This billionaire wants you to sign up to his social network — and promises no ads

Lucy Handley, special to CNBC

Social networks such as Facebook and Twitter are free because they are funded by advertising and the more people do on them, the more targeted the ads can be. Add to that the temptation for oversharing and some powerful algorithms, and people's information is gold dust for advertisers.

But billionaire businessman Ayman Hariri wants to change all that, and has founded Vero, a social network that has no ads. It will instead be paid for by subscription (eventually), for an annual price of a couple of cups of coffee.

Hariri, son of the assassinated former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafic Hariri, said he started Vero because of a personal frustration with the existing social networks.

Social network Vero

"I didn't need more ways for people to contact me and I just felt like it exposes you quite a bit.

"When I did [join existing social networks], I found the options for privacy were quite limited and difficult to understand, and also when I decided to get on and connect with a few of my friends, I noticed that their behavior online was very different than their behavior in the real world," he told via telephone.

No data mining

Vero (meaning "true" in Italian) aims to put design and experience first, Hariri said, and it won't mine users' data to attract advertisers.

"Every decision that we take, every detail we put into the app is all centred around a great user experience, and to have a social experience online that is more matching and more familiar and intuitive to their offline social interaction.

"And we felt that by excluding ads out of our business model allows us to focus on that, it allows us to look at our users as our customers, rather than advertisers," he said.

The app will eventually cost a few dollars a year, but is currently free to the first million people who download it. While there is no paid-for advertising within the app, companies are able to create profiles, and "influencers" will also be allowed to promote brands, as they do on other social networks.

And as well as a subscription, Vero will make money on products sold through the app, taking commission in the "single digits". It worked with fashion brand Temperley London on a "see now, buy now" initiative where Vero users could click to buy clothes as they were shown on the catwalk at London Fashion Week in September 2016.

It also sold a vintage Aston Martin DB5 with U.K. auctioneer Coys, in what it claims is the first time a historic car has been bought directly via social media. It was sold via the app for £825,000 ($1 million) in October 2016, which would equate to an estimated £8,250 commission, if Vero took one percent.

A social network for grown-ups and superhero fans

Rather than trying to reach a mass audience, Vero is aiming for an older, more upscale crowd. "Everybody's making apps for the kids. Will the kids love it [they're asking] that kind of question… [but] we're thinking more maturely than just doing anything and then trying to get users," Hariri said.

Zack Snyder, director of the forthcoming superhero movie Justice League, is a fan of Vero. The pair became friends when Hariri won a charity action for a walk-on role in Snyder's Batman V Superman: Dawn of Justice. Hariri says Snyder likes it because of its privacy settings: people can categorize contacts as close friends, friends, acquaintances or followers.

"You can post pictures of your family and say where you are and what experiences you are doing without having to worry about being exposed too publicly. But then [when] you do need to give your fans or followers something as part of your job, you can do that and it's all in the same app," Hariri said.

Vero has also partnered with singer Charli XCX to show behind-the-scenes footage of her single After the Afterparty, and is attracting other big names, such as filmmaker and "Catfish" star Max Joseph, who is currently broadcasting the first episode of his new documentary, "Charismatic Thinker" on the platform, entitled "Dicks."

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