From the moment the Washington Post called the Peeple app a “Yelp for humans” on Sept. 30, Peeple CEO Julia Cordray and her co-founder Nicole McCullough were ensnared in a viral shitstorm.
Peeple, in its first incarnation, was an unreleased app that let verified users post reviews of acquaintances on a one- to five-star scale. Nobody could opt out. What could possibly go wrong?
People were furious that they could be reviewed for just about anything without their consent. Well before the app made its debut, some people started rattling off the founders’ personal information and that of their friends, family and colleagues. One such YouTube comment on a video posted by Peeple began, “Anyone willing to kill them, here’s their address.” On Twitter, one now-suspended account sent tweet after tweet with information like Cordray’s birth weight and the color of the front door of her house. Cordray says Anonymous even got involved.
What happened next was even stranger: Peeple, founded on the premise of transparency at all costs, wiped out its presence on Twitter, Facebook and Youtube accounts to escape the outrage. The whole episode made a few media outlets wonder if the whole thing was just a big joke or some high-level act of culture jamming.
“It was a strategy to calm everybody down … We could have been in the media every single day for an entire week, but we just chose not to,” Cordray explained.
Peeple is now back with yet another unreleased version stripped of all the controversial bits. And the founders sat down for an hour-long interview with Re/code to set the record straight. In their telling, Peeple was not designed to be a hub for abuse, but more of a “Yelp, but for people who only use their real names,” who only say nice things.
“We were super humbled by [the response], and we appreciate the opportunity to make an even better app. That was very welcome feedback,” Cordray said. “We never meant to scare anybody, we never meant for anyone to feel like we could cause them harm. Peeple is for ‘positive people.’”
In a post on LinkedIn, Cordray explained that the new version would be a service that would be entirely “opt-in” and that starred ratings were being replaced by binary recommendations. Instead of the five-star scale, users could recommend or endorse one another, a la LinkedIn. Also like LinkedIn, you would now be able to choose what shows up on your profile. Additionally, you could no longer create and rate profiles for people who weren’t on the service; they’d need to open an account. Finally, Cordray wanted to let everyone know that Peeple was hiring a CTO.
The actual development of Peeple is being handled by Y Media Labs, a mobile app developer based in Redwood City. Peeple plans to launch its iOS app sometime late next month, and an Android version is in the works.
Cordray declined to show me what the app currently looks like beyond a couple of vague screenshots (“If I were to show you the beta test, it’s not going to be what we’re building,” she said). From her and McCullough’s description, it’s a Facebook-authenticated service that lets you “recommend” individuals for professional and personal purposes, which does sound a lot like the LinkedIn endorsement feature. It also sounds like the unicorn startup Thumbtack, which connects users with freelancers like house painters or babysitters. McCollough and Cordray say Peeple is different because it aims to evaluate and disseminate information about the character of its users.
McCullough and Cordray have stressed how appraising individual character is what sets Peeple apart. In previous interviews, the example they bring up is how McCullough felt that she didn’t have anywhere to turn when she wanted to vet prospective babysitters.
Cordray describes Peeple as a corrective to Yelp, which she calls a broken platform because it offers anonymity to reviewers.
“Let’s talk about Yelp, and the many ways you can game the Yelp system and hurt business owners in the process. I can hire a third party to do that all day long … There is very little credibility there, and very few fail-safes,” she argued. “We’re really confident that we’ve taken online reputation management and opportunity — and we’re not rating people, we’re recommending them — … to a whole new level.”
The business model behind Peeple is not particularly special, and the track record for similar startups isn’t great. Cordray said it could ultimately sell user data to marketers, generate affiliate-link revenue and charge people for searching on the app. She added that Peeple has an advertising partnership with Google, which declined to comment for this story.
Cordray confirmed the $7.6 million valuation reported in the Washington Post and added that “big investors” and “big funds” have approached her and McCullough. They have raised $442,800 from friends, Calgary business owners and clients of Career Fox (Cordray’s Calgary-based recruiting business), she said. “We are interested in selling equity to a VC, fund or strategic partner instead of raising more money with the previous networks.”
This article originally appeared on Recode.net.