Before Secret, there was Startups Anonymous

By Carmel DeAmicis , written on February 10, 2014

From The News Desk

Anonymity is the trend du jour.

If the explosion of anonymous apps is any indication, people want a place where they can go to escape their own identity. From Lulu for the ladies, to Whisper for the masses, to Popcorn Messaging for anonymous geolocal chatting, to Admonymous for receiving critiques. That's not even a complete list, and Product Hunt has more.

If you were hiding under a rock last week, you might have missed that new app Secret launched out of ironic stealth mode and has rapidly become the hippest app of said moment. It's a lot like Whisper, except you can see when a secret is shared from your contacts circle.

As you might imagine, that has led to a flood of Silicon Valley secret sharing, with everything from false Evernote acquisition rumors, to a lot of Path trash-talking. Everyone and their mothers are gossiping about it. Even Gap Inc. has reportedly used the app for a social advertising scheme. Secret is riding the hype cycle up, up, and up.

But as it takes off, there's another secret sharing service that came before it and arguably could last longer, at least in the tech community. It's called Startups Anonymous.

Startups Anonymous is like Secret with standards. It's a website where entrepreneurs can post questions  or stories they have, and S.A. co-founders Dana Severson and Nick Ciske vet all the posts and comments before they appear. They only approve the well-written ones that don't include trolling. The end result is a secret sharing application with oversight, just for the tech community, sans dickhead comments.

Whereas Secret and Whisper are open platforms for anyone and everything, S.A. is closer to a vetted publication.

"It occurred to me it has to be an A.A.-type club. I want there to be an understanding that it's a support community, and that's primarily the reason for the name," Severson says.

Severson came up with the idea for S.A. last summer, i.e. the summer of Whisper's skyrocketing hype. He and his S.A. cofounder Ciske built the website on Wordpress and launched it four weeks ago. It made it to the top of Hacker News three times and started gaining traction. It now gets about 7,500 daily unique views.

"What's the difference between a convertible debt round and a priced round?" Severson offers up as an example question one might post on the site. "You don't want to ask your investors because you don't want to appear incompetent. You don't want to ask your advisors because they make recommendations to investors. You can't talk to your co-founders because you need to instill faith in them that you're doing the right thing. Where do you turn?"

It's the sort of question that doesn't fit a general secret sharing network, but works for S.A.'s startup focused approach. There's no mobile app yet, but Severson says that's next on the to-do list. They'll want to hurry up with it if they hope to contend with their hugely popular competitors.

Whisper's user base is reportedly in the millions. Secret's user numbers aren't public and it only launched for the public two weeks ago. That said, it seemingly has all of Silicon Valley's attention.

S.A. will need to hope there's room in people's lives for more than one anonymity app. If there isn't, then Secret and Whisper have already eaten up a large portion of attention and users.

That said, Startups Anonymous may outlast Secret in terms of filling the tech community's need for anonymity. After all, as Secret grows and gets bigger, people from different sectors and geographies will join it, diluting the "startup focused" secrets that get shared. It will become place for general life secrets, with the occasional startup secret sneaking across.

In contrast, by focusing on a specific vertical, S.A. will always be just about startups. Since founders need support and assistance, particularly when launching their first company, it could be a natural place to turn to, a tab on the bookmarked favorites page.

Severson isn't concerned with monetizing it. "We have no intention to raise money, this is not going to be a billion dollar business," he tells me. He's busy running his own company --, the pivot startup following Wahooly flameout fame. He and Ciske spend their nights vetting posts, but otherwise the S.A. platform largely runs itself.

That said, S.A. monetization strategies have already presented themselves. A lawyer who represents startups contacted Severson and asked to do a sponsored "ask an attorney" section on the site. "Down the line, we could also do "Ask a VC" sections or other sponsored content," Severson says. This is the sort of monetization tactic that would work well for a niche application focused on a particular community like S.A., but wouldn't work for an app like Secret.

As for the challenges Startups Anonymous will face? Severson is nervous about continuing to get quality contributions. Since they're treating the site like a publication more than an open platform, they want an articulate and beneficial level of discussion. They'll need to maintain their traction and keep on vetting to keep the standards up. They'll also have to hope that entrepreneurs don't rely on Secret alone to get their anonymity needs met.

Fortunately for Ciske and Severson, neither of them are betting the house on this. It's just a fun project on the side, and they'll take it wherever it leads them.

[illustration by Brad Jonas for Pando]