LinkedIn is already littered with blog posts purporting to teach you the marketing lessons to be learned from Ello, the latest social network to seize the meaningless title of “Facebook killer”.
The real lesson for startups in its fast rise to minor media obsession is to get your story straight and beware of making promises that you’ll struggle to deliver on in the long term.
Following the money
Ello got a lot of attention thanks to its bombastic manifesto promising that it will never have advertising and instead make money through selling features.
But once it emerged that the social network took $435,000 in seed funding from a VC-firm, its vision suddenly looked a lot less pure.
Todd Berger, one of Ello’s co-founders, dismissed the idea that taking funding would put pressure on Ello to deliver returns in an interview with GigaOm:
[The funding’s] not a secret but we weren’t taking the tech company approach and blabbing about it. Why would we lead with that story? Who cares about that?
The answer is: quite a lot of people. By defining Ello as the alternative to Twitter and Facebook with their ad-dependent business models, the co-founders are implying that their social network is ethically superior.
Choosing to omit details of the seed funding from their initial presentation to the world created suspicion.
Ello’s About section is deceptive. It suggests that the social network is entirely independent; the product of a group of artists.
Andy Baio, who first highlighted the investment in an Ello post, summed up the problem eloquently in a subsequent update:
I think taking VC was a bad idea that works against their ethos, and will inevitably lead to a much larger Series A by year’s end.
I think the intentions of the team are pure, and they genuinely believe in what they’re building. But I’m not sure intentions matter unless they can wean themselves off outside funding.
Ello’s founding team have said its costs are currently manageable but the nature of social networks is that the expense grows exponentially. It’s easy to forget that Mark Zuckerberg was once squeamish about advertising too.
Ello’s manifesto is admirable in many ways but by defining itself by what it is not, it’s already painted itself into corner. Relying on enough users to shell out for as-yet-undefined premium features is a risky bet.
Right now, Ello has a stirring battle cry: “You are the product that’s bought and sold. We believe there is a better way. We believe in audacity. We believe in beauty, simplicity and transparency.”
Unpacking those words those is like cutting into a golf ball, you soon find yourself with a lot of mess to unravel. The meaning of those terms is far from universal.
Ello has done a brilliant job in gaining attention and users but holding onto both will be a lot harder. The battlefield is strewn with the corpses of social networks that made promises predicated on big principles but failed to deliver.
Failing to tell its story straight at the start was a big mistake and one from which Ello may never recover.