Two letters, two Hours: Inside Yo’s first hackathon

The hackers at San Francisco’s Runway Incubator introduced themselves to each other with skeptical enthusiasm. “How’s it goin’?” said one, before quickly correcting himself: “Or maybe I should just say, ‘Yo.’” Pizza, computer chargers, and bottles of Blue Moon powered a hackathon last Friday that was organized by a messaging startup called Yo. For two hours, a group of 50+ developers hunched over their computers in a communal workspace with a distinctly industrial feel. The piping in the ceiling was completely exposed—a fittingly half-finished look for a hackathon that encouraged programmers to build fast, not beautifully.

Yo is an app for iOS and Android that allows users to do one simple thing: tap on friends’ usernames to send them a push notification that says, “Yo.” Nothing more, nothing less. When the company received a one million dollar investment last week, it took the media by storm. Business Insider, Forbes, the Washington Post, and the Wall Street Journal have all sounded off on the minimalistic app’s past and future. After gaining a million users in just one week, Yo isn’t exactly sure how it wants to evolve. The hackathon seemed, at least in part, like an attempt to outsource product management to the Yo community. Yes, the company needs developers. But they also need ideas.

“It usually takes a month or two to plan a hackathon,” Ryan Morris told me, looking out over the group of excited coders. Morris is a recent USC grad and Yo’s first director of business development. He and his coworkers at Yo wore solid purple shirts—a nod to the app’s icon, which is simply a purple rounded rectangle. “My first day was Monday. Five days later, we have fifty people hacking away,” he said. Though it’s easy to roll your eyes at Yo, it’s worth at least taking a moment to consider why the app has proven so popular.

The man behind the curtain

Yo is the brainchild of Or Arbel, a software engineer who designed Yo to be as simple and minimalist as its purple icon. Arbol sees Yo as a platform for communication, which is why he brought so many hackers together on Friday. He’s provided an API to software developers, which allows them to easily build software that makes use of Yo’s push notification system.

One team, for example, built YOaster: a toaster that sends users a Yo notification when their toast is ready. Two interns from Technical Machine built an app for neighborhood watch called yoneighborhood. Yoneighborhood is made up of two parts: a hardware button and a software application. The button would be placed on light posts or street corners, much like the blue light system that exists on university campuses today. Local community members would add “yoneigborhood” to their list of friends on Yo. Then, anyone who felt in danger could push the button and notify people nearby who subscribe to yoneighborhood. The winners of the hackathon—Kesavsundar Gopalakrishnan and Santhosh Kumar Bala Krishnan—built a Yo app called whatsong, which tells users what song is playing on the radio when they send a Yo to the username “whatsong.”

Though Arbol is from Israel, he dresses like a Silicon Valley executive: blue jeans, untucked button-down, and casual sneakers. Arbol moved to the U.S. after serving in the Israeli army for three years.

“I was a combat solider doing really hard stuff,” he told me. “We once walked 90 kilometers in a day. You don’t think you can do it; then when you do, you understand that anything can be done.”

Arbol’s first entrepreneurial venture in the States was a bar he opened in Israel called West Four.

“It failed miserably,” he said. “One thing about me is that I do things fast. Most people like to talk about what they’re going to do. I just do it. Done is better than perfect.”

After earning a degree in computer science from Ben Gurion University, Arbol landed a job as an iOS engineer at a company called Mobli, where he met the man who inspired him to build Yo. Mobli’s founder asked for an app that displayed one big button that he could press to send a push notification to his assistant.

“I told him it was a stupid idea, and that I didn’t have time,” said Arbol. But he changed his mind while stuck in traffic a few weeks later. “I realized I was already communicating the same way that Moshi wanted to communicate with his assistant,” he said. Arbol and his friends sometimes talked on WhatsApp by exchanging question marks or exclamation points. “While driving, I started thinking about the whole app—how simple it should be. Two weeks ago, I came here to do Yo.”

The red herring

Arbol had to make a trade-off between virality and legitimacy. What spreads quickly isn’t always taken seriously. But he took his chances and named his app Yo with the hopes that the silly moniker would catch on. Although many people focus on the absurdity of the name, the word “Yo” is a red herring—a marketing gimmick designed to get people to download the app. What’s important is the vision behind the idea (and the fact that there is a vision at all).

While watching the hackathon unfold, I couldn’t decide if Silicon Valley had once again reached a level of craziness or if I was witnessing the birth of a truly novel and interesting platform. Yo’s employees seemed to be struggling with this question themselves.

“I thought it was kind of silly, and I was really skeptical,” said Katayon Anoushiravani—a rising senior at UC Berkeley who’s doing marketing for Yo this summer. “I don’t think it’s going to replace other means of communicating,” she said. “It’s just a simple way of getting a message across without having to deal with the complexities of other apps.”

One of the judges at Yo’s hackathon was Jared Morgensten—a former Facebook employee who was the product manager for the the launch of the Like button. Morgensten echoed the feelings of Anoushiravani.

“I met Or to find out if it was just luck or if he had a vision,” he said. Morgensten believes in the plan Arbol sold him and sees the product as reminiscent of the Like button. “I don’t want to overthink the connections,” he said, “but they both have the property of being one click and signaling something without a ton of information. If I get a like from you on a photo and a like from a girl at the bar, they mean totally different things.” As with Facebook’s Like button, Yo is frictionless communication that’s based entirely on context.

Beyond Yo: notifications as the interface

What’s most interesting about Yo to Morgensten is the way that users interact with it: the majority of usage occurs without opening the app at all. As tech writer MG Siegler observed, “What’s faster than an app you don’t even have to open to use? … The main interaction isn’t ‘opening’ an app. [It’s] always open, waiting to push information at you rather than for you to pull it from [it].”

This distinction is an important one, especially as wearable devices begin to grow in popularity. Designers must now think about how to adapt their software to smaller screens. How will apps behave when users no longer only interacting with them through the spacious display of a smartphone? One answer is that notifications will become first-class citizens in interface design. If wearable devices become as popular as tech pundits predict, perhaps Yo’s emphasis on notifications as a mode of interaction will seem prescient rather than gimmicky.

Greeted with ambivalence

Twitter’s massive office is just a few floors above the space where the Yo hackathon took place. In its early days, Twitter faced pushback that’s not so unlike the kind that Yo is wrestling with now. Countless people asked how a service that only allowed users to post 140 character messages could ever provide value. Today, it’s one of the biggest and most powerful companies in tech. And ironically, many have been ranting about the frivolity of Yo using Twitter. From Twitter, to Facebook, to Snapchat, our collective track record for predicting the success and significance of apps is fairly abysmal. Of course, this doesn’t mean that Yo will thrive, but we shouldn’t be so quick to write it off.

Arbol and his team seem immune to the eye-rolls that their app is receiving. “This isn’t just a stupid pinging app,” said Morris. “And there’s a reason why we raised a million dollars. We’re getting businesses, blogs, websites on board.” Arbol echoed his sentiment: “If it’s going to change people’s lives just a little bit every day, then this could be a really big company.”

Even still, the whole hackathon had a tinge of absurdity to it. I had to keep reminding myself that everyone was there because of two little letters. It’s hard to say whether or not Yo will stick around, but I’m not sure that it matters. At the very least, it’s an interesting experiment that tests how much information we can discard from our messages before they lose all meaning. Only time will tell what happens to Yo. “We started working three days ago,” said Anoushiravani. “We’ve just been getting our feet under us.”