R&B singer Maxwell, controversial rapper The Game and Australian band Hillsong United are among some of the big names that have signed up for the new social platform borne from the mind of HopeMob founder and CEO Shaun King.
"It's really different than anything else that exists now," King told CP via phone last week, speaking from Catalyst West, a four-day networking event for leaders, thinkers and influencers.
"It's a little bit of a social network, maybe similar to Twitter or Instagram. But it has much deeper tools that allow people of influence from all genres, be it in the church or out of the church, be it artists, musicians, comedians, photographers – anybody who has really devoted supporters could really benefit from the platform, so we're really excited about it."
While not wanting to give too much away ahead of Upfront's official launch, expected by the end of the month, King shared that the platform would follow somewhat in the footsteps of HopeMob, an award-winning crowdfunding community that connects people and organizations with financial needs to people who are able to help. His latest brainchild is somewhat similar and plans to make it easier for celebrities and their "true fans" to connect.
"It's very much a social engagement platform in that sense, but a percentage of every transaction that we have, which we're really proud of, will go to a new foundation that we've started called the Upfront Foundation," he said when asked if Upfront is more social-oriented or service-oriented.
"We think it's going to be pretty significant," King added. "We have a number of really influential people that have already signed on to use it when we launch. We have about 40 influencers from a really diverse number of genres that will be a part of our launch and over the next 60 days are so."
While users like The Game and Hillsong United are likely to attract throngs of fans to the tech startup, the social platform is open to anyone, and has been inviting members of the public to reserve a spot.
To wet peoples' appetites, the Upfront team has been offering teases, like a two-minute video of calligrapher David Chang designing the company logo, and details about the iPhone app submitted earlier this month to Apple for approval.
King, who recently transitioned from California to NYC by way of Kentucky, partnered with Ray Lee, co-founder of the Upfront Media Group, about a year ago to finally get the ball rolling on what they had been talking about for years. Upfront has several contractors and a small team of developers, and a core group of folks who used to work for industry leaders.
"We have an amazing developer whose name is Vincent Tuscano, an incredibly talented guy. He was the lead developer of Vogue.com, of the Mashable iPad app, [and] the website the Daily Beast," said King. "We just hired a really talented guy whose name is Chris Himes. Chris was actually the lead digital producer for 'Saturday Night Live' and the 'Jimmy Fallon Show' and '30 Rock.' He's going to oversee all of the content and content offerings that we have on the platform."
Having spent the past 15 years of his life working with charities or churches, King, 33, admitted that transitioning into the business world, as he did a couple of years ago after selling TwitChange, has been a serious challenge. He started the world's first-ever Twitter charity auction in 2010 to help raise funds for victims of that year's devastating earthquake in Haiti. Eventually selling the company, King said what he learned from his time running TwitChange was almost bittersweet and "a big part of my experience of working with people of influence across all types of genres, hundreds of celebrities from all over the world."
"I learned a lot from my experience, good and bad," he added. "I really struggled, at the time I was a pastor (in Atlanta), and I really knew very little about basic principles of business. I made several errors. We grew really, really quickly. Our platform had more than a million visitors in September 2010 alone. We grew so rapidly, it became difficult for us to manage it. I really learned a lot about how to manage a company, how to manage a staff, how to manage PR and not just what to do but a lot of what not to do. I made a lot of rookie blunders for the year or so we were leading TwitChange. It was a good experience for sure."
It was during his time with TwitChange that King started thinking of Upfront, although he hadn't given it a name as yet.
"I was coaching and helping several celebrities manage their social media presence and it started getting harder and harder for people of influence to connect with their true fans. There are so many people who follow you on Twitter – the larger you get, the more people who follow you," King explained. "It started getting really difficult to just figure out how you communicate with your most devoted fans. That's where the idea for Upfront came from, a way to connect you exclusively with your fans and supporters who love you the most."
King, who has used social media and the power of the Web to raised over $5,000,000 for charity, explained that Upfront and the Upfront Foundation will launch simultaneously, as the social platform will help empower and equip charity organizations through the foundation.
"We feel like current social networks have done a good job giving a platform to charities and causes" but don't go far enough, said King. "We really kind of wrote that into the DNA of our company for that very reason. It's a big part of why we do what we do. It's really going to drive me particularly on a daily basis to want the platform itself to be successful because I know it will increase our reach with our foundation."
King shared previously with CP that he had a difficult time transitioning from pastoral ministry into the work he's now doing full time, but he seems to be settling in well in NYC. Living in Manhattan with his family, where Upfront's offices are also located, he said, "It's been a real adventure for sure."
"I have a big family. I have five kids so people look at us strange when we're in New York because nobody in New York has five kids. But it's been a ton of fun and my family has been an essential part of what I do. They're all excited about Upfront, too. I couldn't do what I do without my wife and kids being as supportive as they are."
King, a Morehouse graduate, credits the compassion that motivates him to use technology to do good to his mother and his experiences growing up in a single-parent household. He said, though, he always had a love for technology and enjoys "using technology to connect people to people, and connect people to opportunities to do good."
"My biggest motivation for even launching Upfront was always to be able to generate funds and resources to do good. That's why the Upfront Foundation is really launching simultaneously with our platform, and a percentage of every transaction that we do will go to the Upfront Foundation," he said. "It may be a few months before we begin to talk publicly about all that the foundation will do. It's really contingent [on] how successful the platform is. The more successful the platform is, the more influential and the deeper the reach will be for our foundation."