Raleigh entrepreneur's networking site touts privacy protection

rbutt@newsobserver.comOctober 13, 2013 

Davidson Wicker, founder of Ravetree, has worked to create the social networking site that he says “helps users to stay organized and respects their privacy concerns.”

RAVETREE

When Raleigh entrepreneur Davidson Wicker launched his social networking site Ravetree this summer, he faced some obvious challenges.

People join social networking sites to connect with other people – friends, family, colleagues – and right now most people are already on Facebook. The social networking giant has more than a billion active users, which has made it hard for even the likes of Google to launch competing social networks.

But Wicker, 38, sees an opportunity in creating a social networking site that is free of ads and that allows users to remain anonymous when writing comments or posts.

“Our goal is not to become the next Facebook,” Wicker said. “But a social platform that helps users to stay organized and respects their privacy concerns.”

Ravetree has a blue and white newsfeed that echoes Facebook’s traditional design, but users can alternate between a public feed and a private feed. It also offers functions that are unavailable on Facebook, such as a dislike button and the ability to add tags to other users’ posts.

Wicker’s idea is to get users hooked onto the site for daily, practical uses.

“I wanted to create a platform that is useful, even if a user doesn’t make any social connections with other people,” he said.

Several apps are built into the platform, such as notes, calendar and file storage space. Users can also create a portal for $4 per month and use project management features for their businesses.

A self-taught developer, this is Wicker’s first startup. He previously was a professional musician and ran a restaurant delivery service in Asheville.

The Greensboro native earned an applied physics degree from Appalachian State University in Boone, and a master’s degree in applied physics from East Carolina University.

“I have a random mix of interests that I want to pursue, but physics helped me deal with complex systems like Ravetree’s,” Wicker said.

Now, Wicker and another developer, Chris Koher, are actively looking for developers to join Ravetree. The social networking site is Wicker’s only business, and has been financed thus far with his own money.

Privacy concerns growing

Ravetree is targeting a market that has exploded in recent years. Social networking sites averaged annual growth rates of 74 percent over the past ten years, according to IBISWorld. On average, the social media industry is expected to increase 25 percent annually over the next five years.

But with ongoing safety and privacy concerns associated with social networks, more Internet users are reducing their visibility online.

According to a recent study published by the Pew Research Center’s Internet and American Life Project, 28 percent of users said they have used the Internet in ways that avoid advertisers.

To avoid being tracked, 86 percent of users have tried to be anonymous online and taken at least one step to try to mask their behavior.

Wicker declined to disclose the number of users or financials about Ravetree, but he said the site has attracted users from 35 countries with an average user age of 33 years old.

“Since we’re in an early stage of a startup, any number we throw out will be perceived as insignificant,” he said.

Michael Kimsal, who has been testing Ravetree and giving feedback to Wicker, said he likes Wicker’s responsiveness in addressing privacy issues and tweaking the site to give a better experience for all users.

Small user base

But Juan Garzon, of Charlotte, said Ravetree lacks an active userbase that has made Facebook the most appealing social networking site.

“I like the idea of a social network that respects privacy, but I’m afraid I have not found enough value in Ravetree to use it regularly,” Garzon said. He added that being contacted by a reporter through Ravetree was the first message he’s ever received from the site aside from Ravetree’s welcome message.

Ravetree also will eventually have to figure out a way to generate revenue without advertisements or sponsors.

Wicker said the site’s top concern right now is expanding its user base. Ravetree plans to invite developers to design apps such as games and to work on a mobile version.

“We have some ideas up our sleeves but at this point, we’re focused to deliver a service with excellent privacy protection,” he said.

Butt: 919-829-4523

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