Whisper CEO Reveals Next Plans for the Secret-Sharing App

11:00 AM PST 05/30/2014 by Natalie Jarvey
Christopher Patey
Michael Heyward

Michael Heyward, 26, aims to use the application for good even as it has the potential to catch fire in Hollywood, where every PA, hairstylist and ex-spouse will have a platform to spill their guts with anonymity.

This story first appeared in the June 6 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.

In February, a one-sentence message appeared on the secret-sharing app Whisper: “GWYNETH PALTROW IS CHEATING ON CHRIS MARTIN,” it said in white block letters. There was no signature, no screen name, nothing to indicate who the anonymous poster might be. “WITH ENTERTAINMENT LAWYER KEVIN YORN,” the poster finished the sentence. Paltrow’s publicist, Stephen Huvane, denied the affair in an email to Gawker’s Defamer, which had picked up the post, calling it “absolutely 100 percent false” (though Paltrow and Martin would “consciously uncouple” the following month). But more telling was Huvane’s next email to Gawker: “What exactly is Whisper anyway?”

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What, indeed. Until the Paltrow post, the 2-year-old platform where people anonymously share secrets (from “I have a phobia of public restrooms” to “I’m tired of being unhappy in my marriage”) had remained relatively obscure. But that one post changed everything, and today Whisper’s 26-year-old CEO, Michael Heyward, finds himself at the helm of a potentially game-changing app. The company flags posts with proper names -- and potentially libelous content -- for review and won’t let posters gossip about just any Tom, Dick or Harry, but it’s still a potential powder keg. If the app catches on in Hollywood -- as the similar, snarkier app Secret has caught fire in Silicon Valley -- suddenly every PA, hairstylist and ex-spouse will have a platform to spill their guts with anonymity.

“Can we not talk about that?” sighs Heyward as he lounges on a couch at the 40-person startup’s spacious, loftlike Venice headquarters. “[The Paltrow post] is just a nonissue because it’s not a part of what the service is.”

Heyward says celebrity gossip is not commonplace on Whisper, which he created for people to express feelings without fear of discovery or reprisal -- something he might have used while attending Santa Monica’s Crossroads school. “I never really liked school -- it was physically painful to go,” he says, his shaggy hair grazing his forehead. He notes that Whisper has referred thousands of users to the National Suicide Hotline since 2012, when he founded the company with tech entrepreneur Brad Brooks, a former business partner of Heyward’s father, Andy (creator of the animated TV series Inspector Gadget): “You can’t have a service where people are coming on and saying things that are really sad … and not feel like you should do something.”

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Whisper does have enormous potential for good and also enormous potential to make money (it has an estimated $200 million valuation). More than 6 billion secret messages are being viewed each month, and Heyward is keen on growing those numbers, forming relationships with editorial partners like BuzzFeed and taking baby steps toward monetization with deals like the one struck with Universal to promote Endless Love on the app. Says investor Jeremy Liew, who has contributed to Whisper’s $60 million in funding: “We’re really trying to focus on growing to become part of the pop culture. Once you get to that scale, you become a business.”

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