CivNet is Pivoting
• Charlie Wisoff
CivNet, the company I founded 2 years ago, is pivoting.
Me in Another Life
The word “pivot” is tossed around a lot in the start-up world. As a start-up, you’re supposed to fail fast, learn quickly, and pivot when needed. Groupon is a famous example. What started as a social network for people trying to solve problems, turned into a company that sells coupons to groups. There is a sense in which pivoting is an indicator of start-up success. It’s like you’re finally taking of the training wheels, and now you’re ready to ride the Tour de France (slight exaggeration).
I’m not sure that it’s really possible to know what it means to pivot until you experience it; what it’s like to work to do one thing for two years and then decide, “let’s do this other thing.” It’s not like CivNet is going from a platform for social change to selling people coupons. But we are changing. It’s scary. It’s exciting. To explain how it feels, I need to explain how we got here.
I started CivNet after working at the Kettering Foundation for 2 years. The Kettering Foundation studies democracy and civic engagement. Working at Kettering, I identified some problems that I didn’t feel like were being addressed well enough in our society. Although we live in a democracy, it’s much harder for individuals to create change than it should be. It’s hard to understand what’s going in our community, how to connect with like-minded individuals, find meaningful opportunities to get involved, and organize to take action. CivNet was built to solve this problem. Our goal was to create a network of people working for civic and political change.
Bees + Seeds Festival
We launched the CivNet beta platform in December 2015 for a local pilot in Albuquerque, NM, and CivNet has had some moderate success. Our local pilot grew to 2000 members who have created over 150 community projects and taken action through our site over 750 times. “Taking action” has looked like participating in an email campaign to advocate for better bike lanes or helping organize a kickoff event for a group trying to create a social impact hub in ABQ. We’ve also seen CivNet users connect to people and resources in the community that helped them achieve goals they otherwise wouldn’t have been able to. For example, the group putting on the annual Bees + Seeds Festival was able to connect with someone who produced live videography of their event for free.
Although people have found value in CivNet and used our platform in meaningful ways, we realized earlier this year that it wasn’t enough. Success cases were too infrequent to create the type of impact needed. Our user base wasn’t growing fast enough, and there was too much friction between the time someone heard about CivNet and their adoption of the platform. We were creating some value to CivNet users but not enough. In addition, we had tried to do too much instead of serving one specific need well.
In June of this year, CivNet began the Matter accelerator program in San Francisco. Through this program, we went through an exercise of what it would be like to “10x” CivNet around solving for one specific need. The need we settled on was one we’d seen many civic groups struggle with: members of civic groups come from a variety of backgrounds, and they have varying levels of comfort with different technologies; and, as volunteers, group leaders can’t force members to communicate through one platform. As a result, group leaders are forced to communicate through multiple channels to talk to their members, and group members often talk past each other.
To solve for this need, CivNet is pivoting. We are pivoting away from a network-oriented platform towards a distributed communications tool for small, informal groups. The new CivNet helps civic groups meet their members where they are (digitally). Group members can send out a message via email that gets distributed to other group members on their preferred platform. Group members who prefer text can receive and reply to those messages via text, and their reply gets distributed to other group members on their preferred platform. We are launching this new pivot with email and text, and we plan to add other integrations, including Facebook Messenger and Slack, over the coming months.
Messaging App Usage by Age
There are larger societal trends that make a tool like this needed now. There are over 2 million apps now available and that number is growing at an increasing rate. As people use more apps, they spend less attention to each app. In fact, 85% of smartphone users use just 5 apps on their phones. This would be okay if everyone used the same 5 apps, but trends point in the opposite direction. Digital communication is increasingly fragmented. People over 45 are spending more time on email apps and apps that imitate desktop and browser experiences, whereas younger people, particularly, non-white younger people, increasingly use mobile. The digital divide is growing and we need a tool like CivNet to help bridge the gap between different communication tools.
CivNet is launching our new pivot now. We think we’re moving in the right direction, but it’s scary. This isn’t the first time we’ve tried to solve a big problem. The problem we’re solving now is more focused, and we think we have a unique and compelling solution, but that’s just the start. We have to get people to try it out. We’ll have to make adjustments, figure out what is and isn’t working with our solution. We’ll have to figure out how to grow quickly. And we have limited time.
A friend once asked me what it’s like, psychologically, to run a startup. The best comparison I could come up with was the experience of applying and getting into, or getting rejected from, college. It’s that mix of uncertainty, anxiety, and high stakes. The only difference is that startups are like going through that process on a repeating 4 month loop.
I’m hopeful that our pivot is the right move that will result in success. We’d love you to try it out or recommend it to people you know.