When Heidi Allstop was a junior at the University of Wisconsin, she found herself, like so many students, struggling with the stress of college life. “I was going through a hard time, but I didn’t want to bother my friends with my personal problems,” she says. “It was around finals, we were all stressed, and I didn’t want to be a burden.” So Allstop called the university’s counseling center, only to be told there was a two-week wait for an appointment. “I thought, I just want to talk to peers, people who get it, who aren’t gonna sugarcoat their advice, they’re just gonna understand me and hear me out and tell me what they think I should do,” she remembers, and sitting outside the library, watching her fellow students walk by–heads down, earbuds in–she was struck with an epiphany: “So many of these people are going through the same thing as I am, but we have no way to connect,” she says. “What if there was a place online?”
Spill, her anonymous peer-support network, was born in that moment, although its first iteration barely resembled what it’s become. Current users “spill” their problem at StudentSpill.com; their message is screened by a team trained in crisis prevention, then sent to student responders who post a reply (also screened) within 24 hours. At the beginning, though, Spill was just a Google site that Allstop built over Christmas break: Email your problems to StudentSpill, the page said. We’ll keep ‘em safe. Within a week, 120 of her fellow students had signed on to be advice-givers, and within the first six months, Allstop heard from students at four other schools who wanted to bring Spill to their campuses. By the time she graduated in 2010, 10 schools had signed on. “There was no reason people should have trusted it, but the need was so great that people just started submitting spills,” she says. “We’re giving people an appropriate place to open up and be vulnerable, and share wisdom with people who need it.”
After winning a business competition at Wisconsin, Allstop decided to forgo a post-graduation consulting job in favor of building Spill. Nine months later, “purely out of persistence,” Allstop says, she and Spill were accepted into Boston-based startup accelerator Tech Stars; she’s since raised about half a million in seed funding and dramatically revised the business model. Initially, she intended to sell Spill to colleges as a tool for crisis prevention and student retention, but is now pivoting towards a consumer “freemium” model, integrating therapists, life coaches, and even nutritionists to assist users who want to upgrade. “We don’t want to position it as a crisis line when there are so many more effective crisis lines out there,” she says. “We’re focused on creating a safe space that people are engaging with on an ongoing basis, not just when they’re having a bad day.”
She’s also slowly opening the doors of Spill to the wider world: Up to this point, the site has required a .edu email address, but Allstop realized that many of the students who’d come to love and trust Spill were graduating from college–but not from the need for peer support. Later this month, the community will be pushed to SpillNow.com, where .com email addresses will be welcomed, and Allstop hopes to start targeting specialty groups like veterans and young mothers. Meanwhile, the students will continue to operate within their own .edu network, complete with new social network-style platforms to encourage more interaction among those who want it. “To this point, they haven’t had pen names, so they haven’t had ways to track each other,” Allstop says. “That’s what we’re giving them in the new site. They can self-identify if they want to, but they can also be anonymous.”
Ultimately, the goal is to provide everyone with something Facebook can’t: an ego-free place to vent, filled with honesty and empathy. “There’s a lot of narcissism and self-promotion on today’s social networks,” Allstop says. “Everyone’s trying to paint the picture of their white-picket-fence life. At Spill, we’re removing your identity, and focusing on your true self: What’s going on inside? What piece of valuable advice can you share that isn’t tied to what other people think about you? I want everyone to know that they have a place to go if they’re feeling down. No one should be crying into their pillow, feeling like they have no one to talk to. It sounds idealistic, but I want Spill to be a household name.”
This piece is part of Change Generation, our series on young, change-making entrepreneurs. Read the rest here.