Here’s How to Turn Your Startup into a Movement
A few months ago, my friend Joe Green sent me a video titled, “The Internet is My Religion”:
In it, Jim Gilliam gives us a short tour of his life’s story. I encourage you to watch the entire mind-blowing twelve minutes. In it, Jim tells the story of how after contracting life-threatening cancer, he went from following a popular movement—Jerry Falwell-branded fundamentalist Christianity—to creating two of his own. First, following the tragedy of September 11, 2001, Jim became an activist for a better America and produced a series of compelling documentary films to further his cause. In order to promote these films, Jim developed a series of techniques using the Internet to basically create a movement—i.e. to organize a group of people to do something. In this case, learn from his films and strive to improve the country. Later, we find that the cancer treatment that Jim received earlier in the story burned out his lungs requiring that he receive a double lung transplant or die. Finding a donor for two healthy lungs and a doctor willing to perform the insanely risky surgery is the mother of all long shots, so Jim had to start a new movement to get new lungs. Organizing people to save his own life profoundly impacted Jim’s view of how he should spend the rest of it. So much so that his personal domain is called 3dna.us to represent the 3 different DNAs that combine to keep him alive, a constant reminder that he cannot do it alone.
After recovering from the operation, Jim had a defining revelation. He realized that everything good comes from people working together to accomplish something important and, furthermore, that the Internet would be the great enabler of the most important endeavors. Unfortunately, harnessing the power of the Internet to start a movement turned out to be extremely complex. Nobody knew this better than Jim because he had to coordinate everything from email to social networking to blogging to rally people to his own cause. Being a world-class inventor and entrepreneur, he felt that it was up to him to step up and solve the problem. Furthermore, he believed that a company was probably the best vehicle to do it.
So Jim created a company to develop software to organize communities and get results and he called it NationBuilder. By the time NationBuilder was ready to raise money, Jim’s software implementation of his vision became ultra compelling. So much so that my friend Joe Green, who had an important history of organizing groups of people through his work as founder/CEO of causes, was so impressed that he joined NationBuilder as its president.
The product’s initial results were as impressive as the vision. Before getting to 10 employees, NationBuilder had over 300 paying customers. More importantly, the customers kept getting stunning results. Alex Torpey, a twenty-four-year-old with a breakthrough vision for using technology to improve government, ran for mayor of South Orange, New Jersey and defeated the far older incumbent. Alex is now the youngest mayor in the history of New Jersey. And he ran with no party affiliation.
But it was not really the early results that compelled me to invest in NationBuilder and go on the board; it was Jim’s vision that people connected and focused on a goal create everything great in the world. As he described the vision, I thought of every musician that needed to organize her fans, every author that needed to reach readers, every pastor that needed to encourage his members, and every person who wanted to make a difference, but didn’t know how. And then I thought of Jim’s personal story and I was in.
Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.
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