174: How to Start a Social Change Movement with 100 Million People, with Ben Rattray of Change.org

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Ben Rattray, Founder & CEO, Change.org

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The Power to Change

Ben Rattray, founder of petition platform Change.org, long dreamed of being an investment banker, but a sobering revelation his senior year of college inspired a change of heart and a new business that empowers others to change the world.

If you’d asked Ben Rattray his freshman year at Stanford University what his plans were, he would have told you that he would become an investment banker on Wall Street. His path had been laid out long ago.

But his senior year of college, when his younger brother came out as gay, Rattray faced a sobering revelation: “He told me the thing that was the most painful for him was not seeing people that were anti-gay, but rather good people refuse to stand up and to speak out against them—people like me.”

To have his own brother call him out in this way was a “powerful and painful” experience for Rattray, forcing him to rethink his plans. “I just went through a lot of deep contemplation in the ensuing weeks, and I just couldn’t go back to… the path that I had previously outlined.”

For about a year, Rattray delved into work and deliberation that eventually led him to politics and to Washington D.C. Around this time, 2005, Facebook had recently launched, and Rattray witnessed the power of people coming together around friends and photos using technology; he realized the same principle could be applied to social causes and political issues. That’s when he embarked on a journey to build a platform that would help others change the world.

How Change.org Was Almost Hange.org

What’s in a name? For Rattray, 50 hours of brainstorming and three months of a wild goose chase. That’s right, the name “Change.org” took him an entire week to think up, and once he fell in love with it, he still had to chase down the owner of the domain and convince him to hand it over.

Ben Rattray

“I sent him pitch emails. I got on the phone with him. I flew down to LA. He missed the first meeting. I flew down again. I told him I was going to be in town, without having set up the meeting, hoping we could meet in person.”

In the end, Rattray had to get creative. He purchased the domain “hange.org,” intending to use the subdomain of “c.hange.org” as a backup. He then spent three weeks pitching about 50 of the biggest nonprofits in the U.S. with a website designed to look like “change.org,” even though he had not yet acquired that domain.

Once he had some big-name nonprofits onboard as beta partners, Rattray recorded a flash video of his beautifully designed beta site and sent it to the owner of the domain change.org. That did it; the owner not only gave him the domain in exchange for equity but also decided to make an investment in Rattray’s fledgling company.

“There are many more things you can accomplish than you imagine,” Rattray says.

And if you’re tempted to brush off a domain name as something trivial and superficial, think again. “I think people radically undervalue the importance of their name, of the domain,” says Rattray, who calls it “one of the most important marketing pieces and branding pieces you will ever develop, if not the single most important one.”

Advice on Being a B Corp

It might surprise you that a website ending in “.org” and committed to social good is actually a for-profit company. But to the Change.org founder, the pursuit of profit and the commitment to social good are not mutually exclusive.

“We’re a social enterprise,” Rattray explains. “We’re a B Corp, so a for-profit company dedicated to social good.”

Benefit Corporations, or B Corps for short, are fairly new business structures that are growing in popularity. Established in 2007, the B Corp certification is reserved for for-profit companies that “meet rigorous standards of social and environmental performance, accountability, and transparency,” according to B Lab, the nonprofit that certifies B Corporations.

Rattray has tested different business models and has this advice to share for anyone looking at starting a social enterprise: “I think that the best business model for any social enterprise is one in which there’s an inextricable link between the product or service you’re offering and the revenue generation.”

From the start, the Change.org team knew they didn’t want to become a traditional ad-based business, but they saw an opportunity to build a business on paid ads from nonprofits, political campaigns, and social good businesses.

So they started building large audiences around different issues, and then connected them with major NGOs around the world. They got paid by helping those NGOs build their donor bases and membership lists.

Over a period of five years, that business model generated more than $100 million in revenue.

But, it didn’t last. Facebook, in particular, scaled its ad platform so successfully with things like ad targeting and detailed analytics that it was difficult to compete—but that didn’t stop Change.org from giving it their best shot.

When faced with a competitor, Rattray says you have two choices: “Either you can pivot out of that business, or you double down. You really can’t go in between.”

Change.org decided to double down—which, Rattray says, “In retrospect, I wish we would not have done.”—and spent a lot of resources building an anchor business around ads in the political and nonprofit space. At the same time, to hedge their bets, they started experimenting with alternative revenue lines, such as subscriptions.

The result? Their ads revenue did not increase significantly, but their alternative revenue lines looked promising. This gave them the confidence to abandon the ads business and pivot completely to the crowdfunding and subscription-based models.

The Perilous Path to Profitability

Before launching the company, Rattray received an investment offer of about $1.5 million, but declined it because the terms weren’t ideal—a move he calls “one of the big mistakes that we made.”

Ben Rattray

“We thought, of course, that we’d go viral immediately and have huge traction, and the reality is getting millions of people to come to a website is enormously difficult. And so, after having launched, we realized this, went back to try to make that deal work… it ended up not working.”

Change.org ended up relying on friends and family and early angel investors for several years before raising its first real round of investment.

