Ello: A Vermont business with Vermont values

Ello-LogoWords and Photos // Sadie Williams

Ello is at heart a Vermont company. Founded by Paul Budnitz of KidRobot and Budnitz bikes, the new social media network is clean, simple, and completely user driven. However unlike other networks such as Facebook and Twitter, Ello has promised to never sell ads or user data. In fact, Ello was conceived in an effort to bypass the idea of turning users into commodities to be bought and sold, a sentiment specifically written into their manifesto.

“We believe there is a better way. We believe in audacity. We believe in beauty, simplicity, and transparency,” reads the Ello manifesto, published four months ago when the company went public. And the site certainly is beautiful with its clean white background, monochromatic palette, and Atlas Typewriter font. It has the air of an empty gallery; a typical profile houses a curated collection of images and musings. The comparison gains foothold in the fact that in a random assortment of profiles, the majority belong to artists, designers, writers, photographers, and other creative types from all over the world.

But how did a website now boasting a roster of international artists, designers, and the like come out of Vermont, of all places? It all started almost a year ago, when Budnitz was hanging out with his friends Todd Berger and Lucian Fohr, graphic design partners based in Boulder, Colorado. Discouraged by social networks chock full of ads and boosted posts, the trio thought “why don’t we just make our own?” According to Budnitz, “we all thought [it] was a pretty dumb idea, so we did.” And with that, Ello was born.

For a year Budnitz, Berger, and Fohr built and ran the site, bringing on Mode Set, a team of web developers based in Denver. They shared Ello with about a hundred of their friends. “We did it just for ourselves,” said Budnitz, “The only problem was after a year there were a couple thousand people wanting to get on, so we put up a manifesto and decided to make the program our own.” That was last March. In August, they released Ello to the public. By October, it was rumored that there were over 1 million users and 3 million people on the waiting list.

And that’s with the site still in Beta, basically the last phase of production in the release of a website. And Ello will be in Beta until the end of the year, according to Budnitz. That means after the massive surge in users, the Ello team had to continue working on glitches, developing features, and creating the best possible version of the site. Never one to rush, Budnitz and his team raised $5.5 million in venture capital in October to ensure that they had the time to do it right.

Any concern over their inability to create returns on such sizable investments can be quashed by one simple fact. Ello is now a Public Benefit Corporation, or B Corp, meaning they are not at the beck and call of stockholders. Although investors can expect returns, the primary responsibility of a B Corp is to balance those financial interests while fulfilling its stated public benefit and protecting the interests of the people it impacts.

In plain terms, that means that regardless of who owns the company, their commitment to never selling ads or user data is set in stone. “We’ve put a stake in the sand,” declared Budnitz. And there’s no uprooting that one. They announced the change on October 23, but Budnitz says “it was [our intention] from the start.”’

While they operate off venture capital for now, early next year Ello will begin selling additional features, giving users the ability to customize their experience. “Everyone can kind of make Ello their Ello,” mused Budnitz. “It’s a little bit like the bikes I sell. There are specific models but then you can customize them to be just like what you want.”

Additional features will be cheap, but if a network of over a million literally buys into the idea, sales will most likely ensure Ello’s longevity. Regardless of how many users are needed to make that happen, Budnitz doesn’t seem concerned. Ello isn’t on a mission to sign up the world, in fact, they would rather not. “We just want to make something awesome,” declared Budntiz, “we don’t need to sign up every person on earth.”

Interestingly, in that way Budnitz sees a connection between Ello and Vermont. The Green Mountain State doesn’t generally appeal to people who hate the snow, just like Ello won’t appeal to people who care more about their profile picture than the integrity of the content they post. Vermont doesn’t allow billboards, and Ello doesn’t allow advertising. The similarity even comes across in their approach to business. “I’m really very careful and deliberate in what we’re doing and we’d rather, you know, do it well rather than do it fast. Work hard and do a good job.” If that’s not Vermont, I’m not sure what is.

And although Vermont is primarily known for pastoral landscapes, traditional red barns, and agriculture, it shouldn’t be surprising to see a tech company like Ello blooming in the rocky soil of the Green Mountain State. In fact, last year named Burlington as one of the ten most promising tech hubs in the country. The criteria for the study they based their results on included low-cost office space, the presence of incubators and accelerators, and the “support of city government with innovative programs designed to promote tech startup growth.” Budnitz cited all of those criteria as reasons why he likes doing business in Vermont, and expressed admiration for Mayor Miro Weinberger’s involvement in creating opportunities for tech startups.

The feeling is mutual. When asked to comment in mid-November, Mayor Weinberger said “I think Ello is great, we’re excited that they’re based in Burlington. I think it’s done a lot already to wake up the country, and the world, to Burlington being a great tech place and a place to start up business.” And while admitting the challenges that many Vermont startups face in acquiring investors, he pointed to recent initiatives such as BTV Ignite, the new Generator space, and the rising number of collaborative workspaces across the city as indicators of Burlington’s progress. BTV Ignite is a collaboration between US Ignite, a nonprofit dedicated to growing new business opportunities in the tech sector, and the City of Burlington. The Generator is a business incubator, classroom, and art studio that aims to “foster activity that creates a fertile environment for innovation, creativity and idea fulfillment,” according to their website.

Weeks after Ello exploded across the internet, a number of articles surfaced claiming that the new company had reached its pinnacle, that the initial interest had faded, and that it could never compete with behemoths such as Facebook and Twitter. Some even claimed that becoming a B Corp was a weak attempt to solidify their claim, and that Ello would eventually be forced to sell ads or data. Budnitz calls the latter type of naysayers paranoid. I call them off base. If they applied logic, or whatever system they use in its place, to any other business, maybe they would be right. But Ello will crumble before it goes back on the promise they have made to their users.
They are, however, right about one thing. Ello will never compete with Facebook. And that’s not a bad thing. Just like Vermont, Ello is not for everyone, but for the people who love it, it’s one of the most beautiful places in the world.