New social network site keeps things among friends

Note: This column was published in the March 19 edition of the Daily Herald Business Ledger.

With more than 800 million users worldwide, it’s easy to forget that Facebook once had a very humble beginning in Mark Zuckerberg’s dorm room.

So it’s easy for the big players in social networking to overlook what Doug Freitag and a few colleagues are putting together in Orland Park. And, for now, he’s OK with that.

Freitag is president of Friendio, a social network site that holds true to the ideas of “friends and family” connectivity. Friendio has a similar look and feel to other social networking sites, but its draw is that it gives users more control over what information is public and what is only shared among a network of family and friends.

“It’s social networking in true form,” Freitag said. “It has the same features (as the big social network sites), but we keep it locked down.

“When you sign up for the site, your profile is private. Not even partial information is made public, just your name,” he added.

In fact, Freitag said Friendio got its seed after several high-profile privacy policy changes at sites like Facebook led to growing dissatisfaction among users. In addition to the comprising of privacy issues, Freitag said the changes were moving the big sites away from their original purpose of sharing information among a user’s defined group.

“Friendio was started because of the changes at the other social networking site,” he said. “Our site is meant to be just your own circle of family and friends. It’s not meant to be a Twitter, where everything is public.”

Once a profile is established, Friendio users invite others to join their circle. The user’s status, information and media such as photos and videos is shared only among that circle, unless the user chooses to share it publicly. Friendio’s profile page even resembles the traditional Facebook page, and Freitag believes that will be a benefit as Facebook switches all of its users to the new “Timeline” profile page later this month.

“The majority of people dislike Timeline,” he said. “When I saw it, it reminded me of my grandmother’s scrapbook. It just doesn’t seem like social networking anymore.

“Why are they making people use it if they don’t want it?” he asks.”You should be able to use it the way you want it.”

That thought ties into Friendio’s slogan, “It’s all about you.” Freitag said the site is highly customizable, allowing users to add music, geotagging, company pages and other add-ons that interests the user’s circle of friends.

Freitag and his small staff began Friendio in beta about a year ago and did a full launch last December. With very little fanfare and marketing, the site has built up 707,000 users worldwide, mostly from U.S., Australia and Europe. Two events, he said, helped build the site’s following: A news report by a Fox television affiliate in Sacramento, Calif., and a write-up on the tech social networking site Mashable.

“(Mashable) has 7 million followers,” he said. “That brought a lot more into our site and those people invited more people. That’s how it’s growing ever since.”

Freitag noted the site’s API is open to outside developers as well to create new apps to expand the experience for Friendio users. Websites and bloggers can also get a “like button” widget to bring new people to Friendio as well. The site is free to users, and revenue is coming mostly through advertisers and through Google ads.Freitag said they have recently signed up online movie ticket site Fandango as an advertiser.

The site has drawn interest from potential investors, but Freitag said he’s hesitant to jump on investor offers for concern of losing the focus of the site.

“That’s what happened to Facebook,” he said. “Mark Zuckerberg wanted to make the world more connected — and he still does — but he owns only a portion of Facebook now and I think the decisions there now are more from corporate than from him. It’s more about money and profits today than making the world more connected.”

While he continues to build and grow the site, Freitag doesn’t see himself competing at the level of Facebook or Google+ — for now, at least.

“We have a long way to go for that,” he said. “We don’t even have one percent of what they are today.

“We have some people who laugh at us because of Facebook and say we could never be Facebook, but I’m sure Facebook was told the same thing when they started, too, ” he added. “It can happen, and all feedback we have is that people love what we are doing and they can’t wait to delete their Facebook page.”

You can check out Friendio at www.friend.io.

New programs help small business build customer base

NOTE: This column first appeared in the March 5 Daily Herald Business Ledger.

