“With your permission, you give us more information about you, about your friends, and we can improve the quality of our searches. We don’t need you to type at all. We know where you are. We know where you’ve been. We can more or less know what you’re thinking about.” —then Google CEO and current Executive Chairman Eric Schmidt, to The Atlantic in 2010


Internet companies know more about you than your therapist, priest, and bae combined. Because we want our devices to anticipate our needs, and because we want to communicate with people for free, we’ve allowed companies to collect, analyze, and share data with third-party advertisers. Emails sent, photos uploaded, pages “liked,” places checked into, and pictures swiped are all data points, and they add up. The more information we fork over, the more personalized and convenient our online experience becomes. That’s until the pattern of data-driven ads crosses the line from being convenient to creepy, like when location-based ads alert us that we’re most definitely on the grid, our whereabouts and activities recorded. And, as the 2013 Edward Snowden leak revealed, since 9/11, this practice has turned Internet companies into data honeypots too tempting for the government to keep its hands out of.

Two men want to show Silicon Valley there’s a different way to run and operate a company. Paul Budnitz is tackling social networking with Ello, an ad-free company that skyrocketed in popularity in September despite still being in beta. Aral Balkan is building Ind.ie, an independent company comprising a network of services that connects users and lets them share content with whomever they want. Neither company will sell data. But both men still need two things: you and your money.

Paul Budnitz, a lanky, soft-spoken, 47-year-old entrepreneur, has conceived a number of “stupid ideas” (his words). The son of a nuclear physicist and a social worker, Budnitz grew up in Berkeley, Calif. He sold illegal fireworks as a kid, coded safety analysis software for nuclear power plants as a teen, and hacked MiniDisc players for Minidisco, a company he sold when the iPod was released. In 2002, while he was living in New York, he turned one stupid idea—high-priced toys for adults—into Kidrobot, which is now famous for its designer figurines. He sold the company in 2011, turning his attention to another stupid idea: selling custom titanium bicycles that range from $2,500 to $8,000 a pop. (Turns out, people dig stupid. According to Budnitz, sales have been “modest but brisk.”) When Budnitz grew tired of seeing tailored ads in his social media news feeds, the idea for an ad-free social network wasn’t far behind.

Created in March 2014, Ello exploded in late September, when Facebook kicked drag artists off the network for not using their real names. Word spread on Twitter that Ello let people use any name they wanted. From there things moved quickly—the company received tens of thousands of sign-up requests an hour. Though it then lacked the server power to bring them all in, it now has over 1,000,000 users with more waiting for an invite (you currently need one to join). Its seven founders and their investors are trying to keep Ello alive without using advertising, or monetizing data. Its manifesto tells would-be users that other social networks are owned by advertisers and that users are a product that is bought and sold. The “Anti-Facebook” had arrived. But Budnitz isn’t a fan of that nickname or the association. Facebook is an advertising business, he says, not a social network. Ello’s headquarters are on the second floor of a sleepy business plaza in Burlington, Vt., a city surrounded by snow-kissed green and yellow evergreen trees. It’s about as far as you can get from the cradle of Silicon Valley within the lower 48. Coincidentally, Vermont has no billboard advertisements—the state banned them in 1968.