In recent weeks, the mobile app Lulu has taken Stanford by storm despite not having an official presence on campus. The app allows women to anonymously rate and review men on appearances, skills and personality, among other categories, and has received both plaudits and flack from users due to its controversial nature. The Daily sat down with Lulu founder Alexandra Chong to talk about her road to entrepreneurial fame and her inspiration for the app, as well as perceptions of — and misconceptions about — her app.
The Stanford Daily (TSD): Tell me a little bit about yourself. I read somewhere that you were on the road to becoming a professional tennis player. Is that still a dream of yours?
Alexandra Chong (AC): I grew up in Jamaica and then went to boarding school in England and Canada, and then landed in a boarding school in Florida, at a tennis academy. In fact, I almost went professional as a tennis player. I played on the Jamaican National Team and the Jamaican World Cup Federation Team. Then I made a decision when I was 19, almost 20, that I was not going to pursue a professional career in tennis.
TSD: How did you first get involved in the startup industry? Was that always a career goal for you?
AC: I moved to Madrid for a year preparing for law school and later got into [the] London School of Economics to study law. [Initially], I wanted to go back to Jamaica and get involved in politics, because my dream was actually — and it’s not something that I’ve forgone — to get involved particularly in large-scale family planning initiatives there. I believe that a big part of the socioeconomic breakdown in Jamaica is due in part to the breakdown of the nuclear family. There’s kind of a culture now where you’ve got a lot of women becoming pregnant very young, around the early years of high school. There’s a lack of parental responsibility on the [part] of the father, and it becomes the cultural norm.
So I went to the London School of Economics to get my degree with the intention of coming back to Jamaica, but my parents wanted me to get some more experience abroad, and I agreed, so I stayed in London. I knew I never wanted to be a lawyer — that was never my intention — and I ended up a job at a startup. It was an online music-licensing startup. Their vision was to streamline [a] process [through] which commercial buyers of music could easily find music and clear the copyright online. I was completely fascinated by the space and the energy of startup life. I found my own in a startup. I loved the freedom to be disruptive, to create something, and pursue your vision no matter how crazy it might seem.
I think I knew at that point that I wanted to have my own startup, and it was really a matter of what that was going to be…When I left, I went into consulting to learn a lot about process management sales, and while I was doing that, I was toying with a couple of ideas. It wasn’t until I had the idea for Lulu that I really felt that I could embrace it because I could understand it. And I really got going from there.
TSD: How did your idea to create Lulu get off the ground?
AC: Once I had the idea for Lulu, which was back a few years ago, I had to raise money. At the time, I was working as head of PR and Marketing for UpStream, which is a mobile marketing company. At the time, I was kind of using half my salary, and I was basically moonlighting: Upstream by day, Lulu by night. I would send half my salary to an agency here in London called Glow Labs, and with Glow Labs, we built the first prototype of Lulu.
I finally realized that if I didn’t jump out of the plane and build my parachute on the way down, I wouldn’t start anything because it was too difficult to start something and work for a company at the same time. So finally I quit, and my boss — who was also the CEO of my company — gave me my first $150K. When I told him the idea, he was like “I love it — here’s your first investment,” and then I raised a bit more money, and then I raised a million dollars. Then I hired my first developers, and then we started to work on the site.
The idea was always to build a destination place for women where they could communicate with their best friends as well as other women and kind of tap into collective wisdom. It was really about empowerment, and the website had this one particular feature called Wiki Date where women could review their dates and share this information with their girlfriends through this database of guys.
We had a lot of…interest in the product we were building, and it was kind of coined [as] “Sex and the City” meets Facebook. It was very powerful, given the fact that women are very dominant on these social platforms, but there are very few women who are actually building these products for other women, so it was unique in that sense.
TSD: What did you learn from building this product?
AC: I think what we learnt from that is, number one, when you’re launching a social platform, it has to have relevance for users. So what happened to us is we got a lot of excitement globally around the website, but that meant that several thousand girls would jump on the website one day when we’d be featured in the press in India, and then the next day, girls from France would hear about us on the news, and they’d see all these Indian girls and boys and it would not really have relevance [to them].
We knew that we needed to focus on a targeted marketing launch, so that’s why we decided we needed to focus on colleges in the U.S., going school by school. We also knew that mobile was really important, and a lot of users were like, “We needed to use this on our phones!” [Mobile] was a clear direction that our target demographic — young women age 18 to 24 — needed: an on-the-go tool that they could use to share and tap into collectivism with their friends.
Lastly, we learned to pare down the product to the [the] most sought-after feature. Girls really seemed to covet the ability to write reviews of guys they know and share these reviews with other girls in this sort of girls-only private space where they felt comfortable doing that. We just kind of decided that we would take that product and build something simple, something very straightforward, and to grow the company that way.
TSD: When did you officially launch the app?
