Making money was never a mystery for Reyn Aubrey. The son of an entrepreneur and a freelance writer, he spent his high school years in Hawaii dabbling in several business ventures that brought in a nice income, at least for a 17-year-old, but also delivered a personal epiphany: Profit alone seemed like a boring pursuit.
Aubrey decided to think bigger, and he came up with an idea that melded capitalism and altruism into PocketChange, a company he envisions changing the world — as little as 25 cents at a time. The concept began with his observation that the traditional fundraising model hasn’t kept pace with internet technology. It’s broken.
Here’s how he proposes to fix it: Allow people to seize that online moment when they’re inspired to help address a problem, in real time as they read a news article or a social media post. Provide them a means via a few clicks to send a modest donation — pocket change, literally, from 25 cents to $2 — to a choice of pre-vetted charities aligned with the mission suggested by the online content.
“People are genuinely good and actually want to do stuff, but they’re not empowered to do that when they’re most inspired,” said Aubrey, 20, an international-business major at the University of Denver who withdrew from school at the start of his junior year to become full-time CEO for the venture. “That’s where the PocketChange mission came from: massive market opportunity, good purpose behind it and just a broken thing we think we can fix.”
Two other DU students — Christian Dooley and Jon DuVarney, both also 20 — quickly hopped on board and “made it real,” Aubrey said. Dooley works as head of growth as he continues his schoolwork, while DuVarney works full time as head of product now that he, like Aubrey, has put school on hold.
“Over the summer, basically we realized that we weren’t going to be able to really take this thing anywhere if we didn’t take some time off from school,” DuVarney said. “We decided we would both withdraw, and I would walk away from my (part-time) job, and we’d just cannonball into working on PocketChange full time.”
PocketChange is a Google Chrome extension, software that downloads to the browser to enhance the viewing experience in the same way an ad blocker does. The company currently is connected to a growing list of about 70 charities and six online sites, including The New York Times, Google News and Facebook.
Working from what they call “Mission Control” — in the basement of a one-story, gray house about a block from campus — Aubrey and DuVarney last week oversaw the launch of the extension’s third iteration on laptops and desktop computers that tracked its progress. By Monday afternoon, users had made 2,428 donations.
The entrepreneurs hope to get another bump from “Giving Tuesday,” the Tuesday after Thanksgiving that brings a focus, particularly online, to charitable giving as the holiday season goes into full swing.
Aubrey arrived at DU in September 2016 after hearing of Denver’s active startup scene — he had originally figured that San Francisco and New York were his best options — and has never regretted the decision. The university backs its students whether they’re pursuing a degree or a business startup, said Rosanna Garcia, a professor of entrepreneurship in the Daniels College of Business.
“The university is kind of a safety net for our students,” Garcia said. “Wherever they’re at, whatever they need, we try to support them.”
Garcia, who taught in entrepreneurship programs at Northeastern University and North Carolina State before arriving at DU, said she on occasion has had to remind the PocketChange founders to consider their strategies in a dispassionate, business-first manner. But ultimately, she added, it’s their commitment to the company that will determine its fate.
“Those who have deep passion end up being successful,” Garcia said. “Sometimes they get so emotionally tied up that it’s hard for them to see the realities and business part of it. But the passion is what’s going to keep driving them forward.”
Among DU students, the company already has proven popular — not just as a means of making an impact on society’s problems, but as a way to put their time and talent to good use.
As word about PocketChange spread across campus, some students signed on in a kind of internship capacity in which DU offers credit hours and in some cases a stipend. Others volunteered simply because it seemed like a cool thing to do. Now, in addition to the three originators, 32 people — predominantly DU students — do everything from researching charities to developing the extension and marketing the company to their classmates and beyond.
When Cole Polyak, 19, met with the PocketChange founders earlier this fall through a friend, they hit it off. Now the computer-science major works for the product team, refining the extension and fixing bugs.
“It was a product in its early stages, and this was a chance to be part of it and learn how it worked,” Polyak said. “Additionally, the mission was something I could get excited about, taking technology and doing something for good.”
Mia Sundstrom, an 18-year-old sophomore, heard Aubrey’s pitch for PocketChange in one of her business classes. It changed the course of her academic career.
“I was so struck by his passion and the vision he had and model of what he was doing,” she said. “I remember thinking to myself that this kid is going to change the world — and I want to be part of it.”
Sundstrom, who majors in business analytics and management, joined up to work on marketing the company while also earning four credit hours for the 10-15 hours a week she puts in, as well as a 20-page paper on her experience. She said she’ll continue to work with PocketChange, even without the academic perks, for as long as she’s at DU.
