Evan led meetings with a whole bunch of Silicon Valley types – VC’s, CEO’s, heavy hitters of various stripes from his previous career as big deal in that world. Matt joined most of the meetings, and David was there too for the initial one. At least one very-well-known-but-not-named-here CEO already promised to put in money, based on Evan’s track record, and more conversations are lined up. But just as valuable as the cash were the questions and input we got, which helped us sharpen not only our pitch but our own thinking about the project.
While we were at it, we also wrote and submitted an application to Y Combinator’s new non-profit startup round. We also sent what we wrote out for comments from a number of people, and the input and group editing process again made our thinking much better!
Along the way, David, Evan and Matt spent a full day locked in an office with whiteboard markers talking through specific product features. We’re ready to make the roadmap. AAAAANNNDD in the meantime, Harpo knocked it out of the park on the organizing front, connecting DailyKos together with a number of local activists and hand-delivering 77,000 messages to Senators – a great model for the kind of connections between groups and activists we want to facilitate with the platform.
Here are some of the highlights of the meetings, and details on our current plans for the project.
Three different people (Ben Werdmuller of Matter.vc, Sam McAfee formerly of Change.org and many other places, and Tom Preston-Werner formerly head of GitHub) all asked how we are structured legally, and pushed us to have a firm answer when we said “we’re thinking about it.” The options we’re considering:
Non-profit: (+) Required for the Y Combinator program. Would look good to the activists we’re going to serve, makes it clear that we’re not in this to get rich. Opens the door to other grant funding. (-) Takes any sort of equity funding off the table. Takes more time/effort to set up, more requirements to follow in ongoing operations.
B-Corporation: (+) Makes it clear that we’re focused on public benefit not private profit. Still a corp so can do various kinds of funding. May make it easier for people to volunteer (this according to Sam Pullara, former Yahoo VP, and now Managing Director for Sutter Hill Ventures, who recommended this model). (-) Lots of extra auditing and requirements to meet, according to the Preston-Werners, who suggested starting as a C-corp and moving to B later.
C-Corporation: (+) Most standard model, easy for everyone to understand and to get legal/accounting help. Most existing activism platforms are sold this way. (-) Could make us seem like just-another-startup looking for a payout.
We laid out a rough plan which is basically “With $1.5MM we could go full speed with 5-6 people, and within 18-24 months we can be self-sustaining from income.” Some people wanted more proof of that – they wanted some details on exactly where the self-sustaining income would come from. Things we discussed as possibilities:
- offering a voter file or other enhanced data “add-on” for extra fee
- having “private” spaces for a low fee like $7, like GitHub does, where you can work on your projects without public input
- charging sliding-scale hosting fees for the SaaS organizing tools – free for small local orgs but larger groups pay the freight
- offering donation gateway services and collecting a fee on it
- having a “tip jar” a la ActBlue
Evan has started a pro forma budget that we’ll flesh out to prove the case that we can make this pay for itself.
Keeping it Progressive
Both Sam Pullara and Tom Preston-Werner and his wife Theresa wanted to know “how can you make sure the right wing doesn’t use whatever you build?” We didn’t have a satisfactory answer to this. Sam talked a little about the fact that the license for JSON has a “Don’t use this software for evil” clause, but after doing some research I’ve discovered that it’s essentially considered an unenforceable oddity.
My answer to Theresa Preston-Werner was “we just won’t let them use it”, the way that e.g. ActionKit doesn’t sell their tools to non-progressive groups. She found that non-convincing, which makes sense given that we had just told her it would be an open-source project…
The one which kept coming up was “why is there a need for this,” in the form of “why don’t people just use Facebook events”, “How much better are you than the ad hoc tools people already use?” “why not just use twitter”, and “this sounds like a social network, but we already have Facebook.”
We know there are clear answers to these questions. For instance, organizing a resistance event requires 6 or 8 different steps, and Facebook Events is great for pretty much just one of them: publicizing it. All the volunteer and logistical management, activity tracking, backchannel communications, collection of on-site signups, etc., has to be done some other way. And yes we do have Facebook, but we also have a social network for working on code and other projects together (GitHub), and one for career building (LinkedIn), and one for sharing longer writing (Medium), several for parents and families, etc. etc. etc. We think that organizing for social change is a specific activity, and will be improved by networking together the people doing it.
But, clearly we’re going to need to demonstrate that.
THE PLAN from here
We need to Build Real Stuff, Fast. We heard from many people in many ways that this project is right for this moment, and that the moment won’t last forever. We’re going to pick out the most useful one or two features of what we’ve drawn out, and make them work with real data, hopefully within a week. I’ll be doing a new push of customer development with the goal of getting some real-world groups using our code as soon as it’s running, for a) feedback we can use to iterate, and b) validation for funders.
Watch this space for more on exactly what the first working feature(s) will be!
Also Matt will be meeting with some people from Movement for Black Lives this week to learn more about the security needs of activists who have more to worry about than trolls.
And finally, a reality-check: Our current top priority is landing a little “breathing space” funding. In two weeks we will hit the limit of how much we can do by living on savings and debt; if we are to keep up the pace, let alone increase, we need to solidify $20-$25K in angel contributions or loans. All suggestions and assistance welcome!
One Last Thing
I almost forgot. We’re still using “Advocacy Commons” as a project name, but we think it’s a mouthful and not a great long-term moniker. We batted around calling it “Rebel Base”, but that doesn’t yet sit quite right. The most recent idea is “Affinity”, which has the benefit of being shorter, more “start-up-y”, and suggestive of “affinity groups”, which are the forbearers of the local grassroots groups we’ll support – but there aren’t any good domain names available for it 🙁
The suggestion box is open.