Not Just Whining Louder - Interview with Andrew Mason from The Point
Andrew Mason, founder of The Point, explains why he thinks the Internet is bound (with The Point's help) to fundamentally change the way individuals interact with organizations.
Jed Sundwall: Tell me how you started The Point. It seems like it was just an opportunity that came up really suddenly.
Andrew Mason: Yeah, it was totally suddenly. I didn't know what NetSquared was or anything about the startup world. It wasn't really something I was trying to do. I was going back to school for public policy at the University of Chicago. Before that, I was a developer, and I'd occasionally have ideas for things. And the idea for The Point came when I was a developer and I was trying to cancel a cell phone contract. I guess I attribute it to an overactive sense of vengeance. When I was unable to cancel my contract, I said this seems like such a strange problem. Everybody has this problem, yet there's nothing we can do to come together and solve it.
And then, it was like, well, what if we just got everyone on the web who had this problem to refuse to abide by their terms and just basically stop paying their bill? Reality issues aside, it's sort of a powerful use of the web. It really shows that the web can change things. With the web these days, a rule is only a rule if the public is going to let it be one because it's real easy to coordinate kind of a collective to overwhelm fragile authority that companies try and impose.
This is like Policy 101, right? I imagine you've studied collective action problems.
I love this stuff, the whole idea that it's very easy for a cartel to be formed or for a small group of companies to collude and oppress us, the masses. Because there are only a few of them, it's very easy for them to self-assemble and organize to protect their interests.
They're named after their ability to organize, you know, organizations.
Exactly, whereas us, the myriad of people who are afflicted by them, it's very hard for us to assemble because, well, there are millions of us, so I'm assuming that is the point of The Point.
Yeah, it totally is. You're right on. So, I see there being three kinds of pillars of kind of intrinsic benefits of the web that enable something like The Point. The first is the ability to collaborate. And you've seen that realized in sites like Wikipedia, right, where every one person comes together and offers their imperfect knowledge, to create a perfect set of knowledge about something. And we can use that to research companies and policies and stuff like that in ways we couldn't in the past.
The second piece is the ability to form together a network, based around affinities of like-mindedness. So, not just geographical networks and communities, but communities, where we're all customers in the same community. So, you're no longer isolated from those people. You can organize with them. And Social Networks has done that really well.
And then, the third thing, which is what The Point really leverages well, I think, and where our big idea comes into play is the web's ability to coordinate. It really makes it so that organizing a million people, you can do it instantly, and you can do it virtually at no cost. And the question is, given that power, what do you do with it? Well, I think what you do is you separate people's actual action towards creating a better world or whatever, separate the action from an interest and action. So, you can sort of gather the resource you need, in order to affect change before you ask people to stick their necks out. It's just like classic economics. If you reduce the risk of acting collectively, people are going to be more likely to take part.
So, that's what we're trying to do is we're trying to create a tool that allows people to create the conditions where they feel like their participation is going to make a difference, and really treat collective action the same way we treat everything else we do. Like when you're going on vacation, you pack your suitcase before you leave for vacation. You don't pack your suitcase after you've left. I mean, it's absurd. And so, in the same way, that's what you're doing with The Point, is you're gathering the things you need, in order to get the job done before you leave.
Right, definitely not eliminating, but really mitigating the free rider problem, is that right?
The problem being like why am I going to, for instance, vote? If I know nobody else is going to vote, it's not going to make any difference. Or, why am I going to vote when I know Obama's going to carry this state, so it doesn't really matter if I go out?
Yeah, exactly. What's your background that you know about all this stuff?
I studied policy, as well, at UCSD, it was an international relations program. And it's really weird that I liked it so much because my background's in humanities in English and Spanish. And if I remember correctly, you're a musician?
Yeah, I studied music, regrettably. I mean, it was good in a sense that it gave me a passion to never waste my life as thoroughly as I did in college.
I interviewed Scott Heiferman from MeetUp, and he talked about you guys. But I didn't check it out until my friend, Josh Levy made a blog post about how there's a journalist using The Point to raise money to write an article. It's about bio fuels in California, and me being a Californian, I'm just interested in the idea, in general. I went and I pledged, and I've got to say it's really amazing how easy it was, and how clear it was what I was doing. Then all of a sudden, I was joining all these other things.
