If the proverb “Necessity is the mother of invention” holds merit, then you could say it follows that John Ciocca is one of Mother Necessity’s up-and-coming sons of innovation in the scientific family of life-improving achievements.
And whenever the junior entrepreneurship major at Florida Gulf Coast University needs a source of inspiration for his innovative spirit, all Ciocca has to do is reach across his own family’s dinner table to his brother, Christian. Together, the Ciocca brothers – largely-self-taught, software-developing phenom John; and Christian, the sibling born with Down syndrome who fuels John’s ingenuity – are making life simpler, safer and generally better for people with special needs and their families under the mobile-app brand youBelong.
The flagship app youBelong, a social-media platform where those with special needs can connect without fear of cyberbullying or trolling, was just the beginning. Ciocca, the company founder and CEO, and Christian, whose title is head of community, have expanded the youBelong brand to include Purple, a banking app for families with special-needs members; and soon-to-come youBelong Voice, which provides alternative augmentative communication to those with speech-impeding disabilities. “It’s an advanced text-to-speech synthesis engine that gives users the ability to express their feelings, thoughts, actions and needs by simply tapping or typing to form a sentence and have it spoken aloud,” Ciocca said.
Impressed? So are users. “I don’t typically discuss specific numbers, but across the entire portfolio of apps released between 2014 and the present, we’ve exceeded 213,000 downloads,” Ciocca said.
Not bad for an enterprise started by a now-20-year-old college student developing apps since he was a 12-year-old from Voorhees, N.J. Bored during summer vacation — and wondering how video-game creators “make things come to life” — he started teaching himself software development through books and YouTube videos.
“I’ve always been passionate about building things and seeing projects through from idea to completion,” Ciocca said. “As I became more interested in computers, I realized how amazing it felt to program a computer to perform a specific task. It was at this point where I realized I could use technology to make a difference.
“One of the very first apps that I set out to build was a dating app for people with disabilities,” he said. “Everything was smooth until launch day, when the app stopped working after users began signing up. I was in way over my head, and had to step back and evaluate what went wrong. Despite moving on from this specific concept, it later evolved into what is now youBelong. It took three years to finally get it right, but during that time, I was determined to build software that was simple and accessible to individuals with disabilities.”
Ciocca’s admission about his first failed app attempt is similar to the stories behind most successful inventors who learn the old-fashioned way: trial-and-error.
“Early on, there were plenty of projects that I worked on as a way to learn new technologies,” Ciocca said. “This gave me an opportunity to experiment with ideas while also improving upon my skill. Many projects were scrapped, while others made it on to the App Store. For every project that met the threshold to be shipped, there were probably three to four others that never saw the light of day.
“The biggest takeaway is that each failure taught me something new, which I could then apply to pursue something bigger and better than the last,” he said.
It’s that drive to improve and expand that led to youBelong, which originally charged subscribers a modest $1 monthly subscription fee but now downloads for free, and is expanding to Purple and youBelong Voice.
“Our thoughts around pricing have changed a lot over the years,” Ciocca said. “youBelong was initially launched as a free app with ads. We removed ads after realizing that they were annoying, and we couldn’t control what was displayed or where a user would be taken if they clicked on one. We spent a lot of time researching alternative business models, and determined that a monthly subscription would be most effective. We constantly adjust our product roadmap, and new projects like Purple start to take priority. So youBelong remains a free app, and we decided to pursue revenue from new product lines.”
Those new lines are the result of enthusiastic reception by what Ciocca describes as an “amazing community of people with special needs … thousands of people from around the world who use youBelong to connect.”
“With our platform, we’re in a unique position to gain insights into the topics that special-needs parents discuss with each other,” Ciocca said. “One problem that came up over and over again was the struggle of managing their child’s finances. What we found was that these parents were handing us a much larger problem to solve. I didn’t realize how big the problem was until I came across a report that found people with a disability are three times as likely to be ‘unbanked’ as those with no disability.”
And from that identifiable necessity, Purple was born. “With Purple, we don’t have any of the outrageous fees that traditional banks charge,” Ciocca said. “We generate revenue through a fee called interchange. Card networks such as MasterCard and VISA charge a fee to process transactions. The banks and card networks involved in both ends of the transaction each get a cut. If you go to Target and spend $100, for example, Target pays the fee and the consumer checking out with their debit card never sees anything happen.”
Asked whether he’s concerned if the name “Purple” will be confused with the bed-in-a-box mattress by the same name that’s marketed through television and online ads, Ciocca said, “It’s funny … I’m hearing this one pretty frequently. We decided to use ‘Purple’ because of what the color represents (royalty, ambition and devotion, among its many associations) and how it already played a huge role in the youBelong brand. But what sets our Purple apart is the mission. We’re on a mission to create a pathway to financial inclusion for those with disabilities. There’s no mission for a mattress company other than that it’s better than sleeping on the couch.”
That’s the kind of confident attitude that has earned Ciocca equity-free funding from FGCU’s Runway Program for student and alumni entrepreneurs and from national pitch competitions such as EIX E-Fest. “Building a challenger bank isn’t an easy feat, and to take Purple to the next level, we’ll look to raise a formal round of funding in the near future,” he said.
The near future also includes FGCU, which Ciocca credits for helping him take his personal innovation game to another level. “If it weren’t for FGCU, youBelong could have very well been one of those projects that got shut down after launching,” he said. “We sat down and figured out how to turn an app into a viable business that could sustain itself.
“Having the resources to build youBelong while also pursuing an education has been incredible,” Ciocca continued. “The (Daveler & Kauanui) School of Entrepreneurship and Runway Program have been instrumental in the growth and expansion of the youBelong brand. During just my two years at FGCU, I’ve had the opportunity to do things that no other school could have offered. I wouldn’t be where I’m at today without FGCU’s support.”
Ironically, another school almost benefited from this emerging genius. Ciocca was enrolled at Florida Polytechnic University in Lakeland, and even went to orientation, but decided that the school founded in 2012 was “too new.” So the student who graduated from Estero High School, which Ciocca attended after his family relocated from New Jersey, came back “home” for college.
One of the FGCU staff members who’s glad he did is Mark Bole, entrepreneur in residence at the Institute for Entrepreneurship, whom Ciocca identifies as one of his most influential mentors.
“Over the last two years, I’ve seen John grow from a young app developer who cares deeply about the special-needs community into an entrepreneur focusing on changing people’s lives,” Bole said. “I couldn’t be more proud of his growth as a person and as an entrepreneur.”
Others who share that sentiment likely include members of the Ciocca family who see brothers John and Christian making transformative impact. John cites the late Apple leader Steve Jobs and fantasy-world creator Walt Disney as visionaries who inspire him personally: “They were two purpose-driven innovators who left lasting impressions … they didn’t care for the status quo and were OK with disrupting the industries they operated in.” But his inspiration really comes down to the people around the family dinner table.
“The support from my family is what makes everything I do possible,” Ciocca said. “I have people in my corner both at home and at school that I know will be brutally honest when I need to hear it most.”
As for the other brother at the dinner table — the guy who’s head of community in the family business – he’s proud to join Ciocca as part of the solution in helping others navigate everyday life.
“I love working with my brother to help make the world a better place for people with special needs,” Christian said.