Rattray says Change.org is not yet profitable but has “a pretty clear path to profitability.” Over the past year, they’ve been testing two other revenue products. The first is crowdfunding, which seems a natural fit with the grassroots nature of Change.org. The way it works is when you view certain petitions on the site, you’ll also see a link to a related fundraiser. This allows supporters of one cause to continue supporting it beyond signing a petition. While starting a fundraiser on the site is free, Change.org takes a percentage of the contributions and charges a payments platform fee.

The other revenue product they’ve been testing is paid membership. Users can choose to contribute monthly as a member of Change.org, and in return, they’ll receive exclusive content and be able to give feedback on upcoming site changes.

Why Rattray Recommends Subscription and User-Based Revenue Models

That second revenue model is worth taking a closer look at. The huge advantage of a subscription revenue model is it provides that coveted monthly recurring revenue that makes things so much more predictable and reliable for a business owner.

“One of the most exciting new opportunities that is ever expanding right now, and that really needs to be tapped by media properties and any platform that has sizeable traction, is subscription, is recurring revenue through having your own users pay you money because you offer an awesome service.”

Just how powerful is this revenue model? According to Rattray: “If we had done this three or four years ago, we’d be profitable now.”

He says the key to success for Change.org’s subscription model has been having a clear conversion event. That means, for example, instead of trying to upsell every one of your site’s visitors, define a “lightweight action” that someone must take on your site before you target them for the hard sell. For Change.org, that action is signing a petition. So the path might look something like this: Someone visits the site and signs a petition. Then, they are asked to chip in for a related crowdfunding campaign. After they support that crowdfunding campaign, they get a message that asks if they’d like to become a monthly member and support other similar campaigns.

“The ultimate success rate is better if we ask them for the low-bar ask first, and then follow up with a higher-bar monthly subscription ask.”

As a business, Change.org is unique in many ways: It operates in the social good space, supporting NGOs and grassroots campaigns, yet it is a for-profit corporation that has raised capital. So what’s the goal?

“Our goal is to remain private, profitable, and independent as an institution over time,” Rattray says.

Living and working in Silicon Valley, Rattray has seen numerous entrepreneurs desire to build a company that goes public, only to become disenchanted with the immense difficulties that come with being a public institution.

“There’s the incentives to focus on quarterly returns, the obsession with stock price on a daily basis,” Rattray says.

“It’s not just that it is problematic for the mission of the company, which I think it is, it is also problematic for long-term thinking and really building something that lasts.”

He acknowledges that some companies have avoided these pitfalls, citing Google, Amazon, and Facebook as examples, but says it is challenging.

“Because we are mission-focused and because our goal is to build infrastructure for better civic participation, democracy, accountability in business… we think the best structure of Change.org is to become an independent indefinite company.”

But don’t think Rattray has his head in the clouds. He says if the landscape were to change and, let’s say, B Corps suddenly start going public at a rapid rate and there are a plethora of mission-aligned investors, he’d be willing to reconsider.

“But right now the way I think the financial markets are structured is that the best long-term orientation for us is to be an independent company.”

The Power and Pitfalls of Petitions

We’ve all seen petitions. Whether it was passing a vocal activist with a clipboard outside a grocery store or seeing a friend’s passionate plea in our Facebook newsfeed, petitions are everywhere.

But do they work?

“The common critique of petitions—and the critique that I frankly had when I started the company, because we didn’t start with petitions—was that these don’t matter,” says Rattray. “So I was personally skeptical.”

Several petitions that originated on Change.org have generated awareness, mobilized protests, and even changed legislation.

One story highlighted on the site is that of Amanda Nguyen, who championed legislation that provides protections and civil rights for sexual assault survivors. More than 140,000 people signed her petition, and in October 2016, President Obama signed the Sexual Assault Survivors’ Bill of Rights into law.

In 2012, when unarmed 17-year-old Trayvon Martin was shot and killed by neighborhood watch volunteer George Zimmerman, Martin’s parents started a petition on Change.org that called for Zimmerman’s arrest. It gathered more than 2.5 million signatures and ignited international outrage, eventually leading to charges being brought against Zimmerman, who was eventually acquitted by a jury.

Other petitions, though large in scale, don’t lead to the change called for. One of the most notable petitions on Change.org was one launched right after the November 2016 election of Donald Trump as President of the United States. The petition called upon the U.S. Electoral College to reflect the popular vote (made by individual American voters) and elect Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton instead. Though the petition garnered nearly 5 million supporters, Trump went on to be sworn in as the 45th U.S. president in January 2017.

Another high-profile Change.org petition was one calling for an end to the controversial Yulin Dog Meat Festival held in China each year. Despite the petition gaining more than 4.7 million supporters, the festival still happened this year, according to the BBC. Rattray says, however, that the petition did lead to some local policies being changed, though he adds, it’s “still a work in progress.”

Though petitions don’t always bring about the change supporters hope for, one thing they can do is bring widespread attention to particular issues and force the government to pay attention. For example, the White House has a policy in which it is obliged to review and formally respond to submitted petitions that reach 100,000 signatures within 30 days.

So do petitions work? Perhaps the answer is sometimes, but not always, and maybe not in the way supporters had hoped.

Ben Rattray

“I think the most notable thing about the site,” says Rattray, “besides some of these multi-million-person petitions, is just the number of total campaigns. So about 25,000 petitions launch every month on the site. And so what’s most notable is not just the big outlier campaigns, but there’s just, every year, hundreds of thousands that are getting thousands of signatures, sometimes in small, local communities around saving local parks or better access to school for kids, things that… really impact people’s lives in their communities. But you’d never know at a national or global scale.”

