Summer Launchpad 2018 Series: Tech for Social Impact

If you take a look at the 11 companies in this year’s Summer Launchpad cohort you will find many companies that are focused on creating social impact through their for profit products and services. Today, we want to highlight two companies that are using online tools to move people toward taking action offline.

BallotBox is an all-in-one event and community management software for grassroots movements that helps independent organizers run and grow offline communities.

About the team

Sebastian Jimenez (Stern '18) and Vanessa Chesnut (CAS '18) became friends in the first week of their freshman year when they lived on the same floor. Although they didn’t know they would become cofounders by the end of their time at NYU, they shared an interest in the same movement based events that would later prompt them to conceptualize Ballotbox. Tomasz Bachosz (Abu Dhabi '18) met Sebastian during orientation when they were both studying abroad in Berlin. They had been independently working on separate event apps. At the end of the semester, when Tomasz heard that Sebastian and Vanessa needed a developer, he decided to join them and to come study in NYC the following semester.

NYU Entrepreneurial Institute: What was the insight that lead you to decide to start this company?
Ballotbox: We started thinking about it during 2016 presidential race when we volunteered for the Bernie 2016 campaign. There was something special happening in terms of people coming together to rally, but there when we spoke to other organizers we learned that they faced many challenges in growing and managing their communities.

We also noticed that NYU students who were part of political groups wanted to participate in activism outside of NYU, but they didn’t know where to start to find events. People were passionate online but, unless it was easy for them to find a way to participate, it didn’t always translate to offline action.

The Institute: What would you do differently now if you started over?
Ballotbox: We would read Frank Rimalovski's book Talking to Humans and we would take more time to talk to potential customers. In hindsight, we started building way too soon before understanding what problem we were solving, and as a result had more bias when it came to pushing our existing solution on users. Once we participated in the Summer Sprint program and talked to dozens of customers, we realized they had other needs, and that we had to address those needs first before becoming a full social network for offline political movements.
We would also make sure to ask the right questions and frame them in a way that was not biased. To do that, it’s important for us to act not as company founders, but NYU researchers who want to intimately understand all of our target customers’ problems.

The Institute: How has being associated with NYU given you a competitive advantage?
Ballotbox: It has been relatively easy to get customer discovery interviews because we’re NYU students and that gets people excited. Mentorship from the Summer Launchpad and daily guidance has been important in making sure we’re on the right track. Having an NYU email address even helps because it’s something people trust.
We think the best time to start a business is while you’re a student and don’t have any attachments. You don’t see the obstacles others see and you don’t have much to lose, like a job or your status, so the risk is lower than for others.

Motivote makes voting fun, easy and social with their team-based accountability platform—so that people are more likely to do it.

About the team

Emily Graham (Wagner '18), Rachel Konowitz (Wagner '18), and Jessica Riegel (Wagner '18) met while working on their capstone project. They all expressed interest in brainstorming ideas about civic engagement and voting. Motivote started when Emily posted about the project on a Slack channel and Rachel and Jessica were the only two people to respond. The team has extensive experience working for nonprofits, volunteering for campaigns, and consulting for public interest organizations.

The Institute: What was the insight that lead you to decide to start this company?
Motivote: We became frustrated when we noticed that less than 50% of young people voted in a recent election and we knew that it wasn’t just apathy. Someone needed to make voting easier for people, and traditional strategies weren’t working. It started as a capstone project in our second year at Wagner. For the first 5 months it was just a project and we figured that if turns into something bigger then that’s great.

When we did the January Sprint at the Leslie eLab, we finally starting to think of Motivote as a business. That’s when we realized we would have to do things differently. This became more than just a cool idea of a tool that should be used for elections. We had to think more strategically about how this would become a business and who the technology would really solve a problem for.

The Institute: What would you do differently now if you started over?
Motivote: We would definitely talk to young voters and campaigns earlier. Early on we did a lot of research, which was valuable, but it didn’t give us much insight into what to build.
We would also be less careful about how to run tests. We wanted to have a real election in order to test, but could have done a lot of tests to get at what people’s challenges were without waiting until there was a real life election.

This past January for example, we wanted to test how social pressure and incentives might impact people’s willingness to take action on social issues. We went to the park and asked people what issues they care about, and asked if they ever thought about calling their representative about it. Then we asked whether people would act on it now if we made it easy for them. This gave us a lot of data about how to get people to act without having to build any technology for them to do it.

The Institute: How has being associated with NYU given you a competitive advantage?
Motivote: Getting free coaching and mentorship from the Leslie eLab for a year has been amazing.
Being a student also makes us much more approachable.
We felt like, why not try this now while we’re in grad school. If we had to drop everything, like a job or a career, to start a company it would be much scarier.