Great, well that's great to hear.
How long has The Point been around now?
We've been in alpha since November. We are bypassing beta, jumping right over and launching our 1.0 actually either next week at Net Roots Nation, or the week after, just on the 21st, depending on how much we can fit into the next week.
OK, and have you had any major successes so far or anything exciting?
We've had some really cool campaigns, but they've all been smaller. We haven't taken down Wal-Mart yet or anything like that, but there have definitely been some really great fundraisers. Someone just recently raised money for a musical. I thought that was pretty cool. And somebody right now is raising money to put together a documentary on veganism. It seems like that's going to tip. Cracker organized a concert on The Point, where they said if 150 people show up, we'll play a show.
The band, Cracker?
Yeah, like from the 90's, I guess. So, more and more regularly, campaigns are tipping and we're steadily growing with the re-launch that we're doing. It's pretty cool, it's really focused on the campaign experience of making things really even simpler for people to start campaigns, join them, and explore the site. And also, expand into other communities. So, we're going to have a full featured widget that you can be anywhere on the web and you can join campaigns without ever visiting.
And full featured, meaning, will it accept payments?
Yeah, they'll accept payments, right, securely, too.
You're privately funded, right?
Is there like a business model to The Point, or is it going to be sustained by grants? Have you had to think about this yet?
Yeah, we have, obviously, because we're for profit and everything like that. And the reason we're for profit, by the way, is really because a shrewd businessman, a great guy, but someone was like "Well, I can see how this would be able to drive a huge amount of traffic and make a lot of money, so I want to fund it and turn it into a company." It's still a good cause, I guess, is what I'm trying to say, even though somebody has the potential to get rich off it.
The business model at this point, we're just trying to build a site that users love. And then, at some point, we may run advertising, we may take a piece of the fundraising campaigns that are for commercial purposes, as opposed to the ones that are charitable, which we don't charge for, other than the transactional fees that the credit card company charges. So, yeah, something like that.
I think there's an unfortunate aversion to for-profit companies. There's nothing inherently wrong with being a for-profit organization, by any means. There are plenty of self-sustaining non-profits, but the ownership structure of for-profits tends to give them a leg-up when it comes to longevity.
Sometimes I have a guilt about it when I talk to non-profit people.
Yeah, I think that's totally unfortunate. And best of luck, because I think the more success you have, the more of a case there is for for profit organizations to just do good work. It can be done.
Especially on the web. What makes money on the web is driving the message to something, and that's really what activists and do-gooders are largely trying to do, is raise awareness and just to get everybody looking at stuff. So, it's a really nice synergy for once that there's a business model for people who are trying to do good things.
That's a really great point. So, why are you bypassing beta?
Oh, just because it just seems silly to stick around in that pre-launch stage anymore. We chose to call it alpha and then, we never had like a major milestone to upgrade to beta. But then, a couple months ago, we were like, OK, knowing what we know now, if we stopped everything and built this website scratch, what would it be? And we decided to do that. And now, we feel like we know enough that it just makes sense to make it a 1.0.
The big idea of The Point is you organize people to take some action and give money to meet some collective objective once certain conditions are met that make it worth doing. And thus far, what we allow people to do is meet that condition and you've raised a certain amount of money. So, once people pledge X number of dollars, all the money is collected, or once people join, everybody takes action, does their boycott or goes to the protest or whatever. But now, what we're allowing people to do is say, we will only act if someone agrees to do something. If somebody meets the objective, we campaign. So, you can do these kind of buycotts or carrot campaigns, where instead of saying to the clothing company, "We're all going to boycott you unless you stop using sweat shops," you can say, "We will all become your passionate customers if you stop using sweat shops." So, you're kind of killing them with kindness.
It's especially useful for smaller situations when you're dealing with a local company that's also made up a type of campaign. When you're saying, "Do this or else," it just feels a little too antagonistic and uncomfortably awkward for people to confront people that they often know in that way.
Exactly, there are very few people who enjoy being like that, and those people are rarely convincing because people are going, "Oh, this person's just bitter."
