The last two times I wrote about Julia Cordray, I wasn’t very nice. I implied that the Peeple co-founder and CEO was an arrogant bully and an opportunistic “wantreprener.” I said the reputation app she and her co-founder Nicole McCullough are defiantly launching is catty, creepy and could destroy relationships, careers and entire lives.
At least it sounded like it could at the time. Truth is, I never actually tried the still-unreleased controversial human-rating app. Neither have the countless other journalists and bloggers who were also quick to condemn the “Yelp for People” after The Washington Post skewered it on Sept. 30, setting off a scathing online onslaught that Corday is still the butt of today.
Hate boils over quickly. Less than 24 hours after the Post’s searing critique went live, Cordray became a trending topic on Twitter, as she says, for all the wrong reasons. Then came the doxing attacks and death threats. Then Peeple’s website, YouTube channel and all of its social accounts went dark, and Cordray went off the grid.
She may have gone underground, but she’s not quitting. The 34-year-old Calgary-based recruitment specialist is back with a new, nicer tune. She and her 37-year-old Southern California stay-at-home mom co-founder and best friend have eaten their humble pie, admitting that earlier iterations of Peeple’s policies were “ill conceived.” After taking a lifetime’s worth of burns over the Internet’s most hated app, they’ve ditched the five-star rating system and opted for an opt-out. Peeple isn’t evil, they say, and you’d better be ready because it’s coming soon whether you want it or not.
When a representative for Peeple reached out to Entrepreneur recently, we thought it only fair to ask if Cordray wanted to tell us her side of the story, in her own words. She did. Here it is, minimally edited for length and clarity:
What was your original vision for Peeple?
It was to create a safe place for people to manage their online reputation. It was to use social media for the greater good, not for sharing harm and hate and bullying and hiding behind our computers.
The flipside of that was to create a space where you can protect your greatest assets, like your money and your house, your children and anything else that can be affected by interacting with the wrong people. So it was really a protective element to help you make better decisions with the people around you based on looking them up on the app.
How did you come up with the idea for it?
My co-founder Nicole had called me in April of last year and literally said, “I’ve got this idea. Tell me what you think. I just want to find better babysitters. I don’t know my neighbors and I want to be able to look them up and there are people in my townhouse complex who I don’t really trust.” She said, “I want to give some sort of kudos to the Starbucks barista down the street who does a great job and who might get a better job because of me saying something nice about her.”
So, it was really born of a need for uplifting others. Nicole brought the concept to me because I’m in recruitment. She knows I look people up all the time and wanted to know how I do it. I told her there should be a better place to look people up, to find out who they are based on the people who already interact with them. I thought there should be an app for that, so we built Peeple.
Why do you think Peeple is so controversial?
There were three main features that really got people up at arms, that caused initial pushback, and I have a lot of empathy for that.
First, you couldn’t deactivate your account, so you could be essentially rated on a platform that maybe you didn’t want to participate in. Next, somebody could add you to the app and you would get a text notification letting you know.
The third thing was the star rating. Does anybody want to get reduced down to a star rating? Well, I don’t know. Uber does it. VRBO does it. Airbnb does it. All of these other companies have the star rating as the norm, so we were using what was normal in the industry. We decided after reflecting on that that maybe there’s a more comprehensive way to look at somebody as a whole and we feel that we’ve filled that now.
Are we talking something like a Klout score? That’s been done.
Klout uses a score out of 100. Our score is made out of 100 and it is made up of five separate parameters. It’s way more intensive than choosing a star to say something about somebody.
Did you expect that even just the concept of Peeple would fall with such a resounding thud, that people would hate it so much? Were you taken off guard?
Yes, totally, because what we knew we were building and what The Washington Post said it was were two opposite things. I’d raised almost half a million dollars in two and a half weeks from shareholders and every meeting I had about the app was very positive because they saw the full picture. I presented my pitch deck to them and they were like, “This is great. The world needs this. I love this.” Then we start talking about Peeple in the media in Canada, where we’re well received. And then The Washington Post spun it and didn’t focus on the whole point of the app. They just called it a bullying app that’s “terrifying” and said all these things that aren’t actually true or even possible. It turned into a media nightmare.
