UPDATE #3: We’re back online at http://askablackperson.com – Read why and how here: Anonymously Ask A Black Person via SMS (ABP) is Back Online – Team, Goals, Features and Task List
UPDATE #2: Several people have agreed to help keep “Anonymously Ask A Black Person” going. Stay tuned!
If you are interested fill out the form here -> Get Involved
About two months ago I saw a site called “Stanford Nerd” on Product Hunt. Stanford Nerd works by sending a text message from the website to a Stanford student and a Stanford student replies back to your questions. The site tag line reads “Nerd gives you access to brilliant Stanford students. Get whatever help you need. Send us a message and we’ll have great minds working to answer you.”
I thought this was a great but simple idea and also thought, heck I could build this. I also thought it would be great if someone could text anyone anonymously and ask questions or for feedback. I also was reading about the highly valued YC startup Magic that recently raised $12 million from Sequoia Capital at a $40 million valuation. Magic works by texting a phone number to get whatever you want on demand with no hassle. I too was like… I could build that.
This past Friday I was having lunch at Reddit with my friend Heath Black. Heath is a product manager at Reddit and we were talking Reddit’s update on harassing behavior. I mentioned to Heath my idea about building an anonymous ask me anything platform. He thought it was a good idea as he shared a recent experience where he was hesitate to ask someone a question about their race. I also had been talking about the idea multiple times with my girlfriend Melinda Epler.
Being this was a holiday weekend and I’ve been heads down planning BUILDUP events, technical workshops and scheduling fund raising meetings I wanted to do something fun and build something. As a geek,nerd, UI/UX guy, developer and as an entrepreneur when you have an inch to solve a problem or the idea to launch something, you do it. Therefore late Friday night I started reading how to build Anonymously Ask A Black Person ( http://askablackperson.com).
Here’s the articles and the development stack.
Build Your Own Agent SMS Chat Using Twilio Toll-free Numbers
Making an AJAX Web Chat (Part 1) – PHP and MySQL
How To: Send an SMS Text Message via the Twilio REST API with PHP
GitHub Repository intel-tel-input for entering and validating international telephone numbers
HOW TO USE THE TWILIO API TO SEND AN SMS MESSAGE
Zapier for sending incoming SMS to
Twilio for toll free number and sending SMS
Twitter Bootstrap Theme
Total cost = $106.00
Twilio starter credit and phone number $20.00
Napier basic plan $15.00
Twitter Bootstrap theme $18.00
Askablackperson.com domain name with private registration $12.17
Coding Time: TBD
How it worked?
Simple. A user would go to the website and input their mobile number in which they would receive a SMS auto responder reading “Ask me anything. How may I help you?” When a user replies their message would then show up in the ajax chat room that I built from the Build Your Own Agent SMS Chat Using Twilio Toll-free Numbers article. I would then respond back using the “@“ sign and their phone number. Oh yeah first I had to buy the Twilio toll-free number. A user could also just text a question to the number on the site.
Through Zapier the “zaps” web hooks would send any incoming sms to google spreedsheet and another zap would auto tweet any incoming sms to the @aablackperson twitter account I created.
I spent most of Saturday coding, reading how to links and watching the Warrios game. By late Saturday night (actually Sunday AM everything was working and I posting on Facebook at 1:03am “Interesting: Anonymously Ask A Black Person http://askablackperson.com”. A couple of text message started to come in and I replied to each and was feeling good.
I woke up Sunday morning with more text and was testing out bugs and a way to make the backend ajax chat stop clearing the sms messages. Either way, I posted one tweet saying the same thing I posted on Facebook. I also sent the link to Product Hunt. Ryan sent me a tweet saying it was going on product hunt Monday morning.
Sunday was a chill day, Melinda and I went to the movies to see “Tomorrowland” and dine out. I’m sure she could tell that my mind was on “Anonymously Ask A Black Person” as people were sending real questions. Everything to “Am I racist if I think X”, to is it ok to say this to a black person, to thoughts on Ferguson and Baltimore. My Sunday night was filled with researching and answering SMS messages.
Come Monday morning, Melinda and I had planned to go hiking and when I checked “Anonymously Ask A Black Person” website stats it already had over 2,000 page views by 9am. I was like whoa, is all that from Product Hunt. It turns out, it was part Product Hunt and mostly Reddit. I checked with Heath from Reddit and it wasn’t him. Anonymously Ask A Black Person was on the “internet is beautiful” Reddit section staying at number 2 position on Monday.
As for Product Hunt, Ryan had to remove “Anonymously Ask A Black Person” from the homepage of Product Hunt due to “extremely offensive to any one person or group of people”. Either way, I was like, great and secretly wishing it could make 10k page views in one day. But more importantly tons of SMS questions were coming in and Melinda and I was going hiking. This is where Magic and even Nerd wins. Magic says “we have trained operators standing by 24/7 to answer every one of your requests”. “Anonymously Ask A Black Person” is a weekend hack and just me.
I started thinking I could get some help managing the backend and answering questions “Anonymously Ask A Black Person” but that would require a lot of time and trust and I had a certain vision for the site. Plus there were some real rascal questions and text coming in that I expected and since I’ve been doing this whole “internet diversity in tech thing” I’m used to but everyone is not.
Regardless Melinda and I went hiking and I was checking page views and by Monday night it had peaked around 9,500 page views in one day. I answered over 100sms and sent another tweet that it almost made it to 10,000 page views.
What I learned from building ”Anonymously Ask A Black Person”?
While building the site, I was thinking it would be fun and people would look at it part satire and part real. On the fun note people started asking two questions. One is the person behind the site really black or was I a bot. One person send an SMS saying if I’m black what does “GL” mean? I responded “good luck” the next text was no, it means “good look”. I guess I wasn’t “black enough to know that.. :).
An interesting tweet that was posted that said “ where no one knows black people so they have to text them to ensure they’re not being racist” .. I found that interesting to say the least.
In all honestly though it wasn’t about the page views, it was about building, learning and solving a real problem, a people problem. Something Heath reminded me is that regardless of how much technology we have today at the end of the day we’re dealing with people. People have feelings, questions and real bias towards one another. I learned that everyone does’t understand how culture, music, trends and markets affect people’s lives and decision making. I was reminded of my own bias and stereotypes. I became more self aware of how people think and view black people and my desire to educate people on empathy in their everyday life.
Now, I’m shutting down the service and back to focusing on BUILDUP which mentors, educates and connects underrepresented entrepreneurs in technology. One piece of advice I’ll keep telling entrepreneurs is if you have an idea or see a problem, don’t wait for someone else to build it, but your head down, learn the skills and build it yourself.
It was an interesting weekend… #keepmovingforward.
UPDATE: A lot of people wondered what kind of messages I received. I stripped out the phone numbers from the google spreadsheet below.