During the era of Web 1.0, the internet was seen as something to be approached with caution: Be careful about using your personal details, don’t share too much, and so on. The arrival of web 2.0 and the era of social networking changed everything, and billions of people are sharing their lives almost constantly with thousands of people online.
But is there still a place for private thoughts? That’s the thinking behind Just10 – an intriguing social network concept which is entirely private, keeps no logs of your activities… and limits you to having just ten friends on the service.
Could it strike the perfect balance between a desire to share and a desire for privacy? To find out, we spoke to founder and CEO Frederick Ghahramani.
First off, please can you explain what Just10 does?
We’re building a private ad-free competitor to Facebook. We feel it’s become difficult to ‘be yourself’ with hundreds of ‘friends’ watching and judging your every move on social media. Our key proposition is privacy between you and an intimate group of 10 friends. Everything you post in Just10 is strictly private, and for added security all posts are automatically deleted in 10 days. Behind the scenes, we’re working on making this the world’s first social network that offers end-to-end encryption. This means people will finally have a safe and secure space to be themselves, and not worry about advertisers, insurance companies, or even governments, snooping on their thoughts or ideas.
What’s your personal background, and what inspired you to start the company?
I’ve been a tech entrepreneur for over 15 years. I helped scale my first digital software company to over 100 million customers generating over a billion in sales. I went all over the world promoting our strap-line ‘share your world’. Then I had a child. And all of a sudden I started getting annoyed that friends were taking photos of my child, sharing them across social networks. After that it dawned on me that there are actually two internets, the one that people like me have been building for two decades, where we see people and their information as assets and revenue centres, and the internet that we all want to use – private, secure, where we’re always in full control of our information and data.
This kick-started the idea of Just10 – let’s reinvent the social media wheel, but make it our redemption song – let’s do everything that we ‘shouldn’t’ do. This is why we don’t collect your location, gender, or any other demographic information, because we’re not building an ad sponsored beast – we’re putting the consumer first and breaking all the rules of building enterprise value.
As with all such journeys, along the way something else crazy happened – governments all over the world started enacting the equivalent of the ‘Snooper’s Charter’ – first New Zealand, then Australia, Canada, France, UK.
My friends in the technology are outraged by such legislation, and it has hit a personal nerve for me. I have vivid memories growing up as an ethnic minority in Iran in the 1980’s, and being told to ‘be careful’ of what I said on the phone as the secret police was always listening. These legislative developments have really heightened my sense of urgency to build a viable consumer proposition with Just10. Without a doubt, social networking is the most popular activity online, and over a billion people are oblivious to the fact that their information is at risk of being sniffed, archived, analysed, and used in ways they could never dream of. This is why our purpose now is to build Just10 to being a viable consumer proposition, offering end-to-end encryption, and a private, secure, ad-free alternative to Facebook.
And what’s the story of the company from launch until now? How big is the company now?
We’ve spent nearly two years designing and building our minimum viable product and preparing for a simultaneous launch on desktop and mobile (Android, iOS, Blackberry) platforms (and soon Windows Mobile). We launched our preliminary beta this February in New Zealand, and eventually expanded this globally, working through the bugs and expanding our feature set every three weeks. We intend on exiting our beta stage once we’ve rolled out full end-to-end encryption on all platforms.
For me, the proposition of Just10 alone is more exciting and powerful than any of the incentivised advertising I’ve worked on the past.
What has been the biggest challenge you’ve faced so far?
Obviously when you’re David and you attempt to take on Goliath, there’s no shortage of challenges. And the most commonly asked question that we face is, ‘how can you afford to play catch-up and compete?’ The way David answered this question was that he chose to do something irrational. He gave up his armour, and conventional weapons, and tried to exploit his new found nimbleness to his advantage – this was his main ‘aha’ moment.
Our main ‘aha’ moment came when we realised social networking is about what’s going on ‘right now’ and not months ago. Our initial trials showed that most people don’t even surf back beyond a few days of content on their newsfeeds. Eliminating content older than 10 days allows us to drastically reduce our storage and search costs, and helps us overcome our biggest challenge. So when people ask me, ‘how can you afford to play catch-up?’ My answer is, we don’t intend on catching up! We’re building a trimmed down, lighter version of Facebook – the one that you loved in 2006, before all the apps, ads, and annoying tracking and byzantine privacy settings were rolled out.
What is your business model? How do you plan to monetize Just 10?
Just10 is currently, and will always be free to use. Given our lower cost base per user, and the initial seed-funding that I’ve put into the business, we have a financial cushion to build out our audience and explore some alternative business models in the next two years. Perhaps not surprising, our initial monetisation plan will be providing certain premium features which will be micro-billed.
The freemium model is something I truly value after over a decade of growing a mobile games business. But I also know that if we don’t start with a base in the 10’s of millions of users, it’s not really worth pursuing such a plan.
What are the key metrics that you monitor in your business growth?
As part of our privacy and security proposition, we’ve opted to not use any conventional tracking or analytics tools or tracking software in our product – this is all part of that insane uncompromising drive to be “irrational” and put the consumer first. To that end, we don’t really have much to ‘monitor’ short of aggregate traffic and unique signups. In these initial beta stages, those are the key metrics that matter. In the future as we introduce premium pieces to our proposition, obviously tracking the conventional P&L on a daily basis will be added to the key operational metrics.
If Just 10 is limited to just friends, are there any worries about scale?
Indeed – it’s something I worry about every single day. On the one hand, life would be so much easier if we did what every other social network in the world does – take your address book, and trick you into “accidentally on purpose” clicking the wrong button to spam your entire list of clients, friends, and acquaintances to accept your invitation to join this new social network. While that would help our numbers, it wouldn’t fall into our brand ethos or be agreeable with our core proposition. So yes, the product is inherently less viral from a mechanical perspective because it doesn’t generate as much invite spam. But then again, what we’re witnessing is that you don’t need to auto-generate 500 outbound emails for an idea to be viral or infectious. If people love the idea and the proposition, they will bring their real friends into the equation.
What’s the next step for Just 10 as a business? Is the intention to grow the business independently, or look for an exit via acquisition or similar?
I tend to be rather old-school when it comes to this question, as I’ve never understood how someone can fairly build a business with the stated goal of an ‘exit’. Everybody knows when you build a spec house, the first thing you do is cut corners and skimp on quality materials. Yet somehow this is respectable and de rigueur in the technology world. So I guess my short answer to this question is – we’re trying to build value, and if we’re successful, we’re going to keep building on it until they take the shares from my cold dead hands. Naturally it’s no surprise that businesses that are built to last are always the best acquisition targets, so obviously the beauty of being viable is that you always have options.
But let’s be realistic – 95% of start-ups fail, even more so in this sector, so the more likely statistical outcome is that we will fail. However, with this product, if we don’t succeed, the graceful exit is to opensource our codebase and allow others to step in and expand on the project, because I feel the purpose of this effort (allowing billions of innocent people be free of 24×7 government surveillance) is worth more than the commercial potential.