From his office on Francis Street, in the heart of Auckland's Grey Lynn suburb, Steve Walls and his team are preparing to change the world.
Walls is the CEO of the startup OneBigVoice. Walls’ plan is to launch his product in New Zealand around July, but he says that’s only the beginning.
OneBigVoice is an online platform for activists, politicos, and the everyday citizen to raise awareness of the things that matter to them. Through the site, organisations can raise funds for advertising campaigns, provide information on issues, and allow communities of interest to participate, as well as local politicians.
The crowdfunding aspect can be likened to Kickstarter, but instead of receiving signed trinkets or a beta product, you get a social or political result (well that’s the hope).
Users are able to contribute information or financing towards campaigns, curate what they support, and share their political activities on social networks.
A function still under development is the ability to send official messages to local politicians asking them questions or to justify how they are voting in government. Users can subscribe to the answers and rate the politicians on their timeliness and the quality of response, while the politicians can use analytic tools to gauge which questions and issues are important to their electorate.
For its services, OneBigVoice takes a 10 percent cut of any money that is raised, and while it will start by launching in New Zealand - Walls says he will take the idea overseas, launching in Australia, UK, and the US.
Walls has been working on bringing the platform to life for the last three years. Before this he worked as a strategist for Saatchi & Saatchi, and was a partner at communications agency Whybin TBWA - but for the last two years his fulltime job has been working on OneBigVoice.
He says the idea for it grew out of observations of political activism in other countries, and what he felt was a growing disconnection between people and their governments. Closer to home in New Zealand, Walls says the record low voter turnout at last year’s general election shows people do not think they have the power to truly influence government decisions.
“Even before the Arab Spring there were plenty of instances of people with growing resentment for their governments. They were feeling marginalised by the influence businesses have on governments in comparison to the people. Someone like me might only have one vote every three years, but I want to have more of an impact than that,” says Walls.
“By microfinancing these small campaigns focused on local or specific issues, people will feel empowered that they are making a difference in their democracy.”
The political-Kickstarter idea is not new. YouLobby is an Amercian site which does the same thing, but has had little success in the US so far.
It is also common today to see social and political campaigns on social networks like Facebook or Twitter, which uses those platforms’ popularity to raise awareness. You would be hard pressed to find a news story about some sort of activism group without the number of Likes on their Facebook page being mentioned.
With the ubiquity of these existing networks, why would people flock to OneBigVoice?
“This is a shift away from the usual 'squaring off at 50 paces and taking potshots' mentality,” says Walls.
“The goal is for every campaign to be informative and educational. What I’ve seen on Facebook and others is an 'us versus them' mentality, this will be all inclusive. We have governments, we have citizens, we need to work together.”
Walls is adamant that OneBigVoice will keep out of the politics itself. All campaigns and organisations are welcome (with the caveat that they do not promote hate or violence). There will be moderation of campaigns, but this will be community powered through a rating and flagging system.
Because of the social networking and technology element, early adopters of the platform are likely to be young, or left leaning. This could create an agenda-focused fundraising platform, which its creators did not intend.
Walls admits that initially the platform could be bias towards one particular agenda, but predicts as it gains traction as a fundraising platform for organisations, and people of different points of view join, this will even out.
The Council of Trade Unions, CAFCA, and the 1080 Action Group are among the list of organisations that will have active campaigns at OneBigVoice’s launch later this year.
Show me the money
“My goal is to make OneBigVoice as a great example of how business can be run in a responsible way and give back to the community and the planet,” says Walls.
Over the last three years, Walls and his business partner have invested more than $350,000 of their own money into the project.
Walls says he has been in back-to-back meetings with investors and media for the last few weeks, trying to raise more money before the launch. So far he is getting positive responses from potential investors, he says.
OneBigVoice is not a charity, it is a business, and Walls says there is a good reason for that.
“We’ve found charities that do similar things aren’t as lean. A lot of the money ends up in administration costs and not going to the actual cost itself,” says Walls.
The skeleton crew of six includes Walls, his business partner in Switzerland, and four developers. Features and ideas he would have liked to launch with had to be shelved until more capital was raised.
“It’s been like getting rid of my own children,” says Walls.
Walls is using another crowdfunding platform to raise money to finish development on the local politicians function.
He has ruled out advertising as he says it would compromise the integrity of the site.
“No advertising, we will never have advertising on the site, ever,” says Walls
Similar words have been spoken by other tech entrepreneurs. Until only recently David Karp, founder and CEO of Tumblr, said he would never allow advertisements on the microblogging website. Last month saw the introduction of Tumblr’s first placement offerings to advertisers, with analysts saying Karp’s previous view was immature.
Will Walls do a Karp? Only time will tell.
Building the team
With no development experience himself, Walls sought outside help to build OneBigVoice.
Walls intended to develop the site using the Java framework, but this was abandoned once the first quote for developers started coming in. Figures of $150 an hour were not uncommon, and he was told by one dev shop the project needed $2 million before the first line of code could be written. These numbers were not achievable for what is still a fledgling startup.
“It was just insane,” says Walls.
He spent three months researching other frameworks before settling on the open source Ruby on Rails web development framework. The attitude of the Rails developer community cemented this decision.
“The community felt very productive, they work on solutions to problems instead of being discouraged by them. I really liked their can-do attitude,” says Walls.
Walls approached 3 Months, a Rails dev shop in Wellington, to work on the project. This didn’t take off, but his ideas struck a chord with Matthew Sole who was at the time working as a business analyst for 3 Months. Sole left 3 Months, and now heads OneBigVoice’s development team.
“I was available and wanted to do something a bit different and Steve’s idea really resonated with me,” says Sole.
The pair started looking for two developers and one designer, but instead ended up hiring three Rails developers with Sole taking on the designer role. The biggest challenge of building a Rails team in New Zealand is that there are so few developers to choose from, and most are in Wellington, he says.
He and Walls approached recruiters for help but found them to be very “commercially aggressive”, so took the matter into their own hands. After three months of attending Rails user groups in Auckland, going to networking events, and participating with the online community - the pair finalised their dev team.
Sole says the four-strong team allow for quick turnarounds, while keeping the development cost low.
“If you look around the world, the good Agile teams are made of four or five people. The number of communication pathways is trim. Anything more than six or seven, people stop being on the same page. You spend more time in meetings than getting work done,” says Sole.
It was difficult trying to convince Rails developers to join the startup, but Sole says he was delighted to see the number of interested candidates once they heard OneBigVoice’s elevator pitch.
“We’ve made sure the developers get enough to live comfortably, but we all know they could earn much more in a traditional business,” says Sole.
“But we’re not working here for the money. Every day we wake up and get to do something we’re excited about. We have much more of a role in shaping this business than we would otherwise, and in turn this business has shaped us.
“We’re going to change the world.”