What’s Next for Change.org?

Right now, Rattray is really excited about two things on Change.org The first is the rise in civic participation around the world through the platform.

“I’m seeing it in San Francisco in the U.S.,” he says. “And what we’re most excited about is how do we give people the opportunity to more deeply participate in the causes and campaigns they care about and to directly engage with their elected officials?”

The second thing he’s excited about is scaling Change.org’s subscription membership program.

“Our users are funding the platform. That is both immensely promising and something we’re hugely excited about and was a painful transition to make.”

Even at 10 years old, Change.org is still focused on user growth. The reason for this, Rattray says, is that the more people they can get, the more impact they can have.

“The only reason why companies and countries, the members of Parliament or Congress or mayors or heads of state care about Change.org is because… we represent about 10% of the voting public of many of the world’s biggest democracies.”

There is strength in numbers, and Change.org’s are growing at a rate of a little over one million new registered users a week, according to Rattray.

“The ultimate vision that we have is if you have a critical mass of not just 5 or 10% but 20 or 30% of the voting public actively engaged, using their phones to communicate with their elected officials… If you’re an elected official, you’re a candidate for office considering how you want to engage with your constituents, and 30% of them are using Change.org, to communicate with you, you don’t really have a choice.”

If the platform were to grow that large, Rattray says, elected officials would be forced to heed what their constituents request and authentically engage with them. “And so growth really matters to us for that reason.”

With so many powerful stories behind the petitions on Change.org, we couldn’t help but ask Rattray, the former Stanford student on the fast track to Wall Street, how it feels to know he built a platform that inspired that.

“It’s been a beautiful experience,” he says. “Mostly where we’re at now is just so in awe of our own users. It’s not us at this point… I think we have an obligation—not just an opportunity, but an obligation—to continue to build out a platform that best serves the public in enabling them to mobilize for the change they care about.”

3 Tips for Obtaining The Domain of Your Dreams

One of the first steps in starting a business in thinking of the perfect name—and then hoping that domain is available. What if it’s not? Rattray has firsthand experience in acquiring a domain from an owner, and he gave some awesome tips on how to do it, particularly when it seems impossible.

  1. Be persistent.
    Remember, Rattray sent multiple emails, took a couple flights, and sent a video of his product to convince the domain owner to release change.org to him. This process took about three months, and even then, he didn’t ink the deal on the domain until the day of his private beta launch. So even if you get a no at first, don’t give up.
  2. Be willing to pay with equity, not just cash.
    Sometimes domain owners are willing to release the domain to you for cash, equity, or a mix of both.                    “In our case, it was a significant amount of equity in addition to an investment the person made in  the company   actually. That’s what we did to make it work. So I would encourage people strongly to be as creative as possible.”
  3. Realize you don’t have to get it immediately.
    Many companies start out with backup domains and change to their dream domain later on down the line. We at Foundr recently switched from foundrmag.com to foundr.com. Rattray gives the example of file-sharing service Box.com, which started as Box.net. If you aren’t able to secure your dream domain right now, that shouldn’t be a barrier to launch or even a barrier to your ideal company name. Pick an alternative domain for now, and maybe you can snag your dream one later.

Key Takeaways

  • Why a name is everything. Rattray goes into detail about how to find the right name for your company
  • Why you always need to find investment before you launch
  • How to take advantage of upsells and cross-sells to increase your bottom line
  • Pivoting and changing your business model
  • The how-to guide for mobilizing your community using content

Full Transcript of Podcast with Ben Rattray

Nathan: Hello, and welcome to another episode of the “Foundr” podcast. My name is Nathan Chan, and I’m the CEO and publisher of “Foundr Magazine,” and also the host of the “Foundr” podcast. And I’m coming to you live from hometown, homegrown, Melbourne, Australia. And if you’re new to the show, we interview some of the greatest founders of our generation, and we really just try to find out how they’ve done it, and really just draw from their lessons and experiences. And, you know, you may have heard of the founder, you may not have, but you will have heard of the company. If you haven’t heard of the company, you may know the founder or the brand.

So let’s talk about what’s been happening in my world. I’ve just come back from a massive holiday. And, wow, it was really life-changing. It was actually the first holiday I’ve taken non-business since I’ve started “Foundr” and it was just so incredibly refreshing, eye opening, because I was so deep within the business. I was able to take a little bit of a step out of things and just really see what was going on and making some really powerful changes to help us grow even faster, which is really, really exciting.

So, you know, a big lesson for me there is, now, I’m gonna have like a nice one-week no work, nothing, holiday every six months just so I can recap, and just like how you would treat a racehorse. You know, you don’t get that racehorse racing every single week, it has to spend some [00:02:00] time in the paddocks, so I’m gonna have some time in the paddock every six months.

Now, today’s guest, his name is Ben Rattray, and he’s the founder of Change.org, an absolutely incredible business, incredible organization. And he shares so much around scale, growth, starting a social enterprise, what that means, how he’s raised capital from so many iconic investors around the world, how he’s built this massive movement around petitions. I didn’t really know that much about Change.org until we started, you know, interviewing and as I started to prepare for this interview, but, wow, you guys have gotta go and check Change.org out. You’ve gotta go and, you know, get behind some of the causes there. It’s just simply world-changing what Ben’s building, and you really get to understand really what it takes to be a true visionary.

