Bevii launched last Monday, Oct. 14 around 10 a.m. I happened to be working about 50 feet from the company’s founder, Taylor Robinette, that morning at 1789 Venture Lab. It was a quiet morning in the startup space; Robinette, a sophomore at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, was sitting calmly with one of his company’s investors.
I had no idea that in a little over 24 hours, Bevii would deploy a fake “Alert Carolina” school shooting email to thousands of UNC students.
Shortly after the email, Bevii was feeling the blowback and issuing apologies.
Alert Carolina messages are used to communicate with the UNC community “in the event of an emergency or dangerous situation,” according to the Alert Carolina website. Bevii’s imitation alert email included the following lines:
At precisely 10:01am yesterday, in broad daylight, shots were fired on Franklin Street. The victim is being described as a blue, outdated social network.
The current suspect is Bevii, a mobile, location-based social network only available to select Universities.
Robinette told me that the email — marked to go to 17,000 UNC addresses, although it may have been stopped by UNC before reaching the entire list — was intended to be a funny marketing tactic.
“We wanted a humorous way to engage UNC students while poking fun at another social media site,” he said.
I don’t think many people are laughing.
UNC’s response was to ban the Bevii website from university servers. Last Thursday, a UNC Information Technology Services representative confirmed that the site was no longer accessible to those using the UNC network.
Robinette recognizes that sending the email was a mistake.
“In retrospect, given the amount of violence in our culture, it was a very bad idea,” Robinette told me in a phone conversation.
Bevii has also issued apologies to UNC students and multiple university offices, including the UNC campus police and the chancellor’s office.
So far, coverage of Bevii’s email has emphasized that this is not how you should promote your startup. I agree — it’s not.
At the same time, Robinette’s history has another side.
Several years ago, Robinette started a company called Lifeclickz that issued points to users when they got others to sign up. The company was very simple — points were exchangeable for prizes, the website was built using Drupal, and revenue from advertising and offers covered the costs of prizes but little more. But simple or not, Robinette attracted 250,000 users in the company’s first month while attending his freshman year of high school.
Now back to his latest user acquisition efforts. Here’s what was a good idea: reach out to a bunch of UNC students with a funny message promoting the Bevii app. This is the type of tactic that can help get a startup going.
The problem was in thinking that a fake school shooting email would be funny. It’s not, as Robinette has learned. It shows poor taste and imitating public safety message systems to promote your company is probably never a good idea.
I asked Robinette if he had consulted advisors or investors (Bevii has raised a $300,000 seed round) before the company sent the email.
“None of them knew it was going to happen. I had run it by them previously and they had advised that it was not a good idea,” he said.
What I see is a huge marketing mistake. I also see that Robinette has a history of successful marketing. So I hope he continues to think big, but vets the ideas that Bevii executes much more carefully. In this case, the idea should have been stopped when his advisors went against it.