Beijing native Xu Ke is really good with numbers. As an exchange student at the University of Riverside, California, in 2013, she developed a knack for poker, and though she was not yet 21 (the general minimum gambling age in the U.S.) at the time, the existence of online poker and lenient Southern California casino laws allowed her to play regularly and hone her skills in probability and risk assessment.
Her days in card rooms both digital and physical allowed her to meet plenty of interesting, unconventional characters, including investors in cryptocurrency, back before digital currencies hit the mainstream. She was intrigued and began mining Bitcoin. The deeper she dug into Bitcoin, the more she agreed with its philosophy of decentralization via blockchain.
Xu continued to play poker and invest in Bitcoin when she moved back to China in 2014. Whenever she’d score big at the poker table, she’d invest the money into the digital currency. At the peak of her Bitcoin days, Xu says she had over 50,000 units of the currency. She eventually cashed out 20,000 Bitcoins in 2014 at $240 per unit, which came out to around $4.8 million.
Now 24, Xu realizes that she sold them too soon — 20,000 Bitcoin would be worth close to $120 million now — but she at least made good use of that two million. In 2016, after a stint creating and selling an social app, she founded Nome Lab, a Beijing-based start-up that specializes in making blockchain product and games.
Of these, the digital goods trading game CryptoDogs has been the most successful. But this year, following recent controversies over Facebook’s misuse of personal data and giving a platform to radical far-right conspiracy theorists, Xu has focused on her next idea: a free social network based on blockchain technology, in which all user data are decentralized, and a self-governing system that rewards users who share quality content.
Named Ono, the beta version of the network was launched in April, and it has already amassed more than three million members, at least according to Xu.
Xu cites the original vision of the world wide web as the reason for starting Ono: “When [British computer scientist] Tim Berners-Lee invented the world wide web, his vision was to let humans exchange information and knowledge freely,” Xu says. “The internet belongs to all of us. But it’s become so centralized now. Most of top ten tech companies in the world built their net worths by selling user data.”
“This is why blockchain is important — you own the data yourself,” she says, elaborating that she and her company would not be able to sell Ono users’ data even if they want to because it is a “dapp,” or decentralized app.
Currently, Ono is available on the Google Play store, with the iOS version coming this month. It’s also accessible through any web browser. I signed up and was surprised to see quite a bit of English content considering most of the users are based in China. The network felt like a blend of Twitter (or more accurately, Weibo), but without character limits.
“You are able to write as many words as you want,” Xu says.
Right now, Ono is funded by the $16 million Nome raised from investors such as China Growth Capital and Korea Investment Partners. But Xu says the app will also run ads and partnerships with brands down the line.
The Nome team, based in Beijing, has 76 staff. Xu says there are 15 other staff located around the world. In addition, there are thousands of volunteers from the anonymous community to help oversee the site. The latter is crucial, because Xu’s vision is for Ono to be a democracy.
“Ono is run democratically, and lets content creators retain ownership over their content and get rewarded,” Xu says . The latter is achieved through a reward system in which the best content creators (as voted by the community) receive digital currency that can be traded or used for in-app purchases.
Xu has very lofty goals with Ono — “I hope it can be the number one social network,” she says — and while beating Facebook will almost certainly be impossible, one can’t knock her for having a competitive spirit. She says that every time she sells a venture — be it bitcoin or her first social app — she isn’t “happy,” despite the payday.
“I enjoy winning more than making money,” she says. ” I want to build something that lasts.”