Ello, the startup formerly known as the anti-Facebook, grows up

Remember Ello, the social network that was first portrayed as the anti-Facebook well over a year ago? Well, it’s still around, but the anti-Facebook framing is something it never should have been billed as, according to the founders.
Sure, there are some aspects of the service that make it seem like a response to the world’s largest social network. It started out small. It’s promised never to display advertisements, which means it doesn’t track its users around the Web. And it’s based around the idea of communicating with other people which, due to the lens through which we view the Internet, makes it a Facebook competitor.
But it doesn’t matter that Ello wasn’t meant to compete with Facebook. That’s how the service was perceived, and it was called the “anti-Facebook” so much that it became the service’s tagline in the mind of the general population. (Well, the portion of the general population that reads tech journalism, at least.) It’s also part of the reason chief executive Paul Budnitz stopped talking to the press.
“Someone, somewhere had called Ello a Facebook killer, and there was just all this hype in the news and I had basically every VC in the country trying to talk to me,” he said in a recent interview. “For most people that’s really an awesome thing and I guess what every startup wants, but for us everyone was coming for something that I didn’t want to build and we really had no interest in building.”
It didn’t matter how often Budnitz said Ello wasn’t taking on Facebook — the story had taken on a life of its own. Investors were calling with hopes of getting in early with the so-called Facebook killer. Consumers were flocking to the site in search of an alternative to that most polarizing of social networks. And writers, like me, were interested in the company mostly because of a false narrative.
Eventually the press stopped. Ello didn’t kill Facebook within a few months, its founder wasn’t giving interviews, and relatively few people used the service. An analyst for App Annie told me that Ello “essentially is so small it doesn’t and can’t compare to” Facebook, Twitter, Snapchat, and other established social networks or “anything that could be defined as an up-and-coming social app.”
Ello wasn’t even of much interest to researchers. Jason Mander, the director of research at GlobalWebIndex, told me Ello was included in just one of the firm’s quarterly surveys about consumer Internet usage. It wasn’t included in following surveys because it was of little interest to the firm’s clients and respondents. Ello seemed to have been forgotten by everyone outside its relatively small audience.
That didn’t stop the company from continuing its work. I reached out to its press team shortly after I started at Gigaom on a lark. Mostly I expected it to email me every once in a while with a product update, or user data, or the other innocuous things most social networks use to garner attention. It did none of those things. Instead, it sent me the same emails its users get about new features or changes.
“I’d do these interviews with these really nice people and they’d put this stuff up like ‘When is Ello going to switch and start running ads?’ and ‘You’re really not going to go for the billion dollars right now?’ So we just felt like we weren’t getting through the noise,” Budnitz told me. “One of the reasons we’re finally doing interviews is that, if you go on Ello, it’s actually really, really awesome.”
It’s also focused on inspiration, as Budnitz puts it, instead of social networking. People aren’t using Ello to connect with high school classmates — they’re using it to share the images, blog posts, and graphic designs they’ve made or discovered. All of the company’s focus over the last year has been on furthering that mission and giving users a place to connect with like-minded people around the world.
That’s part of the reason why Ello doesn’t have ads. Sure, part of it’s because Budnitz and his co-founders think the way Web ads work is kind of creepy. But the other part is that most advertisements would disrupt the look of the site. “Beautiful photographs look really crummy next to ads for car insurance and tortilla chips,” he said. So the company doesn’t, and indeed can’t, show ads.
So what is Ello? “The basic thing that we’ve been building is a safe and positive community where creators publish, share, and eventually sell inspiring work. It’s really a place for people who make things to inspire one another,” Budnitz said. “And really it’s not just high-end professionals and designers and all that stuff. I would say we have all types of people, amateurs, professionals, you name it.”
That positivity is enforced by a full-time support staff, features that give Ello users granular control over who can see what they post, and its small audience. Visiting the site feels less like signing on to a social network and more like stepping into an art gallery where people who don’t know each other gather around, look at a specific work, and then discuss it in a cool-but-congenial way.
Soon it will be a little different. Budnitz said the company plans to introduce a commerce portion of the service that will allow creators to sell things to other users. It also plans to introduce a version of the site that doesn’t require people to sign on to view work — which should go a long way towards increasing its visibility — and to (finally) release an application for Android smartphones.
But perhaps the biggest change will be the ability for Ello users to post content to other social networks through the platform. This could make it something akin to a central management tool that allows people to share things on Ello first, thus giving them access to what’s described as a supportive community filled with talented people, before sharing them with the masses on other networks.
“Our research shows that one of the most popular reasons for using social networks is because people’s friends are on them too. I think that’s why Ello struggled to attract a critical mass, because people tend to join when they perceive lots of their friends to be using the service too,” Mander said. “However, multi-networking is widespread. Globally, the average internet user has accounts on over 6 networks (rising to 7 among 16-24s). So, there’s certainly scope for Ello to sit alongside other services, even if its users are still engaging with other platforms too.”
Ello has raised around $10 million, and Budnitz said its team remains small so it can keep costs down. The commerce features will help it monetize. It probably won’t ever see the kind of success that other networks have (here I go thinking about Facebook again) but it could be a sustainable business. If anything that makes it more interesting than if it were an also-ran that died battling Facebook.
The company might never escape the idea that it’s the anti-Facebook. That’s certainly the perception I had of the service when I started researching this post. And I’ll confess that even now the cynic in me can’t help but wonder if it really was meant to take on Facebook but pivoted once the hype died down. Ello will be fighting this perception for a long time. Budnitz is okay with that. As he told me:
“We have time.”