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Archive for March, 2012

I got a knock-back letter from an incubator the other day. Their reason: “concerns about your ability to out-execute the incumbent.” They are talking, of course, about Kickstarter, the massively-successful website who introduced most people to the idea of crowdfunding. This is a common confusion but completely misplaced in our opinion. I decided to tackle the issue head-on with a post on the StartSomeGood blog, which I’ve re-posted below. I’d love your thoughts on whether this explanation resonates with you and how we can best express our unique value and purpose.

The importance of diversity

We all talk about abundance vs scarcity, knowing logically that there is an abundance of resources to accomplish whatever anyone might want to do in this world, and yet many (most?) people have traditionally struggled to unlock the support they need to pursue their dreams.

So what would it take for all worthy endeavors to get the support they need?

In the real world you would need a range of venues available for different art forms and events just as you find in most cities – some generalist, hosting everything from basketball to ice dancing to concerts, others art form-specific but presenting a variety of acts and genres while other venues specialize in particular genres or performance forms. There are venues for speeches and workshops, parties and performances, for making things together or sitting back and watching. The vitality of a cities culture relies on this diversity of opportunities.

And this is precisely how the crowdfunding landscape is also playing out. For individuals with a passion for anything at all, there is IndieGoGo. For US-based artists and creative entrepreneurs with a product, there is Kickstarter while in Australia there is Pozible and in France Ulule. For journalists there is Spot.us and for app developers there is AppBackr.

And for social entrepreneurs and changemakers focused on making the world a better place, there is StartSomeGood.

Why we are not competing with Kickstarter

It is specifically in relation to Kickstarter that most confusion on this point arises.

Here at StartSomeGood we have heard these questions numerous times:

  • How are you different to Kickstarter?
  • Aren’t you just a niche Kickstarter?
  • Why would people choose you instead of Kickstarter?
  • How do you intend to compete with Kickstarter?

The confusion here is related to Kickstarter’s huge mindshare, being the way many people found out about crowdfunding, but also largely on us. It is our job to explain how what we’re doing fits into the current fundraising landscape and the ways in which we are distinctive even as we work towards a similar vision. This post is an attempt to do that.

This belief that we are not competing with Kickstarter is both a philosophical position but also a practical observation of the different markets we serve. The confusion arises here I believe because with all the media attention to Kickstarter people only casually connected to the space often think of them as an all-purpose crowdfunding platform. This leads some to wonder how we will thrive with our (seemingly) more-niche platform focused on social change projects.

But Kickstarter is not an all-purpose platform, their focus is very clear: creative projects only. They are strict in maintaining their criteria (and explicitly prohibit “charity projects”) and have a particular style of project they prefer – one with a clear, productized outcome which can be shared or consumed. So Kickstarter are a niche platform, just as we are, but in both cases our respective niche’s are enormous. To be sure, there are some situations where there is overlap, such as in the instance of a film about a social issue, a political app or a food justice project. But the vast majority of the ventures we exist to serve simply cannot participate on Kickstarter’s platform due to either not being a creative product or being based outside the United States.

Rather than write another 1,000 words on this, here’s a little Venn diagram we hope will succinctly illustrate the point:

So the concept that people need to “choose us over Kickstarter” is accurate only in a few specific instances; for most social impact ventures Kickstarter is not actually an available choice.

Kickstarter has given rise to countless new films, gadgets and art projects; StartSomeGood to brand new social change organizations.  Kickstarter has empowered video game makers, iPhone gadgeteers and t-shirt designers; StartSomeGood has empowered changemakers of all ages and from many countries to pursue their dreams.  Rather than choosing one platform over the other, in most cases it’s clear from the start which site is the best fit for which project, with our shared purpose of providing an opportunity to rally supporters around your vision being the common denominator.

Given how much there is that needs doing in the world and the people looking for tools to help them make it happen we believe there is a significant business opportunity to do for the social sector what Kickstarter have done for the creative sector. But by far more importantly, there is a huge opportunity, indeed, a need, to empower and inspire thousands of changemakers to create the future they want for their communities.

Allies, not competitors

This opportunity speaks to a bigger and more important philosophical point. We believe that the world is abundant with possibilities: world-changing ideas and changemakers ready to make them happen. We exist to help those changemakers go from idea to action and impact. We have always been enormously inspired by the impact Kickstarter have had in the creative industries. We aim to democratize the social sector, creating opportunities for new types of projects, diverse organizational forms and a new generation of changemakers, just as Kickstarter is democratizing cultural consumption and the creative industries.

