Q&A with Austin Hill

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Sat, Dec 23 - 7:55 pm EDT | 12 years ago by
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In an earlier post, I talked about an interesting philanthropic project called the Million Dollar Blog Post, which is trying to raise $1-million by getting people to post comments on Gifter.com, and getting companies/individuals involved as sponsors. One of the organizers is Austin Hill, who made his mark during the dot-com boom with a Montreal-based called Zero Knowledge, which established a world-class reputation as a leading privacy advocate and technology provider. These days, Hill is running a start-up called Project Ojibwe with Alex Eberts that is ‘dedicated to helping our members connect with like minded individuals and create a wave of random acts of kindness bringing people together”.

1. Can you tell me more about Gifter? How is it connected to the Ojibwe?
The gifter social experiments were actually put together rather quickly (and couldn’t have been possible with out the help of Ben). Our main project, Ojibwe is a web community that brings some multi-player gaming principles to the area social generosity. Although we have a strong social mission, we are a for-profit company in the category of Social Entrepreneurs. Leading up the holidays, we discussed sending cards to all our contacts but since we haven’t announced the name for Ojibwe, and didn’t want to do the same old boring cards we decided to launch Gifter as a social experiment and our way of saying Happy Holidays. For there, we discussed a couple of ideas that we could do (unrelated to Ojibwe’s core offering) that would show the power of community generosity. The first is the Million Dollar Blog Post, depending on how it evolves we will be releasing a few other experiments in the comings weeks and months. Each idea has the power to change the world in a demonstrable way, and we want to engage and learn from a community on how we can share these ideas for everyones’ benefit.

2. What was the inspiration behind the Million Dollar Blog Post?
I was in sitting in a hotel in Toronto working on the closing of our angel financing, and I saw an ad for the Sick Kids Foundation. I looked it up on YouTube and saw that it had only been seen some 2000 times. The top video on YouTube that week was some 15 year old blogger doing a video podcast where he pretended to have a picture of Britney Spear’s without underpants getting out of a car. It had hundreds of thousands of views. The disparity upset met. Sure, the ad for fundraising isn’t funny but it’s authentic. I have had experience with sick and dying children. They do believe and I was wondering how to leverage the power of the Internet and the blog communities to show that we believe too. This coincided with a bunch of examples I was seeing of individual charity being conducted by bloggers, and the two years of ideas that grew out of my research into community based social generosity. As a result, the idea of Million Dollar Blog Post idea was born. After a series of discussions with friends and teamates over the weekend, we started getting feedback from early friends on the idea by Monday night. We started to build it that day, and since my team is small and entirely focused on trying to build our own community application – I got a friend to voluneteer (Ben) – and we threw this together over the course of the next week. It’s part of the fun:10 days from idea to launch and we hope to raise $1 million dollars – part of the experiment is to see how long it takes for a community to form around this. If we can raise $1 million in some short period of time, think of the example we set of an idea changing the world quickly.

3. How does MDGP work?
Simple. We ask anyone to come and leave a wish for the world as a comment on the Million Dollar Blog Post. Or you can write a blog post that includes your wish and link back to us. For each wish, or link back post we have a dollar donated to charity. The other part of course is our sponsors, who are asked to make a donation to any charity they care about, put the receipt online and we will list them as a sponsor for how every many wishes they like ($1/wish). The benefit to the sponsor is tangible, and compared to other forms of advertising very affordable. Most importantly is the association of your name (or company’s name) with a great cause. We think of it as a win win.

4. What’s the response been so far?
We are really happy with what’s occuring so far. We have three confirmed sponsors for 3,610 wishes. We have a number of other sponsors who have told us they are rushing to get their receipts online. For the wishes it started out a bit slower then we thought, but we are learning on how to get the word out. We didn’t think about spending time with the members of the Digg, Netscape and Rededit communities before submitting the story and expecting them to take off. Like many users, I’ve used social network aggregators, and even have voted for some stories before – but I didn’t realize the power of the communities within those groups. Each have their own rules, ettiquette and it takes time to build relationships in those communities. I expected that with such a great idea, the minute we were Digg’d it would take off. Having spent sometime in the last couple of days within those communties, asking for help in how to get the community behind the story I’m being taught a lot about how to cross in-between social communities to build relationships. These relationships take time, and even with the Internet – things don’t spread like wildfire overnight. It will take us some time to build up all the awareness behind this idea. (But your readers can help by voting for the story at Netscape or Digg – legitimate votes only please. Make sure you believe in the idea, and then promote it)

