everybody up and then letting them down, and then trying to keep everyone positive is one of the harder parts because everyone wants to be successful so badly.
BT: I know you mentioned that you will be working on improving and expanding Friendsy. What are your future plans with the product?
VM: We want to build to help make it easier to plan events on campus. We built this new feature that we launched at TCNJ and Dartmouth called Mixers. We want to move the product in the direction where we can facilitate the meeting of more people on college campuses. That’s our vision. Everything surrounding the product is aligned with that one vision. This new feature, for example, is essentially a way to create group chats but with anybody on that campus. You can basically create event, called a “Mixer”, and invite anybody you want from the entire directory of people on Friendsy on your campus. Invites are anonymous, so say your friends want to hang out with other people- any of you could invite them to the same mixer, and it’s totally anonymous. They won’t know who invited them, but once they join it, they’ll see everybody in it. This is something new that we’re just starting to test out. The key thing is that you have the ability to invite anybody on that campus who is using Friendsy. It’s not just constrained to contacts on your phone or connections that you might have made. That’s really what we’re pushing.
Vaidhy Murti is currently continuing work on Friendsy. Read more about Friendsy here: https://techcrunch.com/2015/03/16/friendsy-is-tinder-for-college-students-only-created-by-two-princeton-students/