Media Cause

The Product

Media Cause is a marketing company that focuses on helping non-profits increase awareness for their programs, raise more money online, and better engage with their supporters. The startup provides marketing and social media advertising support to non-profits of a wide range of sizes and budgets.

This is accomplished primarily through the creation of a large and engaged volunteer community. Non-profits start the process by signing up for Media Cause and requesting services from volunteers that match their specific needs. SEO requests, Google Grants, digital advertising campaigns and social media initiatives are separated into smaller projects called “challenges” that are then completed by anyone in the volunteer community. In exchange for the marketing and advertising support they provide, volunteers are then recognized publicly through facebook posts, tweets, blog posts and LinkedIn recommendations.

The Market

With 1.8 million 501(c)3 non-profits in the US and many more non-profits around the world there is a large, yet predominantly untapped market for the marketing and advertising of all these non-profit organizations. Most non-profit organizations run on tight budgets and focus the vast majority of their efforts on their organization’s mission. They often have little time and few resources to advertise themselves, raise money or increase their online presence. Yet the need to engage in these activities is critical for non-profits to grow and strengthen their impacts. Thus, there is a clear need in the marketing and advertising industry for services that target non-profit organizations. Media Cause is an interesting startup in that it seeks to close the marketing and advertising gap between non-profit organizations and their for-profit peers.

Media Cause is also a particularly attractive company given recent trends in marketing and advertising that seem to be making it easier for non-profits to launch and garner support. To begin with, fundraising has been democratized through crowd funding platforms like Kickstarter. The spread of the Internet from computers to mobile devices has also offered non-profits with the ability to reach more users via different mediums. And finally the availability of large, ease to use social networks like Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn, has enabled the deployment of cheap, yet effective marketing campaigns—campaigns which once harnessed by expert volunteers through Media Cause’s platform can result in a high payoff for non-profits looking to raise money or spread awareness.

The Profit Potential

Media Cause is an early entrant into the non-profit marketing and advertising space. And while it is true that many of the advertising and marketing mechanisms that exist for for-profit companies are also available to non-profit companies, Media Cause is the only company that is entirely focused on affordable and efficient services for the non-profit niche market. Thus, the startup currently has few competitors and is way ahead of any would-be-competitors.

Interestingly, enough, at the moment, Media Cause is itself a non-profit organization. However, the startup has experimented with a few small revenue models including offering premium online marketing services to larger non-profits. It is entirely feasible for Media Cause to be run as a for-profit company by developing a whole line of services that scale all the way down to smaller non-profits and take more of a strategic consulting role in the marketing and advertising of non-profits rather than simply crowd sourcing much of the work to volunteers. In terms of exit opportunities, Media Cause could very easily be acquired by a larger advertising or marketing company (such as Pulse 360) or become the marketing/advertising arm of a non-profit strategic consulting firm (like Bridgespan).

To sum, Media Cause possesses all of the ingredients of a potentially very successful startup: an innovative product, the right market timing, growing demand, a clear competitive advantage, and feasible exit opportunities. I would love to be a shareholder in the company.


EdTech Part 3

“New Things in New Ways”

In order for a startup to be truly disruptive it must fundamentally change how society approaches one or more of the following areas: curriculum development, organization, architecture, teaching methods, student assessments, parental influences and administrative procedures. Much like blogging changed the publishing market, disruptive EdTech ideas must approach one or more of these areas in a way that drastically changes how users and the market as a whole (students, teachers, parents, administrators, etc.,) approach education.  There are several great examples of VC backed startups that are doing “new things in new ways.”

Edmodo is an example of a “new things in new ways” startup that has is trying to change both the organization and teaching methods of the education system. Edmodo promotes learning at anytime and anywhere via its online platform. It strives to close the gap between how students live their lives socially and how they learn in school. In doing so, Edmodo utilizes the power of social media to differentiate instruction for all types of learners. The toolkit has allowed for its user to learn in new places and ways that never existed before in the traditional classroom environment.

Picture 1

Another example of a disruptive “new things in new ways” startup is Verbling. Verbling gives students and other language learners access to native speakers in a quick and easy way. Research has shown that the best way to learn a language is by talking to a native speaker. Verbling makes learning the language via online “language immersion” trips a possibility that never before existed in the confines of a school. It is disrupting the way in which people learn to speak foreign languages with extremely positive results.

Picture 2

A final example of an EdTech startup doing “new things in new ways” is Udemy. This startup disrupts the world of education by enabling anyone to teach and learn online. The Udemy platform makes it fast and easy for anyone to build an online course centered on any subject or topic. This grassroots toolkit has the capability to empower potentially millions of experts around the world to teach and share what they know—either for free or for profit. In doing so, Udemy has democratized teaching and made so that anyone can be a teacher.

Picture 4


In the span of the last 3-4 years EdTech has become an under followed, yet increasingly attractive sector for both entrepreneurs and VCs. That being said, it has become increasingly necessary for those in venture funding to hone in on investments that will make returns for their funds and for society as a whole. While the investing theory discussed here is certainly not all comprehensive, it seems as though the wisest investments in EdTech are those ideas that fundamentally change our perception of learning. Those startups that do “new things in new ways” seem to be the strongest choices for both VCs building a portfolio and society re-imagining education.

EdTech Part 2

“Old Things in New Ways”

The majority of EdTech startups receiving venture funding are channeling their energies towards using technology to enhance or simplify long-standing teaching and learning practices—i.e. doing “old things in new ways.” In these settings, technology simply enhances usability and makes learning slightly more entertaining, rather than fundamentally disrupting the way education has been done for decades (i.e. doing “new things in new ways”). At the Venture Capital Summit in Education (in June 2011), 10 up and coming startups showcased their products and services to a large audience of angels, VCs and other investors. The table below shows the startups and the type of idea they developed.

