The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Why the stupidly simple ‘Yo’ app is worth more than $1 million

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That was how President George W. Bush casually initiated a discussion with British Prime Minister Tony Blair at the 2006 G8 summer in St. Petersburg about how to handle Hezbollah attacks in Israel.

The usefulness of the term in diplomacy is debatable, but as a simple greeting, “yo” has proven an enduring feature of the popular lexicon.

“Yo, Adrian” is, according to the American Film Institute, one of the best remembered movie lines of all time, spoken by Sylvester Stallone playing Rocky Balboa in the 1976 film “Rocky.”

Now someone has harnessed the simple genius of the word in a smartphone app that only does one thing: send the word “Yo” to a designated recipient. The app has already garnered $1.2 million in venture capital and more than a million downloads.

It sounds like a parody of a smartphone-obsessed society on the verge of a tech bubble. But it isn’t. It’s real. And plenty of people think it’s ridiculous.

“Now there’s a new app that has expanded the possibilities for communication by drastically reducing them,” Stephen Colbert said.

Others think the app’s founders could be on to something. “….The very fact this app exists speaks to the need for something to cut through the noise and information overload, something so simple that it does not require a response, a message to be read or even a notification to be dismissed,” wrote the Financial Times’s Tim Bradshaw.

It came about by accident. Moshe Hogeg, chief executive and founder of Tel Aviv tech company Mobli, told Business Insider that he asked an engineer, Or Arbel, to design simple way to contact his wife and his assistant via his smartphone without having to get bogged down in tedious texting or lengthy e-mail chains. Hogeg loved it, and it caught on with office staff, too.

They couldn’t contain their enthusiasm for the ridiculously simple app. “Within one month, 20,000 people around Tel Aviv were Yo-ing each other,” Business Insider reported.

Tech evangelist Robert Scoble visited Hogeg in May. He tried Yo and told Hogeg it was the “stupidest, most addictive app I’ve ever seen in my life.”

Scoble posted about the app on his Facebook page and word spread to Product Hunt, the Web site techies turn to to find the next big thing. Then the venture capitalists started calling.

Hogeg and Arbel agreed their app was dumb, but then considered the numbers “We asked ourselves, ‘If we didn’t know what Yo was or what it did, and if we just examined the data and the usage numbers like it was any other startup, would we invest in it?'” Hogeg told Business Insider. “The answer was, ‘Hell yes.'”

Hogeg said the company could have raised more than the $1.2 million — enough to cover costs for a year to find out whether the app can succeed. A handful of investors committed, but he thought it would be irresponsible to raise more given that the app is in an early, uncertain phase.

Users in Israel, where the app has been around the longest, are using it less. “Gimmicks don’t survive,” Hogeg acknowledged. But they’re optimistic about the possibilities for an app that packs a single syllable punch.

Arbel told the Financial Times he plans to build a Yo button so bloggers can alert followers to new posts and stores can send out Yos when they are running sales. The Times noted another timely use of the app: Add the user WORLDCUP and the app will notify you whenever a team scores in the soccer tournament. It won’t tell you what team of course – it’s more of nudge to go find a TV screen.

Unfortunately, the very simple program is very easy to hack. It happened last week, just days after the app gained mainstream attention. TechCrunch reported students at Georgia Tech claimed responsibility for the hack that, the hackers said, allows them to get users’ phone numbers and send out spam. Arbel told TechCrunch they were working on a fix.