AC: We just launched, and as I mentioned, our focus is to go into colleges in the U.S. and go college by college with girls in these communities. We started doing that early this year when we did our early betas at University of Florida and Florida State University. We got a lot of support from the Greek community at these schools, and we kind of went into our full launch from there.
We have slowly now decided to go into more schools across the U.S. We’ve gone into USC in California, University of Arizona, University of Kentucky, and then it spreads by word of mouth to colleges outside of this bubble. Hopefully we’ll be at Stanford!
TSD: You’ve also launched an application for guys to control their reviews called Lulu Dude, correct?
AC: We’ve had a lot of interest from boys since launching. Actually, every three people that register to Lulu, we have at least one boy trying to get in. Guys go to [extremes] to get on Lulu — they create fake female accounts on Facebook, they go at it from every angle. Obviously they want to know if they’re on Lulu.
We felt that it was important to harness the energy that they were throwing at the platform, but also that they had a place on Lulu too where they could manage their own profiles, and if they’re not on Lulu already, they can put themselves out there to be discovered by girls.
On Lulu Dude, guys can put their best faces forward on Lulu, so they can change their profile pictures, they can add their own personal hashtags about themselves, they can tell a girl what their turn-ons and turn-offs are, they can change their relationship status, and, at the same time, we give them a hint of how they’re performing on Lulu. If a girl does a review of them and they score high in one of the categories, they get a trophy, so it gives them a sense of how they’re doing.
We launched it in a mobile web version, and the response has been so good that we decided to create an app for it, and that will be launching soon. And certainly with Lulu Dude, if a guy decides he doesn’t want to be on Lulu, he can remove himself.
TSD: One question that has come up a lot when talking with my girl friends is whether or not the app is derogatory towards men. Do you think that Lulu is ultimately a positive social experience, or is it simply a means for women to exact revenge on guys that have wronged them?
AC: You’ve got to understand why [Lulu] was created in the first place. Valentine’s Day, several years ago, I had a great date and wanted to share this experience with my friends, but ultimately he wasn’t the guy for me, and I wanted to share this with other people, and there was nowhere to share this experience. We do this in real life, but there’s nowhere on mobile technology that allows us to really harness this experience.
Ultimately, Lulu is controversial. There are people that love Lulu, and there are people that hate Lulu. We believe that the controversy is certainly an element of our success so far. All kind of truly successful breakout products and services have to be somewhat controversial or — how the industry calls them — disruptive, because the disruptive and controversial products are what challenges us and pushes our boundaries.
Think back to the early years of Facebook — facemash, tagging, poking. When these features were launched they were very controversial. You know, many people wag their tongues and talk bitterly about them, but they were the things that made the company different, made Facebook innovative. Now tagging is completely normal.
What we’re doing is allowing girls who do this anyway — they Google the guys they like and are interested in, they Facebook search them — and we’re just kind of recreating that in a different experience. I think successful companies must challenge the norm and buck conventional thinking to achieve true innovation.
TSD: What has been the general response to Lulu among the college campuses you’ve visited?
AC: So far phenomenal, actually. All of the college campuses that we have an active program in, we penetrate probably about 35 to 40 percent of the female population. They join Lulu in the first couple weeks of entering the college campus, and then at least 60 percent of the guys are on Lulu after we enter these communities. So among those that speak against Lulu, you actually see that they’re quite active users of it.
TSD: Did you intend for Lulu to be used as a serious ratings system or more of a fun, light-hearted activity?
AC: I think we wanted to start with something that was fun. I think the activity is a fun activity. But we wanted to make sure that it was informative, that there was enough breadth and room to be informative. You know, often people that write about Lulu, they say that it is all about sex and looks, and that’s not the case. We try to update almost daily with hashtags that users give us.
At the same time, we still want Lulu to be a fun place, not a vindictive place where people can totally trash someone and be really hurtful and mean. It’s still a place that’s fun, lighthearted and informative. I think that ultimately girls don’t want to be in a place that’s bitchy and catty, and they don’t want to be in a place that’s negative.
We want to make sure that we set ourselves apart from those websites like College ACB on which you can…write whatever you want about a person and totally trash them publically. On College ACB, you can write whatever you want. All you can do on Lulu is create a review, select hashtags or vote yes or no. That’s how we try to create checks and balances. Another statistic you should know is that over 48 percent of our reviews — and there’s almost half a million now — are actually friends reviewing other friends. A lot of girls see this as a place where they can put their best guy friends and give them a great review.
TSD: What do you envision as the future of your product?
AC: We created this as a product for women because we understand them and we feel as though we’re creating a destination mobile site where women can tap into the collective wisdom of one another. We hope to tap into this knowledge not just about guys, but potentially later on about other things that girls have in common or care about, whether that’s careers or health or fashion. [This is] something that they can tap into and learn from each other. [The launch of this Lulu app] is really just sort of the beginning of our journey.
This interview has been condensed and edited.