ELLO—Social Media for Creative Minds and the Vermonter Who Helped Bring It to Life

by Ayla Yersel

Ad-free social media site Ello has been called the “Facebook killer”. But this, according to co-founder and CEO of Ello Paul Budnitz, is not the case. 

Like Facebook, Ello is free to use. Unlike Facebook, however, it doesn’t have ads, or require users to use their real names. It’s a different kind of social media— made to connect creative people. Its slogan, “You Are Not A Product”, is a direct reference to its commitment to keeping its members the priority— not advertisers.

 “There was a story out there that we were the Facebook killer, which we weren’t and never really wanted to be-- we’re actually just creating a network for creative people,” Budnitz said. “We’re not trying to take over the world. We’re really just trying to build a sustainable, awesome business that serves people.”

“Really, Ello will only work as long as it serves the people that use it. As opposed to Facebook, which will work as long as it serves the advertiser.”

Ello also emphasizes and promotes creativity, and is developing new tools for users to highlight their work.

“You’ll see new features coming out in the next two to three months, like an enhanced discoverability-- because everyone who makes stuff just wants the stuff to be seen, it’s sort of the artistic impulse, no one wants to do a painting and leave it a dark room. So we’re making it easier for people to find and follow other people, for people to actually create beautiful things and post it.”

Ello was the brainchild of seven friends-- designers, writers, storytellers-- who decided that they wanted a different kind of social media.

“We got together and said, you know, all these other social networks suck,” Budnitz said. “It’s not fun anymore. They’re grabbing all our data, they’re full of advertisements, they’re cluttered, there’s a lot of negativity.”

So in 2014 they made their own site. The original Ello had about a hundred users, and one sole purpose— sharing posts.

“Literally the only thing you could do on it was post. You couldn’t do anything else. And it was, I think, a very earnest and very Vermont-like, actually, sort of project.”

This version soon grew to about a thousand users—and then kept growing. At one point, the site had 38,000 people signing up every hour, according to one Business Insider article. Due to the site’s popularity and rapid growth, Budnitz and the other founders decided to make a public version, aimed at providing tools for creative people to create and share projects.

A lot has changed about Ello since its launch in 2014. Today, it has an iPhone app, and is being enhanced to make it easier to find friends and discover new content, including creative tools, as well as tools to allow sharing and finding creative content.

“A little less of the general social network vibe and a lot more toward the creative network vibe,” he said.

On top of this, Ello is about to introduce a new feature. Starting in 2016, its users will be able to buy and sell things to one another.

“Basically, we’re going to create a marketplace.” 

Ello users do not have to pay for people to be able to view their posts, making the marketplace structure more “natural,” said Budnitz.

 “Because they’re following you, and it’s totally voluntary because there are no ads [around] the post, if someone is following you, it means they’ve chosen to and they’re probably a fan of whatever it is you’re doing. And so when you decide you want... to sell something, it’s very natural- I don’t think it will be intrusive at all.” 

Budnitz himself is no stranger to creative projects. He’s a film-maker, as well as owner of Budnitz’s Bicycles in Burlington and the founder of KidRobot.

“I’d been running businesses mostly based on beautiful things that I designed or that my friends designed in my life, so we decided to really turn it into a real business,” he said.

Budnitz is based in Burlington, and although his partners are in Denver and Colorado, he said that there’s “a lot of Vermont in Ello.”

“I think a lot of the ethic that’s behind Ello driven by me is similar to the Vermont ethic. We do believe, in a nice American way, that the company should be profitable, we should make money for our investors, do all the rest of it. But we also have higher ideals, and, you know, we’re a public benefit corporation. We actually put our money where our mouth is. “

Ello’s front page is simple and clean. There are no ads, just pictures and posts. This simplicity— and the fact that Ello doesn’t and will never have ads— is part of what draws people to the site, according to Budnitz.

“I really think it’s... that we’re very transparent in how we use user data,” he said, “but a lot more than that, it’s just beautiful, and the people that have chosen to stay and use Ello have created a culture that as it’s continues to grow, has really focused on positivity, creativity, connection, all the things that we really want from a network.”