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Could the lowly coupon inspire positive social change? Startup trades good deeds for discounts

By Julia James | 19 Jan 2011

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Bolder CEO Jeremy Barton believes coupons and deals may help motivate good deeds - and help advertisers get messages to ethical consumers in the process. (Photo: Julia James)

On Nov. 29, Lily Mitchell ate an organic breakfast and donated an itchy old turtleneck to a homeless shelter.  On Nov. 16, the 25-year-old Bay Area research assistant reclaimed a box from the recycling bin at work, formed it into a custom mailer and used the contraption to send a collection of spices home to her parents. At various points over the previous eight months, she ditched plastic water bottles for a day; washed her clothes in cold water; line dried her laundry, took a friend to lunch; high-fived someone for a job well done; biked to work; felt the breeze on her cheeks; composted; and learned from a failure.

She didn’t do those things haphazardly.  She did them because she was challenged to by a fledgling website called ActBolder.com, which promised her rewards: a drip coffee at Coupa Café; a 50-percent discount at the clothing retailer Prana; a toothpaste sample from Tom’s of Maine.

“Took Burrito the dog to the park this afternoon, ran around in circles and played with some little puppies,” she reported on the website recently.  “My bike had a flat this morning, and I very nearly drove into work, but I rallied, changed the tire, and biked in.  Hooray!”

Mitchell isn’t the only one who has tweaked her behavior in response to Bolder’s challenges, which range from the small social exhortations like “play outside today!” to difficult sustainability initiatives: “Go a week without washing your workout clothes” or  “master the four-minute shower.”  Around 10,000 visitors each month are logging on to see what behavior businesses are asking for, and what they’re willing to offer as a reward.

They select and execute their challenges, report on the website what they did and how they did it, and redeem their rewards.  Consumers get bargains, from companies that presumably share their values; companies get potential customers; and the world is a better place thanks to the challenge that united them — a “positive externality” in business jargon.  Right?

That’s at least the way that cofounder and CEO Jeremy Barton would like you to see it.  “We’re shooting for the win-win-win,” he says.  (Bolder charges businesses a flat fee to access the platform and then a fee that flexes with the performance of the challenge.)

It’s an alluring proposition, to be sure – that we could find some element of salvation in our insatiable drive to consume.  But it begs the question: Is “dishing out a compliment” in exchange for a 40 percent discount at Mountain Khakis really generating a net social good?  Or is the only “positive externality” in that transaction a quiet consumer conscience?

*               *               *

It’s easy to be skeptical about Bolder, the same way it’s easy to be initially skeptical about Jeremy Barton – who, with his long limbs, reddish brown hair, hollow cheeks and commanding eyelashes, is equal parts Bill Gates and Eminem – business with a touch of ghetto or vice versa.

Barton graduated from Stanford in 2007 with a degree in biomechanical engineering. During four years on the crew team, and a summer as a water-ski instructor at the university’s famously rowdy Sierra Camp, he wore plush pink velvet sweat suits, sizable diamond earrings, big white-rimmed sunglasses and a rat tail.  He and his friends were known for their “go-big or go-home” mentality.  Now, his 6-foot, 4-inch frame has considerably less bulk on it, and the earrings and rat tail are gone.  And he’s comfortable walking around in public in full biking spandex – a result, maybe, of the cross-country bike trip he organized in 2006 to raise $8,000 for the nonprofit FACE AIDS organization.

During college, Barton acted as chief operating officer for the Stanford Daily, where he began to recognize the enormous money and power in the advertising world.  After graduating, he worked as a finance associate at Visa and then with the chief financial officer at IntApp, a maker of software for law firms.  It was during his time at IntApp that he got a serious itch to head up his own enterprise, and in 2008, he and a collection of friends began a weekly brainstorming session in downtown Palo Alto.

The meetings were structured – one person each week would present an idea for a new business or product – but mostly recreational. They involved mechanical engineers, teachers, graduate students at Stanford and more. The ideas varied but circled around the use of technology — and social media in particular — to raise consumer awareness of environmental and social responsibility.

Above: Barton and Bolder chief operating officer Rob Boyle at work in their "office." Below: A view, from their free desk space, of the Rickshaw factory floor. (Photos: Julia James)

After a couple of months, momentum for the brainstorming sessions lagged, and Barton focused in on developing concrete plans with his friend and housemate Matt McDonald. The two entered an iPhone app development contest through Social Media, McDonald’s employer at the time, and they won with their imaginary social advertising platform, Friendzy.  McDonald left his job, Barton eventually gave notice at IntApp, and with Rob Boyle, in late 2009, they started building a company.

