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Unation, a social media startup in Tampa, hopes to change the way businesses connect with fans

John Bartoletta, left, and George Beardsley, at the Unation office in Tampa, have a long-term goal of 20 million “citizens.”
Published Feb. 1, 2013

TAMPA — George Beardsley isn't particularly interested in what his old classmate cooked for dinner. But he does want details about a friend's party or a new menu launch at his favorite restaurant.

That's where Unation fits in.

Beardsley and John Bartoletta have started a social media network that focuses on events. An event can be anything, from a year-end sale to a kid's football game to a video explaining a business. The "U" refers to everything about you or your brand.

The site works off the premise that events, rather than random status updates and 140-character tweets, are what bring people together. And if people care about an event, they will be more inclined to view other content on the page, whether it be photos from past events, testimonials from participants or advertising for related products.

"No one has ever focused on events," said Bartoletta, Unation's founder and chairman. "The event could be the linchpin to effective advertising."

Bartoletta came up with the idea two years ago while in Michigan on the movie set for All Things Fall Apart starring 50 Cent and Mario Van Peebles. He saw the power of celebrities to attract a crowd and thought that pre-marketing a movie with videos and photos from filming events could make it more successful.

He rented a room in the back of a restaurant and, after a 12-hour brainstorming session, Unation was born. The goal is ambitious: to change the way businesses and individuals use social media to connect with fans and friends.

The Tampa-based startup spent a year developing the site and look it live in May with a small group of anchors, many of them contacts of Bartoletta and Beardsley, Unation's co-founder and chief strategy officer. Bartoletta, 48, runs the Highstreet Group, a boutique investment company in Temple Terrace; Beardsley, 45, is a former professional golfer and worked as head pro at the Cheval Golf and Country Club.

In September, the anchor members started inviting friends to join. Today, anyone can request an invitation at unation.com.

Unation officials won't say how much has been invested, except that a social network of this complexity is costly. The company has 45 full-time employees — including about a dozen code writers in Brazil — working day and night to make the vision a reality.

"People believe in it," Beardsley said. "They think we have the next big thing."

Once fully operational, the site plans to make money from pay-per-view videos, tutorials, advertisements, shopping features and premium account membership — sources of income that have been a challenge for Facebook and other sites.

Unation members range from Forbes Riley, who uses her page to promote her SpinGym Slimdown Challenges, to Lowry Park Zoo, which posts videos of baby animals and event notices.

The Tampa Police Department joined in December to promote its own events and alert officers to events in the neighborhoods they serve. The department has a strong social media presence but wanted a fast way to find events.

"It's not Facebook. It's not Twitter," said Janelle McGregor, a police spokeswoman who manages the page. "It's a site you go to when you want to know what's going on."

Unation wants to register 3.5 million "citizens" initially and 20 million in the long term, a fraction of Facebook's 1 billion users. So far, Unation has had 2.6 million page views.

Pages function like websites but can be public or private and tailored to a specific audience. Streamed content, both live and taped, is a big component. Last year, the United Soccer League streamed more than 100 games over the site.

Initial feedback from other social media and e-commerce sites has been encouraging, the founders said.

In January, Unation launched Project 1000, a campaign to register 1,000 small businesses in the Tampa Bay area for the site. Companies get help setting up branding pages and events, analyses of users, upgraded apps and webinars — services that will cost $50 to $100 a month, depending on the options. Basic membership to Unation is free.

Unation hopes to succeed where others have struggled.

"There's too much sharing," Beardsley said. "People want do-overs. They want quality over quantity."

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