How tbh hit #1 by turning anonymity positive

“If we’re improving the mental health of millions of teens, that’s a success to us,” says Nikita Bier, co-founder of tbh. His team has scored a surprise hit, rocketing to the top of the App Store by letting teens send each other compliments anonymously. While most anonymous apps like Secret and Yik Yak have devolved into cyberbullying, Bier explains that “You don’t necessarily need the ability to say whatever you want but to be able to say what you feel to others.”

The innovation of tbh, teen-speak for To Be Honest, was getting rid of the typing. Whether asking or answering questions, open text fields invite abuse when combined with anonymity. Even an innocuous question like “What do you think of me?” can lead to mean-spirited comments if responders don’t have their names, and therefore any accountability, attached.

So tbh writes the prompts for you, and purposefully allows only those that are tough to bend toward bullying. Open its iOS app (Android is in the works), upload your contacts and you’re instantly answering multiple-choice questions where a random four friends are the answers. “Best to bring to a party?” “Their perseverance is admirable?” “Could see becoming a poet?”

The next milestone is thinking about social platforms in terms of love and positivity. TBH team

tbh’s team says, “We worked backwards from the content we wanted to see, which was nice comments about ourselves — a product you’d open and it’d tell you all your strengths and things you’re good at and make you happier and more productive.”

You get notified when you’re selected as who “does the most” or is “the biggest underdog,” though who chose you is kept anonymous. tbh saves all the answers, so at any time you can browse the positivity sent your way. tbh’s sunny little questions are so addictive that the app only allows you to answer 12 per hour, so you never get sick of it and always want more.

“Our goals for anonymity are much different than most apps [that emphasize] the ability to say things without repercussions,” the tbh team explains. “This is more about the ability to tell people more of the things that make them happy. One is more targeted toward harassment while ours is more targeted towards making people better off.”

Clearly teens are craving this positivity. tbh has only officially been around since August, and blew up this month after launching in California. It now has more than 2 million daily users and has been the #1 free U.S. iOS app for more than a week, passing YouTube, Snapchat and Instagram.

The hard road to honesty

tbh might have only taken two weeks to build, but the team had to fail for seven years first. Bier started Midnight Labs back in 2010, eventually raising a seed round from a few investors, including social app guru Josh Elman at Greylock. Midnight Labs built a personal finance app, a work time tracker, a college chat app, a personality test. “We probably built 15 products,” the team tells TechCrunch.

Nothing quite flourished, but the five-person team purposefully kept its burn rate low to maximize its runway and get more chances to experiment. “We never spent money in any ways that would be considered lavish.” But after years of trial and error, “We were running towards the end of our runway. We only had maybe 60 days left.”

That’s when Midnight Labs got philosophical. “The big milestone of the last social apps was the ability for open discourse [like on] Twitter. That was a great achievement” the team explains. “We think the next milestone is thinking about social platforms in terms of love and positivity. We think that’s what’s been missing from social products since the inception of the internet.”

Meanwhile, the “To Be Honest” fad had blown up with teens on Instagram. Users would offer to send “TBH” compliments to people who Liked or commented on their photos. During the tumultuous and sensitive age of adolescence, kids were showing how eager they were for a dose of positivity.

Uniting the team’s philosophy with this trend, tbh was born. “We shipped it to one school in Georgia. Forty percent of the school downloaded it the first day. The next day it was in three more schools, and then the next day it was in 300 schools,” the team recounts. That’s even more impressive because tbh doesn’t spam your contacts with unexpected invite messages. “User trust is really important,” the team declares.

Following in the footsteps of Facebook, tbh wasn’t launched publicly. At first it was locked down to just a few states. That was to keep it from crashing as Midnight Labs scaled up the infrastructure. But also because tbh only works if lots of friends are on it. Throttling the rollout keeps demand pent-up so when tbh launches somewhere new, like New York state this week, it becomes the talk of classrooms and teens download it in droves.

What’s to be?

“My inbox is the who’s who of Silicon Valley,” Bier says, sounding more stressed out and under-slept than arrogant. “Now we’re having investors breathe down our neck.” Yet tbh isn’t taking the money being thrown at it. “We’re focused on scaling the product without raising some headline-grabbing number. Often, social apps get caught up in saying they’ve changed the world before they actually have, and there needs to be a little bit of humbleness.”

tbh’s next big task will be figuring out how to harness this momentum into sticky new products before the next viral app usurps it. But the team is adamant about avoiding abuse vectors. “It’s hard to develop products where you want to ensure positive communication,” says Midnight Labs. “We have to be really diligent in how we think through how users interact with each other. We can’t have any oversights in how we design features.”

Writing its second act may be tough if it stays away from typing, which would disqualify the usual additions of private messaging and status updates. It could try new types of polls, like questions where you assemble groups of friends, like “Who’d make a great super hero team” or “Which of your two friends should have a sitcom about living together?” It could let you send virtual gifts to people, or use voice-changing effects and augmented reality masks to let you send anonymous audio and video compliments. With teens being fickle, tbh can’t ignore product as it grapples with growth.

“We haven’t really thought too much about monetization . . . or in-app purchases,” says the team. It’s laid the foundation, though, as you earn a gem each time you get a compliment. tbh could let you spend those on in-app purchases, like cosmetically enhancing your name when it appears in answer boxes, or bypassing the dozen questions per hour limit.

For now, though, it’d be silly to obstruct growth with any monetization. tbh should concentrate on retention and seeing how big it can scale its user base and its mission. Until it reaches escape velocity, it’s vulnerable to Facebook’s copy-cat factory. Still, the team is confident, saying “By the time we have a clone, we’re 10 steps ahead. We know what product and experience people want.”

Secret imploded due to bullying. Yik Yak’s anonymity meant there was little locking people into the app. tbh will have to marry the freedom of expression that comes when your name isn’t attached with a sense of community that keeps kids committed.

“Improving people’s self-esteem — that’s been the most rewarding aspect of this product,” Bier concludes. “Raising a ton of money, all that other stuff, it’s just an accessory to the goal. The goal is, can we make this generation happier?”