From there, there was a major global media pushback. Keep in mind, though, that we didn’t only hear from people who were upset about it. All the people who love it aren’t saying anything. Or they’re sending me these lovely messages over LinkedIn, or emails or texts. The people who are the loudest right now are the angriest and most scared. But the people who get it really get it. They love it, they want it and they can’t wait to use it.
But you yourself described Peeple as “Yelp for People” during the interview with the Post? You had to know that wouldn’t go over well, right?
Yes, I did say that. It was the quickest way I could wrap anybody’s head around the concept.
The writer misrepresented us over seven times in that article. Then, from there, everyone took it as THE expert American article that started the whole media attention. That’s unfortunate because it was completely misrepresented in the article and it just got away from us.
How do you plan to deal with those who would seek to harm others using your app? You know the trolls will come out of the woodwork. This is the Interent we’re talking about, after all.
First, you’re not anonymous on our platform. You can block users and report users. You have full control over what goes on your profile. You have to be 21 and older. You have to double authenticate with Facebook and a PIN number we text to you on your cellphone. These are some of the failsafes that we built in that no one knew about or even wanted to talk about.
We spent a lot of time and money making sure our users would be protected and I’m a great example of what happens when you’re not. What happened to me shows exactly what’s wrong with the current state of social media. If you Google me or look me up on any social platform, I have absolutely been ripped apart and that’s just unacceptable.
How did you cope with the attacks on your character, even viral jabs from celebrities like John Oliver and Chrissy Teigen, and, worse, leaks of your home address and death threats?
How did I cope? I worked harder and faster and longer. That seemed to get me more results of what I wanted. I was more strategic about who I talked to and when I talked to them. I became very clear in my sharing of information and very precise.
Once I started putting things in writing on LinkedIn, that seemed to really calm everybody down. The cops and the cybercrimes unit were involved. I’m not going to say it was easy because it wasn’t. It was abusive. It was terrifying.
I think the way I handled it, the way I showed up as a leader and as a businessperson, was absolutely at my best. If I could work 20 hours a day, I did and I did my best. No shareholder or anyone who is about to use my app could ask anything more of me that I’ve already given. And if nothing else, my name and my brand, my reputation was literally at a sacrifice to show the world why we need this app. I became the case study for why social media is not currently safe and why you need a secure place to manage your online reputation.
Those haters and those people who were mean to me fueled my passion to a level I never thought possible. They actually ended up helping me.
At one point you basically disappeared. You pulled the plug on Peeple’s website, YouTube channel and all of its social media accounts, as well as most of your own. Why did you do that?
As soon as the media storm hit I removed myself from Facebook, Twitter and Instagram. If there are any accounts out there after Oct. 7 that claim to be me, they are fake. That is not me. I would never treat people that way. I would never send pictures of Obama shooting himself in the head.
So, yes, we did take down social media. My Facebook page was hacked. My private photos were leaked. So I removed myself off of any unsafe social media only stayed on was LinkedIn.
What happened to all of the webisodes on your YouTube channel that you created and posted, chronicling Peeple’s early days?
Only two videos are left on there. The reason we pulled the rest, why we went offline, was because everything had gotten out of control. I had gotten death threats and doxed. My shareholders were being threatened. I needed to make a statement by being silent. I needed to control the media. I needed to get the right information out to the right sources, and I chose wisely and strategically. We had to calm down the mob and it worked.
I think we did the right thing and I don’t regret it. I made a point. You’re not going to get rid of me. You’re not going to bully me into submission. You’re not going to publicly shame me. That’s not going to work. I’m still building the app and I’m not going away.
To those who hate me, they only made me stronger and to them I will forever be grateful.
Some would equate not feeding the frenzy as taking the high road. Others would say -- and Dr. Phil did -- that you were being hypocritical, that you couldn’t hack being called out for creating an app that would help people call each other out. To your mind, which was it?