At first, the three worked from home, out of Menlo Park and San Francisco’s Mission District.  But in the fall of 2010, Rickshaw, a maker of urban messenger bags, offered them free office space in Potrero Hill.  Today, as they sit behind their laptops in a sunny corner loft, they overlook Rickshaw’s factory floor – where the motion of physical work, the constant cutting and stitching and moving of brightly colored fabrics, is a reassuring counterpoint to their virtual construction projects.

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The Bolder business model was based on a simple observation — advertisers spend a hell of a lot of money reaching out to consumers who want nothing to do with their product – and a question: What if you could channel that money more efficiently, and in the process funnel some of it into positive social change?

“Companies are going to spend billions of dollars on marketing,” Barton’s business partner and Bolder chief technology officer Rob Boyle said. “They always have and they always will.  If all of these billions of dollars were also driving people to be better?  Yeah, fantastic.”

It’s a vague idea, for sure, and it’s easy to identify the pitfalls in Bolder’s system of challenges, actions and rewards. What happens when the challenge is too vague or just self-promotional?  (Stonyfield Organic Yogurt wants you to “eat an organic breakfast.”)  What happens when the action is never really completed?  (Bolder operates on the honors system, and assumes that a certain number of people cheat.)  What happens when the reward – inevitably an offer of discounted consumer goods – is wasteful or extravagant itself? And isn’t there something a bit demeaning in the process for the consumer?  Dogs, after all, are also the subjects of behavioral incentive experiments.

Those are questions that Barton and the Bolder team grapple with themselves.  And while they’re able to offer answers for a few of them, they’re the first to admit they haven’t mastered the overarching dilemma: What type of exhortation in the virtual world actually makes someone take real-world action?  As many critics of social media have pointed out, it’s one thing to “like” a political candidate or cause online.  It’s another to get off the couch and go vote.

“Where does the inspiration for positive action come from?” Barton asks.  “Does it come from the front end?  Are you inspired by a business or someone you know challenging you to do something good?  Or is that positive action inspired on the back end by recognition from peers and a business?”

Some days, Barton’s colleagues say, he’ll show up at the office and say, “People don’t respond to challenges.  We should do action up front,” meaning consumers would essentially post status updates – “Today I walked up the stairs instead of taking the elevator!” — and then companies would reward them with coupons.

The group will talk for hours and eventually persuade Barton to settle down and let the current model play out.

The next week, it will be CTO Boyle showing up at the office insisting on up-front action.  “We can’t do challenges anymore,” he’ll say.  And then Barton and the others will talk him out of it.  Each week the defeated idea resurfaces, paraded by a new champion.

What’s clear to Barton is the importance of the real-world context surrounding an online consumer.  As he puts it, “Technology still grows by the value that it adds offline.”

“A website won’t necessarily make me do something different, but the greater context of the website will,” Boyle explains. In other words, if some online text recommended biking to work, he’d be fairly ambivalent about the proposition. But seeing friends post the action to their Facebook feed? “I’m like, well I’m the only sucker who didn’t do it. That is a huge influence on me, for sure,” he said.  “We’re just facilitating that.”

“You become very good at making informed decisions and taking feedback from the marketplace and doing quickly and iterating,” Barton says.  “If not that, this.”

Bolder's challenges range from reassuringly vague to unnervingly specific. They fall into four catagories: education, environment, community and culture, and health and fitness. (Photo: screenshot)

Maybe as Bolder develops, it will guide advertisers to gutsier challenges, nudging them away from the self-referential softballs many are lobbing to consumers at present.  Maybe as more companies look to advertise on the site, Barton will be able to negotiate bigger rewards for consumers who take up the challenges.  Maybe the site will go mainstream, or maybe it will go more niche.

One thing is for certain: Social media has pushed the online economy away from the dynamics of the market and toward the dynamics of networks; sellers are recognizing that today’s buyers require a new type of communication. Haggling is out; relationships and reciprocity are in. Reputation is more important than it has ever been.

In this context, Barton believes that Bolder will only become more valuable to advertisers – and therefore able to set up more challenges and generate more good.

“There’s a trend in the market to move towards being a better company,” Boyle explains.  “People are starting to care not just about your products but about the way you operate. Eventually every company will have a corporate social responsibility department.  We’ll be there to help them with it.”

