vostulogo.jpgEvery day brings us a new social network for a new random niche. Got a dog? Join Dogster. A big family? Here’s Famster. The concept of starting a social network with dreams of dramatic reach has been laughable for a while.

Now we have Vostu, a two-month-old Spanish-language social networking service aimed at teenagers in the Latin world. Though it’s extremely early in the game (they have 1500 users), they have a promising team, a distinctive Latin flair, and a Facebook-style grass-roots marketing scheme -– and hope to take Central and South America by storm.

Showing cultural sensitivity, the company says it made sure every word on the site is universal across the Latin world. Color choices — mustard yellows, ocean blues, and spicy reds — and the typeface in their logo reflect Hispanic heritage.

Vostu’s general interface is clean yet familiar, and despite approximately zero understanding of the Spanish language, I was able to create a profile, post pictures, list events and create or join groups. There are still small imperfections on design, however, such as overlapping boxes in one profile we looked at.

The design borrows generously from Facebook— it has found a way to display a lot of content without cluttering..

Its features, though, are different. According to co-founder Daniel Kafie, communities throughout Latin America are more tight-knit. As such, he says, gossip among Latin teenagers plays an even larger role in their daily lives. In homage to this belief — accurate or not — Vostu features an anonymous gossip board, accessible only to those within the users’ high school. While this gossip board could break down into a flame-throwing match, it’s easy to envision it becoming part of a high school’s “scene.” Considering that instant messaging is the dominant method of communication among teenagers, another savvy move on Vostu’s part is the inclusion of built-in instant messenger that allows users to maneuver through the site and chat at the same time.

Another twist is its social currency, called “Besos,” (kisses), which are like Facebook’s “pokes,” but in limited supply. New dating site Iminlikewithyou.com has something similar, but Vostu innovates further: You can send someone a gentle kiss on the cheek for one Beso, or a more adventurous French kiss for three. While this sounds like an open door to creepiness, Vostu has limited the user’s initial number of Besos to three, and in order to build up more, you have to get kissed back or be quite active on the site, a method Vostu hopes will weed out the creeps. Down the road, you will be able to spend or earn Besos in a number of ways. You might, say, drop a few Besos to buy enhancements for your profile, or upload your class notes and sell access to them for ten Besos a pop.

So why are we writing about a no-name site, with little traction so far?

To begin with, its team and its vision suggest some legs. Vostu started off as a conversation between two Harvard students. In April of 2006 Daniel Kafie, who was born and raised in Honduras, and Josh Kushner, a self-described North Jersey Jew with a passion for Hispanic culture, had been discussing Latino affairs. The idea of a “Facebook for Latin America” started to emerge. They took a look at other players in the field (including one created by MTV) and concluded that none filled this role.

Daniel and Josh let their friends and acquaintances know they were in the market for technical talent, and this led them to Mario Schlosser, a Harvard Business School student from Germany who was said to be a brilliant engineer. Mario, too, had done some thinking about online social networks, and, as it just so happened, had spent much of his free time over the last year building one.

Josh had a cousin, Max Oshman, with a talent for web design. By his 21st birthday, Max had published two books on Flash development, created web sites for Puff Daddy, Atlantic Records, and Tommy Hilfiger, and been written about in Forbes two times. Josh explained things to Max, and Max signed on.

Additionally, the team has launched a notable grass-roots campaign: Vostu has hired two Latino Harvard MBAs and one undergraduate with knowledge and connections throughout Central and South America, and set them up with street-teams of brand promoters working on the ground. They’ve partitioned the countries into a set of three cultural groups, and are tweaking their strategies accordingly. Marketing in Mexico, they say, is different than marketing in Paraguay, and what works in Paraguay won’t fly in Argentina. Their point guy in Mexico is a Mexican man named Arturo Weiss Pick, a former brand manager for Procter & Gamble. While working for P&G, he conducted research into the habits of teens, trying to figure out the best way to sell them shampoo. With what he’s learned, he says, selling them a new social network won’t be as hard. Considering that Vostu is completely self-funded, it’s impressive that they’ve been able to attract  Harvard MBA-level talent. It’s even more impressive that they’ve convinced this talent to start working for equity instead of cash.

Overall, Vostu’s marketing strategy takes its pages from Facebook’s, though its focus is on high schools instead of colleges. It is selecting elite schools and targeting the most popular students within them — aiming to make outsiders envious, and hoping to grow from there. Of course, access to Vostu is invite-only, and new members can only invite 25 of their friends.

While this assures that early growth will be slow, it also means that Vostu will be able to scale its infrastructure at a controllable pace and stay tuned to the demands of its users. This is not to say they’re on an easy road. MySpace already has one million users in Mexico, and has a local version in beta. Hi5 also has a strong foothold in Latin American colleges. But the two giants have not paid attention to user privacy or the small details. The Spanish language version of Hi5, for example, has a lot of English on its front page, and after clicking on the music tab, the first thing I heard was a song by Diddy. MySpace Mexico listed a huge range of comedy videos, from Explicit/Raw to Gay/Lesbian. There was one link for Spanish speakers, called “Latino,” and it was buried in the middle of the page. Then again, Vostu currently doesn’t yet support music and video. But neither did Facebook.

By targeting the teenage market with precision and style, building in many levels of security to protect privacy, and promoting itself as a social network for Latinos, by Latinos, Vostu may force its way into a very large niche. If they can get ‘em while they’re still young and hang onto them when they get older, Vostu could be positioned to knock Hi5 and MySpace down one or two pegs.


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