Socially Inclined

Putting their own spin on social engagement, Yuser chases the startup dream

Photo: Yuser’s Tom Cermak, Mitch Brogan and Eunika Sot

IMAGINE FOR A moment a slight change in your favourite shopping points or rewards program. You still get points for all your purchases, along with bonus points for various promotions. You still rack them up with a swipe card or phone app.

But now they hold no value. You cannot use them to buy groceries or gas or venti double-shot pumpkin spice lattes. You simply rack up as many points as possible, celebrating when you hit certain round numbers, checking your phone to see the latest total.

For most people on social media, that is ­precisely how the like-love-star-heart system of sharing words and pictures works. Racking up the likes feels good. It’s addictive. But unless you’re a megastar who can commercialize the audience represented by one million likes and follows, they are little more than a thumbs-up from random people in search of their own ­affirmation every 15 minutes, all day long.

That existential reality is the starting place for a new sharing app developed by a collection of tech geeks and financial wizzes who have come together to create Yuser. If you’ve never heard of Yuser, you’re not alone. It is the very definition of a fledgling concept.

And yet, it seems to hold great promise. The goal of its creators is nothing less than ­revolutionizing social media, taking on some companies you might have heard of—Goggle and Facebook. They’ve thought deeply about what a sharing app and network should do, and what it shouldn’t do. They’ve spent the time and money to build a solid technical foundation, employing blockchain to create trust among users.

Despite all of that, the odds of them succeeding on the level of their dreams are rather long. But they relish the role of underdog, quietly building something they are sure people will like.

Clockwise from bottom left: Yuser’s Natalia Visla, Eunika Sot, Colton Atkey, Tom Cermak and Mtch Brogan

The first thing people will like is that they can trade in their likes for actual stuff. In the Yuser world, people rack up gems. Actually, they rack up stones and turn them into gems—that simple action represents a level of engagement that is crucial in the Yuser ecosystem.

“We want gems to represent real stuff and become the driving force for real interaction, not scammy behaviour from click farms and fake users. Hopefully, gems will become a thing,” says Eunika Sot, the Polish-by-way-of-Ireland co-founder of Yuser. She is chief operating officer and the public face of the company, a passionate advocate for blockchain and cryptocurrency.

She is one quarter of the brain trust. Her fellow co-founders, Mitch Brogan and Tom Cermak, are the majority shareholders.

Brogan created Able Bionics Corp. to rent, sell and train people in the use of exoskeleton suits. They allow people with mobility impairments to walk again. Brogan has been a quadriplegic since 2006 when a drunk driver hit him while he was cycling. Five years ago, he studied at the International Space University in France. He describes himself as a serial entrepreneur.

Cermak has long been interested in digital ­content. He created digital arts, music and lifestyle publication London Fuse 10 years ago and was a partner in Thread Development, a digital creative agency that operated until 2014. Three years ago, he and Brogan launched PoMoFo, also known as PMF Media, with plans to emulate the success of Diply and other content aggregators.

But when Facebook and Google reworked their ­algorithms to downplay that type of content, the foundation on which such companies were built crumbled almost overnight.

“We wanted to create something new that wasn’t based on that business model,” says Brogan. The result, after some growing pains, is Yuser.

“Small businesses haven’t seen a return on social media. About 75 per cent see no return on social media ads” —Eunika Sot

Colton Atkey joined the group last year, in its second ­iteration, bringing his experience as a financial analyst and technology expert. He created two tech companies, was on Western’s varsity fencing team and earned a degree in ­commercial aviation. He met Brogan on a flight from Miami to Toronto. They spent the time discussing Brogan’s new ­company; Atkey was hooked.

In short, it’s a team of fascinating people with a wide range of knowledge and experience.

In May, they moved to the London Roundhouse and are part of the RH Accelerator program, which takes a small ­shareholder position to provide office space and support until Yuser is ready to leave the nest.

After ‘Yuser’, the most popular five-letter word at the ­company is ‘trust’. The entire enterprise is designed to create and maintain the trust of users, defined very broadly. They could be individuals posting content and not worrying about what’s happening to their data. Or they could be companies looking for a way to use social media to connect with real customers who genuinely are interested in what they’re offering.

For almost everyone right now, the reward for creating a nifty video and posting it to their favourite social media outlet is nothing more than approbation from friends and virtual friends.

“Eighty per cent of all ad revenue on these sites goes to Facebook or Google,” says Cermak. “We want to change that and build value around gems, maximizing the market potential of content.”

That means using blockchain to ensure users maintain control of their content and encouraging people to actually interact with the material before liking it. Genuine interaction is rewarded with stones that can be transformed to gems, which in turn can be spent for tangible benefits.

From left: Natalia Visla (seated in chair), Colton Atkey and Eunika Sot

The Yuser dream is that one day users can spend their gems at online retailers, so there is no geographic barrier to participating. For now, the company is taking smaller, more local steps. This month, it launched its gem marketplace. Early adopter businesses like the Root Cellar, Booch Organic Kombucha, London Brewing and Boho Bars have signed up to offer products and deals in exchange for gems.

Business buy-in is a crucial element in the Yuser ­master plan. Yuser is a freemium app, with no user fees or pop-up ads. It generates revenue by charging ­businesses for additional services like surveys, data collection, consumer insights and various analytics.

“Small businesses haven’t seen a return on social media,” says Sot. “About 75 per cent see no return on social media ads.”

The answer, Cermak argues, is to create a platform where, “users and businesses can meet on the same level, where there’s trust in both directions.”

To put it more bluntly: If Yuser can’t deliver ­customers to its business users, the entire concept will fail. But that process could take many forms, once Yuser is established as a place where users own and control their content and reactions reflect more than a disembodied thumb mindlessly clicking ‘like’ on random images as they zoom by.

“This gives smaller businesses a whole new way to market to their customers,” Atkey says. “Smaller ­businesses generally can’t run their own apps. It’s a lot of work and you have to get people to download it and use it. There are too many of these apps already.”

Instead, a business can rely on Yuser to deliver ­non-bot users. Once an organization has access to those users, it can run promotions and other events, confident it is reaching people who might be interested. A charity could run a hashtag challenge, building momentum toward its message or goal. Yuser’s first hashtag challenge will be with Growing Chefs, a Vancouver-based charity that supports local agriculture and teaches kids how to cook and eat in a healthy way.

Few people will care that Yuser is built on a solid blockchain foundation. Fewer still will understand what that means in any detail. But thousands, maybe tens or hundreds of thousands, will open the Yuser app and smile, if only for a moment. That’s really what Yuser is trying to do—give us a sharing app free of controversy and scandal, without a clueless billionaire owner stumbling from one crisis to another, where we can post things we like and get tangible rewards for doing so.

It won’t change the world, but it might change your perception of it for a few moments every day. Christopher Clark

To read more about Yuser, visit Christopher Clark’s blog at www.christopherclarkwriter.com/blog

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