*               *               *

Barton’s might seem like an odd form of idealism – lofted by the ambition of a healthier, happier planet but anchored in the iron logic of the marketplace.  But he’s only one in what you could argue is a distinct breed of Silicon Valley entrepreneur: the post-bubble, post-Google, Obama-loving, Mark Zuckerberg contemporaries who believe that profit and social progress are not incompatible.

Brad Burton, vice president of product and strategy at One Block Off the Grid, a for-profit company that organizes collective purchasing of green technologies, is a prime example.

“Who knows?  Maybe we’ll all be proven wrong,” he says.  “But it seems to me thus far that the best way to actually go about creating real change that’s lasting and impactful is by linking it with economic gain both on a micro and a macro level.”

Brent Schulkin, founder and executive director of Carrotmob, is another.  His nonprofit organizes what it calls “anti-boycotts,” in which consumers leverage their collective purchasing power to reward companies that make specific environmental or social improvements.

(Burton is a college friend of Barton’s and was part of the Palo Alto brainstorming sessions.  Schulkin is also a recent Stanford graduate.)

“I think that a lot of businesses would love to find a way to have a very strong positive impact,” says Schulkin.  “But they’re faced with the fact that they have a purpose of making money.  It needs to make business sense for them to do it.”

Burton’s One Block Off the Grid would be happy to persuade you into installing a solar panel based on a promise of eventual energy savings, for instance, and not on the principle of environmental stewardship.  And Bolder will be content (no, fired up even) when you bike to work only to earn a discount on athletic apparel.  If positive behavior is incentivized, a kind of social movement arises organically – whether the participants will it to or not.

Ultimately, it’s the low threshold for involvement that’s helping sites like Bolder and Carrotmob succeed, Schulkin says.  “It’s purchasing behavior that’s already going to happen anyway.”

At Bolder, there’s such an acceptance of the lazy consumer, that even the inevitable faker, the site user who lies about an action to reap a discount, is welcomed.  After thinking for some time about building technology that would facilitate verification of an action, Barton decided not to go that route, preferring to make the hurdle to positive action as low as possible.

“If somebody wants to lie and say that they biked to work, okay, fine,” he says.  “Hopefully they thought about it though.”

As Schulkin puts it, “We’re not asking our consumers to pass a purity test when they participate.”

Are Barton, Burton and Schulkin idealistic entrepreneurs?  Or are they entrepreneurial idealists?  What defines their distinct breed is a blurring of old lines, a sort of pragmatic moral calculation that favors collective outcome over individual action. That is to say, they’re less concerned with individual intention and more concerned with intention at the level of structure – and that’s a calculation that only makes sense in the age of social media.

*               *               *

The American West is dotted with the ghostly remnants of a former gold rush.  The online world is peppered with Friendsters – entrepreneurial experiments that rode the social media swell briefly before drowning in its break.

Will Bolder take off in the way of Groupon, the advertising platform launched in late 2008 and now rumored to be the target of a $6.2 billion takeover?  Or will it go the way of Google Buzz?

While Barton’s enthusiastic about what he says is an escalating level of site traffic, it’s easy to see that certain challenges have flopped.  Only 30 people accepted Whole Foods’ exhortation to “high-five someone for a job well done,” and only 28 got out and picked up trash as Atayne suggested.

“Our strategy has always been to run very hard at something,” Barton said.  “We think there’s something here, and we’ve thought a lot about it. But nobody knows the answer to anything.”

Barton biked across the country in 2006 to raise $8,000 for the nonprofit FACE AIDS organization. (Photo: Robby Sumpf)

Lily Mitchell, the Bay Area research assistant who’s accepted 103 challenges and redeemed 55 rewards on Bolder since it launched, thinks the answer regarding Bolder’s future might lie in the personality of its founder.  She’s not just a site user, but also a close personal friend of Barton, and she’s watched the project evolve from the 2008 Palo Alto brainstorming sessions to the present.

“I think he’s got this inner motivation that, as someone who’s very happy to sit around and watch movies for weeks on end, I can’t really comprehend,” she said.

When Mitchell bikes around the coastal mountains with Barton and his girlfriend, she says, he’ll leave the others to ride at their own pace while he cranks out hill sprints ahead of them – “just because he needs to do more.”

Whether he can convince corporations and consumers to do more by selling them on Bolder is still an open question.

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