There was a time when Yo was one of the biggest apps in the world. For four days in June 2014, Yo ruled the App Store charts, skyrocketing from obscurity to become, at its peak, the fourth-most popular app in the U.S. But now, months after its meteoric rise to fame, Yo has all but disappeared, dismissed as a novelty app by many of the users who embraced it. Despite the change in its fortunes, Yo has been hiring staff, relocating the company from Israel to San Francisco, and attracting global brands to its platform.
Business Insider met with Yo CEO Or Arbel in London to discuss the app’s sudden and unexpected rise to fame, as well as the company’s attempt to save itself. Sitting in a central London restaurant, Arbel was using the downtime between meetings to work on Yo, writing code on his laptop amid the noise.
Yo started life when Moshe Hogeg, chief executive of Israeli startup Mobli, mentioned to his friend Arbel, a former employee, that he wanted a simple app to call his assistant. Arbel liked the idea, and turned it into Yo after eight hours of coding. Yo is indeed a simple app: At its launch the only thing you could do was send the word Yo to another user.
There was an initial flurry of press after Yo launched on April Fool’s day. Tech blogger Robert Scoble posted about the app on Facebook, but Yo didn’t receive widespread interest. It launched with an ambitious aim: Arbel wanted to accrue many users quickly. But it didn’t quite go to plan. “The plan said that we should acquire 250,000 users by the first two weeks, and we launched at the beginning of April and we didn’t get that. We got 50,000 for the whole two months.”
“It took about two months to decide to leave my current startup and do Yo full-time. And after I decided to go to San Francisco, I got a phone call from Tim at the Financial Times and another guy from ThinkProgress, and then the article came.”
It’s possible to trace Yo’s sudden boost in popularity to a blog post written by the Financial Times’ Tim Bradshaw* on June 18. The post described Yo as “messaging without the messages,” although it also said that the app was “ridiculous.” After the Financial Times post went live, Twitter users began to try Yo for themselves, often sharing mocking posts about it on Twitter.
The wave of lighthearted interest in Yo, often coming from journalists and bankers on Twitter, introduced Yo to an influential audience. Suddenly, everyone was on Yo.
Although the app seems like a useless novelty, its simplicity is also its strength. If you want to tell someone you’re OK without racking up a phone bill or incurring data charges, sending a Yo over WiFi does the job. In fact, any kind of confirmation between two people can be reduced to a Yo in the right circumstances: Send a Yo when you get off the plane. Send a Yo when you get out of your meeting. Send a Yo when you’re thinking about me so I know you love me. Israelis use it to warn of incoming missile attacks. And so on.
We asked Arbel what it was like to watch his app go viral: “It was pretty crazy. There was a lot of stuff to do. What was it like? Sleepless nights. It was just hard keeping the service up, all the interviews, and everything together. Then we got hacked.”
Days after its rise to the top of the App Store charts, a gang of hackers set their sights on Yo. They discovered how to manipulate the app to display messages, and even figured out how to reveal users’ phone numbers. They sent a text message to Arbel to let him know what had happened.
The hack might have ended the lives of other, less resilient companies, but Yo persevered. “It was like a month, between two weeks and a month, when everybody was talking about it. All the newspapers, all the media. We got a million downloads in four days. And then some more.”
Yo’s success didn’t last. Its novelty wore off, and users started leaving the app. Despite adding new features like sharing links and locations, Yo slipped back down the App Store rankings.
The red line in the chart below shows Yo’s ranking in the U.S. social networking category, while the blue line shows its overall App Store ranking. It’s stayed pretty popular in the sparse social networking category, but has fallen out of the top 1,000 apps overall.
Business Insider asked Arbel how Yo plans to reverse that decline and bring the app back to the top of the App Store:
“We didn’t spend a dime so far on marketing. … This graph is obviously, if you get everyone and all the press to talk about you, then obviously when everyone stops talking about you it’s going to go down. But the way we’re going to correct the graph and go up is by making the app useful and letting people know that it’s useful. That’s the only way.
“We obviously want to bring back everyone who was thinking that Yo was this stupid app, we’re gonna do a lot of marketing to let them know that Yo is not that anymore.”
Many people see Yo’s decline in popularity as a normal event for lighthearted app, as something to be accepted. But for Yo’s founder, it’s a problem. “If Yo needs to exist, it needs to make money. It’s a business. There are employees, and offices to rent. Currently there are 10 employees. We are still growing and hiring.”
Part of that growth has involved signing up some well-known names to the service. Organizations like the NBA, Chelsea Football Club, and General Electric have opened accounts on Yo. We asked Arbel how the app finds them.
“Some of these names come to us, and some of these names, we come to them. We show the platform, the dashboard, and how easy it is to use it. It’s very easy to use the app and we take this approach also on how we let businesses use our platform, and it’s very, very simple. You can broadcast a link with Yo to thousands of users in one tap, and you can get a lot of information on what’s going on with your links very easily.”
Now that the brands are on the app, is Yo going to start charging them to send enhanced Yos?
“Yeah. But businesses will never be able to send a Yo to someone who didn’t opt into their service. It’s not yet determined, but the simple plan is if a business gets value out of our platform, the business will have to pay for using our platform.”
*Correction, Dec. 15, 2014: This post originally misidentified Financial Times writer Tim Bradshaw as Tim Bradford.