POCKETCHANGE: NEW SOFT­WARE COM­BINES AL­TRU­ISM WITH CAP­I­TAL­ISM

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Mak­ing money was never a mys­tery for Reyn Aubrey. The son of an en­tre­pre­neur and a free­lance writer, he spent his high school years in Hawaii dab­bling in sev­eral busi­ness ven­tures that brought in a nice in­come, at least for a 17-yearold, but also de­liv­ered a per­sonal epiphany: Profit alone seemed like a bor­ing pur­suit.

Aubrey de­cided to think big­ger, and he came up with an idea that melded cap­i­tal­ism and al­tru­ism into PocketChange, a com­pany he en­vi­sions chang­ing the world — as lit­tle as 25 cents at a time. The con­cept be­gan with his ob­ser­va­tion that the tra­di­tional fundrais­ing model hasn’t kept pace with in­ter­net tech­nol­ogy. It’s bro­ken.

Here’s how he pro­poses to fix it: Al­low peo­ple to seize that on­line mo­ment when they’re in­spired to help ad­dress a prob­lem, in real time as they read a news ar­ti­cle or a so­cial me­dia post.

Pro­vide them a means via a few clicks to send a mod­est do­na­tion — pocket change, lit­er­ally, from 25 cents to $2 — to a choice of pre-vet­ted char­i­ties aligned with the mis­sion sug­gested by the on­line con­tent.

“Peo­ple are gen­uinely good and ac­tu­ally want to do stuff, but they’re not em­pow­ered to do that when they’re most in­spired,” said Aubrey, 20, an in­ter­na­tional-busi­ness ma­jor at the Univer­sity of Den­ver who with­drew from school at the start of his junior year to be­come full-time CEO for the ven­ture. “That’s where the PocketChange mis­sion came from: mas­sive mar­ket op­por­tu­nity, good pur­pose be­hind it and just a bro­ken thing we think we can fix.”

Two other DU stu­dents — Chris­tian Doo­ley and Jon DuVar­ney, both also 20 — quickly hopped on board and “made it real,” Aubrey told The Colorado Sun . Doo­ley works as head of growth as he con­tin­ues his school­work, while DuVar­ney works full time as head of prod­uct now that he, like Aubrey, has put school on hold.

“Over the sum­mer, ba­si­cally we real­ized that we weren’t go­ing to be able to re­ally take this thing any­where if we didn’t take some time off from school,” DuVar­ney said. “We de­cided we would both with­draw, and I would walk away from my (part-time) job, and we’d just can­non­ball into work­ing on PocketChange full time.”

PocketChange is a Google Chrome ex­ten­sion, soft­ware that down­loads to the browser to en­hance the view­ing ex­pe­ri­ence in the same way an ad blocker does. The com­pany cur­rently is con­nected to a grow­ing list of about 70 char­i­ties and six on­line sites, in­clud­ing The New York Times, Google News and Face­book.

Work­ing from what they call “Mis­sion Control” — in the base­ment of a one-story, gray house about a block from cam­pus — Aubrey and DuVar­ney over­saw the launch on Thanks­giv­ing week of the ex­ten­sion’s third it­er­a­tion on lap­tops and desk­top com­put­ers that tracked its progress. By Nov. 26, users had made 2,428 do­na­tions.

Aubrey ar­rived at DU in Septem­ber 2016 af­ter hear­ing of Den­ver’s ac­tive startup scene — he had orig­i­nally fig­ured that San Fran­cisco and New York were his best op­tions — and has never re­gret­ted the de­ci­sion. The univer­sity backs its stu­dents whether they’re pur­su­ing a de­gree or a busi­ness startup, said Rosanna Gar­cia, a pro­fes­sor of en­trepreneur­ship in the Daniels Col­lege of Busi­ness.

“The univer­sity is kind of a safety net for our stu­dents,” Gar­cia said. “Wher­ever they’re at, what­ever they need, we try to sup­port them.”

Gar­cia, who taught in en­trepreneur­ship pro­grams at North­east­ern Univer­sity and North Carolina State be­fore ar­riv­ing at DU, said she on oc­ca­sion has had to re­mind the PocketChange founders to con­sider their strate­gies in a dis­pas­sion­ate, busi­ness-first man­ner. But ul­ti­mately, she added, it’s their com­mit­ment to the com­pany that will de­ter­mine its fate.

“Those who have deep pas­sion end up be­ing suc­cess­ful,” Gar­cia said. “Some­times they get so emo­tion­ally tied up that it’s hard for them to see the re­al­i­ties and busi­ness part of it. But the pas­sion is what’s go­ing to keep driv­ing them for­ward.”

