In the age of social media and smartphones that can capture content clearly and vividly, fans often document their experiences at concerts, festivals, parties and more. Seeing the often distracting nature of filming during live events, however, Graham Dugoni sought to create a device that would give attendees phone-free experiences and force them to live in the moment. Enter Yondr, the lockable phone case that can only be opened and closed through a separate tool so a phone can't be accessed during a show.
Founded in 2014 in San Francisco by Dugoni, Yondr started out by catering to burlesque shows. It has grown to cover shows internationally and has scaled up to accommodate as much as 20,000-person venues. In the past year, Yondr has serviced shows and events featuring the likes of Bruno Mars, Chance the Rapper, Childish Gambino, U2, Sam Smith, Lorde and Kesha. The company has also partnered to service full shows of Chris Rock, Tracy Morgan and Cage the Elephant. Tennis champ Serena Williams even tapped the company to make her wedding a phone-free zone.
Most recently, Yondr, closed out the year partnering with Dave Chappelle and John Mayer for their Controlled Danger shows at the Hollywood Palladium on Friday and Satury and a New Year's Eve show at The Forum. The unique show included an opening mini-concert from Mayer, a solo stand-up routine from Chappelle, and a joint set with both of them. Comedy shows are often candid and sometimes provocative, so it helps that a fan won't film a joke out of context or prematurely post material that will be part of an upcoming comedy special.
Billboard spoke to Dugoni to talk more about what led him to start Yondr, how it differs from other tech companies, and what's to come in 2018:
How did you come up with the concept of Yondr?
Going to a lot of shows in 2011, 2012 and getting into music. I was reading a lot about sociology and philosophy around technology that was shedding an interesting light that was happening in the modern world. It was basically clear to me that a lot of stuff is happening in society that's strange, but the root of it is the role of technology in society, which was more prevalent in music and entertainment than anywhere else. That's kind of the setting for how the idea came about: My take on how to best approach the problem of hyperconnectivity.
Did you come up with this concept on your own or with a team of people, and what about your background or experience informed you being able to come up with this idea?
I started the company myself. I was a soccer player in college and after college, so I was never a businessperson. I went to Duke University and studied political science, but I was a soccer player. I didn't learn the things that have been most valuable to me then in college. It was after college when I was living abroad and got into sociology. I started reading different elements of psychology and then moved into philosophy. Really through the medium of jazz is how I got introduced to all of these things, I'd say. Then three years later of going down the rabbit hole and following these different interests, Yondr popped out.
How do you usually get partnerships to do shows and events?
Usually how this happens is we are contacted by someone related to the artist. They found out usually through press or through references of what we do. It almost always comes from the artist having a strong feeling of a phone-free show and what that represents for their fans. What we look for in the company are true artists doing really interesting cool things. When we find them, then we start working together.
This year you're doing Dave Chappelle and John Mayer's shows. Talk about that partnership and how you've been able to grow and do shows with thousands of people.
We do all of Dave's shows, and then the shows with Dave and John have been great. It's fun to see them perform live. For me, it's always been clear that we can do 40,000-person stadiums, because functionally we know logistically how it works. It's just letting people know ahead of time that it's going to be a phone-free show. Most people are down for the idea. They understand a phone-free show is more fun, so we just tell them it's a phone-free show and we think it's going to be wilder, everyone will be a little more in the moment, people might be dancing and having more fun because no one is afraid of showing up on the internet. We think it's a good thing and we ask them what they think.
What do you think about a phone-free experience makes a comedy show better?
I think the biggest one is when you go to to a live show, the reason people go is because there's an exchange between the artists and the fans. And there's a feeling at a good show that builds on itself. What the phone represents is if someone takes a picture of texts in the moment, it cuts into that experience and bleeds it out. Most artists see the difference. Specifically for comedy and even music, it gives the artist space to be free and uninhibited. They can experiment with new material. They feel free to express themselves. In my opinion, if we aren't creating spaces for artists to express themselves freely, what are we doing?
How do you set yourself apart from other companies in the tech space that are tackling issues in the music industry?
Well, first off I would say we are not a tech company. We create phone-free spaces. We aren't anti-tech either because I don't like the label. But we are in San Francisco and what we generally say is we aren't in San Francisco for the tech movement, we are here for the movement after the tech movement. Most tech companies produce a new gadget to make something more efficient and easier. But our motto is less is more. We approach things that way. We have chosen to work with artists who represent what we really would like to do. We have shied away from working in industries and different places that don't fit in with the spirit of what we're doing. And in the spirit of what we're doing is allowing people space to interact with an environment more openly and adventurous. It sounds really broad, but when you think about people being on their phones all day, you can start to view the phone as an element of control. And that's how we feel. That's what we hear from people.
In your opinion, what are obstacles, if any, to getting the entertainment industry as a whole to adopt Yondr?
I find it very interesting to be thrown into the music industry. I've met a lot of really cool people, a lot of creative people. But the industry as a whole is like a lot of other industries. It's a game of business, so we don't care about being adopted by the industry. What we care about is when a real artist is looking at the world and wants to create an experience connecting with their fans in a way that's really primary -- that's what we are focused on. That's how we have grown. It's viewing the world of being more receptive rather than trying to force it. Maybe that's what sets us apart from other tech companies, is that we aren't interested in selling stuff. We have no social media. We have no advertising. We're just there as a facilitator.
What's next for Yondr in 2018?
We've got a bunch of tours coming up in the spring and summer that we can't disclose just yet, but we are excited. We are going to be in a lot of festivals as well. We also provide phone-free experiences in schools, so a big part of 2018 is continuing to expand into Europe and Australia in schools. We focus a lot of our energy on that. It's for the entire school day, because what people are starting to pick up on is how social media affects kids. A lot of smart middle and high schoolers we talk to know that something is out of wack with the way they're living their life. They have a lot of anxiety and angst that they can't pinpoint what it is. And what we've said is, "Hey, try having a phone-free day at school and see if that's liberating." That's resonating with people, so that's where we are going to continue to apply energy: listening to teachers and educators.