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Can a Spanish rival out-compete Facebook?

Spanish social-networking site Tuenti is going global with a model that emphasizes quality connections over quantity

Facebook founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg delivers the opening keynote address at the f8 Developer Conference April 21, 2010 in San Francisco, California. (Justin Sullivan/AFP/Getty Images)

MADRID, Spain — When Spaniards log into a social-networking website, they use one of two sites, both created and run by twenty-something American entrepreneurs. One of those Americans is Mark Zuckerberg, the CEO of Facebook. The other is Zaryn Dentzel.

Born in Santa Barbara, Calif., Dentzel arrived in Madrid in 2006. He had his first taste of Spain eight years earlier, when he spent several months there as part of a high-school exchange program. In the intervening years, Dentzel graduated from Occidental College, worked for a time at Essembly, a California start-up, and watched as American social-networking sites like Facebook exploded in popularity.

Spain, however, had no equivalent. When some of Dentzel’s exchange-school friends started a rudimentary Spanish social network, then, Dentzel bought a place ticket to Madrid to join them.

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Once there, Dentzel and Kenny Bentley, another Essembly veteran, redesigned the fledgling network—known as Who Is Who—with cash raised from family and friends. In January 2007, they re-launched the website under a new brand: Tuenti. (The new name, pronounced like the number 20, comes from “tu entidad”—Spanish for “your entity.”) Though it started with only 1,000 or so users—the remnants of Who Is Who’s user base—the new site grew rapidly. By the year’s end Tuenti had 350,000 users. It hit the million-users mark a few months later. At the time, that made it Spain’s most popular social network.

In the years since, Tuenti has emerged as Spain’s most successful young technology company, a dramatic success story in country wracked by unemployment. “They’re the big example,” said Rosa Jimenez Cano, a technology writer for El País who has covered Tuenti for four years. “They’re what every tech company in Spain would like to be.”

In spite of Tuenti’s success, however, the company can no longer claim to be Spain’s most popular social network. That distinction now belongs to Facebook, which attracts nearly double the number of monthly hits as its Spanish rival.

But Tuenti appears undaunted. Flush with cash after its recent acquisition by one of Spain’s largest companies, Tuenti has hired scores of new staffers this year, and the company is drafting international expansion plans. Even as Facebook’s reach grows, Tuenti’s executives are betting that their more intimate, privacy-minded social network can take on Facebook and carve out a niche in the countries around the world.

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Tuenti’s main offices are located in an imposing stone building on the Plaza de las Cortes in Madrid, steps away from Spain’s Parliament and a five-minute walk from the Museo del Prado. Aside from the location — the rough American equivalent would be Facebook building its headquarters on the National Mall in Washington — Tuenti’s offices wouldn’t look out of place in Silicon Valley. Bright blue couches, glass walls with ideas scrawled on them in dry-erase marker, and rows of young people wearing T-shirts and flip-flops sitting at computers. For employees who come to Tuenti from Spain’s other, more buttoned-down businesses, the atmosphere can be a bit of a surprise, said Rosalba Mayo Galan, who works in marketing at Tuenti. “When I came for my first day at Tuenti, it was like, ‘Oh my God, where are your shoes?’” she said, laughing. Like many American technology companies, Tuenti’s vending machines dispense free soda, and employees can take PlayStation breaks.

Tuenti had about 30 employees when it moved into the building three years ago, according to Erik Schultink, the company’s chief technology officer. Today, it employs 230 people, he said, with 60 of them hired in the last quarter alone. To house its growing workforce, the company opened a second office, in Barcelona, in March; a third one opened in July on Calle de Alcala in Madrid, a few minutes’ walk from headquarters.

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Along with Dentzel, Schultink — a soft-spoken 26-year-old in cargo shorts and flip-flops — is one of a handful of Americans in senior positions at Tuenti. (The company employs people in more than 20 different countries.) Originally from Michigan, Schultink earned his social-networking chops working at Facebook for a time in 2004, a few months after Mark Zuckerberg launched the site at Harvard. Three years later,