Facebook started life as a university-only network and has since grown far beyond those original roots, with some one billion+ users globally. No surprise, then, that it’s losing ground among its original user-base. Facebook finally fessed up to some decreasing usage among teens just this week.
Being social’s catch-all behemoth means there’s plenty Zuck & co can’t do. Facebook’s huge size, ambition to ‘connect the world’ and user-base that spans the generations is inevitably fossilising its feature-set, as usage of the service condenses down to a well-trodden average.
This makes the social network ripe for disruption — or more specifically for creative deconstruction. In recent years less overarching services have been able to come in and attract users to more tailored and intimate products, whether it’s photo-sharing (Instagram), mobile messaging (Line, WeChat) or more targeted social networking services.
U.K.-based startup Unii sits in the latter camp. Like Facebook 1.0 it’s focused exclusively on students (you have to have a U.K. university-accredited email to join). But unlike Facebook it’s planning to stick with students and build out a business based on providing services to that specific user-base. “We want to scale laterally and with depth, rather than opening up to the rest of the world,” says founder and CEO Marco Nardone.
A tagline on the Unii website reads ‘what happens at uni, stays at Unii’ — a not-so-veiled dig at Facebook as a vast information repository that allows potential employers to pass judgement on job applicants based on the content of their Facebook profile. Unii is purposefully locking down its user-base to make students more comfortable that they are sharing stuff only with each other, not with their parents and/or future employers.
Unii. com launched back in May, at a sub-section of U.K. universities and colleges (it’s now live in over 185 out of a total pool of around 300). In those six months it’s managed to gain a decent bit of traction among its 18-24 user-base, announcing today that it has pushed past 100,000 users.
Nardone argues that students are getting tired of having to manage their activity across multiple social network services. “Our research across a sample of students from over 30 universities showed us that students are fed up of having to use larger, amorphous services to carry out daily activities and needs which are specific to the student community,” he says.
“For example, a group of students need a fifth housemate for a five-bed house, but they are reliant on posting on Gumtree or on a flatsharing platform which means they could be sharing with somebody outside of their university. We can leverage the power of our student-exclusive network and match up students in similar situations.”
Nardone said he came up with the idea for Unii after seeing what he thought was a gap in the market for an “all-encompassing platform exclusively for those in higher education”. He had in fact been developing a social network for traders (based on using crowd wisdom to predict markets), after leaving a job at Credit Suisse to do so. As that product developed, he looked into launching a sub-section of the service for finance students, which got him interested in the student market. Then, after talking with students, he realised there was an appetite for a dedicated platform providing student-focused services — and Unii was born.
The social network is free for students to join and use, and won’t ever be monetised by ads. Rather the plan is to launch a series of sub-businesses that sit on the platform and cater to students’ needs — from the likes of finding accommodation (Unii Living), to buying and selling books, to finding a job (Unii Jobs). Some of these are already live on the platform (although it’s not yet taking in any revenue, focusing first on building out its users), with many more planned: 10 will launch over the next three to 12 months, according to Nardone.
Each of these sub-businesses will then have different revenue generating models. For instance, employers will pay to post jobs to the Unii network — with the ability to segment job adverts by university or study topic, and so on. Another sub-business will provide university societies with tools to manage their memberships — a sub-business that is more likely to have a freemium model, he says.
Segmenting users’ content is another focus for the network, which has a dynamically structured tile-based homepage view (see screenshot above) — something that Nardone argues gives it a more flexible technical architecture than Facebook. Unii also allows its users to post updates to their friend group but also to post things university-wide (say you’re looking for a flat-mate), or to post something to the entire U.K. student community. Types of content that can be shared over the network includes the usual social networking staples of photos, videos and links. Unii has also built an opinion polling tool that displays responses in an infographic form.
“We’re not really replacing Facebook,” adds Nardone. “It’s great to keep in touch with your family, it’s great to keep in touch with friends elsewhere — in the U.K. and across the world. Facebook is great for that need. But if you want specific niche services, and want to communicate with the entire student market all in one place, which you can’t physically do on Facebook, then you use Unii. So it’s not in direct competition with Facebook… It does different things.”
Unii has raised a total of £1.8 million in seed and Series A funding to date, from private investors, and is in the process of closing a “much, much larger” Series B round, according to Nardone — due to close this quarter. He pegs the size of the market in the U.K. at some 2.5 million students (undergrad and post-grad) with a £20 billion total market value. “We want a decent slice of that market,” he says, adding: “We want to be the sole student brand in the U.K.”
The startup is also eyeing up international expansion — with the U.S. and China two markets of interest, along with Europe more generally — but Nardone also says it hasn’t made any decisions about where to go next.
Unii is currently live on the web, with Android and iOS apps also in the works — due to land in around two weeks.