Stanford students love Fizz. The two-year-old Palo Alto, Ca., based social network was founded by two Stanford drop-outs, which accounts for a small slice of its appeal. But the model is also gaining traction. Fizz invites anyone with a Stanford email address to join its network and begin commenting anonymously with their fellow students, after which other users upvote or downvote their posts, assigning the best content more “karma,” and boosting some users “fizzfluence” in the process, even if no one knows exactly who they are. Students who receive training as volunteer moderators can meanwhile take down posts that they deem inappropriate, malicious, prejudiced or reveal negative personally identifiable information.
Sunny Xun Liu, an associate director of the Social Media Lab at Stanford, says those on Fizz like it because they can freely “talk about any topics they want to talk about, from sex to drinks to drugs to which classes to come to,” and she believes that being “connected to the physical happenings on campus” makes it sticky. Unlike most social networks, because people post anonymously, the “content becomes more important than who posted it,” she adds.
One question is whether other college campuses are as keen to use the service, and according to Fizz and its investors, the answer is a resounding yes. CEO Rakesh Mathur says Fizz — which employs 45 people a stone’s throw from Stanford’s campus — is now available on more than 80 campuses around the country, and that it’s on target to reach 250 schools by the end of this year. (Worth noting: that number is one-quarter of what Fizz was targeting when co-founder and COO Teddy Solomon talked with TechCrunch last November.)
The traction was enough that earlier backers Owl Ventures and NEA just provided the company with $25 million in Series B funding. (Owl chipped in $10 million, with NEA providing between $12 million and $15 million, according to one source.) In a funding environment where the focus has very much shifted to companies that generate revenue, it’s a bullish signal.
Says Mathur, a serial entrepreneur who wrote Fizz a seed check at his teenage daughter’s suggestion, then was asked to lead the company: “It’s not like we’ve cracked that problem” of how to generate money for Fizz. “But we’re testing several hypotheses.”
Danielle Lay, a partner at NEA and an observer on the board of Fizz, calls the business model a “work in progress,” but says her firm just doubled down for two reasons. First, NEA is acutely aware that “social companies represent some of the largest venture-backed outcomes ever,” and second, while big social platforms remain dominant thanks partly to their ability to replicate the feature sets of upstarts, “vertical networks can survive.”
She suggests, for example, that on a broader-based social network, few would know that Arrillaga, as Stanford students use the name, is a reference to the university’s gym. (The 75,000-square-foot gym was named after billionaire real estate developer and philanthropist John Arrillaga, who attended Stanford on a basketball scholarship.)
Lay also likes that every fall, Fizz should see a burst of new users, thanks to incoming freshmen who can use the app to quickly get their heads wrapped around what’s going on at a school.
As for whether those numbers are enough to fuel a vast social network one day — or could later serve to curb Fizz’s growth — Emily Bennett, a principal at Owl Ventures, says she’s not concerned right now. Fizz can always figure out how to serve members of Gen Z as they graduate, she suggests, saying that stints at Meta, Spotify and the New York Times as a product manager taught her when it comes to scaling consumer apps, the focus needs to be “building, scaling and creating real utility with your user base first.”
Certainly, Fizz has proven that the traction it saw early at Stanford is repeatable. “We didn’t write a seed check [in October 2022, when Fizz closed on $4.5 million] but we watched it grow from 1 to 30 campuses, then made the push to come into its $12 million Series A round two months later.”
Solomon and his former Stanford classmate and Fizz cofounder, Ashton Cofer, whose title is CTO, are “very ambitious,” she adds.
That’s not to suggest that it’s all been smooth sailing. Though Fizz has been able to see quick pick-up at schools — usually after paying “student ambassadors” to hand out fliers and crucially, suggests Mather, donuts — there have inevitably been complaints.
Earlier this year at Amherst College in Massachusetts, students worried that some of the memes, events, polls, and confessions that were being posted to Fizz could contain damaging information — and that the moderators were not unbiased. “Because the moderators are other students, there’s definitely a bias with regards to what gets deleted and what is allowed to stay up,” said one undergrad to the school’s paper, The Amherst Student.
Fizz also suffered a privacy breach in November 2021 at the hands of three Stanford students who said afterward that they were “initially concerned by Fizz’s strong public claims of total anonymity.” A year later, Solomon told TechCrunch: “Our security practices have significantly evolved and we remain committed to the security and privacy of our users as Fizz grows.”
Of course, its biggest challenge is to stay relevant. Liu, the Stanford director, says that in some ways, Fizz reminds her of YikYak, a once popular social network that invited users to “anonymously connect with everyone at your college.” The Atlanta-based company managed to infiltrate more than 2,000 college campuses at one point, though instead of relying on email addresses, users of YikYak needed only proximity to a particular campus. Anyone within a radius of a few miles of that campus could see, share and rate comments.
Unfortunately for its founders, YikYak, founded in 2013, also became a platform that was occasionally used for both hate speech and bomb threats, and by 2017, it was shuttered.
Fizz has a better onboarding system and more rigorous moderation, insists Mathur, but the threat of ugliness on any social network is inescapable.
In the meantime, its growth continues apace. “A social network that’s really connected with a physical space and offline community is a perfect match for users,” Liu says. “People’s sense of belonging and what they talk about [on the platform] is so relevant, right?”