I found it ironic that people could bully me and claim I was building a bullying app and I hadn’t done a thing. They did to me what they were scared that my proposed app would do to them, all without ever having seen it.
I totally handled my critics and tormentors the best that I could. I only talked to people who were giving proper, constructive criticism and the rest was just noise. Noise that I decided I wanted to stop.
Did you ever feel like quitting, like throwing your hands up and saying “I’m not doing this. We’re never bringing Peeple to market.”?
My mother was worried, my twin brother was worried and so were my shareholders. There were moments that were an emotional rollercoaster, especially with the death threats. That was the low, when the police came. But there was never a point when I wanted to quit. I never wanted to give up. It only fueled me further. I don’t know how to explain it, and it sounds strange, but I’m good under pressure and I’m a really resilient person. I won’t quit.
What’s the total amount of venture capital you had in place before the backlash erupted and did investors walk away in the wake of the media meltdown?
I’d raised $442,800 up to when The Washington Post article came out, privately through 29 investors. We actually got more investors after the coverage. If people pay attention to something and get all excited about it and expect millions of downloads, of course people who didn’t buy my shares now wanted my shares.
People who wire transferred their money at the time made sure they got me their money quickly. We ended up getting quite a few funds and venture capitalist meetings because of the media attention. It helped us. I could have raised another half-million dollars. I just chose not to because I’m looking for the right VC partner or fund or bank, one that has the technical aptitude I need, as well as the strategic and financial aptitude. Right now, though, we’re not accepting any more shareholders.
So, if I understand you correctly, you stopped accepting investments after the Post article published, correct?
Yes. I purposely stopped selling shares. It was a strategic move to put interested parties on a waiting list. I didn’t want to sell $20,000 per person per share anymore. I wanted to sell $3 to $5 million dollars worth of shares. That’s what we need.
So what’s the new Peeple like? What was added and taken away?
The first change is that it’s 100 percent opt-in. You have to actually sign up to our platform to be on it and no one can actually add you to the platform. You also have full control over what goes live on your profile. So, if you want to post up positive recommendations only, or you want to do a mix of constructive criticism, or you want to put up some very honest feedback recommendations, which we highly recommend, you can do that. That’s the biggest change -- you’re in control over what goes live.
You can now also deactivate your profile. Deactivating will remove any activity that you’ve ever done, as well as any activity that’s ever been written about you. If you decide to reactivate, all of that will go live again, so it’s not like you ever lose the data or the information about you. It just won’t be publicly visible while you’re deactivated.
There’s also something in place of the five star system we had. It’s your recommendation score. It’s a number made up of every recommendation that you receive, regardless of you posting it live on your profile or not. The score is accurate against what people are going to recommend you for. It’s made up five separate elements.
We also have a “Nearby” tab, which allows you to find the highest scored people within a 10-mile radius of your location. So, you could be at a networking event and look people up on the app and you can see who the best of the best are rated professionally. Or, say you’re dating and you’re at a bar, you can look up the best on the dating side.
What are the five elements that make up a person’s recommendation score?
I can’t tell you all of them because they’re proprietary. It’s not that I can’t. I’m just not willing to. There is one piece that I can share, though, and that’s when you write a recommendation on our app for somebody, they have to pick whether they know you personally, professionally or from dating. Then you have to choose if your recommendation is negative, neutral or positive, just like on eBay.
From there, you can write the title of your recommendation and it goes into the inbox of the person you wrote it for and, again, they have full control over what they do with that recommendation. They can delete it. They can share it on Facebook or Twitter, or by email or text. They can block you as a user if they feel you’re being inappropriate. They can also report you if you violate our terms and conditions.
It seems like you’ve backtracked on your original vision quite bit. Some say you’ve watered down Peeple to the point of rendering it “ pointless.” What do you make of that?
The app still has the same premise, it’s just been improved. To call the app pointless because you can’t post whatever you want on someone’s profile is a silly thing to say.
There’s still a market to protect your online reputation. I am the pure example of why all of us should run out and buy our own domain names and protect our name brands because the current social media is not safe. There are 10 fake Twitter accounts about me. There are fake Facebook pages about me and my other company, Career Fox. And there’s fake Yelp reviews about Career Fox that came out of the media storm.
