Founders in Mobile

Friended Co-Founder Dan Kurani: How to Build a Social Platform that Puts People First

In this month’s Founders in Mobile, we talked to Dan Kurani, Co-Founder of Friended, about creating A Kinder Internet. Even before the COVID-19 crisis struck, Dan recognized the need for more open spaces online. People needed to be able to have real conversations without fearing judgment, criticism, or insecurity from a lack of likes and comments. 

As the world changes rapidly, having someone to talk to matters more than ever before. Social networks can connect us – but also divide. This is how Dan is building a social platform that upends traditional business models, generates more kindness, and increases the potential for positive connection and well-being.


What inspired you to start Friended? 

As a child and young adult, I was pretty shy. As I got older, I saw family and friends struggle similarly with socialization and a lack of human connection. Many of their issues came from insecurities and fear from being unable to show their true selves. 

As I grew emotionally, I gained the confidence to be myself. In many ways, by exploring relationships and building friendships, it was the people I met online and in life that helped me develop myself and my understanding of human connection. 

I decided I wanted to build a product that encourages others to connect with people and personally grow from that experience. A few years ago, we started incubating Friended. 


What does Friended do?

Most social platforms are built around you posting to hundreds of people at a time. You get hooked hoping to get comments or likes about the most perfect version of yourself.

Friended’s model is entirely different. We connect people for spontaneous, 1:1 conversations. You create a post expressing how you feel in the moment or what’s on your mind, and someone else can reply to it. This conversation remains a private 1:1 chat.

Chats on Friended are between people who don’t know each another, so there’s no history, judgement, or expectation. There is no reason to be anyone other than yourself. Since conversations happen one-on-one, there is no FOMO. No one is seeing groups of people where they weren’t included, or scanning through curated worlds that don’t represent real life anyway. 

Friended is about human connection. It’s about the spontaneity and serendipity of speaking freely with someone new. It’s like grabbing the last seat on a bus and having a great chat with the person next to you.


What is Friended’s mission?

The process of defining our specific mission has been slow to unfold and is still a work-in-progress. However, Friended is ultimately about showing you a glimpse of who you are when you are completely transparent and true to yourself. When you awaken to this, the choices that you make next in life can be more authentic to you. I believe this has a natural snowball effect of increasing personal alignment, human connection, and spreading good in the world. 


How is Friended responding to COVID-19? 

Our messaging has always been about making sure people have someone to talk to. That hasn’t changed and is highly relevant now. However, in this environment, our first responsibility is to be sensitive to people losing friends and family, to people losing their jobs, and to the significant amount of people suffering in isolation. Once we’ve acknowledged this, we can share how Friended can help people feel more connected, especially in these times of physical isolation. 

Particularly now, we want to make sure that if someone needs someone to talk to, they can. We’ve opened up access to our app and adjusted some of our paywalls to allow everyone to use it without having to pay for a full subscription during this challenging time.  


How do you think about building a business around a purpose-driven app?

Most digital products and social networks are built by k-factor growth, low customer acquisition cost (CAC), and high organic growth and scale. Their primary goal is to get to a significant audience scale and monetize later by promoting highly shareable content and popular people for the fastest growth and most ad impressions. This centralizes attention amongst a select few individuals and creates discord, not connection. 

We’re doing something that’s the antithesis of that. We’re not posting the most popular people or the most extreme content. In fact, everyone on Friended gets the same amount of attention. 

Knowing that we wouldn’t grow as cheaply as the other model, we began experimenting with a freemium model early on in the product lifecycle. This enables us to maintain our promise that everyone will always have someone to chat with and get the same speed of responses.

The app is free to use. However, there are numerous premium features. So far, our community shows a moderate propensity to pay. This bodes well for aligning our mission with a sustainable business model. 


What are some of the early results you’ve seen?

We did an internal study to see if people felt more connected to people after using the app. Overall, the vast majority of users said they feel better (less lonely, more connected and happier) after using Friended. Trolling is also lower in our app, authentic conversations are taking place, and much of our community growth is word-of-mouth. 


How has your mission impacted how you hire?

We’ve done a lot of work on both the product and the team to ensure that they reflect our underlying mission. 

We recently brought on Mary Beth Harvey as Co-Founder and Chief Wellness Officer. Mary Beth is on the board of the JED Foundation and on the advisory board of Colombia’s Global Mental Health Program. 

However, we are very much a tech company with a startup DNA. My last company was a social startup called Thumb. My other Co-Founder and COO, Ben Chow, helped run multiple Silicon Valley tech startups previously. His most notable company was a True Venture backed social gaming startup that was acquired by Disney/Playdom.

This combo pushes us to reengineer both the user interaction and business model. This shapes our focus to find ways to increase happiness, instead of continuing to optimize for k-factor growth that typical tech companies focus on. 

If we can continue to build our culture in this way, and provide real value in people’s lives, and not just the initial dopamine hits, we believe that we can continue to grow. 


What was tough when you started Friended? What changed?

It’s still tough. But the biggest thing that has changed is our ability to communicate. We’ve embraced the challenge of aligning and communicating an altruistic mission, while running a profitable business model with a highly-engaged user interaction/marketing model.

Creating an entertaining and fun place that engages users while also imparting something meaningful – it’s an exciting problem to solve. Communicating how we do this to all of our stakeholders has been both challenging and revealing. How we do that is becoming clearer and easier every day. 


How do you measure success for Friended?

We apply the same standards around growth rate, quality of content/users, margins, etc. However, the most important thing for us is conversation liquidity: ensuring that our users always have someone to talk to.

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