Picture 1

As seen in the table above, the majority of the startups (7/10) at the summit are “old things in new ways” startups. It seems that most of their goals as entrepreneurs are to add value by enhancing the user experience of traditional methods of learning rather than bringing new methods of learning altogether.

To illustrate, Brainscape is a modern flashcard toolkit. It takes the “old” idea of using flashcards to study, adds a user-friendly interface and complex flash card algorithm to enhance the traditional flash card experience. Undoubtedly, this is a nifty application and something that may enhance the user experience significantly. It may even make a solid return for any VC firm backing the startup. Nevertheless, the startup is not a disruptive player that has the potential to fundamentally change how society learns.


EdTech Part 1

In the last several years there has been growing interest from entrepreneurs, angels and venture capitalists in the K-12 EdTech space. Yet this interest has been primarily speculative in nature with little actual venture funding to back the “buzz” and few successful exits to date. In the public sphere, there is certainly much focus on school reform by the government—at the local, state and federal levels. Nonetheless large, bureaucratic education agencies, much like large private corporations, are ill equipped to pivot quickly enough to address the systemic challenges education faces today. Against this backdrop funding disruptive EdTech startups focused on changing education would seem lucrative, but venture firms have been slow to back EdTech entrepreneurs. On the flip side, entrepreneurs have not witnessed many successful exits in education to motivate further innovation in the K-12 sector.

Nonetheless, opportunities do indeed exist. Nancy Hanover, of the International Committee of the Fourth International, estimates that the education technology market is a $47 billion market. As large as this number seems—it number refers primarily to those directly as the forefront of education: namely students and teachers. This number does not include the broader impact of education players that are more on the fringe of the industry: parents, administrators, publishers, suppliers, test-prep companies, tutors, etc., An entrepreneur with an innovative product that focuses on just a small segment of one of these markets could in fact do very well.

Framing the Debate

With all this interest in education technology it has become less apparent who is getting the highly coveted venture funding and what ideas are the most valuable—both to venture firms (seeking a return on their investments) and society as a whole. Leading education technology researchers like Peter Knapp and Kathleen King have long discussed bringing technology into the classroom as a replacement for older methods of instruction or to learn traditional material in new, technologically enhanced ways. Others such as Zane Berg and Mauri Collins have focused on societal shifts and learning pattern changes as a result of computer mediated communication.

Despite the advances made in these research fields, most of these efforts have been focused on taking traditional practices that have been used for centuries, placing a new layer of technology on them and re-introducing them into the classroom—old ideas that are simply done in new ways. The smart board, for example, is a tool that allows students to do a number of useful tricks and makes it engaging to interact with. Yet, at the end of the day, one can’t help but notice that the smartboard is simply a modern blackboard with some bells and whistles. Very few agents in the EdTech community have proposed a fundamental shift in the way society views the intersection of education and technology.

This changed in 2006 when Marc Prensky published a bold article in Edutopia entitled “Shaping Tech for the Classroom.” In the article Prensky argued that in order for education technology to improve education in a high impact, long-lasting way, there needs to be a completely new architecture for learning and framework for the classroom. Education needs to be re-imagined in a way where technology is used to implement new ideas in new ways. I would argue that EdTech startups that are high-impact, disruptive players in the space think about education and the learning process in completely new ways. Likewise, venture capital firms looking to invest in EdTech should invest in companies doing “new things in new ways” rather than “old things in new ways.”

Social Entrepreneurs: The Hidden Profits

Social Entrepreneurship is a strain of entrepreneurship that has been gaining attention as of late. Traditionally, social entrepreneurship was often thought of as charity or volunteer work done by non-profit organizations or private individuals. While social entrepreneurship does often take this form, it is important to realize that social entrepreneurs go through much of the same process as other entrepreneurs. In fact, the classification of a social entrepreneurial endeavor as simply a “charity” hides the many similarities between social entrepreneurship and business entrepreneurship.

A few years ago my friend Nick Batter, currently a senior at Harvard University, went on a volunteer summer relief trip to Sri Lanka. The nation had just been devastated by the historic tsunami and Nick figured he’d travel with a large group like the Red Cross or UNICEF to help the relief efforts. Yet, he was advised that these large organizations were inefficient and had a very difficult time getting access to the hardest hit parts of the island. So Nick decided he would get a bunch of friends together, raise some money and use the money to oversee the implementation of sustainable projects that would better the village communities damaged by the catastrophic tsunami.

That was the summer of 2005. Now, three years later, Nick and his group of friends are in charge of a non-profit organization named Sri Lankan Aid. Their growth has been absolutely tremendous. From an initial budget of 25 cents, they have grown to close to $20,000 per summer trip. 100% of there money goes towards building facilities that village communities in Sri Lanka desperately need. This includes classrooms, orphanage wings, water pumps, village centers and many other things. They have also created a film documentary of their progress known as Lions and Tigers, which is set to be released in late 2008. Sri Lankan Aid has been recognized by Congressional members and by the former President of Sri Lanka. Each year the non-profit grows in size, and I feel honored to know these guys.

The primary reason why I bring up Nick is because he is a perfect example of what I consider to be a social entrepreneur. Social entrepreneurs, like business entrepreneurs, identify and try to resolve specific problems. Of course, their problems tend to have social or humanitarian connections, but they address the problems in similar manners. On the results side, social entrepreneurs tend to measure their success in terms of the magnitude of their impact on society rather than the amount of money they make. In that sense, being a social entrepreneur has profits far more valuable than silver and gold.

eClips has a growing collection of stories from social entrepreneurs. You also might want to check out the clips we have in the “Social Entrepreneur – Defined” theme or in the “Transfering Social Values To A Business Model” theme…