The idea behind Cayova, a startup moving its headquarters to Chicago via Dublin, is that the time we spend in the digital world and the information we share about ourselves is a valuable commodity to marketers.
So why shouldn't we, as consumers, maintain control over what we share? And if we do share, why shouldn't we be compensated?
Cayova, which launched a beta version last week, is a Facebook-style social network with two powerful privacy-related features. With one download, Cayova members can block ads as well as advertising networks trying to gather information about their online searches.
Cayova also allows members to set up multiple profiles — for relatives, work colleagues, friends and "the public," for instance — and control which groups see which posts.
The company is the creation of two deep-pocketed European entrepreneurs, Paul Williams and Rupert Lywood. In 2007, Williams sold Dublin-based Trinergy Ltd., a wind energy company he founded, to International Power PLC for $2.5 billion. Trinergy's backers included London-based Matrix Group Ltd., which Lywood co-founded.
Williams is originally from Dublin, where the site was created.
"They had 25 programmers busy working away the last 11 months actually creating the product, but they knew the global headquarters was not going to be in Ireland," said Maura Daley, Cayova's director of strategic partnerships and U.S. employee No. 1. "They really saw the most value in being based in the U.S. So I come on board in February and was tasked with finding the location for the headquarters. ... And I had a strong case for the city of Chicago."
Daley, 32, is the daughter of former White House chief of staff Bill Daley and niece of former Mayor Richard M. Daley. She previously worked for Bono's ONE campaign, which fights global poverty.
Daley said Cayova is searching for a chief executive and chief technology officer, who will be based in Chicago. She said Cayova plans to hire 50 people in the next year at its yet-to-be leased River North headquarters. It will retain a satellite office for programmers in Dublin, Daley said. Cayova Ltd., the parent company, is headquartered in London.
Competing against Facebook is going to require an enormous investment. According to the Pew Research Center's Internet & American Life Project, 67 percent of online American adults are Facebook users, compared with 20 percent who use LinkedIn and 16 percent who use Twitter.
In a December phone survey, Pew asked the 61 percent of Facebook users who reported having taken a break from the site — 361 people — to explain why. About 1 in 5 of the Facebook vacationers said they did so because they were too busy. Concerns about privacy, security, ads and spam ranked as reason No. 10 with 4 percent of vacationers.
Lee Rainie, the Pew project's director, said he has noticed young people giving up Facebook for Lent, for instance.
"They're recognizing that they're spending too much time on it, given that the things their friends are sharing aren't particularly interesting or relevant to their life," he said.
Cayova addresses what Facebook users say they want, which Rainie described as "control" and "no surprises."
"They're concerned about who can see their stuff or misunderstand their stuff and intrude into their lives," Rainie said.
If a Cayova user downloads what's called a Cayova Box, he or she can turn off all advertising. If a user chooses to accept ads, he or she can supply some personal information and preferences to help advertisers tailor their pitches.
So why would someone choose to accept ads? Because Cayova will pay them for it. ("Cayova" is a shortening of "capture your value.")
"Our theory is, if you're watching those ads and inevitably making purchases based on the advertising you watch, the user should get part of the revenue that Cayova gets for hosting that ad," Daley said.
Cayova users may also earn an annual bonus by recruiting others to the site.
The vision is for the site to operate like a co-op. It's tough to summarize in an elevator pitch, but it's a similar business model to outdoor apparel retailer REI, where every member gets "an annual dividend," usually equivalent to 10 percent back on eligible purchases they made during the previous year.
If Cayova takes off — and that's a big if — the company will have considerable power. Many members will have blocked all advertising networks. Thus, the easiest and perhaps only way for online advertisers to target Cayova members will be through Cayova itself.