Among DU stu­dents, the com­pany al­ready has proven pop­u­lar — not just as a means of mak­ing an im­pact on so­ci­ety’s problems, but as a way to put their time and tal­ent to good use.

As word about PocketChange spread across cam­pus, some stu­dents signed on in a kind of in­tern­ship ca­pac­ity in which DU of­fers credit hours and in some cases a stipend. Oth­ers vol­un­teered sim­ply be­cause it seemed like a cool thing to do. Now, in ad­di­tion to the three orig­i­na­tors, 32 peo­ple — pre­dom­i­nantly DU stu­dents — do ev­ery­thing from re­search­ing char­i­ties to de­vel­op­ing the ex­ten­sion and mar­ket­ing the com­pany to their class­mates and be­yond.

When Cole Polyak, 19, met with the PocketChange founders ear­lier this fall through a friend, they hit it off. Now the com­put­er­science ma­jor works for the prod­uct team, re­fin­ing the ex­ten­sion and fix­ing bugs.

“It was a prod­uct in its early stages, and this was a chance to be part of it and learn how it worked,” Polyak said. “Ad­di­tion­ally, the mis­sion was some­thing I could get ex­cited about, tak­ing tech­nol­ogy and do­ing some­thing for good.”

Mia Sund­strom, an 18-year-old sopho­more, heard Aubrey’s pitch for PocketChange in one of her busi­ness classes. It changed the course of her aca­demic ca­reer.

“I was so struck by his pas­sion and the vi­sion he had and model of what he was do­ing,” she said. “I re­mem­ber think­ing to my­self that this kid is go­ing to change the world — and I want to be part of it.”

Sund­strom, who ma­jors in busi­ness an­a­lyt­ics and man­age­ment, joined up to work on mar­ket­ing the com­pany while also earn­ing four credit hours for the 10-15 hours a week she puts in, as well as a 20-page pa­per on her ex­pe­ri­ence. She said she’ll con­tinue to work with PocketChange, even with­out the aca­demic perks, for as long as she’s at DU.

“I think the coolest part about it is ev­ery­one who’s there com­pletely bought into the vi­sion,” she said. “What we’ve got go­ing could make a huge, huge dif­fer­ence. It’s an in­cred­i­bly in­spir­ing, pas­sion­ate group of peo­ple. We’re just a group of col­lege kids do­ing our part.”

That’s the al­tru­is­tic el­e­ment.

What got PocketChange off the ground, though, is what its ini­tial in­vestor calls the “au­da­cious­ness of the model,” one that takes an un­con­ven­tional ap­proach to char­i­ta­ble giv­ing. Aubrey’s vi­sion lever­ages the grow­ing de­sire of con­sumer brands to be “cause-aligned” with an ef­fort to im­prove so­ci­ety.

PocketChange es­sen­tially be­comes a mar­ket­ing plat­form for the brand, which in­stead of just pub­li­ciz­ing its char­i­ta­ble giv­ing would match the two-bit to $2 mi­crodona­tions of in­di­vid­u­als.

“We’re build­ing tech­nol­ogy for the users, and pretty much ev­ery­one else is build­ing tech­nol­ogy for fundrais­ers or char­i­ties,” Aubrey said. “We do char­ity se­lec­tion, so you don’t have to know char­i­ties, you just have to care about stuff. None of that makes sense to the in­dus­try un­less all of the pieces come to­gether. When they do, it’s a re­ally cool pic­ture.”

His vi­sion looks some­thing like this: PocketChange makes part­ner­ships with big brands that want to be cause-aligned. The brands com­mit to any num­ber of char­i­ties that sup­port their par­tic­u­lar causes. When in­di­vid­u­als click to make a mi­crodona­tion to one of those char­i­ties, up pops a no­tice on their screen that their do­na­tion has been dou­bled by the spon­sor­ing brand.

Zero per­cent of the in­di­vid­ual do­na­tions go to PocketChange. In­stead, it col­lects a mar­ket­ing fee from the brand for each com­pleted trans­ac­tion. Cur­rently, the com­pany is con­nect­ing with po­ten­tial brand clients to pitch their idea. Mean­while, as users down­load the ex­ten­sion and make those spur-of-the­mo­ment do­na­tion de­ci­sions, the char­i­ties reap the ben­e­fit while com­pany profit re­mains in the fu­ture.

