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Ello CEO Paul Budnitz: "We Are Not Here to Compete With Facebook" (Q&A)

Ello had 90 users last month. Now it adds almost 50,000 new users per hour.

Paul Budnitz

Social network Ello, which operates in Vermont, is riding the rocket ship usually reserved for Silicon Valley’s hottest consumer tech startups.

The ad-free social network, which has to be the most well-known product from the Green Mountain State since Ben and Jerry’s launched in the late ’70s, has taken the tech world by storm over the past two weeks. The site had just 90 members at the beginning of August and employs “about 10 to 12” people, according to CEO Paul Budnitz, who also owns a bike company, Budnitz Bicycles. But despite being invite-only, Ello is handling between 40,000 and 50,000 invite requests every hour.*

That means the site is doubling in size every day or two, he says.

So what’s the draw? Ello is thriving because the company and its founders promise users an ad-free experience. The company manifesto heroically tell newcomers “You are not a product,” and Ello says it won’t sell your data — ever. “We’re based in a state that has no billboards — it’s part of who we are, it’s part of our DNA,” Budnitz jokes.

That doesn’t mean, however, it isn’t tracking users. It does collect information, including user location, language, referring Web site and time spent visiting Ello. It does this anonymously, and explains it all in the company’s “About” section on the site.

It does not collect personal information, according to a company spokesperson, meaning things like your gender and age are off limits (you can sign up anonymously as well). Users can also opt out entirely from any data collection should they choose. In other words, Ello has established itself as an alternative to Facebook — and it’s working, at least early on.

So how does a social network with millions of users and a promise for no ads actually plan to work? We interviewed Budnitz to find out.

Re/code: You initially created Ello as a private social network for a small group of friends. What have the past two weeks been like for you given all the attention Ello’s received?

Budnitz: It’s been really interesting and fun. We used Ello for almost a year with just a hundred of us as a private network, and we had so many people, like a thousand friends who wanted to get on, but we hadn’t built it to scale. So we decided to make a public version, and that was released in the first week in August and obviously it was growing pretty quickly. About 10 days ago it just really took off. We built Ello to scale as big as it’s growing; we just thought we’d have six months to do it, not six days.

The first year was only 100 people!?

Yeah, it was totally private. About a year and a half ago I went and visited a couple of my friends, Todd Berger and Lucian Föhr, who are my partners on Ello. We said, “You know, all these other social networks are such a drag to us. They’re so cluttered and full of ads and I can’t find my friends anymore and we keep seeing these boosted posts and for some reason Facebook’s decided I’m like a middle-aged woman and I’ve got pantyhose ads.” (Laughs.) It was a drag.

I wasn’t using it much anymore, so we decided to build our own [social network], which we did. All of us got on and talked to each other and it was so nice to have a social network that was really a social network and nothing else.

You’ve had a few instances where you’ve had to freeze new user sign-ups to keep from crashing. How many people were signing up?

I think we’ve been peaking the last couple days at 40- to 50,000 [invite requests] an hour.* It’s gotten a lot of attention all over the world. On August 7 there were 90 people on the network. And it’s invitation only, so the only way you can get on is to be invited by somebody who’s on, but you can also request an invite on the homepage, and we are inviting those people, but the list is so incredibly long that if we let everyone on at once we’d probably melt our servers. So we have been politely asking people to be patient and we’ll get them on but we’re also going to make sure Ello keeps running for the people that are on there.

At 40- to 50,000 an hour, how many millions of users is Ello at now?

It’s a lot, and we’re not releasing total numbers partly because whatever I tell you will probably be different tomorrow, and partly because we don’t really feel like we want to be part of the numbers game. We are not here to compete with Facebook. We don’t actually consider Facebook a social network. We think of it as an advertising platform. We’re doing our own thing. When we started creating Ello we actually tried to erase anything we knew and start from scratch and just tried to build what we wanted.

Given your manifesto, a lot of people have classified you as the anti-Facebook, and I have as well. Do you like that distinction? Is that how you see yourselves?

No, we don’t; we aren’t really anti-anything. If you go to the home page of our website, you can read our manifesto and at the bottom of our manifesto are two buttons. It says ‘I agree’ and ‘I disagree.’ If you agree, you get a sign-up for Ello and if you disagree it sends you to Facebook. And some people have taken that really ironically, but in truth we really mean it. Ello is not for everybody. If Ello is not for you, that’s totally cool. You can use the alternative and if you’re happy with that it’s great. Facebook really feels like a utility. I think Zuckerberg said once that he wanted to sign up everybody in the world on Facebook. That’s not our goal. We just want to make a nice community.

You’ve said you won’t put ads on Ello. If not ads, then what do you plan to do to make this a viable business?

We’re basically building something that’s similar to the App Store. So on the basic version of Ello, you can go onto the homepage and see all the features that are part of that version. All of those features are free forever and you can go on and use them. But if you would like to enhance Ello — and Ello is very simple on purpose — some people want very specific features, and you can enable them just like you would on the App Store for a couple bucks. A dollar, two dollars, just like an app. And you would be able to customize your Ello to you. That’s great because not everyone wants everything. If you ever look at the settings page on Facebook, it can be mind boggling, these lists and lists and lists of things, most of which people don’t use. What we’re doing is creating the Ello that most people will use, and almost everybody we know has something they want to tweak a little bit, and for a couple bucks you can support a network and buy the feature you want.

Can you give me a few examples of features that might be available for a cost down the road?

This is such an obvious one — it’s the most requested feature so we’re probably going to build it first — but if you’re an artist or you’ve got a home business or whatever, you’ve got your professional Ello profile, right? But you also want a personal profile for whatever else you do. So you’d like to control multiple accounts from a single login. To enable that, that is to add another account or username to your login account, we’d charge a dollar or two dollars, we don’t know how much. It’s really for a power user, but it’s not for everybody. So that’s something we are certain we can charge for and have a lot of demand for already.

You said that Ello will be free “forever” in its most basic form. Do you feel like adding that word “forever” puts any extra pressure on you as a company to deliver?

Hmmm, no. Because we learned from other networks. These are our plans and we’re doing everything we can to make them true. But you look at, which was this great idea, but it was $50 a year and it was a big barrier to entry, and I think nowadays people need to use something and fall in love with it and then say, ‘Okay, I can support that.’ So I can’t tell you how unconcerned we are.

Is the idea of keeping ads off the site a “forever” plan as well?

Oh yeah, totally, no ads. No ads and no selling of user data. We will not make money by doing those things. That is not what we’re here for. That’s one of the basic tenets of what we are.

At what stage do you remove the invite-only element and allow anyone to join?

Well, anyone can sign up and we’ll get them all on eventually, but when we know the system is stable and can handle the traffic and also when we finish most of our features is when [we’ll] think about that. But when it really happens I honestly can’t say. There’s something nice about building a community through a community. People inviting each other means people on Ello have been relatively well behaved.

Update: Ello clarified Budnitz’s statement, saying the site has received 40- to 50,000 new invite requests per hour, not all of which are new users.

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