Depending on who you talk to, mentioning Ello—the famously ad-free disruptor to the existing massive social networks—can result in fawning admiration, or a curious “Huh, is that thing still around?” And that’s for good reason.
After a hot minute of Silicon Valley viral fame last fall, the Burlington, Vermont-based company has stirred up as much controversy as commendation for what it holds up as a user-focused (as opposed to advertiser-focused) social network. And yet seemingly just after it became the new “it” thing, Ello faded into the shadows.
And that was somewhat by design; the platform made itself invite-only to manage growth after the initial crush of attention nearly crippled the nascent site before it really even had a chance to flower.
The company attracted a $5.5 million investment, but remains out of sight, out of mind for non-converts. This seems to suit founder Paul Budnitz just fine–for now.
Fast Company caught up with Budnitz recently over the phone, and he insists Ello is making good on the goal to be a new social media home for artists, makers, designers, and other ship-jumpers from the S.S. Zuckerberg. Here’s what he had to say:
Fast Company: Did you expect the huge early media buzz? And what was it like being “it” one minute and then seemingly gone the next?
Paul Budnitz: A lot of people wouldn’t find that preferable—blow up and be the biggest thing in the world. That hasn’t been our goal. One way to think about it is that a new network like ours, especially one that’s doing things pretty differently, it’s like throwing a party without anyone in it. And then you’re like, ‘Okay, who do we want to have at this party?’ If everyone in the world shows up and they don’t know what to do there, it may become a big disaster, and that’s kind of what happened [with Ello].
Can you sum up where you’re at after the initial groundswell?
We launched, and three weeks later we got tons of press attention for a network that probably had the capacity to hold 100,000 people. We dealt with it by shutting the doors, making it really hard to get on, and making it invite-only, because we were like, if we let any more people on here it’s going to crash.
We’ve kept it pretty tight since then, rolling out features and letting it grow really organically, which is the way we wanted to do it. We’re creating a network for creative people, [and] those are the people who are here. They will define what [Ello] is for and what it’s about, what kind of stuff you’ll see when you get there, and as we’ve continued to evolve and put our energy in that direction, it’s been awesome.
What was the real upside to it all?
We have great brand recognition, pissed off a lot of people in the tech world, and gave ourselves the time to do what we want. [Which] was nice because we could raise a bunch of money, and that’s given us a long runway to build. And in middle of all this happening we said, okay, we [could] build the next big thing right now by building what everyone else is, but we all looked at each other and said, Instead of doing that, [let’s] actually keep building Ello the way we think is going to make the biggest long-term impact. So that’s what we’ve been doing and have done, and what we’ve been able to do since that [initial] blow-up [in the press].
How big are your user numbers at this point? Will you make them public?
It’s in the millions. We don’t put out our numbers. We’re privately held, so we decided not to do that. But it keeps growing . . . We’re really not fucking with anyone on Ello. We originally built this just for ourselves. Our interests are in alignment with our users, not with advertisers or third parties. And we ask people’s opinions a lot, saying, “We’re thinking of adding this feature, what do you think?” And we’ll get a lot of response and commentary before we go ahead. So there’s this sense of belonging that comes with what we’re doing, and I don’t think it comes with these big publicly traded social networks. I think that’s a breath of fresh air for a lot of people, and that’s what supports a lot of the positivity [from users].
You had some problems with retention early on, with users feeling a bit lost when joining Ello. How have you overcome that?
We’re just now putting efforts into onboarding for the regular user, which is sort of odd, a year later. We know that there’s a ridiculously high probability that you’re going to both stay on, and continue to use the network, if you’re invited by someone active. Now that we have a strong critical mass, hundreds of thousands of very, very active creators, and millions of people surrounding them, we are actually, finally getting in. I think our iPhone app influenced that.
Do you think you’ll be seen as a disruptor?
I think we already are. The question is whether we will successfully disrupt these big networks. I think they’re disrupting themselves. I think the ad model creates a tension between the number of ads they show you that you don’t really want to see. When you ask people, what do you think of Facebook or Tumblr, hardly anyone says, ‘Oh my god it’s so awesome.’ A lot of people say, ‘Well it’s all right, but it could be better,’ which is why we got so much attention. I think those social networks are like network TV. It’s a slightly self-destructive course where other things will move in to disrupt them. Ello is the first of that wave [on social media]. And there are and will be others, and if we do a good job, we’ll be one that sustains. And I think we will.
At one point you’ve mentioned a revenue model in spite of the absence of ads. What is the model?
Ello will never have sponsored posts, [native ads] or anything like that. [Artists/makers] will be able to have a store on Ello and post things to sell directly on their feed. It’s like we’ll be creating little stores that will surround this totally free social network. If you’re a fan of anybody and they put something up for sale, you may want to buy it [through Ello]. And that’s how [artists/makers] support themselves anyway, and that’s basically the model of Etsy or eBay or Craigslist. We’ll take a small listing fee. We’ll also allow scheduling [tools] so you could schedule [services] directly with the people who follow you. It’ll be pretty versatile when it’s done.
–Daniel McCarthy is a freelance journalist who has written for Esquire, The Daily Beast, The Boston Phoenix, and was most recently the editor-in-chief of DigBoston, the city’s last alt-weekly. He is based in Boston.