Aubrey rat­tled off a string of re­search statis­tics that point to­ward the idea that dou­bling even an in­di­vid­ual’s tiny do­na­tion cre­ates more pos­i­tive per­cep­tion for the brand than more tra­di­tional do­nate-and-ad­ver­tise strate­gies.

“We wear Patag­o­nia be­cause it’s a brand we love,” Aubrey said, point­ing to the brand-name vest that DuVar­ney wore. “When a brand can say, ‘Hey, I’m in this with you, I also care about this cause and, in fact, I’m dou­bling your im­pact,’ what you’re do­ing is val­i­dated.”

PocketChange fo­cuses on col­lec­tive and ha­bit­ual ac­tion, in amounts that are small enough to be in­clu­sive and that al­low al­most any­one to take ac­tion with­out check­ing their bank bal­ance.

DuVar­ney opened his lap­top and nav­i­gated to a Buz­zFeed story about a man who sur­vived a sui­ci­dal plunge off the Golden Gate Bridge. When he clicked the PocketChange but­ton, some char­i­ties popped up, with a sui­cide­pre­ven­tion non­profit at the top of the list — thanks to the “train­ing” that the ex­ten­sion re­ceived in lan­guage recognition. The more prac­tice PocketChange gets, the smarter it be­comes at dis­cern­ing which char­i­ties to list.

The founders fig­ure that, even on a small scale, an in­di­vid­ual’s sense of em­pow­er­ment adds up. For in­stance, the PocketChange-vet­ted rain­for­est char­ity can save an acre for as lit­tle as 50 cents. One of its lit­er­acy char­i­ties says $1 pro­vides read­ing lessons for a week. A forest­con­ser­va­tion char­ity can plant a tree for ev­ery dol­lar. Users can find out more about each non­profit and its ef­fi­ciency with an­other click.

“We have this in­ter­nal joke that we used to de­sign the prod­uct, called ‘the bozo method,’” DuVar­ney said. “In all as­pects, we want to make the ex­pe­ri­ence so com­pelling for brands and users that, if they say no, it’s like, ‘You’re a bozo.’ Make it so in­tu­itive and so in­ge­nious, why would some­body say no?”

It didn’t take Jon Chris­tensen long to get to yes.

In April, the Mon­tana-based in­vestor in pri­vate tech­nol­ogy hap­pened to be in Den­ver for an in­vest­ment con­fer­ence at which Aubrey was mak­ing his 10-minute pitch seek­ing a pre-seed round of in­vest­ment in PocketChange.

“I was into it right away,” Chris­tensen, 55, said. “I like the au­da­cious­ness of the model. Most pitches are for worka­day busi­nesses that are eas­ier to grasp and build, be­cause peo­ple can get their mind around it quickly. I was taken by how big Reyn is think­ing, the vast vi­sion he had and how to do it. It was an easy de­ci­sion for me to make.”

As he and Aubrey dis­cussed how to struc­ture the in­vest­ment, they also dis­cussed the struc­ture of a com­pany that has grown, in a mat­ter of months, from three founders to 35 peo­ple. Chris­tensen, who has ex­ten­sive startup ex­pe­ri­ence, took on the role of board chair.

The age dif­fer­ence didn’t bother him.

“I can cover some of the bor­ing back-of­fice things that are a pain when you’re a first-time en­tre­pre­neur,” he said. “They can fo­cus on liv­ing the dream.”

Chris­tensen sees two trends the com­pany can ride: a rise in the use of mi­cro­pay­ments and peo­ple’s grow­ing dis­il­lu­sion­ment with some so­cial net­works. And as im­pressed as he was by the char­i­ta­ble as­pect, he was equally im­pressed with the way Aubrey struc­tured the com­pany, which will al­low it to raise money “ven­ture style” and grow larger, while the flow of money through the char­i­ties will be “vast.”

“If ev­ery­body were able to dredge a quar­ter or 50 cents out of their pocket ev­ery day and di­rect it in the right places, there’d be a mas­sive amount of change ef­fected that we don’t see now,” Chris­tensen said. “It’s a great idea, and it’s go­ing to work. It’s just a mat­ter of get­ting the pieces in place.”

Be­yond putting the pieces in place at this stage of his com­pany, Aubrey en­vi­sions a mo­bile app and a con­nec­tion through Alexa de­vices to make do­nat­ing even eas­ier. PocketChange will make an­other pitch for fi­nanc­ing in 2019, and that could be when things re­ally take off.

“There’s tons more that we’re do­ing even af­ter this,” Aubrey said. “We want to be the largest char­i­ta­ble net­work in his­tory.”

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