Portland, OR-based Celly is trying to do for mobile social networks what Ning did for online social networks, letting anyone communicate with a group privately via a “cell,” or a private social network. Until today users have done so by creating networks and communicating via SMS or the Android app, but today the company is releasing its first iPhone app, and announcing that it has raised $1.4 million in funding.
Celly is designed for groups that need to get the word out to a number of people instantly on their mobile phones, whether that’s a group of five or 5,000, and is being used by schools to keep parents and students informed, cities who need to send out updates on local safety, and community groups to mobilize volunteers. Current users include the City of Portland, public school districts like the Portland Public Schools board, hospitals, and volunteer groups like Occupy Sandy, with over 20,000 cells created since its launch in fall 2012.
To create a cell, organizers promote their cell name, and then any number of people can join that group via the web, email, or by texting a shortcode on their mobile phone. So for example if a company wanted to set up a cell, it would post on its website that anyone who wants to join can text @mycompany to code 23559 (or “Celly”). Once they join, they can text that same shortcode to send messages, and organizers can then send out broadcasts to everyone who has joined that cell. Cells can be one-way, so only organizers can send out updates, two-way with moderation, so members can send messages and organizers can either approve them or respond privately, or completely open, so anyone can send messages.
Today’s funding was led by Oregon Angel Fund, with participation from Upstart Labs, Portland Seed Fund, and individual investors. Co-founder and CEO Russell Okamoto said they will be using the funding to add to their team of three people, and to build out their API.
“We’ll be using the funding to really develop an ecosystem around our API, to allow programmatic access to creating a cell, to being able to send messages to a cell, to receive them, it’ll allow for lightweight integrations to happen between different systems,” he said. He also said they plan to add the ability to turn everyone who participates in a cell into a self-hosted group stored on a user’s smartphone, rather than storing all the information in the cloud.
Using the newly-released iPhone app, organizers can create cells, invite members, send polls and alerts, and connect with people outside the U.S. As of right now the Android and iPhone apps are international, but the SMS feature only works in the U.S., though Okamoto said that’s part of what they’ll work on using the funding.
The platform is free for users, and the company said it will never push advertisements to cell members. In terms of monetization, the company currently charges larger organizations to group cells together, for example allowing Portland’s school district to create an umbrella cell with all 95 schools so they can send out district-wide messages. Individual users will also be able to pay for a monthly subscription plan with added features, including the ability to tie polls together into surveys.
There are several others trying to connect interest groups, from Nextdoor’s private social networks for neighborhoods, to Remind101′s messaging platform for teachers and students, not to mention the fact that Okamoto said they’re directly competing with larger social networks like Facebook, Twitter, and Google+. He said they weren’t built for real-world applications, and that their onboarding process and privacy controls are more cumbersome.
“Rather than trying to build one massive network with billions of people in it, we’re trying to create millions of smaller networks that can all talk to each other, because we really think that’s how real-world systems and organizations function,” he said.
It seems Celly might be most useful in emerging markets where cell phones are prevalent but there aren’t always access to computers, so the key to its growth will likely be launching the SMS service internationally so anyone with a feature phone, which is the majority of the world’s population, can use the service. Celly has already proved out its model with organizations and individuals, so its biggest challenge will be answering the question “why do I need yet another social network?”