Change.org CEO Ben Rattray: When Serving 130 Million Users, Simplicity is a Feature, Not a Bug

by Jonathan Clark on Startup Grind

Ben Rattray runs one of the biggest sites on the Web, which is often mistaken for a non-profit organization. Change.org is an online petition-based activism site and a certified B-corporation with a social mission. While the service is free to users, its paying clients, which include Sierra Club and Amnesty International, are charged for the privilege of sponsoring petitions that are matched to users who have similar interests. It’s a clever business model that is dedicated to maximizing the impact they have on the world, instead of maximizing profits. And that brings philanthropic-minded investors like Bill Gates and Ashton Kutcher.

Since its launch in 2007, Change.org has certainly had an impact.

Trayvon Martin’s parents effectively used the site to get the man who shot him arrested, a petition to get the South African government to acknowledge the heinous crime of “corrective rape” got 170,000 signatures and resulted in a task force to stop the abuses, and Bank of America was forced to end their $5 monthly checking fees after more than 300,000 people signed a petition.

As of December 2015, Change.org had over 130 million users worldwide and a staff of 300 employees working in more than 18 countries.

Bringing Change to the Web

In 2005, Ben Rattray had just finished college and grad school and was working for a couple of political consultants in DC. But he says he became disenchanted with what he thought to be the inability of everyday people to have a voice in their own government. That’s when he says the idea of the logic of collection action — where constituencies with narrow, focused interests can organize more easily than can constituencies with broad, diffuse interests — became real to him.

Ben says, “Then I decided to do the one thing all the other intelligent people that I knew, who were idealistic at the time, but didn’t know exactly what to do with their time, was that I decided to go to law school.”

But a week before his first class at NYU, he received an invitation to join a new website called, “The Facebook.” Ben says that he immediately recognized that “the same technology that could connect people around friends and around photos could connect around the issues that they cared about. There’s just been nothing before invented in all of human history more effective at overcoming those collective action costs than, not just the Internet in general, but in particular, social media.”

Clearly, he was onto something. But it would take a more than a few years — and a few iterations — before his startup would become the worldwide force for social change it is today.

From Doing Good, to Doing Good Well

When Change.org launched, petitions were not the main focus of the site. In fact, it had originally been conceived as a social network for activists. Soon after, they shifted to a blogging platform where contributors could share stories about issues like poverty and human rights. But it wasn’t until the Cape Town, South Africa petition happened in 2010 that the organization would find it’s groove.

Recognizing the opportunity, Ben decided to strip away the other features and focus exclusively on creating an empowering platform for petitions.

“We have the same vision we had nine years ago,” he says. “It just took us a lot of time to iterate to find the best tools to most effectively empower to create the change they want to see.”

Looking back on those years, he remarked, “We built so much complexity, we overbuilt to such an extent that if had told me nine years ago, that the core fundamental of our product is a petition, I’d think you’re crazy.”

When asked about the lean startup methodology of building a business — a practice for developing products and businesses based on getting customer feedback quickly and often — Ben had an interesting observation. He believes that some of the most successful, wide-reaching enterprises started with a brilliant insight and a singular vision of what it ultimately could become. He gives the example of Twitter and how it’s co-founder, Jack Dorsey, had thought about the idea for a long period of time, but the idea itself was just a very simple way of publicly publishing a status.

“It’s not as if they [Dorsey, Zuckerberg] went out and said we’re going to do a lot of user discovery and ask people what they want. And then based on what they want we’re going to build something and see if they like it because most times, the things that take off in the most significant way weren’t obvious to begin with. And if people were already very clear about what they wanted, there would have been that product in the marketplace.

Build for Scale — or Else

By 2012, Change.org was growing more each month than the total of the previous four years. And with more than 10,000 petitions being started each month, the cracks in the system began to show.

They soon found themselves in a situation in which they realized they clearly had a product the market wanted but were scrambling to patch things just to be good enough to maintain operations. But Ben says that was a big mistake. “In retrospect, I think one of the things we did not do well was [to] build for scale when it became clear that we had scale.”

What he says they should have done was to fundamentally think about the infrastructure they needed to build to be able to support hundreds of millions of users. Moreover, he says that didn’t invest enough in talent and engineering resources.

Now, with a staff of more than seventy-five engineers, Ben feels like they are in a good position. But he says the inaction in 2012 resulted in them playing catch up over the past couple of years with a lot of what he calls, “the technical debt” they accumulated because they didn’t properly address the infrastructure issues right away.

Perfection: When there is Nothing to Take Away

Ben believes that one of the most important keys to a successful consumer-based Internet property is that, “simplicity sells.” It’s not difficult to understand why he believes that, “simplicity is a feature, not a bug,” given his experience in making Change.org one of the most successful enterprises in the world today. Lastly, he had some final, encouraging words for other startups.

“The single most important determiner of success for any entrepreneur is having the relentless determination necessary to do whatever [is] required to succeed. And it could take years and years and as long as you are passionate enough about it and think that what you are doing is important enough, it will be worth your time.”

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