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Money talks: Startups seek social shakeup via online currencies

The Brooklyn Paper
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The bottom line at these social networking companies is that they look beyond the bottom line.

Two Brooklyn startups, Emrals and Igobono, are trying to harness social networks to get people working together, to clean up city neighborhoods and reduce waste while developing a parallel economy, respectively. The approach flies in the face of profit-minded companies whose main goal is to get subscribers logged in and keep them there for advertisers to beam information to. But the two companies say that, beyond making money, they are trying to make a difference. Both propose to cultivate a community of like-minded users and incentivize good deeds with online currency, but that is about where the similarities end.

The founder of Emrals hopes to encourage people to clean up their neighborhoods by awarding them points for performing tasks. The points, in turn, can eventually be exchanged for cold, hard cash.

“We want to create a community of people who want to clean up, who want to get their hands dirty,” said Sean Auriti, who also founded the Greenpoint do-it-yourself space Alpha One Labs.

The idea behind Emrals, which was a finalist in the city’s BigApps competition this year, is for users to address litter problems in their communities by posting pictures to the website, then assigning a value to the task of cleaning it up. The offer is not in cash though; it is in a currency, also called Emrals, that is unique to the site. But Emrals can be bought with and converted back to regular cash. The current exchange rate is 100 Emrals to $1.

After users clean up the problem area they take a picture, mark the listing as complete, and when the poster approves the cleanup, they get paid the promised amount.

“I want to empower people to clean up the city,” Auriti said.

The Dumbo-operated website Igobono, on the other hand, plans to keep its proprietary currency separate from the mainstream money system.

“We’re creating a self-sufficient complimentary economy,” said Max Volsky, co-founder of Igobono. “We’re not competing with the regular economy.”

Volsky wants to facilitate the exchange of unused household items and various kinds of services, but in a system where users have more of a stake than the Craigslist “Free” section. In other words, a person who is short on cash but needs something like a mop or a washer-dryer hookup installation can trade his or her own items or labor for “bonos,” which can then be exchanged for what they need.

He got the idea for the site from watching people he knew fail to capitalize on latent talents and cool stuff they had lying around, and he cites the fact that the average American household has $7,000 worth of knick-knacks sitting idle as evidence that the idea will catch on.

“I saw my friends struggling to monetize their idle assets and skills,” he said. “I thought we could use those things to create a social economy.”

Once people agree to buy and sell using his currency — called bonos — then the system will function just like a regular economy, with people buying and selling goods and services for agreed-upon amounts, Volsky said. The more people that use the service, the more types of products and services can be exchanged, he said.

“With scale, diversity kind of takes care of itself,” he said.

Both startups are looking to become profitable, but also in different ways.

Emrals skims a percent off of each transaction made, while Igobono hopes to eventually incorporate advertising and a fee for businesses that want to participate.

Each are in early stages of user recruitment, with Emrals at about 300 users, and Igobono at 3,000.

The latter has a base spread across the country, but the founder said his home borough is ripe for socially minded startups because the people here are up for trying things out for reasons beyond making money.

“Brooklynites are especially willing to experiment with new technology for social change,” Volsky said.

Techno Files

Greenpoint-based crowd-funding platform Kickstarter is going Scandinavian and Irish. The company announced on its blog this week that it will expand its services to Denmark, Norway, Sweden, and Ireland. Fund-raising campaigns can be created in those countries now, but they cannot be launched until Oct. 21, the company said.

•••

Instagram will host a pair of installations at this year’s Photoville exhibition in Dumbo. “Here in the World: Voices of the Instagram Community,” includes images posted to Instagram by 70 artists selected by the company. “The Everyday Projects,” features photos from the various “@everday” accounts that are based around the globe. The project is meant to show the everyday lives of people in parts of the world normally seen in the media in the context of war and strife.

•••

Brooklyn Museum is launching a new app that will allow its visitors to interact with the institution’s experts about the exhibits they’re looking at. The initiative is slated to include more interactive visitor features that will be rolled out over the next three years. The project is sponsored by Bloomberg Philanthropies.

•••

Dumbo craft powerhouse Etsy participated in a day of action along with Kickstarter last week in support of net neutrality. The companies posted messages on their websites and urged their users to submit comments to the Federal Communications Commission, which is considering regulations that would allow internet providers to charge content companies for faster service, relegating others to slower loading times and effectively giving large corporations greater control over what people see and do online.

Reach reporter Matthew Perlman at (718) 260-8310. E-mail him at mperlman@cnglocal.com. Follow him on Twitter @matthewjperlman.
Updated 10:17 pm, July 9, 2018
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