We are in fact huge fans of Kickstarter. I myself have supported 36 projects on Kickstarter, which puts me in the top 1% of project backers, given that 84% of Kickstarter members have given to just a single project.

The sectors we focus on are the two most in need of disruption, as funding decisions in both the creative and social change sectors have traditionally been made by small groups far removed from those who most benefit from the work produced. Now social and creative entrepreneurs can go around these traditional decision-makers and turn directly to their communities for the support they need.

We are proud to be part of this movement to break down barriers and provide the tools to help people do epic things. Rather than competing StartSomeGood and Kickstarter are creating the same future: one that is more democratic, open, participatory and exciting.

In Summary, How StartSomeGood is Different from Kickstarter:

  • They are for creative projects while we are for social impact projects;
  • They require a US bank account to launch a campaign while we accept projects from 110 countries (anywhere you can set up a paypal account);
  • They use an all-or-nothing model and we use a Tipping Point model;
  • Kickstarter was founded by creatives for creative entrepreneurs, StartSomeGood was founded by changemakers for social entrepreneurs.

If you are still unsure please get in touch and let’s talk about which platform might be right for you.

So, did that clear things up?

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My timing was a bit off on this – reports have emerged of the head of Invisible Children and filmmaker behind KONY2012, Jason Russel, being detained by the police while having some sort of emotional breakdown. I have never questioned Russel’s motives and feel awful for him, the stress has clearly taken a terrible tole on him and I hope he gets rapidly better. I think the conversations raised by the KONY2012 campaign are important and it will be a shame if, as is likely, this event ends those conversations. It doesn’t feel right to remove the blog post below – which I actually wrote on Tuesday on the train – and I hope it is clear that my critique is not aimed at Invisible Children but rather at the reaction of some of my peers in the social media for social change space.

I’m sure most of you have seen or heard of the KONY2012 video recently released by the American organization Invisible Children, which gained 70 million views faster than any video in history, and the resulting controversy over the content, framing and approach of the video and organization. I’ve participated in these debates on Facebook and Twitter, mostly passing along links to articles written by people far more expert in the situation in Central Africa than I. This blog is not to further hash out those issues, please read posts here, here and here if you want to learn more (if you have watched the video but have not yet read these critiques, I really encourage you to do so).

What I want to address here, specifically, is the commentary I have seen from several of my peers in the social media for social change space describing KONY2012 as one of the most high-impact social media for social change campaigns ever. Irrespective of how you feel about the video itself and the approach it takes to the issues in Uganda and Central Africa, I think this is a reaction that should give anyone who cares about the use of social media for social change pause.

The key question, as I said in reply to one of these sorts of statements, is to define what we mean by “impact”.

Think about it this way: if a car ad went viral on social media, receiving 70 million views in just a few weeks, but afterwards there was no increase in the sales of the car being advertised, would the marketing industry describe it as “the successful social media marketing campaign of all time”? Of course not. Success is not having a video go viral, success is something changing in the real world. If it didn’t have a measurable impact on sales the advertising firm that produced it would be unlikely to be retained, despite their social media success (see for instance Burger King’s recent decision to dump Crispin Porter & Bogusky, creators of the hugely viral campaign “subservient chicken”).

I believe in social media-enabled activism. I believe in the incredible power of these tools to connect, inform and inspire us. I believe they have created new forms of activism and have supported the creation of global campaigns and alliances which have had an impact on many issues and in many places. But when we lose sight of this real-world impact and become infatuated with youtube views as a measure of impact in and of themselves, we sell short the incredible potential of these tools. In our adoration we risk becoming the caricature of the social media slacktivist the media likes to deride: caught up in the act of sharing, content to click ‘like’ or to retweet and then move on, satisfied our work is done. But for social media activism to have an impact the work is only ever just beginning at this initial point of engagement. I believe that creating a world of changemakers requires not just the sometimes-too-easy work of generating outrage but rather the complex work of building better futures together in communities fueled by positivity and participation. But this is another discussion.

