There's nothing like the growing pains of new adulthood, but for college-aged Gen Zers who have spent these formative years in lockdown, it can be even more difficult to form meaningful friendships. While attending Columbia University remotely during the pandemic, first-generation college student Jamie Lee realized how this isolation was affecting her peers, especially those who would travel to school for their sophomore or junior years without having met any classmates in person yet.
"Since I had first downloaded Instagram in middle school, I've always just been presenting myself online as an individual, but I felt like I was having a lot of anxiety about not presenting myself authentically online," Lee told TechCrunch. "I wanted to lean into that idea of, okay, how can we find a way to connect people authentically? And I thought the best way to do that would be with our friends, who we're most authentic around."
In summer 2020, Lee launched a no-code beta test for Flox, an idea for an app that would help people meet. It's like Tinder, Hinge or Bumble, where you create a profile and match with others, only you're signing up as a group and connecting with other groups of friends.
"People gave me feedback that it was the most fun they'd had online in forever, so that was my turning point where I was like, this could be something super serious, and I knew that it was now or never," Lee said.
So, she dropped out of Columbia with just a year left of school to charge full-speed ahead on the app.
Image Credits: Flox
In February 2021, Lee and two full-time engineers -- the extent of her team -- conducted an alpha test with around 250 users, which then developed into a private beta test exclusively in New York City for undergrads and recent graduates. By now, their waitlist has over 20,000 users, but Lee says in the next month or so, Flox will begin opening up to college-aged New Yorkers on the waitlist before expanding to other cities later on. Plus, Flox just closed a $1.2 million funding round led by Honeycomb Asset Management, with BBG Ventures and Banana Capital participating.
"I'm not gonna lie, raising my first round was incredibly difficult. I'm Puerto Rican and Chinese, I was 21 at the time, I never had any background in this, and I had just like, dropped out of Columbia," Lee said. "Going into these conversations, I think people definitely had opinions formed about me before the conversation began. I was told in a pitch meeting to be more like Zuck."
As a founder developing a platform for people in her own age group, Lee is smart about how she markets the app -- she wants to make it feel authentic. So, she's met her audience where they are on TikTok, posting promotional videos about the app that have gone viral, garnering about 1.8 million views over three posts.
"You can't even go to the bathroom alone," Lee says in one TikTok. "So why are you on these dating apps alone?"
Flox isn't the first app to try group-based social networking -- Tinder had this idea with Tinder Social, a feature that let you join groups with your friends and match with other groups. But the feature was discontinued a little over a year after a rocky launch in 2016, when it accidentally revealed who in your contacts had a Tinder profile. Lee said that she thinks Tinder Social didn't work because Tinder had already branded itself as a dating (or hookup) app -- and since you only had one profile, you'd be showing the same version of yourself to potential friends and potential dates.
"We want to move away from the focus on the individual, because I think that points to dating," Lee said. "We want to really lean into the group identity, so you might see a flock called 'apartment 11,' and then you would see who makes up the group, rather than, here are these individuals who form the group. It's reversing what's emphasized." While the focus is on meeting new people, Lee hopes that friends who make a Flox group (a Flock) together will be brought closer too.
Even though Bumble started as a dating app too, it also now has modes for making friends and finding business partners. Lee cites Bumble BFF as an inspiration for Flox, but she said that when she used the app, it seemed like most people said they were looking for roommates, rather than looking to make new friends.
Image Credits: Flox
"Gen Z is the most lonely, anxious, depressed generation, and there's so many people who need friends," said Lee. "But there's a social stigma that [using one-on-one friendship apps] carries with it. Unfortunately, oftentimes, when you're looking for friends one-on-one, what that implies to the other person, or to anyone who might know that you're on Bumble BFF, is that you don't have any friends, and that doesn't really put you in a desirable position. So our goal with Flox is also to make it way more comfortable, safe and fun, removing that social stigma behind friend finding."
The app hinges on Lee's hypothesis that people are most comfortable meeting new people when their existing friends have their back. But the group dynamic adds a built-in layer of safety. Even though Flox isn't a dating app, Lee knows that some people are going to use it for that purpose -- but meeting new people in groups can help mitigate the risks inherent in meeting strangers one-on-one.
"I had a really bad experience on a dating app when I was in the city a couple of years ago, and I remember reporting the incident, and nothing was followed up on, and I just didn't feel protected on that platform," Lee said. "One of the first conversations I had with users last year was people said, 'I'm not comfortable meeting up with other people on dating apps, because I feel unsafe one-on-one.' So we really want to give people this more comfortable, safe environment to meet people."
With Flox's recent seed round, Lee hopes to continue building out the app and letting more and more users in -- but she wants to take it slow to make sure that the experience remains positive and authentic for existing users.