So that’s it from me, guys. Before I jump into the show, I just want to say, if you are enjoying these episodes, please do take the time to leave us a review on iTunes, Spotify, Stitcher, wherever you are listening, it helps us more than you can imagine. And I know you must have other friends that are founders, or entrepreneurs, or business owners, please do share this podcast with them because I know that if you are loving it, your friends will, too. All right. That’s it from me, guys. Now, let’s jump to the show.

The first question that I ask everyone is, how did you get your job?

Ben: I got my job primarily because of starting the company. I did not apply for the job but I was the first person to found Change.org. And it’s not clear whether they’d give me the job now, but earned it by virtue of building the organization.

Nathan: Yeah, fantastic. And was that your first business, first initiative?

Ben: I had been…When I was at Stanford, started a couple enterprises, I was there during the early stage of the first internet boom, ’98 [00:04:00] to 2002. So I had worked in a couple startups at that point, and then, you know, saw everything implode. And it wasn’t until a few years afterward that I then started Change.org.

Nathan: Gotcha. And how did that come about? Like, how did you end up starting Change.org?

Ben: I started it myself. I originally wanted to be an investment banker, which couldn’t be further from what I now do. But when I went to college, actually my senior year, I had still some plan on going through the trajectory of the finance path. And one of my younger brothers, when I came back home for a break, he came out as gay. It was a totally unexpected experience and a really transformative thing for me. He told me the thing that was the most painful for him was not seeing people that were anti-gay, but rather good people refused to stand up and to speak out against them, people like me. Calls me out as his own brother.

And it was a powerful and painful, frankly, experience and I just, you know, went through a lot of deep contemplation in the ensuing weeks and I just couldn’t go back to kinda the same, the path that I had previously outlined, frankly, for most of my life, wanting to go into finance and investment banking. And took about a year of further work, and deliberation, and reading, and an experience in London that then turned me back into politics. And I came back to Washington, DC, learned a lot about power and politics, what was wrong with political system in the United States.

And actually, I just logged into thefacebook.com. It was still called thefacebook.com in 2005, and just immediately saw the ability of, you know, everyday people to come together, run friends and photos using technology. And just, it was quite clear that they could do the same thing around causes and issues in politics, and build the platform, you know, in the next couple years after that.

Nathan: Yeah. Wow. [00:06:00] So how did you acquire the domain change.org? That’s a strong domain starting out.

Ben: This is an epic story that I literally…I don’t think I’ve ever told this story. I don’t think anyone’s asked me publicly about this. We were about to launch for a few months before…this is in 2006, and, I think, people radically undervalue the importance of their name, of the domain, of the, sort of, iconic name of their company. And so I spent a couple weeks thinking through all the different incarnations of what we might be called, and it seems obvious in retrospect, but Change.org at the time, I was like, “Well, this actually…it sounds brilliant.” Took me about a week to think about it, I literally, I probably spent 50 hours that week thinking of names. And the domain that wasn’t available, but the site wasn’t currently actively live. It wasn’t being used.

And so, of course, I go on, sort of, hunt to find out who owns the domain. And I then go through a process of, for three months, aggressively pursuing the person who owns the domain. I sent him pitch emails, I got on the phone with him, I flew down to LA, he missed the first meeting. I flew down again, I told him I was gonna be in town without having set up the meeting hoping we could meet in person. I literally ended up having to record a flash video of the website that I built with the name Change.org, without even owning the domain and sending him a link to watch that flash video of a website with a domain that he owned but I designed, to convince him to do a deal. And we didn’t ink the deal until the day we went be basically live, our private beta.

Nathan: Yeah, wow. And the deal went live?

Ben: Yeah. So we literally got the domain about 24 hours before we told a lot of other people. So what I had done is I had bought the domain “hange,” so [00:08:00] hange.org. So it was gonna be c.hange.org. Like, that was the backup, but I was just adamant about it and confident that we’d be able to get this. So I literally had…I went around to pitch about 50 of the biggest nonprofits in the United States, all in about three weeks period of time with a website designed to look like change.org, even though I only had hange.org available at the time. That was like this early alpha site. And had he not agreed to the deal, we would have ended up having to go with c.hange.org, which is not ideal. But I just had this audacious confidence that we’d be able to do it.

And by getting, you know, dozens of the biggest NGOs and the world to sign on as beta partners, designing what I thought to be a beautiful site in a professional way and sending him a link, showing him all that I had done, all that I had accomplished, all that I had prepared, without him even yet agreeing to sell the domain at all for any price. I think that was probably something that convinced him that I had the tenacity and determination needed to potentially make it successful.

Nathan: Yeah. Wow, that’s a cool story. Yeah, I agree with you on the power of having a strong domain. We recently acquired “Foundr,” like with our spelling, without the e, .com. And that was a long journey as well, but I think it’s really worth it.

Ben: I mean, it’s totally. I mean, I would say, for anybody thinking, even the app ecosystem, you know, web domains still matter. They don’t matter maybe as much but they’re still consequential, and, I think, the people are too haphazard with the selection of the ultimate domain. I would just say, it is one of the most important marketing pieces and branding pieces you will ever develop, if not the single most important one, and is worthy of, not just deep deliberation about, you know, range of options you might consider, but aggressive pursuit of the domain.

