What if social apps were actually social?

How I turned the biggest struggle of my life into Squad: the best way to hang out with friends while in your favorite apps

Esther Crawford
Jan 7 · 8 min read

The beta version of Squad is live in the App Store. An Android version is coming soon — so get on the list if you want to hear when it drops.

Just like Twitch unlocked the gaming experience by letting you stream to everyone on the internet, Squad unlocks your phone experience so you can share your apps with friends.

You’ll get to have more face-to-face communication so you can feel like you’re hanging out together, even when you’re miles away.

YouTube with friends. Instagram with friends. Listen to music or podcasts with friends. Tinder with friends. Do anything on your phone — with friends.

📌 Why this focus on social connection?

There’s a very real problem with loneliness caused by today’s most popular forms of social media. My passion for building a better way stems from my own lifelong struggle with loneliness, connection, and belonging.

If you want all the details, read on.

Baja California, Mexico

😥 The worldwide epidemic of loneliness

People of all ages — including teens and college students who seem popular and connected — are reporting that they lack strong, meaningful relationships.

Not having enriching social connections may be as damaging to a person’s health as obesity or smoking 15 cigarettes a day.

The good news is there’s a very clear antidote to loneliness: social interaction. Friends are the free wonder drug we all need.

A recent study of 20,000 people showed that nearly half of respondents said they sometimes or always felt alone, which has tripled since the late 1980’s. What’s changed about our social lives? We hang out a lot less than we used to. Even teenagers spend significantly less time with friends now than they did a few decades ago.

Loneliness is growing and the apps we use every day are making it worse.

The very tools that were meant to bring us closer are actually driving us farther apart. Social networks like Instagram and Facebook leave us feeling more isolated and depressed.

🤦🏼‍♀️ Ironically “social” networks are designed as solo experiences

You scroll through feeds alone, inevitably comparing yourself to the highlight reel of your so-called friends’ lives.

Everyone knows that the content flooding our feeds is a filtered version of reality. The real and interesting stuff goes down in DMs because people are more authentic when they’re 1:1 or in small group conversations.

People change how they present themselves when they’re on a stage.

👯‍♀️ We all need a squad to hang with

Whether we like it or not, screens are part of the problem — and — screens are here to stay. Our devices have become extensions of ourselves — augmenting, enhancing and capturing our lives.

Every year we spend more time on mobile screens. On average, adults spend over 3 hours per day on their smartphone. By comparison, tweens spend 2 hours per day on mobile devices while teens rack up to 5 hours per day on their screens.

What are we spending so much time doing?

Watching videos, listening to music / podcasts, playing games, using social media and messaging with each other.

It’s not that those are inherently harmful or antisocial activities — the problem is we’re watching, listening, playing, scrolling and texting alone. To include another person we use blunt instruments like screen shots or screen recordings to capture what we’re seeing because our operating systems wall us off from each other’s experiences.

When we’re hanging out in person we often do the same types of things we do alone — watching video, listening to music, playing games and even looking at each other’s phones to check out people, photos and messages. The difference is it’s connective because we can see each other’s reactions and talk to each other in real-time.

Unsurprisingly, the only form of screen time that seems good for our health is video chat. Research shows regularly video chatting with friends and family actually reduces the probability of depressive symptoms by 50% because we evolved to need face-to-face communication.

“If we cannot rebuild strong, authentic social connections, we will continue to splinter apart — in the workplace and in society.”

— Vivek Murthy, former surgeon-general of the United States (2017)

⚠️ The struggle is all too real

I didn’t pick this problem. It picked me.

I struggled with loneliness throughout my childhood and early adult life.

Christmas 1993 (left to right): stepdad Oswaldo, brother Jonathan, sister Trish, me, Mom

If you knew the girl version of me, pictured above, you would not have predicted that I’d go on to get my Master’s degree or that I’d become the CEO of a venture-backed startup in Silicon Valley. (Btw thanks to our investors betaworks, Y Combinator, #BUILTBYGIRLS, Basis Set Ventures, Jesse Draper, Gary Vaynerchuk, Niv Dror, Alexia Bonatsos & others for believing in me!)

The odds have always been stacked against me. But I like defying expectations.

Like many in poor and uneducated neighborhoods, I grew up surrounded by trauma and drama.

  • One of my earliest memories is watching my neighbor’s mom get beat up by her boyfriend / pimp. I’ll never forget the sound her head made — thud! — as it hit the concrete step outside.
  • I met my dad when I was 8, and then he died from cancer while I was in college.
  • My stepdad, pictured above, was a former gang leader. Living with him was terrifying. He was sentenced to life in prison for truly monstrous crimes when I was 13.
  • My stepmom abruptly left my dad when I was 14 — I didn’t even get a goodbye after all the years we spent together.

After all that, in my later teen years I realized I was bisexual. I knew my religious parents and conservative church community would react in disgust so I buried those desires under a mountain of shame for many years.

(For my younger LGTBQ+ readers: You are perfect just the way you are and I promise, it really does get better.)

🔥 The desire for connection fuels my life’s work

I experienced a lot of physical and psychological abandonment as a kid so it’s probably not a big surprise that amidst all the financial and relational struggles I often found it difficult to know where I belonged.

I wondered: would I ever fit in anywhere? could anyone ever accept me?

Loneliness isn’t really about physical isolation because loneliness is a state of mind.

In fact, the loneliest time in my life occurred during my freshman year of college. After being sexual assaulted I felt empty and unwanted. Even though I lived with roommates and was surrounded by thousands of classmates on campus I felt cosmically alone.

So, I turned to the internet.

I spent countless hours in chatrooms and instant messaging conversations because I craved connection. I started blogging in college in 2004 and then became one of the first professional vloggers on YouTube in 2008 because I hoped if I shared my stories that I might find others who were like me.

And, it worked.

Eventually I did find my tribe — many of whom I met through various websites and apps. Those relationships are foundational to my happiness and life today.

My weird and wonderful friends (Burning Man 2018)

📈 Started from the bottom now we here

We’re hardwired to pay special attention to the bad stuff that can harm us in an effort to keep us safe — which is why, like everybody else, I have very vivid memories of my experiences of isolation, loss and rejection.

Thanks to negativity bias I’ll always remember how hard those struggles were to overcome and how desperately I wanted to feel connected. I have no doubt that’s why my most meaningful work has always revolved around the problem of loneliness.

My mission is to build technologies and tools that create connection and deepen empathy.

It’s also become the foundational value that drives product decisions at our company. When I’m stack ranking priorities for engineering I ask myself: “Does this feature actually help people connect easier or better?”

Buried in the foreword of Jim Gilliam’s book The Internet Is My Religion is a quote from Ben Horowitz that says:

“Leaders are neither born nor made; they are found.”

I certainly was not born with the charisma, grit, and courage to build a team that could solve this gigantic problem. In fact, finding the leader inside myself is an ongoing process of learning, listening and turning around to face my fears head-on.

It’s not been easy. But it’s been worth it.

There’s a long ways to go but I’m so excited about the progress thus far.

Within myself. Within the team. And within the app.

👉 Please give a 👏 if you’d like others to read it. Follow me on Twitter to stay in touch.

Download the Squad app to hang out with friends while using your favorite apps.

Esther Crawford

Written by

CEO. YC W’18. Life story: “Nevertheless, she persisted.” Optimist. Technologist. Wearer of many hats.