All of that is proof of why we need an app like Peeple, to safeguard your reputation and to protect yourself against questionable people. And, think about it, if I’m a star employee or a superstar volunteer or business owner -- whatever it is I’m so great at -- if I get to socially share what real people said about me in a recommendation, what is that going to do to my bank account? What is that going to do to my networking opportunities? My dating potential?
How can Peeple users know for sure that the people saying things about them on the app are really who they say they are? That they’re really that neighbor they used to babysit for, really that guy they dated back in college or really that boss who gave them their first big break?
First, you need to log in to our app through Facebook. It’s going to pull the name you use on Facebook and Facebook does not allow pseudonyms. It has to really be you. We also know what city you’re from.
Going a step further, we also ask you to provide your cell phone number so we can use it to initiate the double-authentication process. And now you are forever tied with your cell phone number and your name and your Facebok. That’s three solid ways to make sure people are who they say they are. I mean, why would I want to go on Peeple and pretend I’m somebody else to write good things about you? It just doesn’t add up.
When does the new Peeple go live and did you really hire a fancy Manhattan PR firm to assist with the launch?
No, we don’t have a PR firm. We’re handling PR ourselves.
If all goes according to plan, this month we’ll be able to beta test the app with our over 8,000 beta testers who signed up. We’re getting, on average, 500 new beta testers a day.
If we feel confident, based on the feedback that our product is what we want it to be, we will submit it to the Apple App Store by Dec. 10. We could also decide to launch in January. Once submitted, it takes Apple five to 15 days to approve the app. An Android version is in the works for the beginning half of next year.
Do you plan to monetize the app and, if yes, when and how?
To be clear, Peeple is free until we add enough value to our users and we gain significant traction to where it’s warranted as a business case and in a way that honors our users.
One potential future monetization strategy involves charging people for search credits. So, if you want to look people up on Peeple, you would be charged per search and you would buy searches in bulk. Another example would be licensing the professional data side to recruitment firms, businesses, and salespeople -- just like on LinkedIn -- to anybody who wants a little bit more information on someone on the professional side.
We could also add a paid personality testing piece. It would add the ability to know people better at an even higher level, who they are at the core -- at their best and at their worst. We’d also like to eventually offer people gifts. Not useless gifts. Gifts, like digital links to buy something from Amazon or to buy a coffee, rewards employers can give to employees or clients. The gifts could be given with recommendations, to give them that extra bit of enthusiasm.
But couldn’t gifts of that nature be interpreted as ways to butter people up, to incentivize them to provide positive recommendations or to improve negative ones?
This is all very far down the road. I don’t know. What’s weird now anyways is that I can go on LinkedIn and endorse you for moonwalking if I want to. That’s ridiculous. As long as we’re connected on LinkedIn, I can endorse you for any skillset I want. I can do that to sway you, to get your attention, to get you to like me, to get you to talk to me. There’s always a way to work the system, you just have to think of the worst way to work the system. Nicole and I have really thought that through.
What’s your best advice to entrepreneurs or anyone experiencing similar pushback in their careers?
Know yourself and send your critics empathy and kindness energetically. Hopefully they can use their negative energy to do something good in this world. But you don’t need to be brought down because someone doesn’t love themself or care about themself. That’s not your problem.
If anyone is inappropriate with you, do your best to know that what they’re saying isn’t true. If it is, maybe reflect on it, but don’t take it too hard. Haters are just unhappy people and they don’t deserve to be in your space. They don’t deserve your power.
What’s the biggest lesson you’ve learned through this entire experience?
You need to be brave, be bold and lead by example. If I got feedback, like I did, and did nothing about it, how does that make me a leader? Sometimes you need to lead down a path that is so innovative and so new that you will cause some fear. That doesn’t make everybody else wrong and you right, it just makes you more convicted in what you are trying to do and prove. Don’t waver on your convictions about what you want as long as it doesn’t harm others. Our app was never going to have the ability to harm anybody.