I mean, there are, you know, like anything in, you know, in enterprises, there are many more things you can accomplish than you imagined. There’s the website, the number of friends that I have that have through an intense, aggressive, determined, dogged efforts gotten domains that you never would have expected for much less or for cash and equity. In our case, it was a significant amount of equity in addition to an investment the person made in the company actually.

Nathan: Wow.

Ben: And that’s what we did to make it work. So I would encourage people strongly to be as creative as possible.

Nathan: Yeah, I agree. And you don’t always have to get it straight away either, right?

Ben: Totally. I mean, it’s the kind of thing that’s important enough that, you know, a lot of people selling domains, they will be…especially if you wanna be giving equity as a part of it if you don’t have the full cash available, is the more successful you are. In some cases, the more opportunity you have to bring them in as a partner…I mean, as a part owner of the company. So, I think, that the ultimately making sure you have a strong name, that has the potential to get a great domain, is more important in some cases than getting it immediately.

Nathan: Yeah, I see.

Ben: I mean, Box was box.net before they got box.com,. And there’s a number of stories like this.

Nathan: Yeah, yeah, yeah. So tell me, how did you launch? Like, did you raise capital beforehand, before you launched Change.org? Because you guys are full profit, which some people might find surprising.

Ben: Yeah. We’re a social enterprise. We’re a B Corp, so, you know, a for-profit company dedicated to social good. So this is one of the big mistakes that we made was receiving an offer of investment previous to launching the company, declining that because we thought the terms were not ideal ,and then realizing directly subsequent to launch that things would be much more difficult than we expected. You know, I often, I’ll say is…a number of our investors have told me as well, I always raise money before and not after you launch if you can, at least, before you launch in a very big public way, because the story that you’re able to tell as an entrepreneur is almost always more compelling than the data you can provide about traction immediately subsequent to launch.

And that’s what we faced. We turned down…Again, I don’t think I have mentioned this, maybe publicly, but without calling out the name of the person, we turned down an offer about million and a half investments on terms that I still think weren’t great, but had only had friends and family money directly before launching. You know, we thought, of course, that we’d go viral immediately and have huge traction, and the reality is getting millions of people that come to our website is enormously difficult. And so after having launched, we realized this, went back to try to make that deal work, it’s another long story around that, it ended up not working. And then it really was friends and family and just early angel investors for several years that sustained the organization before we raised a real proper round of investment.

Nathan: So I’m sure people will find this interesting, I’m curious, too, can you tell us more about your business model? Because we do have a lot of people that want to do social enterprise and, you know, produce for-profits that are effectively, you know, making the world a better place.

Ben: Yeah. So, I think, that in the best business model for any social enterprise is one in which there’s an, you know, inextricable link between the product or service you’re offering and the revenue generation. And so, for us, we said, “Well, look, you know, we didn’t want to have a traditional ad-based business, but there’s a niche opportunity to really build a sizable business on unpaid ads from nonprofits and political campaigns and social good businesses.” So specifically, you know, we would build a large audience as we have of, you know, more than 185 million people that were engaged in issues, and then connect those people to some of the biggest NGOs, World Wildlife Fund, or The Nature Conservancy in the U.S., or Save The Children, and to get paid by those organizations by helping them build their donor bases and their membership lists.

And that is what we actually launched with, we scaled, we generated more than $100 million in revenue on that over the period of, you know, just the past four or five years. But it was also ultimately not something that we could scale beyond the path that we thought was needed to really be successful as a business. What we found was that Facebook in particular, and sort of Google and Facebook in general, you know, scaled their ad platforms so successfully over the past few years with ad targeting hyper analytics, the capacity for real-time, sort of, fulfillment that the ad business is just a very difficult business to make successful, and in particularly in the social good space.

And so, we actually started testing two other revenue products over the past year, one crowdfunding, which is fairly straightforward and it seems obvious, and the second is paid membership, basically people becoming subscribers, paying members, to Change.org, in the way you might become a paying member to a magazine or newspaper or whatnot. And that’s actually gone quite well, if not tens of thousands of people that are paying every month to be premium members of Change.org and get exclusive access to content and updates about their impact, and we’re really building that out.

So, I think, that one of the most exciting new opportunities that is ever-expanding right now, and that really needs to be tapped by media properties and any platform that has a sizable attraction, is subscription, is recurring revenue through having your own users pay you money because you offer an awesome service. And that’s what we’re scaling right now.

Nathan: Yeah, wow, that’s really, really interesting because that’s a pathway going down as well, we’re a just premium content, we’re doing it right now but refining, refining, refining. So what have you guys finding that is working? Like, what is the best way to convert? What’s the sales process there?

Ben: Yeah. So the most important thing we find is having a clear conversion event. So one of the challenges for traditional media properties is that, you know, if you get your traffic from, you know, SEO or from just a regular social traffic, and people are coming and reading a single article or, you know, a second article, or looking at a single petition and not really engaging, it’s hard to have a natural ask, right, an upsell that really convinces people to become a subscriber. And so, the path that we’ve seen most successful is you have people take actions, some form of activity on the site that is lightweight.