5. Where does Gifter/the Ojibwe Project go from here?
I was going to release 4 Gifter Projects by New Years to see if I could change the world four times before New Year’s, but some good friends advised me to take our time. We are making sure the first idea works, and that a community of readers, sponsors and volunteers form to make sure everyone’s wish is matched with a donation to charity. Once we see that community healthy and on track to reach it’s goal we will be releasing Gifter project #2. Timing on the last two will depend on the speed at which the first ones take off. The future of Gifter experiments (which we will continue to sponsor as we get inspirations for other social giving games) lies in the hands of the community. If people get behind the idea and vote for it, spread the word then we will continue to host these positive projects. With regards to Ojibwe will be announcing its name, and what we are really up to sometime in 2007 – and we hope to once again with that provide the Internet community with something fun that they can believe in.

6. What else are you into these days?
Ojibwe and now the Gifter experiments take up most of my time. I am doing some volunteer work for some organizations, speaking at universities to promote entrepreneurship as a career option, and I’m advising a small number of startups that I’m an angel investor in. I have a small angel investment firm Brudder Ventures that I setup after leaving Radialpoint, but my partner Alex Eberts and I are too busy with our main project to do a lot of deals. There is one startup that will launch in 2007, that I’m backing that grew out of Barcamp. It’s an area I care about, which I think is ripe for some revolutions. I’m not there day to day but the team is great and I’m helping when I can.

7. How goes the start-up camp initiative slated for Toronto early next year?
We are still working on finalizing the first pass on an agenda. We need to hear from people about what questions they have and what would make the event good for them. We have some competition with Guy Kawaski’s Canadian version of his Startup Camp coming to Canada so we want to hear from the community what will make the event special. (I’m just teasing the Garage guys, it’s great to have two events). My co-sponsors (Rob Hyndman, David Crow and Stuart MacDonald) and I are looking for any ideas and feedback before we finalize the agenda so we can make sure to give the community a great event.

8. What do you think need to be done to encourage more high-tech
Hmm, my biggest item would be associating experienced mentorship with early stage investing. Both of these need to come from an angel community, that I’m sorry to say isn’t functional in Canada. I know this personally as an angel investor, and someone who has just raised a decent chunk of angel money. I won’t go into all the thoughts I have regarding this, but essentially teams of mentors with skin in the game and money to come with their advice are readily available in other economic zones of technological innovation (Bay Area, Boston, Isreal, Silicon Alley). This team approach of angel investing allows busy executives like myself to participate with a network, each throwing small amounts individually on deals – but enough to make sure we are there to give the advice that needs to come with the money. A lot of the early stage risk capital in Canada still comes from “love money” (i.e. Family & Friends) or from lawyers and high net worth individuals who don’t bring any mentoring or ability to reduce execution risk with their cash. I could go on, but the early stage mentoring and angel community has to form. This is a farm system for the VC’s as well. A proper angel community can nurture and grow startups with the attention that a busy VC can’t, so that when a company is ready the VCs have an easier time working with the company for the next phase of growth. By not having this, our VCs who do invest in early stage become overburdened with the time needed to help a company execute on risk reduction. Since this is harder at the earlier stages of a company, and VCs have only so much bandwidth per partner – this causes only a few early stage deals to be done a year. We need to change the ecosystem for early stage risk capital to fix the problem.

9. Any plans to get back into the start-up/business world or is Project Objibwe your main interest?
I’ve never left. Project Ojibwe is a for-profit company, and I hope like Craigslist or Flickr we will create a great product that allows for a community to take shape. All my personal projects have a strong social agenda. I believe that was true of Zero-Knowledge Systems with privacy, just as it is with Ojibwe, Gifter.org and my investments. Alex and I are too busy to take on much more, but the real power in all of this is that we have a community to help us.

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