Now this isn’t to say KONY2012 won’t have an impact; it just hasn’t yet. And any impact it does have will be hard to judge based on the somewhat confusing goals of the campaign. Invisible Children want the US Government to be involved in bringing Joseph Kony of the Lords Revolutionary Army to justice, and this, in fact, is exactly what the US government is already doing, as Obama dispatched 100 soldiers to aid in the search for Kony and the LRA late last year. Invisible Children are calling on Obama to not withdraw these forces, but there’s been no indication he was considering such a thing. They also call on the International Criminal Court to focus on arresting Kony, but he is already their most-wanted suspect.

The point I’m trying to make goes beyond this particular campaign and to the heart of how we believe social media can affect change. Awareness is undoubtedly a critical part of this process – you can’t act on an issue you are unaware of – but it is still a means to an end.  If you were organizing a rally around an issue, do you consider your impact to be the number of people who turn up to the rally? Would Martin Luther King Jr. have considered the March on Washington a success just based on turn-out? I doubt it: success is judged by the extent to which the rally helped influence decisions and actions taken afterwards. Success is social or behavioral change, not simply awareness.

Two of the biggest protest marches ever held in Sydney were against the Iraqi War and in favour of an apology to the indigenous stolen generation. Neither could possibly be claimed as “the most successful march of all time” because, despite their enormous numbers, they simply didn’t create the change they were looking for. Australian forces still invaded Iraq in support of the US and the then-government continued to refuse to budge on the apology. It was only two elections later, with a change of government, that this issue moved forward.

Those of us who work in and believe in social media for social change need to judge the success of campaigns on the ends, not the means. Not page views, not YouTube hits, not even money raised, but on changes affected in the circumstances of people and issues in the real world. We can complement and be impressed by the amazing spread of the KONY2012 video, and people can (and naturally will) look to learn lessons about how to generate a similar response, but we have to reserve labels like “most high-impact ever” for when we see actual impact being generated. When we get caught up in virality as an end in itself we diminish the potential of social media rather than celebrating it and we risk losing sight of what must matter most.

Do you think KONY2012 deserves to be called impactful yet? What are some examples of social media campaigns you’ve seen that did create real-world impact?

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One of my tribes.

I’m writing this on the train from Vancouver back to the Bay Area, sitting in the glass-encased observation carriage as farmlands and forests sweep by, dramatically snow-capped mountains in the distance. We are in southern Oregon and it feels like every few minutes we cross another river near-bursting its banks. It’s all so lush and gorgeous, characteristic of the Northwest Forests I’ve had the chance to experience in recent days. Trains really are the best way to travel. While yesterday I had wifi from Vancouver to Portland this 18-hour stretch from Portland to San Francisco is offline, which I don’t mind as it’s a good time for clearing my head and doing some writing.

The past couple of weeks have been unusually stressful, with my visa to re-enter the US initially being rejected, stranding me in Canada with my pregnant wife left back in San Francisco and time ticking down to our departure from the US back to Australia, unable to help with the tasks of relocation or say goodbye to my friends in person. This is all thankfully behind me as I steam towards the Bay, with 17 days once I get there to finish packing and depart.

Despite the stress and frustration when in the future I look back on this time I don’t think this is what I’ll remember at all. Instead I think I’ll have overwhelming positive feelings about these two weeks, remembering the incredible support and love our friends showed both K and I, which managed to turn what could have been an awful experience into truthfully one of the most moving and uplifting of my life.

When we first announced the visa rejection on Facebook, the response was immediate and near-overwhelming. Offers of support and advice poured in. I was connected to Australian, American and Canadian diplomats, immigration lawyers, and people who had gone through the process before to get advice. I was offered numerous places to stay and people to connect with in Vancouver and Calgary. Our friends in San Francisco really stepped up to help K with packing up our house, at one point she had seven of them working under her direction, or just to deliver her food and offer her company and support.

Beyond these specific actions was the unbelievable sense of love, concern and solidarity we both experienced. When we could have felt very alone, kept apart by border and bureaucracy, we instead felt deeply connected to our community. It’s a feeling I will always treasure. Thank you to everyone who reached out and offered comfort during this time.

In the most practical and necessary way possible I also experienced incredible hospitality while in Canada. In Vancouver I stayed with a new friend who I had only met at a street party in San Francisco this past New Year’s Day. It’s not as random as it sounds, we share a mutual close friend who was at the party and she spent five years in Sydney previously.  While we never met we were part of the same cultural community in Sydney, the outdoor psytrance scene, and this sense of being part of the same tribe, despite having only recently met, was powerfully connecting, even as my intended 3 days in Vancouver stretched to 11. Last Saturday night we went to a psytrance party in Victoria, on Vancouver Island, and the feeling of the community there was reminiscent of the tribe we both missed in Sydney: open, fun-loving and expressive.