“I think the coolest part about it is everyone who’s there completely bought into the vision,” she said. “What we’ve got going could make a huge, huge difference. It’s an incredibly inspiring, passionate group of people. We’re just a group of college kids doing our part.”
That’s the altruistic element.
What got PocketChange off the ground, though, is what its initial investor calls the “audaciousness of the model,” one that takes an unconventional approach to charitable giving. Aubrey’s vision leverages the growing desire of consumer brands to be “cause-aligned” with an effort to improve society.
PocketChange essentially becomes a marketing platform for the brand, which instead of just publicizing its charitable giving would match the two-bit to $2 microdonations of individuals.
“We’re building technology for the users, and pretty much everyone else is building technology for fundraisers or charities,” Aubrey said. “We do charity selection, so you don’t have to know charities, you just have to care about stuff. None of that makes sense to the industry unless all of the pieces come together. When they do, it’s a really cool picture.”
His vision looks something like this: PocketChange makes partnerships with big brands who want to be cause-aligned. The brands commit to any number of charities that support their particular causes. When individuals click to make a microdonation to one of those charities, up pops a notice on their screen that their donation has been doubled by the sponsoring brand.
Zero percent of the individual donations go to PocketChange. Instead, it collects a marketing fee from the brand for each completed transaction. Currently, the company is connecting with potential brand clients to pitch their idea. Meanwhile, as users download the extension and make those spur-of-the-moment donation decisions, the charities reap the benefit while company profit remains in the future.
Aubrey rattled off a string of research statistics that point toward the idea that doubling even an individual’s tiny donation creates more positive perception for the brand than more traditional donate-and-advertise strategies.
“We wear Patagonia because it’s a brand we love,” Aubrey said, pointing to the brand-name vest that DuVarney wore. “When a brand can say, ‘Hey, I’m in this with you, I also care about this cause and, in fact, I’m doubling your impact,’ what you’re doing is validated.”
PocketChange focuses on collective and habitual action, in amounts that are small enough to be inclusive and that allow almost anyone to take action without checking their bank balance.
DuVarney opened his laptop and navigated to a BuzzFeed story about a man who survived a suicidal plunge off the Golden Gate Bridge. When he clicked the PocketChange button, some charities popped up, with a suicide-prevention nonprofit at the top of the list — thanks to the “training” that the extension received in language recognition. The more practice PocketChange gets, the smarter it becomes at discerning which charities to list.
The founders figure that, even on a small scale, an individual’s sense of empowerment adds up. For instance, the PocketChange-vetted rainforest charity can save an acre for as little as 50 cents. One of its literacy charities says $1 provides reading lessons for a week. A forest-conservation charity can plant a tree for every dollar. Users can find out more about each nonprofit and its efficiency with another click.
“We have this internal joke that we used to design the product, called ‘the bozo method,’ ” DuVarney said. “In all aspects, we want to make the experience so compelling for brands and users that, if they say no, it’s like, ‘You’re a bozo.’ Make it so intuitive and so ingenious, why would somebody say no?”
It didn’t take Jon Christensen long to get to yes.
In April, the Montana-based investor in private technology happened to be in Denver for an investment conference at which Aubrey was making his 10-minute pitch seeking a pre-seed round of investment in PocketChange.
“I was into it right away,” Christensen, 55, said. “I like the audaciousness of the model. Most pitches are for workaday businesses that are easier to grasp and build, because people can get their mind around it quickly. I was taken by how big Reyn is thinking, the vast vision he had and how to do it. It was an easy decision for me to make.”
As he and Aubrey discussed how to structure the investment, they also discussed the structure of a company that has grown, in a matter of months, from three founders to 35 people. Christensen, who has extensive startup experience, took on the role of board chair. The age difference didn’t bother him.
“I can cover some of the boring back-office things that are a pain when you’re a first-time entrepreneur,” he said. “They can focus on living the dream.”
Christensen sees two trends the company can ride: a rise in the use of micropayments and people’s growing disillusionment with some social networks. And as impressed as he was by the charitable aspect, he was equally impressed with the way Aubrey structured the company, which will allow it to raise money “venture style” and grow larger, while the flow of money through the charities will be “vast.”
“If everybody were able to dredge a quarter or 50 cents out of their pocket every day and direct it in the right places, there’d be a massive amount of change effected that we don’t see now,” Christensen said. “It’s a great idea, and it’s going to work. It’s just a matter of getting the pieces in place.”
Beyond putting the pieces in place at this stage of his company, Aubrey envisions a mobile app and a connection through Alexa devices to make donating even easier. PocketChange will make another pitch for financing in 2019, and that could be when things really take off.
“There’s tons more that we’re doing even after this,” Aubrey said. “We want to be the largest charitable network in history.”
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