Earlier this week, I wrote about SumAll, a data analytics startup in New York that’s using its Big Data technology to aid the non-profit community, beginning with an aggressive assault on the scourge of human trafficking. They mapped out their strategy, and explained some of the obstacles they’re confronting. But there’s more to the story, and it’s a story that needs to be shared.
My conversation with SumAll CEO Dane Atkinson, and vice president of operations and analytics Korey Lee, also delved into the backstory of how a VC-backed startup managed to meld a non-profit venture into its operations, and why it was so intent on making it work. Lee said it was a matter of wanting to make a difference, and doing it in a way that would scale:
The objective is not just to grow the financing to donate the money to a particular cause. That would be great, but I think we can do more by leveraging the skills and the knowledge we have to reach thousands of non-profits, and they can correspondingly have a sense of what’s going on with their data, and then better run their organizations.
Atkinson added that SumAll is approaching its non-profit work with the discipline of a VC-backed startup:
The tools that we built for our professional business are dealing with unimaginably large data sets, and they are entirely [in-house] developed architectures. We have our own infrastructure leveraging non-structured databases, using our own processing layer to look at billions of records a day. As we’ve moved into the non-profit sector, we’ve realized that the tooling that’s required there is to collect data and scrape the Internet for information, and then to work with non-profits and have their very old infrastructures ingest that. I think the most valuable thing that we’ve been able to bring to bear in the non-profit category is more rigor and discipline around building a data company. So we’re approaching this problem much like a VC-backed startup, with very measured goals that need to be hit, that’s using the latest technology we can get our hands on, and that’s bringing the best minds to bear. The team that we’re building consists of people who come from cutting-edge technology companies, and not from other non-profits. We’re trying to apply a different framework to this issue, which is already starting to yield very interesting results.
I mentioned to Atkinson and Lee that non-profit organizations that operate in the same sphere of interest sometimes find themselves competing against each other for donations, influence and mindshare, and I asked them if they see the work they’re doing as a driver that will foster more collaboration among non-profits. Lee acknowledged that there’s a huge difference between the corporate and non-profit worlds in that regard:
We’ve been really shocked at how the ecosystem for non-profits works, in the sense that in a corporate environment, there’s a natural desire for consolidation. When people fail, they share their best practices, because that’s just the nature of our environment—you expose transparently why your business failed. We move to the non-profit sector, and there’s almost no natural desire to do that—there’s very minimal benefit to those people running non-profits to consolidate and form into one organization. The way they present themselves is they’re caregivers to people who invest in them. It’s very obfuscated, so they don’t really show failure to other non-profits—there’s not a lot of knowledge sharing. We hope we can bring visibility to an overarching issue, and we can show how the energy of a variety of non-profits is impacting that overarching issue. And because we’re on the side, we’re not getting donations from people who are looking at slavery or human trafficking, for instance. We are a tech play. We can provide data across the industry that is rare for them to get. So we can push those best practices, and push results that people maybe are not seeing because they’re looking at their own data set.
Perhaps the most striking thing about the non-profit work SumAll is doing is how that work is being funded. SumAll.org, the non-profit arm, was formed by the employees unanimously setting aside 10 percent of their equity in SumAll to fund it. I asked Atkinson how that idea emerged, and what the secret is to getting unanimous buy-in for something like that. His response was nothing if not uplifting:
When we started this company, we all had the belief that one should do good with one’s skills and energy. In our lucky case, we had built a number of successful companies, and at the end of it all, it’s much harder to wire that good in after you’ve brought in VCs and you’ve gone public. For somebody to say, “We’re going to take 10 percent of our company and give it to a non-profit” is nigh impossible. So we wanted to bind it into our DNA at the outset. There may be no value in it—obviously, there turned out to be value in it—but when we were sitting around a room, we all thought that we wanted to do good with our lives; we all wanted to not only make money for ourselves and our investors, but to actually impact the world positively, beyond the reach of our product. So that team unanimously voted to give up the shares. We have been stunned as we’ve hired more and more people—everyone who comes on is offered the chance to do the same, and everyone has taken the chance so say, “I’m going to give 10 percent of my shares to the non-profit.” We’re also blown away—and I think this is actually a first—that a VC bought common shares in a Series A investment to fuel a non-profit. They have supported this cause wholeheartedly, and have actually capitalized it. It brings tears to all of our eyes. We’ve seen even in the portfolios of the VCs that are doing this that companies are starting to think more this way. It’s an idea that really speaks to what kind of business you want to build, and you build a different vibe for your company. We just pray that more people will buy in, because most entrepreneurs are helpful, ambitious, and want to do good for the world. And if they just make that part of their actual structure, then it will happen. It’s very, very hard to make it happen 10 years down the road.
Lee wrapped up the conversation by concluding that there are two things SumAll is out to accomplish:
We definitely want people to realize that if they are in a non-profit, or they have stumbled across data that is not being exposed and needs to be exposed—the price of a human life, the homeless rate in a given area—they should definitely reach out to us, because we’re looking for it. And the other message we really want to get out there is if you want to do good with your life, try to find a way to do it now, whether that means you’re volunteering or you’re lucky enough to create a company structure. You might find it resonates with your whole team—everybody might agree to giving away a portion of the proceeds, or a part of their ownership; doing something that shows it’s not just words, but you actually have intent to do good. I think if that becomes a trend, it will better the world for sure.
I told you it was a story that needed to be shared.