I had the same experience in Calgary, staying with a relatively recently-met friend who I share many social ties with, both having been part of the beautifully close-knit Burning Man community in Washington DC, but never having lived there at the same time. While in Calgary I also met a group of the local burners (Burning Man devotees) and the ease with which we bonded was both unusual and yet also expected.

The lesson: when you are part of the same tribe, you take care of each other.

I’ve thought a lot about tribes over the past several years, and it’s my belief in the power and abundance of our communities that inspires me about crowdfunding (or tribefunding as I increasingly think of it).

I believe a deeper sense of tribe is only possible when you share a form of cultural expression which is sub-mainsteam. In other words it is sub-cultures that form community. Sub-cultures tend to be based on participation, whereas mainstream cultures are based on consumption. Once a culture gets too big a certain level of intimacy and sense of connection and participation, of having something important and vital in common, gets diluted then lost. You can feel this even in San Francisco, where Burning Man culture has become mainstream, and the truly tight-knit communities are the next sub-cultural level down, groups of burners based around specific camps or sounds.

I also had the chance to connect with my other community, social entrepreneurs and changemakers, when I presented at events in Vancouver, Calgary and Portland, and loved the energy and passion of the people I met. I hope we’ll be able to support many of them on StartSomeGood soon.

It is my connection to these tribes, my pursuit of the subcultures I love to participate in, which has provided a platform for my last four years in America, which has allowed me to quickly make friends and find community in each city I arrive in.

I am so grateful for the support of friends new and old over the past couple of weeks, and for the tribes and cultures which connect us.

“True [dance] music consists of four main ingredients: a cup of spirituality, a tablespoon of love, a dash of togetherness, and a pinch of soul-penetrating beats.” – Bamboo Forrest.

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I was meant to be at SXSW this weekend, co-facilitating a “core conversation” on Monday with Stacey Monk from Epic Change about “positively inspired change campaigns” and hosting Pitch Some Good at Center61 that night. And seeing old friends and making lots of new ones, being overwhelmed by the options for free events and parties, listening to some amazing innovators and storytellers and seeing the latest in technology and marketing. You know, SXSW!

But instead I’m here in Vancouver writing you this note to say I’m not making it.

My plans were thrown completely off-course last week when I was rejected for a visa to re-enter the US. Not only did this make SXSW almost impossible, it looked for a time like I wouldn’t get back in at all to help K pack up our house and say goodbye to all my friends in person before our move home to Australia April 1 (so soon!).

The good news is on my second attempt on Wednesday in Calgary I was approved. Not only did they give me the single-entry visa I was asking for, they gave me a 5-year version. Which is awesome, but kinda weird to go from not allowed in at all to free to come-and-go for the next five years. Not that I’m complaining, but it does prove my point about the validity of my case and how I probably should have been approved in the first place, in which case I would have been in Austin by now.

But at this stage, having only got my passport back yesterday, is too late for me and SXSW this year. StartSomeGood is a bootstrapped startup and as such my co-founder Alex and I mostly pay our own way to events such as this. After two return Vancouver-Calgary trips in the past week and a second $140 visa appointment fee, combined with the brutal cost of the last-minute flights available from here to Austin, I came to the sad, but accurate, conclusion yesterday that I just can’t afford it anymore, especially with the impending costs of moving home and re-establishing ourselves in Australian in anticipation of the arrival of our first child in August.

So here I am, 2,574 miles from Austin and the event I had such a blast at last year and was so looking forward to this year. But this isn’t meant to be a mope, just an explanation I can link to as I keep getting tweets and messages asking me where I am.

I’m a got lemons/make lemonade kinda guy, so my fall-back plans are pretty excellent. I’m about to head over to Vancouver Island for the weekend to get some nature (and some good music) into me, both of which I crave after the intense stresses of the past week. The forest is where I go to unwind and this, more than the frenetic exhilarating intensity of SXSW, is probably what I need most emotionally right now.

