Education is a topic near and dear to my heart. Today I attended the demo day for Co.lab, an incubator focused on the intersection of edtech and games. Co.lab is a joint venture between the non profit venture philanthropy fund New Schools Venture Fund and Zynga.org. It was a terrific day, with a number of great companies presenting, all focused on improving the educational experience for K-12 students. Co.lab is a great example of how Zynga brought to bear its expertise in game development to serve a greater social good. Zynga‘s involvement got me to thinking about how a startup can integrate social impact with its core mission, and how some other startups have done exactly that.
Sometimes a social movement gives rise to new markets and business opportunities. A great example over the last couple of decades has been the increasing awareness of the health implications of eating organic food, which has driven the growth of Whole Foods. Educating people about the issue also expanded their target market. The key factor in making this work is authenticity.
THE HONEST COMPANY
I think the Honest Company (a Lightspeed portfolio company) is a great example of a startup doing just that. They believe that “chemical free” is the new organic. Everyone prioritizes the health of their children, but not everyone understands all the risks that their children run. Just a few years ago baby bottles were made out of BPA, and now it is banned because of its interference in children’s sex hormones. And we are constantly learning more about the dangers of phthalates, PVC, alkphenols, phosphates and a whole host of other chemicals. The Honest Company is simultaneously educating parents about the risks that chemicals can pose to their children’s health, and providing a safe alternative. Their success and social good are inextricably intertwined.
Their success comes from the authenticity of their approach. Christopher Gavigan, one of the cofounders, was previously CEO of the nonprofit Health Child Healthy World, where he focused on educating parents about toxic risks, and is the author of a book by the same name. And Jessica Alba, another cofounder, has used her platform as a highly successful actress to vocally oppose of the risks posed by chemicals, having testified on senate committees to this effect and taken an active role in advocacy work. All the founders are parents of young children who came at this problem through first hand research and experience. This authenticity comes through in the brand and has caused the company to see tremendous growth in awareness and sales as more parents embrace this philosophy. We believed in their mission so much that we led their Series A investment round.
Another great example of authenticity in combing a social movement with a business model is Upworthy.com. Upworthy is social media with a social mission, in their words, “to make important stuff as viral as a video of some idiot surfing on his roof”. They take meaningful content about important issues, ranging from bullying to global warming, gun control to empowerment, and make it viral to bring it to the attention of the Daily Show generation. And they do it incredibly well. By some accounts, Upworthy is the fastest growing media site of all time, racing to 30 million unique users in its first fifteen months. Examples of the content that they have gotten viral include the video with a police sketch artist, showing how women look versus how they describe themselves, and the video about Zach Sobriech, a teenage musician who died of cancer, who subsequently became the first independent artist to hit #1 on iTunes.
One of the founders of Upworthy is Eli Pariser, the former executive director of MoveOn. The other is Peter Koechley, the former managing editor of The Onion. Together they bring that combination of editorial voice, humor and copywriting that is so critical to getting content to be viral, to a genuine interest in worthwhile matters. And once again we see that authenticity paying off with very fast traffic growth.
Companies don’t have to have a product that is aligned with a social movement to integrate authenticity into their philanthropy. Coming back to Zynga, they have found a number of ways to align the company’s mission with various social projects, even beyond co.lab. Zynga.org, a nonprofit organization dedicated to using social games for social good, has raised over $15 million for more than 50 non-profits globally, with most of the fundraising occurring in game. Zynga has also extended its philanthropic efforts offline. One of its most recent endeavors was as lead donor in the construction of a new playground that opened in July opposite the historic Ferry Building in San Francisco. Zynga employees have also built a number of other playgrounds nationally – literally with their own hands. Zynga.org‘s real-world commitment is a natural extension of Zynga’s mission to connect the world through games, providing both financial resources and staff time to build playgrounds for children in the cities where Zynga employees live and work.
Philanthropy and social movements are not something that can simply be stapled to an existing business. Customers detect such opportunism and they reject it. Authentic connections between a company and a social movement align incentives and resonate with customers and with employees, creating a lot of positive value for both society and shareholders.