Since beginning its beta in August, new social network Ello has attracted attention for its spare, minimalist design, its invitation-only status, its temerity to take on Facebook, and most notably, its refusal to host ads. 

Ello’s also been criticized for being buggy, and had its viability questioned by Mark Zuckerburg. Whether its here for the long term remains to be seen, but it has attracted $5.5 million in additional venture funding, and has accomplished the feat of not falling flat on its face in its first five months. Founder Paul Budnitz spoke with ReadWrite about what the first few months of the budding social network have been like, how it got there, and what’s next. 

ReadWriteSo, how have the first few months of Ello been?

Budnitz: It’s been completely awesome and surprising and a lot of work.

RW: Has the reaction been better than you expected? Worse?

PB: I can’t say that it’s what I expected at all. It’s funny because some things that we did really actually worked. One of the ideas we had was that because we’re artists and designers, we would invite artists and designers to be on the network first. It’s helped Ello grow organically into this very creative community.

See also: What Your Business Can Learn From Ello

There were some things we didn’t anticipate, like when the LGBTQ community came on. That gave us a real big kick. I think we grew in about six days what I thought we had about six months to do. We’ve been working 40 to 50 hours a week. We’ve been working 18 hours days constantly because there’s a lot of backend work we had to do. It was a lot of stuff that happened at once that was really hard and kind of awesome.

RW: How big is the team?

PB: If you add everyone up, it’s about 20. It’s a lot more than we had when we started. We’re still keeping it small. Everyone that works on Ello and those of us that founded Ello are very good at what we do. One of things we decided to do from the start is only bring in people we know are the best. Rather than build a big team, we decided to build a great team. I’d rather have 25 great people than a big office where people are running around wasting each others’ time, in a way.

RW: How has starting Ello been as opposed to starting some of your other businesses, Kidrobot and Budnitz Bicycles?

PB: It’s been really different. Kidrobot grew over the course of five or six years. It moved much more slowly. There were definitely bursts. It grew kind of steadily. The bicycle company is different still because it’s kind of designed not to grow in a way. We have a limit to the number of bicycles we produce. It’s made to be a company that’s about quality not quantity.

It was conceived to be a small, profitable company. Ello is … We kind of released it and it just went crazy within a month. I think I’ve learned lessons through all the other things I’ve done that I get to apply to this company. We’re kind of fortunate that we blew up and then I got to take on the investors that I wanted. (Ello) has spent zero dollars on marketing. 

Making Social Media Fun Again

RW: Was there a singular experience that led you to found Ello? How did this become something you wanted to do?

PB: I had stopped using social networks and most of my friends had as well. Some of us were on a little bit professionally. My bicycle company has a page, for example. I really like social media. When Facebook first came out, I thought it was really fun. I had a Tumblr blog I think it’s still sitting there. As a way to just promote what you’re doing, social media was great, especially for creative person. I realized over time, though, that (social networks) had all been driven by same profit model which was driven by selling ads and personal data. 

See also: Ello No Flash In The Pan, New Metrics Suggest

So after awhile I found myself looking at all this junk. On a personal side, the social networks just weren’t fun anymore. Simultaneously, on the business side, Facebook encouraged brands to build up a large following but then the pulled this bait and switch and said if you want your followers to read what you post, then you have to pay Facebook. You can do a post and two to four percent of the people that are following you will see it organically. 

I kind of looked at this whole broken thing and what it all came down to, the fact is that what’s really going on is deeper than that. It’s not about the ads, it’s about what that does. Everything you do is tweaked against you. You want to see the stuff you follow, and network wants you to click on things that will let them learn things about you. Those motivations are not aligned. 

I was hanging out with (Ello co-founders) Todd (Berger) and Lucian (Föhr). We were just having lunch together and I said “Why don’t we make our own social network?” And they said “That’s stupid,” and I said “Yeah, but what if we did it anyway?” So we did it as a design exercise, and then talked to the guys at ModeSet. We built (Ello) and used it with about 100 of our friends for about a year. It wasn’t very robust and very hacked together, so after awhile it couldn’t support as many people as wanted to be a part of it.

RW: What happened then?

It was very hard to raise money for because everyone was like “Oh, that’s a horrible idea. Facebook has already won, do you think you can actually compete with them for the amount of money you have?” 

We said, “We don’t know!” I like to believe if it’s easy to raise money for something, somebody else is probably thinking about it. It wasn’t about the ads so much as people being jaded and saying Facebook has already won. We released Ello and clearly we can. 

Facing The Future

RW: What’s on tap for 2015?

PB: Our mobile app is deep in development. That should be coming out fairly soon. When that comes out, we may come out of beta and the invitation only practice at that time, but we’re not sure. The mobile app has been a big gap for me personally. I think that’ll be pretty awesome when that comes out. There’s also lot of new features. I think we’re about two thirds of the way through our feature list. We’ve been releasing new features every few weeks. I’m just assuming that Ello will keep getting better and better. 

RW: Do you have a New Year’s resolution?

PB: No, not really. One day awhile back, this must have been 10 or 12 years ago, I was living in New York City. I walked into my apartment and decided to get rid of everything I owned but didn’t use constantly. Every piece of childhood memorabilia, every CD, I just put everything  out in the street. I ended up with an apartment with a bed in it and a table and no chairs, and I’ve pretty much lived like that since. I don’t own anything I don’t use.