Video Transcript

00:09 Ben Rattray: I then had this really powerful personal experience which is my senior year in college, I ended up having a long conversation, unexpected, with my brother Nick, who is this guy here. And Nick very unexpectedly came out as gay, and I was completely oblivious to this and then he said something to me that changed the trajectory of my life. He said, "Ben, the thing that was most painful about being a closeted young gay American wasn't all the people that were discriminatory or explicitly anti-gay, it was the good people who would stand by and do nothing. People like you." People like me and I was ashamed. I knew I had not done. I was so selfish and so self-engrossed about what I wanted to be and how much I wanted to make, and what the world could give me that I never thought beyond my own self to my own brother.

01:05 Rattray: And that night I went to the web and I started Googling about homophobia, and I saw this photo of a guy who looked just like Nick, and his name is Matthew Shepard. And three years before he was in Wisconsin, I'm sorry, Wyoming and he got dragged out of a bar, beat, tortured, and killed because he's gay. And I cried and I'm not a crier and I wept and I cried for Nick and I cried for Matthew, and I cried because of that embarrassment that I'd never done anything, didn't even know about this tragic story that had happened just three years before. And so that point, I committed to really substantial pivot, really in a 180 degrees, and thought how could I not have the world serve me, but what can I do, give me incredible privileged position to serve the world. And I had no idea what to do 'cause I had never really deeply thought about this.

02:01 Rattray: And so after graduating just a few months after, I went to the place in which I thought I could make this really substantial change and learn about how to improve people's lives. When I came to Washington DC, which is ironic, because what I found in DC was as disheartening as you find today and this is in 2002 which is this incredible inability for everyday citizens to have a substantial impact on their own government, that we have a systemic structure in place not because anyone wants it, but the reality of politics is that it actually disadvantages the public interest because it's this collective action problem.

02:39 Rattray: If you're a small number of very moneyed interest with lots of private gain to had by organizing, representing yourself in government, special interests and it's easy to coordinate that, there's not a real collective action problem. If you're the broad public where you had tens, if not hundreds, of millions and people that care a small amount about an issue, just really difficult to organize those people. It's expensive and those collective action costs really constrain citizen mobilization.

03:05 Rattray: So I was really obsessed by this idea, this sort of structural problem but of course they didn't have a solution and so like almost every idealistic sort of naive 24-year-old in DC trying to make a difference, feeling like they can't do, so I decided to do the next brilliant step, which is I decided to go to law school. And I get an email address when I'm in law school or just before I joined.

03:29 Rattray: It's about two weeks before and I was gonna go to NYU for Public Interest Law, and I see this little website that's only accessible to people in college and universities and it's called the Facebook.com. And I immediately see this incredible power of using these online tools and social networking was not big, this was 2005 to coordinate people not around photos or friends, but solve this problem I had been obsessed by which is how do you coordinate people in real time around common interest to mobilize them to collective action, not around events but around social issues.

04:05 Rattray: And so I became obsessed by this and I spent the next week just two weeks before law school writing this business plan, really intense, really in Dupont Circle about five, six miles from here. And I ended up deciding, much to my parent's chagrin and the amusement of all my friends, to drop out of law school before I started, just about a week before after paying the dues which didn't make anyone all that excited, but I was entirely enraptured by this idea as it is always necessary if you do the crazy thing as many of us in this room have in starting our own companies.

04:36 Rattray: And so I spent the next year deliberating entirely. I worked 40 hours a week as a consultant in DC as I had done in the past, 40 hours a week, learning all about how to build an internet company. It was... Funny story at the time is I didn't have any technical competence, I still don't, like double click and that's about it. And so I was looking for a technical co-founder, a very common problem in the internet, and I found this guy, asked all my friends, if you could hire anybody to co-found a company for you on the technology space, who would it be?

05:07 Rattray: And everyone said the same person, Mark Dimas, who had actually been a sort of a friend in my network at Stanford, and so I'm trying to pitch Mark and this idea and he ignores me. And so we end up going to a wedding in Hawaii for another friend from college that December and he will ignore... He kept on ignoring me until literally I put a deck together on my 10-pound Dell laptop, and I lugged this thing on to the beach, and I literally sit there and like walking though the PowerPoint like in the glare, pitching Mark on why he should join this crazy company and, of course, he says, "No."

05:44 Rattray: And then it took me a few more weeks and eventually started moonlighting, eventually joined me, and together in 2007, long time ago, we launched the first version of the site, change.org, and asked the fundamental question, what do you wanna change in the world? This is the old school site, we have made some progress since then. But of course we thought as many entrepreneurs do, we'll launch this site. It will immediately go viral, we'll get a few million people and then we'll figure out how we're gonna dole out sort of money to all people that are involved in the company earlier. And we launch, and then sort of nose dive in a thud, and nobody comes to the site. And so we spend the next three years iterating substantially on this model in figuring out how do we actually empower people online to take effective action.

06:28 Rattray: We build skills-based volunteerism tools, we had a petition tool, we had a pledge tool, we had social fundraising, which we thought was gonna be really big, which failed at the time, is successful now, we just didn't execute well at all. We had no idea how to build a consumer network platform until after few additional pivots, a crazy thing happened, in the most unexpected of places.