On Monday I’m catching the train to Portland where that night the Social Media Users Group at Collective Agency, run by my good friend Todd Pitt from Zero Strategist, are kindly hosting a social entrepreneurs salon for the occasion. If you in Portland please come along and if you know someone else who would find this interesting please send them the details. I’ve never been to Portland and am really thrilled I get to check it out, even if only briefly (24 hours before back on the train to San Francisco) in the final weeks of our time in the US. And I love a good train trip, probably my favourite way to travel.

So that’s what’s going on – thanks for asking!

If you are in SXSW please check out Pitch Some Good on Monday night at Center61 – RSVP and details here – where 8 social innovators will share their story and ask for your support. The event features a live crowdfunding exercise which will determine which of the ventures gets the $1000 main prize contributed by RackSpace, in addition to the funds donated by the crowed on the night.

Whatever you are doing this weekend, have an amazing time.

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Okay so this is already out-of-date since I wrote it a few days ago but I’m posting it anyway to kick-start this blog. I wanted to leave it in the form it was written but, quickly, my visa was denied in Canada so I’m not making it to SXSW. I’ve got a second interview coming up and my only aspiration now is to get back to San Francisco to help K pack up and ship our life back to Australia and say goodbye to my friends in person.

I’m sitting on a bus crossing the Canadian Rockies, 13 hours into a 17 hour trip. I’m here in Canada getting one last visa to the US before moving back to Australia. I’m taking the bus specifically because I wanted to cross the Rockies at ground level and couldn’t afford the train. I was very impressed by Greyhounds description of their new buses: more legroom, power plugs at every seat, wifi. This, however, is not one of those buses, so I’m missing a number of skype meetings I had planned and am limited in the work I can do.

But maybe this is a good thing. For starters, knowing my laptop will only last a few hours I’ve been sparing in my use of it, mostly staring out the windows at the gorgeous scenery (which is what I’m here for after all!). And being offline has encouraged me to finally write post for my long-form (and long-ignored) blog.

It’s been shockingly long since I posted here and a great deal has happened in the intervening time. Those of you who know me personally or follow me on social media, and really that must be nearly all  of you, are probably abreast of most of this already, so I won’t labour over the details. But here are the highlights:

  • In August/September More Carrot mounted another successful expedition to Burning Man, expanding the farmers market to hot and prepared food and sending a mobile market out into the city.
  • I finished at HopeLab in October. Despite my love for the organization and people there my actual role wasn’t the right one for me, for a variety of reasons I may blog about more later.
  • After leaving HopeLab I focused on StartSomeGood.com, which has brought so much more energy and excitement to my life. I’m loving being a full-time entrepreneur again.
  • I spent a week in Tucson working with Hildy Gottlieb and Dimitri Petropolis at Creating the Future, which has had a profound impact on my thinking and on how we express things at StartSomeGood, which I blogged about here.
  • K and I did an introduction to Shamanism course in October which deserves its own blog post sometime. Interesting stuff.
  • In November/December I spent three weeks in Guatemala, Belize and Honduras, traveling with my sister and a close friend, learning to scuba dive and visiting ancient Mayan cities:
  • Upon returning from that trip K and I discovered she was pregnant and due in August! Woh! Not part of the plan (yet) but a delightful surprise, we’re super-excited to embark on this new journey together.
  • But as one journey begins another comes to an end, and K and I are moving back to Australia in April, and looking forward to catching up with many friends and re-exploring Sydney. We’ve been hearing really good reports about all the cool things happening there at the moment and are excited to re-engage and catch up.

So there you are, you’re up to date if you weren’t before. Life is very full and very exciting. There’s so much I want to pack into these last eight weeks in America – visiting friends and places I haven’t made it out to, (such as I’m doing in Canada right now), returning to a couple of my favourite camping spots near San Francisco and spending lots of quality time with my favourite people. And I’m going to be absolutely cranking away at StartSomeGood, before I get separated from my team mates by even more timezones than usual.

We’re starting to see a real return on our efforts now, with more and more ventures getting in touch and looking to utilize our platform. We’ll be hosting a great event featuring social innovators called Pitch Some Good during South by Southwest Interactive in Austin, which I’m also speaking at – please come along if you’re in town.

You can also check out some of our success stories from our first nine months in our eBook: Start Some Good: What’s Next for 2012?:

Now that this big update is out of the way I’m going to try to make a commitment to blogging more often, hopefully on topics more interesting than me.

Cheerio!

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