André Walters is trying to rewrite the rules of e-commerce. The former vice president of legal affairs for Michael Jordan’s Charlotte Bobcats launched social commerce site Yuno with the intention of rewarding people for their social recommendations. He says it’s a movement to redistribute wealth by sharing the revenue his company receives from big retailers for sales generated at his site, with the very people recommending the merchandise that influenced those sales, through their social networks. With e-commerce currently growing faster than the rate of traditional retail sales (estimates put U.S. online sales at about $237 billion), Walters is partnering with consumers and giving them a piece of the pie.
We talked to Walters about Yuno, his career transition from leading sports lawyer to tech entrepreneur, some of the entrepreneurial lessons he learned working for MJ’s basketball franchise, and the concept of social capital.
EBONY: Having been the legal advisor to the Charlotte Bobcats, what prompted you to want to enter the tech space?
André Walters: That entrepreneur in me has always been burning ever since I was a kid. I grew up around it. My dad had a cleaning business for as long as I can remember. I was a kid helping him with his administrative tasks. But I always set my sights on becoming a lawyer and establishing that career. I grew up on the Internet and watched tech evolve, and for me, Amazon was a major player. While I was with the Bobcats, I had an idea and pursued it. I kept my eye on tech for a while, and when an opportunity opened up I just jumped for it. I’ve always been adventurous and this is no different.
EBONY: So why e-commerce?
AW: When I was in law school, I tore my ACL [anterior cruciate ligament] playing intramural basketball. So I was on crutches my first year of law school and it gave me a lot of time to be at home. I started ordering a lot of books from Amazon and just became fascinated by their business.
My first attempt was a business called collegedot; it was a site that helped college students get all the things they needed via e-commerce. Fast forward to about 2010 when the Yuno idea came about. I was in a place watching people suffer from the recession, I felt I wanted to do something about it, and e-commerce became my battle ground. I felt that was the area most ripe for disruption. I remember hearing around that time Andrew Mason from Groupon got a $2 billion offer and he turned it down, and that sort of perked my ears up.
EBONY: What does Yuno mean?
AW: Post-recession, a lot of people were feeling it and a lot of people were asking me for money. I wanted to figure out something they could do for themselves instead of me giving them money. A lot of people had large social media followings. So I asked them, why not tap into that so you can do something to make money? That’s how we came up with Yuno: it’s all about who you know.
EBONY: Great idea, but do folks need to become consumers of one more thing?
AW: We definitely contribute heavily to the economy via our consumption, but we also do it through word-of-mouth marketing. We are the ones who will tell you the new sneakers to buy or what to go see or what to go eat. We have this great impact, I think the number is $1 trillion, but we see $0 from it. We don’t get any return on it. Yuno is about helping you see that return. It’s a new type of consumer site, one that helps you benefit from giving recommendations.
In our marketplace, when you see something you like, you can hit a button to tell your friends about it. And when they buy it, you see a benefit, as do they. You get cash from the transaction and we’ll give your friend cash back for buying that item. This a way to leverage and take advantage of who you know.
EBONY: How robust is discovery going to be? Is it all based on word-of-mouth recommendations? Amazon’s SEO is amazing. How do you plan to compete?
AW: We have access to a ton of great products, and we have over 200 partners already from Macy’s to Best Buy, Saks and Neiman Marcus, with access to collectively over 70 million products. So we have the database. The one thing with Amazon, both good and bad, is that it often presents you with too many items. There’s no better algorithm than your friends to help you curate and sift through those items.
You get that social commerce experience in Yuno, and while you can come in and search for anything you like, for instance, we have a team of curators that present you with things you might be interested in buying. But it’s all about recommendations. That’s how we compete. We’re not always competitive. We can be complementary to Amazon, helping you to see the right products. And now people can benefit from this and not just give away their social capital for free.
EBONY: Why is social capital hot right now?
AW: The reward on Facebook for sharing something is a lot of likes. And that’s cool but it’s not cash. It’s not something you can go out there and utilize. People have all this pent up value in their personal brand, but the question is, how do you extract it? That’s exactly where we come along, trying to help you extract that value that you have. We always hear how these companies are making billions of dollars off of people, and that’s not helping them.
EBONY: Being based in Charlotte, how are you getting the attention a company like this needs?
AW: We have major universities and a lot of development talent here. And it’s the Internet, so you have access to folks. In terms of financial backing, we have Bank of America headquartered here and we have a strong Wells Fargo presence. This is really a great financial area.
In Durham, North Carolina, there’s a lot of tech activity. And Yuno is in an accelerator program that is part of a public/private partnership between the University of North Carolina Charlotte and the city, trying to spur economic activity through technology. We’re one of 20 companies in this accelerator called Venturepris. You can win anywhere if you have the right idea and the right people behind you. We don’t have to be in Silicon Valley in order to win.
EBONY: Right now there are a lot of minorities getting into tech entrepreneurship, but they are not accessing the type of money that the Unicorns have been able to access. How can we crack that code?
AW: It’s going to take a lot of folks being successful and showing we’re just as talented. People are looking for value more than anything, and it’s up to us to show that value. It’s up to me and my team to show we’re building and generating value. If something shows it has that growth potential, they’re going to follow it.
Folks like me, we had to train ourselves. I have my law degree, but I went back and got an MBA to figure out how I can build companies that can generate tremendous value for the marketplace. With Yuno, while I’m looking out for people who look like me, I’m also looking out for people who don’t look like me. With social capital and recommendations, our concept is universal.
EBONY: What are some of the best lessons you learned working with Michael Jordan and the Bobcats?
AW: It gave me the comfortability with working at a major level. I was twentysomething years old having to lead, and I learned to do whatever it takes. I was asked to take on salary cap management and I jumped at it. By getting my hands on everything, I realized that to succeed you have to be willing to do whatever it takes. When you’re an entrepreneur, you also have to do whatever it takes. The biggest lesson I learned with the Bobcats and my time now as an entrepreneur is to persevere. The winner is the one who can last the longest. Whenever I needed more money, I cashed out my 401Ks and did whatever it takes. If you’re really committed to winning, that’s what you’ll do. That’s the biggest lesson.
EBONY: But it’s going to take a lot of capital?
AW: These days, the Internet is the great equalizer. We’re all about growing our user base and increasing transactions. There’s tons of ways to be creative with this. I didn’t wait on everyone to come along and write me a check. I got offensive. I built up some financial substance in my career before I decided to make this leap. If you’re interested in making that leap, plan for it. You have to have a “I’m not going to quit, I’m going to win” type of attitude.
Lynne d Johnson has been writing about music since the early 1990s, tech since the late ’90s, and the intersection of music and technology since the early 2000s. She currently writes, teaches and consults companies on how to better engage with their audiences. Follow her on Twitter @lynneluvah.