Betaworks CEO John Borthwick announced that he is taking part in the $1.5 million seed round for Yo, the app that does nothing but send the message Yo to other people (h/t Paul Sawers at The Next Web). Venture capitalists investing money in long shot tech startups is nothing new, but what is surprising is that Borthwick’s explanation cuts past what just sounds like a ridiculous app.
Yo is a zero payload, notification layer communication app
“There is no payload in Yo — no pictures, no text, just a deceptively simple on/off state that over time has the potential to become a platform,” he writes. “As the notification layer becomes the primary interface of alert-based information on your phone — as the OS’s allow navigation and controls in those alerts — there will emerge a new class of applications that mediate this layer for web sites, other apps and connected hardware.”
So it’s not really Yo that Borthwick is interested in so much as the developers who thought to build a communication app that exists entirely in the notification layer. Smartphones are already deeply integrated into users’ daily lives, but the mobile ecosystem is very much in flux. For all the snide coverage that Yo has gotten, when Borthwick says that he already uses Yo to remind co-workers, or let his wife know that he’s thinking about her during a busy day, it starts to sound like the right combination of effortlessness and specific utility that creates its own niche.
Borthwick must be interested in the people behind Yo more than the app itself
As for the company itself, Yo could be a textbook example of a business model without a moat: any decent developer could put together the same app without much effort. The app has had something like 2 million downloads, but a lot of that was just novelty value. And if Yo became the gold standard of pinging other people, you still can’t really monetize it. Ads are too complex to be squeezed in and no one is going to pay for such a minor service.
The only reasonable assumption is that Borthwick is funding Yo to find out if the people behind it were insightful enough to spot an unmet need in the market or just a couple of developers who made a funny app.