Last fall, Rakesh Mathur stayed up until the wee hours of the morning, waiting for his daughter to return from a frat party at Stanford.
“He comes in at 2:30 p.m. with a big, bright smile. No apologies or anything,” Mathur told TechCrunch. “She says, ‘Dad, I met the next Mark Zuckerberg!'”
The founder of ten startups and a long-time investor, Mathur is not naive. It’s a big statement to call a twenty-year-old at a Sigma Nu party the next great founder of social media (and these days, Zuck’s comparison might not be the most flattering). But by the end of the weekend, Mathur was all game. He invested $750,000 in Fizz, co-founded by Stanford dropouts Teddy Solomon and Ashton Cofer, and later joined the company as CEO.
About a year later, Fizz just closed a $4.5 million seed round, led by Mathura himself. Now, the anonymous college-only social app, similar to Reddit, has expanded beyond Stanford to campuses such as Rice, Elon, Dartmouth, Wake Forest, Chapman and Tulane, with plans to expand to more than 1,000 campuses by the end of next year.
An application to alleviate isolation on university campuses
After all, who is this so-called “next Mark Zuckerberg” and how did he convince the 60-year-old Silicon Valley veteran to lead his fledgling social media platform?
Solomon, a former economics major, begins Fizz’s origin story by stating that he was part of Stanford’s “COVID class.” He enrolled in the fall of 2020, probably the worst time for anxious teenagers to start their next adventure. As expected, it was difficult to make friends or feel part of a community when the pandemic made life and socializing on campus uncertain.
“We basically got to Stanford and felt extremely disconnected from Stanford,” Solomon told TechCrunch. “There is so much social anxiety. We were put on a GroupMe with 1,200 students, where probably four people were talking, and we said, this isn’t working.”
So he decided to make an app for students, for students, in an effort to help his fellow students feel less alone and make meaningful connections on campus.
Fizz is only available to students, and users can access the Fizz community only for their college (Fizz showed me a demo app, but I wasn’t allowed to create my own account to test it because I’m not a Student). In the app, students can post anonymous text messages, polls, and photos that peers can upvote or downvote. Users can DM each other, choosing to reveal their identity if they wish.
At first glance, Fizz looks like a less obnoxious YikYak, but Mathur and Solomon say Fizz is different because students can only register if they have a valid .edu address for their school.
“The biggest differentiator is how we do moderation,” Solomon told TechCrunch. Fizz employs around fifteen moderators per school who can complement the standard AI-based content check. Moderators are paid, but Solomon declined to disclose how much they earn. “On average, posts are removed in less than a minute in our communities. We can mute banned users, and if you get kicked out of the community, you won’t come back because you don’t have another school email address to enter.”
Solomon believes that peer moderation is essential because only students familiar with campus culture can analyze the nature of hyperlocal posts.
“If someone posts ‘Arrillaga is bullshit’ on the app, the foreign-focused moderation team would say ‘Arrillaga? They intimidate Arrillaga. We have to remove this duty,’ explained Solomon. “But Stanford students would say, ‘That’s the name of the cafeteria, they’re talking about cafeteria food.'”
The founder also said that 95% of approximately 7,600 Stanford students have downloaded the app; at Rice, that number is 70%. Some of that adoption might be a little overblown. Fizz is promoting the app to students on campus by offering a free donut in exchange for downloads, a fairly common tactic for startups targeting college students. But according to Solomon, Fizz has maintained a solid footing on campuses regardless.
“On any given campus, we’ll have 50 to 60 percent of our users logging into the platform every day,” Solomon told TechCrunch.
With its own CEO leading the seed round, Fizz has raised $4.5 million to expand to multiple campuses across the country. By the end of the 2023 academic year, Fizz expects to be on more than 1,000 US campuses. But such rapid growth needs to be handled gently or Fizz can turn into a cesspool faster than you can tell YikYak.
Other investors in Fizz include Lightspeed, Octane and other angels. Mathur himself has come from six startups, including e-commerce company Junglee, which he sold to Amazon in 1998. Mathur has also sold consumer-facing startups to companies such as Dropbox and OpenTable.
Sparkling or chilled?
Fizz isn’t the first app to capitalize on college students’ desire for a more authentic social media experience. Jamie Lee left Columbia to create Flox, a social app that helps groups of friends connect. Another Stanford student, Liam McGregor, just raised $5 million for Marriage Pact, an intensive dating app that aims to create deep connections based on detailed questionnaires.
Fizz also took over at the same time that BeReal is gaining popularity among Gen Z users. Like Fizz, BeReal aims to create a more authentic alternative to apps like Instagram. BeReal and Fizz use a university ambassador program to drive adoption among their target audience.
It remains to be seen whether BeReal will be hype or a real hit – the app needs to prove it can sustain its popularity and start making money – and Fizz will face the same challenges. While Fizz isn’t monetizing right now, Solomon and Mathur say they’ve thought about creating a marketplace where students could buy and sell things, like textbooks or bicycles.
Fizz currently has 22 full-time employees, who work out of their home in Palo Alto, near the Stanford campus.
“Instagram is basically just a curated highlight reel,” Solomon said. “We wanted to create something where people could actually communicate with each other.”