The problem with Facebook is that everyone is on it--even your mother. The social network brings worlds together that should never collide, like the drunken pictures from that frat party and your more buttoned-up visits to Grandma's nursing home. The founders of FamilyLeaf know this feeling well, and hope to solve this problem with their new social network specially tailored for families--so you can continue to be the sweetheart your parents believe that you are. Wesley Zhao, along with his childhood friend, Ajay Mehta, both 20, are banking on the fact that FamilyLeaf will fill what the founders have identified as the last big need in social networking.
"When you ask someone what the most important things are in life, they usually say family, friends, and work," says Zhao. "LinkedIn has created this huge company that helps people from work connect and Facebook has done that with friends, but there’s this huge vacuum in this final frontier of connecting families on social networks."
In 2011, Zhao and Mehta, took leave from the University of Pennsylvania Wharton School and New York University, respectively, to move to San Francisco to pursue their rather vague start-up dream to build a social network. Their first big break came last year, when they secured $167,000 from Y-Combinator and the Start Fund to build a social network for athletes called Roster, which never launched. Through Y-Combinator, the pair met Henry Liu, 18, who had just taken leave from the University of Rochester. After deciding the potential customer base for Roster was too small, they joined with Liu and switched focus--and seed capital--to building a digital network for families.
The three founders, all of whom had built websites for previous projects, worked together to program FamilyLeaf, which launched in March of 2012.
In addition to offering newsfeeds and messaging features, the service allows users to build online photo albums and the team is considering adding a family history function. "Families have been doing this for a very long time," says Mehta. "And we want to bring modern tools into this traditional process."
FamilyLeaf will rely on a revenue model that excludes the sort of targeted advertising that often gets Facebook in hot water. The founders hope to achieve this by offering paid services such as printing photo albums that families have made on the website. Although still in beta, the site is open to the public and has already amassed over ten thousand users.
"FamilyLeaf addresses a real need in the market," says Kartik Hosanagar, a professor at Wharton and an investor in the start-up. "I use FamilyLeaf and love how easy it is to share pictures, videos, and posts with my family. The product has a young feel to it but it is simple enough that a not-so-web-savvy grandma can figure out how to use it."
FamilyLeaf’s founders are indeed something of a family themselves: all five employees live together in an apartment with four bedrooms, one of which Zhao and Liu share. Though reveling in the Silicon Valley start-up world, each founder plans to return to school in the near future to finish their degrees--as the next generation of Mark Zuckerbergs.