In our case, it was obviously signing petitions and could be liking the page, but some sort of lightweight action that is short of what is a pretty high bar of asking people to become a paying member. And then, subsequent to that, starting to market to them, and even sometimes then doing a one-off ask of instead of becoming a monthly member right away, we ask you, “Hey, wll you chip in to be part of this crowdfunding campaign? You can chip in 10 bucks and support this campaign and it promotes it to more members or, you know, it helps buy a billboard for an advertisement for this campaign.”

And then once they have done that, we then oftentimes will upsell people. So say, “Hey, you’ve chipped into this one campaign, it’s been $5 or $10. Do you wanna become a monthly supporter, a monthly member of other campaigns like this?” And what we found is the conversion is so much higher with that first lower bar action, that it is the ultimate success rate is better if we ask them for the low bar ask first, and then follow up with a higher bar monthly subscription ask.

Nathan: Yeah, that’s really, really smart. So can you tell me more about like some notable petitions? Like, how many people, like, what’s the largest that you’ve, like, cause awareness for?

Ben: It was a petition actually in the US., right after the election of Donald Trump, around five million people that joined calling on, sort of, looking back at what the Americans call “the electoral college,” the sort of, it’s rather unique or unusual system that we have, where, you know, the determining factor for who becomes president of the United States is not who receives the popular vote, just the, you know, highest percentage, but who receives the votes on a state-by-state basis. So that was a hugely viral campaign, you know, literally, right after the U.S. election, I think, about the 24 hours after the election or the 48 hours after the election, about 20% of U.S. voters visited that petition and many of them signed.

And the other one that was international that was fairly recent and ended up being quite successful was there’s a quite tragic dog meat festival in China. And if you know anything about virality on the internet, you will know that the people passion about animal rights and animal issues are some of the most, sort of, active on social media. And four million people joined this petition to call on the Chinese government to intervene to implement more, sort of, humane practices. And it actually had a real impact in it. It changed the policy in this local community, there is no longer this, sort of, selling off as much, sort of, dog meat, still a work in progress, still a lot of things to be done.

But anyway, I think the most notable thing about the site, besides some of these, you know, multi-million person petitions, is just the number of total campaigns, so about 25,000 petitions launched every month on the site. And so, what’s most notable is not just the big outlier campaigns, but there’s just, you know, every year, hundreds of thousands that are getting, you know, thousands of signatures, sometimes in small local communities around the saving local parks or, you know, better access to school for kids, things that really impact people’s lives in their communities, but you’ll never know it at kind of a national or global scale.

Nathan: Yeah, that’s really cool. I applaud you for, like, you know, what you’re doing with Change.org. It’s really amazing, man. And I’m curious when it comes to these petitions because I’m…Please excuse my ignorance. Like, I don’t really sign petitions or anything like that. But when it comes to these petitions, how many do you need to sign to make a real, like, to enforce anything or change it?

Ben: What’s interesting is, you know, the common critique of petitions and the critique that I frankly had when I started the company because we didn’t start with petitions, was that these don’t matter, it’s clicktivism, it’s trivial. You know, is it a real consequence? Do people pay attention? So I was personally skeptical. We started out building a social network for social change, and what we found was the oldest tool in politics, the simple petition, if you have a very clear objective, not, “I wanna stop global warming,” but, “I want to get a tax on plastic bags in my town,” you know. Not, “I wanna, sort of, end hunger in my country,” but, “I wanna allow for food stamps and free access to food for the homeless in my neighborhood.” I mean, those are the kind of campaigns that can be immensely impactful.

So we see, on a regular basis, you know, more than a dozen campaigns a day will win on the site, so literally it will change national law, or state, or local law, or get a company to change a policy more than a dozen times a day, and so it happens all the time. So a lot of people that their first petition they sign, it will be something that within a week, they’ll find out that their mayor, or City Council member, or the CEO of a company has changed a policy because of them and the 500, 5,000 or 5 million people that have joined that campaign.

Nathan: Yeah, wow, that is so cool. How does that feel to be able to create a website that can make that kind of change?

Ben: I mean, it’s been a beautiful experience. I mean, you know, what’s been striking to me in early days when we didn’t have much impact, the first few victories were quite striking and frankly pretty emotional, I mean, there’s some really, really compelling…I mean, the first campaign, that one was around this woman in South Africa who had been raped because she’s a lesbian woman and the man was trying to turn her straight. I’m not kidding, it’s awful practice called “corrective rape” and happened in Cape Town. It’s a petition that goes viral, it becomes a huge international story, it embarrassed the government, leads to a massive protest, and gets the government of South Africa to implant a new law against corrective rape, make it punishable by far greater number of years, and the penalty ended up changing a lot of behavior. And that kind of victory is just immensely emotional and hugely meaningful.

I think, now, things happen at such a rate, such a pace that I’m actually fairly disconnected on a day-to-day basis of all the victories that are happening, but, I think, that mostly where we’re at now, is it’s just so in awe of our own users, you know, it’s not us at this point. I think we have an obligation, not just an opportunity, but an obligation to continue to build out a platform that best serves the public in enabling them to mobilize for the change they care about. But we just see remarkable people who look like everyday citizens but are doing extraordinary things, ending acid attacks in India, sort of, addressing, you know, Down’s syndrome the United States, and really big campaigns that are winning. And so, it’s less about us and what we’ve built, it’s more about just being inspired by our own users.