As daily deal coupons, digital wallets and customer loyalty programs become more prevalent among national retailers, developers are stepping up to help small, mom-and-pop businesses compete for customers in the digital world.
There has been a plethora of new products introduced over the past year, designed to give Main Street businesses the competitive edge against the Starbucks and Paneras in enticing new customers and rewarding regular ones.
One example is Naperville-based Uberloop, which is designed to help small businesses connect with customers through an online community-based network. The site launched in February with 18 local businesses participating, primarily in the western suburbs, and an additional 20 to be added within the next month, according to Uberloop President Joshua Dean.
Think of it, in a sense, as Facebook meets Groupon.
Like Facebook, businesses create an Uberloop presence and invite customers through “Loopvites” to join their site, according to Dean. Once a customer accepts an invitation, the business can send alerts to the customer of specials and create coupons for the customer to use at the store. As businesses and customers become part of the Uberloop community, they have the ability to learn about and share with one another within a geographic area, Dean said.
“What’s powerful about this is that we’re trying to create new connections and engagements between a business and their current and potential customers within a local community,” Dean said.
Uberloop businesses can broadcast specials, news or other information to customers through “Loopcasts,” which Dean said are broadcast to the Uberloop customers, as well as all subscribers within a 30-mile radius of the business.
In addition, businesses can create “Uberperks,” or online coupons, to customers. Dean said the site has a user-friendly coupon generator that provides templates for the business to create and send its own online coupon.
All of this, he said, is linked to social media as well, so customers and business can resend their Loopcasts or Uberperks to Facebook, Twitter, or other sites, which gives the local business greater reach and potential for new customers.
In addition to the online tools, Dean said Uberloop also has a brick-and-mortar platform through “Ubercards” that are displayed at participating businesses. The racks — called “Uberboards” — contain cards that offer deals from other participating Uberloop business. As a customer visits an Uberloop business, they can see the Ubercards from other businesses and, if there is something the customer finds interesting, can take the card with him.
“We’ve taken the giftcard concept that you see at a Jewel or Meijer,” Dean explained. “But they don’t need to be purchased. What they are is a printed Uberperk.”
The cards are taken by the customer and activated online in order to receive the offer. “The activation process connects the customer with the business and brings them into the Uberloop community,” he said.
Although the site is currently focused on the suburbs, Dean foresees the platform to grow nationally with the goal of having 10,000 businesses and 6 million registered users within a year. He noted that, since the Uberloop communities are geo-based and focus locally, he has had a lot of interest from local business organizations and chambers of commerce, as well other professional and trade organizations.
“The purpose behind Uberloop is building relationships,” he said. “You build relationships to a point where, if a competitor makes a more enticing offer, your customers may not take it up because they’ve built that relationship with you.”
For more information, go to www.uberloop.com.
Meanwhile, Paycloud made its debut recently in the Chicago area as a smart wallet alternative for small businesses. The creation of Cleveland-based SparkBase, Paycloud is a smartphone app that uses credit card transaction technology to extend a small business’s customer loyalty program.
The key to Paycloud is that it uses hardware already in the store, so start up costs are less than $100 and can be set up within 48 hours, according to SparkBase CEO Doug Hardman.
“You tap on the phone and hold it to a sensor connected to the credit card terminal,” Hardman said. “It encrypts the information and the device puts it in like a credit card swipe. It’s a very secure way to transmit data into a credit card reader.”
Paycloud allows customers to join and participate in customer loyalty programs, as well as find other participating businesses within proximity of the customer. Hardman said Paycloud is seen as an alternative to plastic card-based programs.
“Merchants really don’t like passing out plastic cards as the do getting them,” he said. “They don’t like to type all that information into the system at the end of the day.
“If we can make the processes seamless and instantaneous, then we’ve got a winner — and that’s what we got,” he said.
Paycloud was launched last fall in Chicago’s Andersonville neighborhood, which Hardman said was selected because of the large number of small businesses that were located within walking distance from one another. He said the program was well-received among the 160 merchants using it during the last quarter of 2011, and Paycloud will be rolled out in other parts of the country throughout this year, he added.
Paycloud is one of many tools SparkBase offers small business to help them build customer loyalty and branding programs. For more information, go to sparkbase.com/products/paycloud/simple/.