On a sunny day in August 2015, Tim Cannon, a 2014 Richmond graduate, roller-skated around Venice Beach in nothing but his underwear, dancing and handing out compliments to strangers — “You smell like a ripe avocado” and “you look like Beyoncé” — all for the sake of promoting his app, called Brighten.
Brighten provides users with a digital forum to anonymously give and receive compliments from friends. The app came to life in 2013 when Cannon joined forces with Austin Kevitch and Alec Lorraine, two high school friends from Worcester, Pennsylvania, who had just graduated college.
Over 15 million “Brightens” have been sent on the app since then, each containing a funny message or compliment. The app is aimed toward college and high school students and has more than 1,300 representatives, including 18 at Richmond, who help promote the app on campuses across the US.
The app was inspired by the unexpected death of Kevitch’s friend Oliver, who died in a climbing accident while abroad in South Africa. After Oliver’s death, Kevitch noticed the huge outpouring of support and loving messages posted on his Facebook wall—messages that wouldn’t have been said if he had still been alive.
That’s when Kevitch came up with the idea for Brighten, to give people the chance to share kind thoughts and messages without the occurrence of a tragic event.
Kevitch set up a compliment box outside of his house on Bucknell’s campus. As they went to class, students dropped in anonymous compliments about their friends. At the end of each day, Kevitch and his friends would meet up and read the messages out loud to one another.
“It was really popular, so he thought, ‘I want this to be what I do for the next couple years of my life,’” Cannon said. “So he made it into an app version of the compliment box.”
The original app was a prototype, a rougher version than the current one. After graduating in the spring of 2014, Kevitch decided to pursue his idea full-time. He found an investor from his high school who donated seed money to help him get started. Kevitch then reached out to Cannon, who was working in Chicago at the time.
“We always wanted to build something together, so I quit my job and moved out to LA,” Cannon said.
After he'd graduated from Richmond with a degree in business administration in 2014, Cannon had accepted a corporate job with Morningstar, but he wasn’t content.
“For me going into a corporate job—and I think a lot of other people have this problem—is that everything you do is time-based, not achievement-based,” Cannon said. “You’re waiting and putting in your time until something better. That was really hard for me.”
Cannon, intrigued by the opportunity to work with his friends at their startup company, left his job at Morningstar and moved to Los Angeles in June 2015, where he lived with Kevitch and Lorraine. At that point, the app started coming together, both in its overall message and design. Three different engineers worked to create the final version.
The goal of the Brighten team when the app first launched was to start small. Its main focus was to get the application to work smoothly and start a solid following with students at a single university. Then the team looked toward building relationships with other colleges and high schools around the United States.
“Richmond was that school for us, and people responded amazingly,” Cannon said. He now leads Brighten’s community outreach and helps manage its presence on social media.
Part of his role entails working with the college reps, including the 18 at Richmond. These reps volunteer their time to help promote Brighten to the student body by sharing their own experiences with the app on different forms of social media. Campus reps also help the Brighten team make changes to the app by providing feedback to surveys.
Kelsey Cahill, a junior at Richmond, became a campus rep in summer 2015 after hearing about the app through friends.
“There are so many mean things in the world, especially on the internet,” Cahill said. With all the negativity that can be found online, Brighten presents users with a space for positivity.
Brighten has found a way to mesh positivity with social media. Cahill described the app as “the opposite of Yik Yak,” which is a social media platform known for snarky comments and negative posts.
“Social media is extremely narcissistic and Brighten completely flips that,” Cannon said. “The main action of Brighten is to do something for someone else and not have it be known that it’s you.”
The concept has caught on with students and Brighten has taken off. In December, it was ranked the sixth most popular social media app on the App Store. Its popularity on Richmond’s campus has grown over the past few months because of the work of the campus reps.
"Brighten is a healthy, funny, and loving alternative to all of the malicious social media out there today,” junior Jihyun Lee said. “We need more of that.”
Despite its success and growth in popularity, the app is far from complete. Cannon estimates it is one or two years away from its finalized version. In the coming years, Cannon’s position as head of community outreach and social media assistant will evolve along with the app.
“I really hope to bridge from managing our community of users towards creating partnerships with larger companies and heading up the whole corporate side of things,” Cannon said.
Leaving Chicago was a risky move, but he is now in a position that lets him explore his true passions, he said.
“The idea is the easy part,” Cannon said. “It’s about bringing something to life.”