Even before he founded the social-media network Ello and championed the pleasures of ad-free browsing, Paul Budnitz was an entrepreneur with a flair for the visual. With Kidrobot, the anti-cute alternative toy and street fashion company that he founded in 2002, he kindled a kidult craze for limited-edition, artist-designed collectible figurines. Today Kidrobot’s designs are iconic: Munny, a minimalist, white toy with movable joints, has served as an unconventional blank canvas for street and comics artists. Frank Kozik’s Labbit has won the distinction of being adapted into over 150 commercial items and immortalized in its own Urban Dictionary entry.
In 2010 Budnitz sought a challenge in another recreational pastime—cycling. “If I stayed at Kidrobot, I'd be repeating myself,” he tells me. And so he sold his stake in the company, left New York for Colorado, and founded Budnitz Bicycles, a company that manufacturers lightweight “city” bicycles out of titanium and cro-moly steel.
Eighteen months ago, Budnitz began work on a new project—a social-media experience characterized not so much by what it is as by what it is not. What it is not is a network that displays advertisements or sells its members’ personal data. The brainchild of Budnitz’s collaboration with friends at the Colorado design studio Berger & Fohr and the software consulting company ModeSet, Ello sets out to revolutionize social media by simplifying it. Already, it has spurred a flood of coverage, some positive and some negative.
“I was just fed up with other social networks,” Budnitz recalls. “They were cluttered, full of ads, ugly, and their use of data was feeling manipulative. So I said, ‘Let’s make our own.’”
From a design standpoint, it’s a low-impact, somewhat comforting online experience. I don’t have a Facebook page or a LinkedIn profile, but found it to be a very simple and beautiful network. I can’t say that I use Ello to make friends and influence people, either, but there is a kind of pleasure in getting involved during its small, idea-driven, not-entirely-limited inception.
But can that idea survive in a sea of gargantuan, also formerly hip media giants? Budnitz has heard no end to the skepticism. “How are you going to compete with Facebook and Tumblr [now owned by Yahoo]?” “Do you know how much money those guys have?” His response is one you hear a lot in the design world: “As creative people, if we listen to voices like these we never find the guts to create anything new.”
Rather than compete with the giants, Budnitz is on a mission to make something that is already a popular medium into an even more sophisticated one. “Imagining that we can build something better requires some audacity—and a little stupidity, too,” he says. “I'm just a little too dumb to listen to the advice of people who know better. And I'm excited enough about what I'm doing to just jump in.”
To follow through Budnitz embraces the basics of the social-media experience. Budnitz is a founder, but also a typical Ello user. He posts things he’s working on and thinking about. He posts to meet new people and new artists that inspire him. And he posts to talk to old friends. Although this social networking sounds familiar, he says, “It's just that Ello doesn't have ads, boosted posts, or anything else that stands between me and the things I'm interested in.”
What Budnitz says he wants users to gain from this alternative network is simple: “Freedom.” Freedom for Budnitz means liberation from advertising and other intrusions, which he says turns advertisers into the real customers and users into the product that’s being bought and sold. “More importantly, I think, is the design of the network,” he says. “Nobody would be using it if it wasn't fundamentally awesome and fun to use.”
To that end, Ello has patented a “clutter management” function with a unique binary mechanism and made the most of its staff’s art-related backgrounds: Ello aims to be the place to post and view large-sized images and high-quality content.
Invitations are required to join, but Budnitz insists Ello isn’t elitist. While Ello has a healthy segment of users that are artists and creators, many participants are using Ello like a regular social network—chatting about their day-to-day lives, browsing, meeting one another. “We're invite-only right now for the most part because we want to limit the speed that the network grows as we're developing it live,” the founder says. Anyone can also request an invite through the home page.
Ello has promised it will always be free to use, but funding is a key question Budnitz dodges. He’s insistent Ello will never turn into a megalomaniac social network intent on “controlling the world”—or at least, controlling the world’s smartphones—which, while admirable, raises some concerns about how Ello might fund their endeavor in competition with others that do. Budnitz remains idealistic, and optimistic, about his business model. “As long as Ello keeps growing while maintaining quality, and makes some money while doing that, we're succeeding,” he says.
There’s reason to believe it may work. Budnitz Bicycles doubled sales this year, and early next year the company will be releasing a bag and apparel line. Ello is doubling in size every three days. Throughout this rapid growth, however, Budnitz says the company is maintaining the core spirit of the original idea. “We're committed to keeping it that way,” he says. “What else is there?”