Feeling Connected @ Whisper
There is something about startups. Whether its Philz Coffee or Starbucks, consumption of a ridiculous amount of coffee is the regular work routine. Whether you are an introvert or extravert, you can’t miss countless meetings and happy hours. Whether you are a hustler, hacker or hippie, your work and life are synonymous. It’s not for everyone, but it’s for some.
Inspired by my friend, Megan’s project, 52 Cups of Coffee, I wanted to start my own writing project about startups and people who work at startups. I couldn’t resist the opportunity to visit startups that are full of energy, talk to people who are extremely passionate about what they are working on, and learn priceless lessons from their experiences.
Amidst all the opportunities, I got a chance to meet Chenyu, who is a product manager at Whisper. Whisper is an anonymous social network app company that is propelling the Silicon Beach boom in Los Angeles. From incredibly supportive community, to mental health nonprofit, the meaning of being anonymous on Whisper has expanded beyond its origin. After exchanging few emails with Chenyu, I got to grab a delicious Greek yogurt at the Whisper HQ in Venice Beach.
Q1. What Is Your Story before Whisper, and What Led You Working at Whisper?
I was born in China, then went to a boarding school in the United States for two years, and later Princeton. I studied economics and environmental science there. After graduating, I ended up in New York City, working in the financial industry. I always wanted to work for a tech startup, however, because the Internet has really empowered and changed my life. It helped me to get where I am today.
I was living in a small town near Yangtze river in China, and as you know, the opportunities in such area are quite limited. But with the Internet, I was able to meet amazing mentors who reviewed my essays, and helped me with studying for the TOEFL online. Later I shared my story on my blog and Chinese journals. Pursing a dream like moving to America would not have been possible without the Internet. I am really a beneficiary of technology innovation, and this is why I wanted to work for a tech startup that makes a social impact.
Then one day, I read a Quora article that really changed my perspective. The article said, “Go do your own independent projects, even if you are working at a big company.” Around that time, one of my mentors at Princeton also told me, “Entrepreneurship isn’t just about starting a company. It’s about starting from scratch. It’s an approach to life.”
“As long as you take the initiative, you are only limited by your own imagination.”
These lessons really inspired me to start volunteering at TechCrunch Disrupts in NYC and SF, and working on a coffee project in which I blogged about all of the coffee shops in NYC. Later, I also started a painting projectthat was inspired by the founder and CEO of Dropbox, Drew Houston’s commencement speech at MIT. He gave the graduates a cheat sheet for life, which consisted of three things: a tennis ball, circle and 30,000 days.
“The happiest and most successful people I know don’t just love what they do, they’re obsessed with solving an important problem, something that matters to them. They remind me of a dog chasing a tennis ball: their eyes go a little crazy, the leash snaps and they go bounding off, plowing through anything that gets in the way.”
— Drew Houston, Founder and CEO of Dropbox
After listening to his commencement speech, I realized that combining my passion for startups, storytelling, art and my skill sets in painting could be my tennis ball. So I started this project of painting portraits of entrepreneurs with the mission of both inspiring people with their quotes and helping people to appreciate art.
Then one day, I got the opportunity to display my project at the Seqouia Capital conference in NYC. One of the coolest people I was able to meet at the conference was the founder of Whisper. After having a chat for about 30 minutes, he asked me if I wanted to work at Whisper. That’s how I ended up at Whisper. Sometimes, Life can't be really planned.
Q2. What Is It Like to Work at Whisper? — How Do You Like Working in Venice / Santa Monica?
Before I moved to LA, I was living in the East Coast for eight years, and used to take public transportations all the time. So, I was afraid of the traffic in LA that everyone was telling me about, driving to commute, and not having a driver license. I’m still working on getting my driver license. [laughter] Anyway, when I came here, I realized I can actually walk and bike around in Santa Monica and Venice. It’s not as bad as I thought. Although there are other parts of LA, we have many cool restaurants and stores in the 3rd Street Promenade and Abbott Kinney. There are a lot of things going on here. It reminds me of Brooklyn a lot.
At first, we had 20 people working together out of a house in Santa Monica and it felt like a family. Everyone is very passionate about Whisper’s mission. Quite contradictory to our name, we focus on building an open and transparent communication culture at Whisper. Unlike working at big companies, I find a closer connection with my colleagues at Whisper. The average age here is around 25, so it’s really young, too. When we work late, we often grab late dinner together, and sometimes have happy hours. We also go to fun events like going to the Six Flags, beach and surfing together.
Q3. What Makes Working at Whisper So Special to You?
I always want to work for a mission-driven startup. At Whisper, we really care about the social impact we are making through our app. Anonymity is a really powerful tool; it can protect people, but also destroy people. We want to make Whisper the safest place on the planet, where people can be themselves.
“It’s not about telling secrets, but feeling connected.”
With Facebook and other identity based social networks, everyone shares the best of their lives on social media. When we see these photos, we quickly make comparisons and ask why our lives are not as beautiful and fun as theirs. We are only consuming the best parts of people’s lives and everything in the backstage is very much hidden. Whisper challenges this fundamental problem by providing a place for people to share their unappreciated stories. We have soldiers from Afghanistan sharing their trauma experiences, single moms’s stories and suicide attempt confessions. Being unappreciated is a very stressful thing, and it often leads to depression, hazarding mental health.
Through Whisper, people can connect and chat with people who share their experiences and emotions. It’s really great to connect with somebody. I have met and talked with people both online and offline through Whisper and it’s really touching. Our app also redirects people to suicide hotline when people mention “suicide.” We have a non-profit program since day one, called Your Voice. It promotes mental health for college students by raising awareness and encouraging self-acceptance through self-expression.
Q4. What Has Surprised You the Most?
The most surprising fact about Whisper is how close this opportunity is to what I have always imagined in my mind about a fast growing startupwhere I can hit the ground going from day one. I never thought I would be working at a startup in LA, but it has been nothing, but an adventure. I’m really glad that I’ve found a place where I can apply my skills and contribute as much as I can.
I wish I could hear more about Chenyu’s inspirational story, but as she had another meeting to go, our time was up. After hearing such an inspirational story, I felt humble, invigorated and mostly, connected to the power of story sharing at Whisper.
I’d like to thank Chenyu again for giving me this incredible opportunity to listen to her inspirational story, visit Whisper’s new HQ and taste one of the best Greek yogurts I’ve ever had. If you are interested in discovering and joining the community at Whisper, please check out Whisper at App Storeand Google Play.