Right. See, we never viewed it as, I guess, having that sort of academic slightly economic background. I never viewed the ultimatum type of campaign as something that was antagonistic. It's like all you're doing is aggravating preference for a company to stop doing something. So, if you want the oil company to stop dumping waste in the lake, then you disagree with that policy position. But, the reason you're not doing anything is because you feel like there's nothing you can do. If you know that there's a critical mass of people such that acting together, you can force that change, it's not necessarily antagonistic. You're just using your market power, the power to buy or not to buy, in a way that reflects their policies. So, I think with time, people will stop looking at that as a mean or threatening way to go about interacting with industry.
I hope so. There's that cultural thing to get over where people don't want to feel like they're being mean. As we've already discussed, I think what precedes that is the actual ability to get together in the first place, to aggregate those preferences. And that's what you're using the Internet to do. What is The Point based on? It's a really elegant, beautiful site.
Oh, like technology-wise? Ruby On Rails. It's all the rage these days.
And how long have you been working on it?
We've worked on it since early '07.
Oh, really? But, was it called something else then?
No, it was just completely in stealth. It didn't launch until November or September or something like that. I think we unveiled it, put it up for the first time in September, and then, just kind of twiddled around with our friends until November.
What's like your grandest vision for The Point? Is there anything, in particular, that you would love to achieve through The Point, like one particular campaign?
Yes, OK, one campaign, one thing that would make me feel like I could die and feel really good about myself is if The Point was able to sort of force industry in a way to adopt the position on net neutrality issues that the public wants. Neutrality is like the one issue that I feel The Point is a great model for forcing something like that to go the way we want it to. And I feel really passionate about that issue. It's unbelievably important.
Where would I find a campaign so that I could join?
I don't even know if there is a campaign. There may be one. The thing is, we don't want to create these campaigns ourselves too much. We just have to wait and see. It doesn't look like there's a campaign that mentions net neutrality, but I think there are some campaigns against AT&T and stuff like that. But, you should start one.
Ed: I've since pledged on The Point to sign up with the first telecom that takes a certain Net Neutrality Pledge.
But, if you want like my grand vision of where I see The Point or a world with The Point, I can give you that, too. It's super grandiose, though, to The Point. I think there are two types of groups, or at least let me say maybe not exclusively these two types, but there are these two types. There's groups that exist as a means to an end, and I think most activist groups are like that, right? If you're a global warming organization like Greenpeace or something like that, you only exist to solve these problems. And any kind of social benefit or getting to meet people, that's a nice side effect, maybe, but that's not the reason that it exists.
And then, there's groups where that social benefit, they're a means to themselves, so like a knitting group or something like that, where the reason they're part of the group is for that social element. So, those groups that are a means to an end, I think the web can do a large part to reduce the need for them. I mean, I still think there is a need for activist organizations to do research and be experts on these issues, but in terms of organizing collective action, I can see a website like The Point turning into a place where, basically, people enter two types of data. They enter their values.
Basically, they express the world in the way that they want it to be, and I feel this way about this issue, this way about that issue. And then, they also enter sort of their vectors of influence, if you will, the things that they buy, the place that they live, the place that they work, the people that they know, all the powers that they have that they can possibly push and pull against. And then, there's a community of people on The Point that are sort of entering the supply chain of the companies and the policies of these companies, and basically, doing cost benefit analysis on how many people it will take to take action and effect policies.
So, for example, I might say, "I'm against rain forests," and then, one day, I get a notice from The Point that says, "Hey, you're against rain forests and you should stop shopping from Home Depot because they're doing this or that. And Critical Mass exists that if you stop shopping there, they'll be forced to change policies. It's almost like there's no need to interact with a group, even though other people are involved in bringing about that change.
I think we're not going far enough in thinking how the web can change our tactics of bringing about change. The gut reaction for having it right now is we can use the web to get more. We can have more signatures on our petitions. We can have more letters written to our legislators. And that's going to be kind of shocking and have an effect in the short term, but eventually, it's going to get corrected. People are going to get used to those numbers.
The thing about petitions is what you're doing by writing a letter or something like that is you're saying, "Look, I was willing to inconvenience myself for long enough to write this letter because that's how much I care about this issue." And when you make it really easy to send letters to these people, then that has an inverse relationship with how effective it is. So, I think that those things are going to lose their value. And what we need to do, instead of just trying to whine louder, is stop trying to whine and draw attention, and start creating rational incentives for people to adopt the policies that you are by leveraging their power as consumers.