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Interview With Jake Ellenburg of Drunk Mode

Written by Cory Healy on March 17, 2017

Happy St. Patricks Day from NYCDA!

In honor of the annual tradition of remembering St. Patrick converting Irish pagans wearing green and getting drunk, we reached out to DC startup, Drunk Mode.

Drunk Mode is an app that balances its penchant for keeping the party going while low-key offering multiple safety features while you're out with friends such as Homebase, Block Contacts, Breadcrumbs, Find My Drunk, Find A Ride, Hot Spots, and more. It's no-frills and aesthetically non-judgmental, which has allowed it to have over 1.5 million users and counting.

Read below for our full interview with Drunk Mode's Head of Marketing: Jake Ellenburg.

What was the inspiration for Drunk Mode?

J: "Josh Anton came up with the idea after he got a drunk phone call one night from a girl that he had a crush on. He thought ‘is this a problem that we can fix?’ So he went around campus at UVA and asked around 100 students if they ever drunk dialed anyone and if that's an issue, and found out a lot of people would like [Drunk Mode].

"When it first came out, it was strictly just the drunk dialing feature. I came around whenever we started doing Find My Friends and stuff like that. I think we had around 20,000 users whenever I first signed on at Drunk Mode, and now we’re at 1.5 million now. It’s grown a lot. It just evolved because we thought of different things people need when going out, and different ways to make it. It was just a drunk dial blocker at first, then we thought well, how can we make this more safety oriented for people going out?"

Building out the safety aspect, how was balancing Drunk Mode's purpose of being a fun quirky lifestyle app with its subtly safety features?

J: "We saw a lot of safety apps out on the market but none of them applied to our college student demographic—more or less the young and reckless. We definitely had a lot of debates like ‘do we want to go hardcore safety or do we want to scrap safety and go hardcore party?’ We thought about both for a long time, but I think the best thing about Drunk Mode is that it’s a mix of both. A lot of people are reluctant to admit they have it on their phone, but at the end of the day, we have a lot of people telling us that they keep it for safety reasons when they go out.

J: "It’s been an uphill battle because it is called 'Drunk Mode' so some people may think its just an app for raging. Whenever we go to investors it’s always been a hard sell on the safety end, but once we sit down and actually explain to them that people our age kinda feel invincible. It’s one of those things like ‘how do you sell insurance to those who don’t feel like they need it?’ You disguise it as a party app because they’ll feel like they’ll need a cool party app, ya know, then we just add safety layers to it. It’s definitely been a challenge and it’s one that we pretty much explain like we make an app for you to have a good time and go party but, at the end of the day, the safety aspects are there."

There’s almost sort of a non-judgmental aspect to this app. I interpret it as being like “hey we understand your college lifestyle, we aren’t trying to judge or police your behavior, we’ve been down the same road," and it’s not a lifestyle that's going away anytime soon.

J: "It’s one of those things. We’ve sat down and talked with college officials and they’ve been iffy about the name or something and we have to reiterate that ‘you can go with other safety apps but your students aren’t going to go download them.’ I partied, we all partied in college and we kinda make stupid mistakes whenever we're drunk, so what can we do to help people make less stupid mistakes? That’s pretty much it.

"People have asked us if we think we’re promoting drinking, but drinking is there. It doesn’t need any promotion. We're promoting drinking safely and having the options there if you are going to be drinking and get blackout drunk, at least you have something that can help you out. People are drinking, prohibition proved we can’t just completely cut it out, so why not make tools to help people drink safer?"

Safer and smarter too! Transitioning from Drunk Mode to your parent company X Mode: where do you see the lessons you've learned from Drunk Mode going into other developments? I understand you have an app coming up catering to families...

J: "It’s going to be a mixture of a G-list style app that helps families see grocery prices and things like that, but also uses our user location tracking from Drink Mode to make it a family check-in. Imagine if the family has a teenager, they say “text me when you get to school or text me when you get to work”— a lot of time we forget to do that. So, if you go in and set that location on an app—without even a text—the parents will get a notification that you've arrived safely. So that's one of the main aspects of the whole Family Mode (name’s kind of a work in progress). We also have a fitness app called Walk Against Humanity, that’s geared towards satirical fitness."

Do tell!

J: "Basically, we looked in the app store and we were thinking of other apps we can create. One of the ideas I came up with was that fitness apps are so peppy and cheery and kiss your ass and always tell you good things... but when you get a physical trainer or somebody in the gym, they’re not that way. There may be some motivation, but they’re gonna let you know when you’re being lazy. So we made an app that’s mean to people.

"Some people on the team didn’t want to go completely mean, so we built options of how your push notifications are. You can walk against humanity, walk for humanity, or walk for alternative facts! Due to the current presidential election, we made an Alt-Fact section. Say you hit 1000 steps, under the alt-fact thing, you get a notification like “congratulations on hitting 1000 steps, did you know that there are 1000 bees in Nicholas Cage’s face in the movie Wickerman?”

Is that true?

J: "We just made that one up! On the dark one, when you hit 3,500 miles, you get your Trail of Tears badge, because that’s how long the Trail of Tears was. So it’s kind of a twist on fitness but with a darker sense of humor. We recently released that, it’s out now, and it has over 100,000 users and growing so it’s doing really well. So with X Mode—it’s called X Mode because we want to solve for X—our whole game plan is to create as many apps as we can and help people solve issues using location-based technology."

And I guess the ‘secret-sauce’ for all this is how you make your maps interactive and in real-time, like a living map.

J: "We’ve always said we want to build living maps. We want to give people real-time information. The big goal is to say, in a year or 2 now, if we have 10 different apps on the app store, and each one of them has a couple hundred thousand million users, we’ll be pulling the user location data for hopefully millions of people to make our apps better. Say in an app like Drunk Mode, if we’re able to pull the location data from people using Walk Against Humanity, they may not be using Drunk Mode but we still know where they are, and that can make the heat maps for where the bars are at on Drunk Mode even better. All the apps can help build into each other. We can even, with the Family Mode one, send out an Amber Alert to everyone that has an X Mode app if a child goes missing. Imagine a platform, not with Facebook-style numbers because that’s just one app with billions of users, we’re talking multiple apps with a couple million each because We’re making niches, we want to solve for X for each person. Imagine a bunch of apps pulling info from different people so that they can all help each other in a different way."

So they all jut sort of come together and help each other? That’s fantastic.

J: "That’s the big overall goal anyway, just to make amazing apps. It’s incredible what you can do in apps with data. Somebody can have the family mode app but they just happen to go out that weekend or have Walk Against Humanity and go out that weekend. That’s going to add another person to the heat map of Drunk Mode to let us know there are more people there. They party is hopping even more even though those people don’t have Drunk Mode. So they all kind of build with each other, and that’s pretty much the big goal."

Well congratulations! That’s really awesome you're able to unify all these niche categories together. Best of luck in the future and thank you for talking with us today!

From all of us at NYCDA, have a safe and responsible St. Patricks Day Weekend!