Nathan: Yeah, I agree. You know, it’s so amazing and, sort of, like, awesome what you’re building. So I’m really curious, you mentioned offline that some of your investors have been, you know, featured on “Foundr” and on the covers of our magazine or a podcast, etc., etc. Because you guys are a B Corp for-profit, you have raised capital, does that mean that like you guys have an intention to sell the company at one point in time? I’m just a little curious around that, like, yeah, how does that part work?

Ben: We have an unusual goal and orientation around this. So our goal is to remain private, profitable, and independent as an institution over time. I think that, you know, one of the things that, I think, has been striking especially in Silicon Valley to see, to witness both people I know personally or just people in the broader startup ecosystem, is there is this natural inclination to wanna build a company that goes public. And then this remarkable surprise that people have about the perverse incentives you face as a public institution. I mean, the sort of the incentives to focus on quarterly returns, the obsession with stock price on a daily basis. It’s not just that it is problematic for the mission of a company, which I think it is, it is also problematic for long-term thinking and really building something that lasts.

And certainly, a number of companies have been able to avoid this, and the Amazon is a great example, Google, and Facebook as well, but it is difficult for companies, unless you’re extraordinary in your performance, to be public companies and think about the long-term. And so because we are mission-focused and because our goal is to build infrastructure for better civil participation, democracy, accountability in business, over the real, you know, next few decades, we think the best structure of Change.org is to become just an independent, indefinite company.
I’m more pragmatic about things. We think that if it were the case that, for example, that public markets transformed and all of a sudden, there was many benefit corporations, B Corps, going public in long-term investors that were mission-aligned, you know, I think we’re not ideological about it. But right now, the way, I think, the financial markets are structured is that the best long-term orientation for us is to be an independent company.

Nathan: Yeah, okay. So do you mind sharing if you guys are profitable right now?

Ben: So we’re not profitable right now. I think we have a pretty clear path of profitability, but it’s been a work in progress. And this is, you know, the transition from an ad-based model to a subscription user contributions model. Users are funding the platform, that is but the immensely promising and something we’re hugely excited about and was a painful transition to make. Anytime your mid flights with a sizable organization that is already scaled with lots of users and transition your business line that is not an easy thing. So we have, you know…I think we have a number of things to prove to ourselves, and that, over the next year, year and a half, is something that I’m quite excited to be able to do and scaling our revenue and getting the company to sustainability, so we’re not reliant upon investors, and that’s the path.

Nathan: Yeah. I like the membership, I like the subscription, recurring revenue, very, very smart, it lowers risk.

Ben: I mean, I think, that anytime you can do this, I mean, I wish, you know…as an entrepreneur, you always look in retrospect and say, “Well, if things only were different, I mean, if we had done this three, four years ago, we’d be profitable now and enable to, sort of, expand the business.” I mean, for us, profitability really means, how do you then reinvest in expanding the impact that we can have around the world, and right now, you know, we have sizable resources, we’re fortunate to have just raised a large investment around led by Reid Hoffman, you know, co-founder of LinkedIn. But at the same time, you know, until you’re sustainable, until you recover your own costs, you’re just looking at a clicking clock of, you know, your balance is going down every month, and that should be a forcing function with rapid execution and serious consideration of how you can get yourself to sustainability. And that is something that we are now, you know, quite focused on.

Nathan: So I’m also curious around, you know, that pivot that you did make, how did you…Like, that must have been a very difficult call. What was going through your thought process? Like, how did you make that decision that you had to do that because that’s a pretty big shake-up like you said?

Ben: It was. You know, we faced…about a couple years ago, we were a big choice. When you see, sort of, you know, a competitor on the horizon, that in a way it seems odd to think of Facebook as a competitor to us, they aren’t really in a direct sense. We actually partner in many significant ways. We, you know, receive a lot of traffic from Facebook, send them a huge amount of good content, but from an ads perspective, you know, we’re all competing for attention. And when it became clear that Facebook would have a really robust platform for ads, and a lot of our clients started also using them. You have a choice, either you can pivot out of the business or you double down. You really can’t go on in between, you can’t sort of do it part way.

And so, we made the decision which now, in retrospect, I wish we would not have done, not to pivot out of the business, then to redouble down and say, “We wanna build an anchor business around, you know, ads with the, you know, the nonprofit and political landscape. And so, we spent a lot of resources building out a platform of better analytics targeting and service for our clients, trying to fight against what we saw to be the competition from Facebook. And at the same time, in hedging our bets, you know, started testing, or what would the alternative revenue lines be if this doesn’t work out. And, you know, we both saw, despite our best efforts, the revenue just not increased significantly on our ads revenue line, and this other user-driven crowdfunding like in subscription revenue lines show real promise.

And so is the combination of those two factors that gave us the confidence, both, that we needed to get out of the ads business and not be in, you know, competing with Facebook or Google on ads, and that we had a real promising business empowering our own users to become not just actively engaged in the platform, but also contributing to the sustainability of the platform.

