We’re here at the Headquarters of Causes, a 6 year old startup in Silicon Valley. Chris Chan, a co-Founder, has shown us around the facility and begins by talking about the helpful culture of Silicon Valley. The kindness of strangers is what he describes as the secret to Silicon Valley success.
Chan was brought up in the Bay area and went to Uni at Stanford. He says he would always have liked to live in another town but technology was here.
Chan tells us about the history of the company. In 2004 one of the Founders, Joe Green was living in a strongly conservative part of Arizona and he learned about how to run a house meeting on political issues. Word of mouth is crucial to influencing political opinion and voting. After a difficult and ultimately failed campaign for the liberals under Bush, Joe discussed with his roommate (actually Mark Zuckerberg), the possibility of a social network for political organisation. These ideas became e-assembly and Chan joined the team while he was still at university because it seemed interesting. In reality, the network did not succeed because it didn’t get mass consumer appeal. But it was a good learning experience.
Chan then planned to join Google to improve the user experience of Google Mail and Docs, etc. But 3 weeks before he started he got a call from Joe Green to think about what else they could do, as Sean Parker had just left Facebook, and they all wanted to continue with the idea of helping communities support their political and social needs. So in a meeting they came up with Causes, as a means of supporting campaigning.
But the social network was not enough. A million members wasn’t enough. It had to be about what people would give to the cause they were supporting. So the measurement of the value of a member’s contribution to a cause they supported was based on raising money for a specific charity or cause they wanted to support.
They completed the site in March 2007. In May 2007 they had 200 beta members and were looking for businesses to be part of the business. At the same time Facebook profile boxes emerged and an opportunity to appear like they were part of Facebook emerged. They copied the visual styling so they could be part of the Facebook experience. It was the right move. On the first day they got over 10,000 new members. As an engineer this was a huge challenge for Chan.
But they scaled they grew up and they realised the future of the network was not a private social network, but rather to build on to Facebook. They built tools to help them manage their causes on facebook. The question they began wrestling with was how to translate the millions of users to dollars for charity. Tech media began to criticise Causes, so they needed to find ways to respond. They came up with birthday gift for individuals to donate to charity.
The challenge is it’s harder to get people to donate much. $300 billion is donated in the US annually to Charity, so Causes was not quite getting the impact it sought. A year ago Sean Parker wanted to return to first principles. They then reconsidered again how to facilitate actual action in support of causes, not just fund raising. Personal commitments, pledges, petitions and other changes of behaviour were considered in addition to giving to charity. But it was really about the community, and supporting actions among community members. So in August they decided to move the organisation off Facebook, and to host the community on causes.com, while still tapping in to the Facebook community.
Still much of their traffic comes from Facebook. The strategic decision made around 3 months ago that action-oriented causes are inherently viral. Leveraging social connections is the reason why it still has virality.
The relationship Causes now has with Facebook is good, but it is only a good relationship from their own effort. They still have to turn up to mixer parties and solve new engineering bugs, and to focus on growing the community. So there is a practice of “throwing pine cones on a fire” – growing the community and focusing on profile. Soon this will shift to a retention strategy to change the way that Causes operates.
Chan responds to the question about what makes Causes happen. He says the early days of Silicon Valley were about access to silicon and hardware development. Now it’s about making connections between people – it is the human capital that matters.
Chan says something about being in a very constructed place with a lot of people, with everyone fighting for space, with no orderly lines, this changes a city’s mentality. It changes how people treat other people. He also says the dominance of finance and banking is a different culture. This makes trying to establish a firm like Causes difficult in places like New York or Hong Kong.
Willingness to learn and openness to new ideas is key to producing the culture that is crucial to innovation in the area.
Chan talks about the difference between San Francisco and Mountain View being around focus. You can focus and be comfortable in one spot in a company like Google at Mountain View. Where here in San Francisco there is more to do, more places to visit.
Innovation, Chan says, is bottom-up in this area. Some of the best ideas come from the bottom up. Every 6 weeks Causes has a hackathon where they facilitate exploration of ideas that can help their core business or that can help expand the functionality of the platform. Where a top down process requires spec documents and design processes, and take weeks, a bottom up process like a hackathon can build an influence mapping tool from the bottom up in 12 hours – and indeed did.
Chan says that as the company grows they will have to study the growth of other successful companies that have had to adjust to the number of employees, so as to ensure their culture is maintained. Personal fulfilment and fulfilling career goals should be one and the same – this is probably unique to Causes. And that’s partly to do with the nature of Causes as an organisation.
Chan says they are still trying to work out how to get the message out their – to improve their marketing activity.
The future for Causes is to locate themselves where democracy happens. Politicians are not responsive to the populace, people feel disenfranchised. As a result of the Citizens United ruling, corporations now have the rights to donate as much money as they like without any transparency. As a result, shady superpacks have been established in the US donating billions to political campaigns. This makes it harder than ever for people to have an audience and a platform to support Causes.
Biggest challenge for Causes is to translate online connections to offline actions. In the next 6 months Causes will execute a plan to harness the virality of the platform. In 8 weeks Causes has built a community from 3 million to 8 million. But at the moment there is a lot of noise between personal issues to more profound global issues. So Causes is going to select 8 major causes where they will partner with non-profits to bring about major change – collective action, policy, and fund-raising. Partners will come on board and release content on the platform. Causes will bring to partners an audience of supporters.
The business model for Causes is based on CSR donations from corporate entities. It’s a huge process and needs ongoing development. The future is about growing the understanding of what is possible.