You’re waiting in line with a few minutes to kill, so you pull out your iPhone and are soon “micro-volunteering” for a nonprofit organization. That’s the promise of one of the coolest apps “for good” available in Apple’s app store.
The app, called “The Extraordinaries“, is the work of a San Francisco based startup. Co-Founder Jacob Colker tells me they started the company because they “saw a tremendous opportunity to harness micro amounts of spare time for passionate communities… Combined with the efforts of thousands of other people, those few minutes of work add up to something significant. In an era where organizations struggle to keep their supporters engaged, we open a world of new possibilities.”
I’ve had the app on my phone for the past few months, so here are my thoughts:
Micro-Volunteering is a great concept. The idea is to break down a project into thousands of individual tasks which (usually untrained) individuals can easily do in their spare time. For example, micro-volunteers can help a museum catalog old photos that have been digitized by adding key words that describe what they see. Other projects include reporting on pot holes, locating playgrounds, reporting pollution, helping translate text, and various other photo tagging opportunities. It’s hard not to love this vision of many hands coming together to make the world a better place.
Distributed problem-solving like this is often called “Crowdsourcing“. The internet is full of fun examples of crowdsourcing projects including Re-Captcha (digitizing books one word at a time), the attempt to locate billionaire Steve Fossett after his plane disappeared over the Nevada desert, Google Image Labeler (originally called the ESP Game), and Mechanical Turk, a project from Amazon.com with over 40,000 such tasks that pays pennies for each task completed.
The Extraordinaries team has done a great job with their application interface, making it easy and relatively intuitive to use. They’ve also moved fast to launch a photo-tagging project to help locate survivors in Haiti, showing they have great initiative, flexibility, not to mention compassion for a tragic situation.
In addition, the team has also demonstrated a good appreciation for the kind of social psychology that often motivates people to take action – from the super-hero-like name, to social recognition and a point-rewards system (that seems to have recently disappeared from the app, but I suspect will make a return down the line).
Is it a Business?
The big social-entrepreneur question is, “is this really a business?” They’ve incorporated as a for-profit and say they’re in the process of becoming a for-benefit, or “B-Corp”. As Care2 is also a B-Corp, I love to see that focus on sustainability. To date, much of the funding has come from a series of grants the team has won from the Knight Foundation, Echoing Green, NetSquared, WeMedia, and the United Nations World Summit Youth Award. To attract equity investors, however, it needs to show a clear path to a substantial business opportunity.
The business model relies on organizations paying a small fee per transaction. If Mechanical Turk is any indication, the going rate for the kind of tasks available on The Extraordinaries is probably in the few cents per action range. That requires a LOT of transactions, even just to pay for a small team.
For example, to generate a million dollars in revenues a year (a rate that wouldn’t attract significant investment, but could pay for a small team), would require something like 50 million tasks completed per year, or nearly 140,000 per day. That kind of volume is certainly possible, but so far seems a distant possibility. I am surprised that, despite great press coverage in Time, CNN, NPR and lots of buzz on blogs since the launch of the app last year, so few micro tasks completed to date (the website says 35,000+, though the missions I’ve seen generally have only a few hundred tasks completed). Likewise, several other apps in this crowdsourcing-for-good space, including Citysourced and Givework seem to have a long way to go to prove their viability (though Crowdflower, which created Givework as a side project, just raised $5 million for a total of $6.25 million in funding).
In order for the company to achieve critical mass, and get organizations to pay for its service, it probably needs to average at least 200,000 tasks per client, at a charge of $4,000+. Otherwise, it’s hard to justify the set-up/overhead costs.
One of the concerns we often hear voiced about social-good start-ups is that it can be very hard for a niche company to achieve critical mass and be a stand alone site when competing against a big mainstream competitor. For example, I’ve seen at least 50 green shopping malls/portals, yet even most well-intentioned greenies I know tend to go straight to Amazon (where an eco-friendly filter option could have a big impact) because of its significant competitive advantages. In the case of crowdsourcing, MechanicalTurk has the critical mass advantage, and Crowdflower now has the funding, though probably neither has the social-entrepreneurial drive to own the micro-volunteering space.
A related challenge for mobile app developers is maintaining mind-share on limited phone screen real estate. Apps that don’t make it to your first or second screens are likely to get forgotten, so strong brands and daily-use apps have great advantages. That said, if The Extraordinaries can create effective incentives for the micro-volunteers, I think it’s still possible for them to achieve that first-screen status for their super-user community – which could get them to critical mass, and make this a viable standalone business.
Will this Go Big?
Given the early state of mobile apps, and the relatively recent launch of all these services, it’s too early to know which, if any of these micro-volunteering apps will go big. That said, a general truism on the net is “that which is particularly compelling, grows rapidly”, so my gut tells me none of these has yet figured out the magic formula for success. That’s not criticism of the teams, but rather the realities of most great startups that often take a few (or more) iterations before they hit the big times. Given what we’ve seen so far from The Extraordinaries team, they’re scrappy, clever and capable – and if they can continue to secure funding, figure out the key to engaging the super-micro-volunteers, and achieve critical mass, they just might reach escape velocity and go big. It would be great for many nonprofits/causes, a terrific way to keep individuals engaged in do-good activities, and a nice win for these app-Trailblazers for Good.
Randy Paynter is the Founder & CEO of Care2.