Nathan: Yeah, I know. Another thing I’m curious around is, when I look at Wikipedia, it says you have over 100 million users. Are you guys quite aggressive on growth still? Like, because for you guys with your mission, it’s to hit the world, so does that mean that you guys are still extremely aggressive on acquisition or still work like the monetization piece? Like, how do you balance that scale? Because I know you do have investors, but, you know, we kinda covered that piece where they’re not necessarily looking for a return. So how do you work out what, yeah, what to do or where the focus is?

Ben: Well, I should say…and one thing is the investors we have, you know…Reid has recently announced that he’s gonna donate the profits from an investment from Change.org into the Change.org Foundation, we have an Associated NGO or another charity. And so, it is the case that we deeply believe that we’re gonna to be able to build the kind of successful business that enables us to, through private liquidity, private secondaries, you know, dividends, or stock buybacks, be able to provide liquidity to investors, which we think is important as a demonstration of the potential mission driven businesses, not just about us, about, you know, how do you show that it’s possible for for-profit companies to really have a deep mission and have a long-term sustainable approach to that mission.

So that’s important to us but, at the same time, these are investors that are deeply mission-aligned. The reason that growth matters to us is user-based, you know, the active engagement of a sizable number of citizens is impact. And the only reason why companies and countries, you know, members of parliament or Congress or mayors, or Heads of State care about Change.org is because we’ve represented about 10% of the voting public of many of the world’s biggest democracies. And the larger the audience of people we mobilize, the more impact that they are able to have in the platform. And the ultimate vision that we have is, if you have a critical massive not just 5% or 10% or 20% or 30% of the voting public actively engaged, using their phones to, sort of, communicate with their elected officials, and can almost…Say, mobile phones before they vote, see how responsive those elected officials have been.

You know, if you’re an elected official, you’re a candidate for office, considering how you want to engage with your constituents and 30% of them are using Change.org to communicate with you, you don’t really have a choice. It is no longer, “Well, I’m gonna pay rhetorical deference to these citizens.” It’s like, “I need to actually heed what they demand, what they request, and, at least, authentically engage them because they’re gonna be determining my next election.” And so, growth really matters to us for that reason, so it is still the case that we’re focused on user growth.

We’re registering about a little over a million new registered users a week right now.

Nathan: Wow.

Ben: And part of it’s just it’s an inherently viral platform, where, you know, 25,000 campaigns it started, those people push them out to their friends, a number of those go viral because of how news-worthy they are, a remarkable a personal story is, and that’s what drives the growth.

Nathan: One thing I noticed is you guys produce a lot of content, too.

Ben: Yeah. I mean, what we try to do is…what we think of is the seed content is the content our users are posting, so the 25,000 campaigns that get launched every month. And then we think, “Well, how do we build on top of that?” One would be, how do you help your own users to make that content stronger? So provide them tools and guidance, increasing in an automated way to make it great, and then we send out hundreds of millions of emails a month with that content that is being produced for our users, but with sort of support that we provide as well. And then we do, ourselves, cover, almost as if we’re media ourselves, the most compelling stories on Change.org.

And so, when there are viral campaigns, and the mainstream media might cover the campaigns, there might be 2, 3, or 5, or 10 news articles about a single petition, we sometimes, we’ll then write on top of that, kind of, a narrative tying it all together, to package that for, either people that haven’t signed the petition or that did, so you can walk them through and make them feel a part of the ongoing narrative of that campaign.

Nathan: Yeah, I love that. It’s really, really smart. I love what you’re up to, man. It’s really, really impressive. Congratulations on all your success. And we have to work towards wrapping up, but what’s next for Change.org? And what are your biggest struggles right now?

Ben: What I’m most excited about what’s next, there’s two things. And one is, you know, we see this quite dramatic rise in civic engagement and participation really around the world right now through our platform. I’m sitting, in particular, you know, I’m sitting in San Francisco in the U.S. and what we’re most excited about is how do we give people the opportunity to more deeply participate in the causes and campaigns they care about and to directly engage with their elected officials?

You know, we used to have a very asymmetric world, where citizens would periodically try to communicate with their elected officials and rarely hear any response, and we wanna create a much, much clearer two-way dialogue such that people feel like their voice is being heard, and we’re building that platform out, that’s one. And the second thing is really scaling this subscription membership program that we talked about in building out the current revenue line that is mission aligned and sustains the organization and our impact over time.

And then, what I’m concerned about is, I think, that right now, we…yeah, we live in a precarious time. I think that, you know, the world that we inhabit now relative to a year ago is much more uncertain about where we’re going in policy and politics, and it’s not again unique to the U.S. And, I think, that one of the most important things we can do as citizens is to make sure that we’re engaging and having our voice heard, such that the decisions that are being made at a national global level that impact the future of humanity or those that we also ourselves are participating in. And so, it’s something that I personally care about and we, as a company, are actively engaged in as well.

Nathan: Love it. Awesome. Well, look, we’ll wrap there, Ben, because I know you’ve gotta get going. But our last question is where’s the best place people can find out more about your work?

Ben: So the easiest would be going just to change.org. And I’m just @BRattray, @ B-R-A-T-T-R-A-Y on Twitter. I’m not as active a producer of content as I am a consumer of content, but I will respond as much as possible there.

Nathan: Awesome. Well, look, thank you so much for your time, Ben. I really appreciate it.

Ben: Thank you so much.


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