Thursday, May 31, 2007


Although I have stayed in town pretty much this month, I've done a ton of stuff around the area. The NetSquared conference just wrapped up, and it was a lot of fun. Networking with people I know is always great, and I found the premise of this year's program different and exciting.

Larry Goldberg and Daniel Ben Horin in a red latin american woven poncho

Netsquared had picked 21 projects to run through two days of pitches concluding with voting from the attendees. The top group won a prize of $25,000, and that was Maplight, a group that connects political donations to legislative votes. Freecycle and Miro were the runners up. I love Freecycle! Four million items traded for free each month around the globe. I think they could use more funding, too.

I took lots of pictures, and they are posted on Flickr as the NetSquared collection.

Thursday, May 17, 2007

Google Grants

We've been a Google Grant partner for years. This is a program that I think many more nonprofits need to take advantage of.

The problem of many (most) social sector organizations is outreach (marketing, in business-speak). Because of a lack of budget for marketing, it's hard for potential clients to find out about the services that are available to them.

Google advertising is highly tuned. If someone is searching on the terms "Books blind," they are looking for something like It's an incredibly effective ad for us on Google: a clickthrough rate on the order of 5%. This means that one out of twenty people who see the ad displayed choose to go to via the ad link.

The deal behind the Google Grant program is that Google absorbs the advertising costs. So, if that ad click would normally cost $1, it costs Benetech $0. It's a great deal! Of course, one of Google's key precepts is that lousy ads don't get served. So, your ads have to meet performance standards in terms of relevance and experience (if nobody ever clicks on your ad, it will gradually drop off to the point where Google no longer serves it).

We have recently added advertising for our Miradi environmental biodiversity software, but for the first time we ran into problems at the outset. The automated quality algorithms (which have been considerably upgraded over the last few years!) wouldn't even let most of our ad ideas be served at all. So, we turned to the Google Grants team and in less than a week they had redone our ads in terms of organization and text, in such a way that they all pass muster. And so, now people looking for "biodiversity software" will see an ad for Miradi!

I've been trying to find the similar program at Yahoo and MSN, but no luck so far. This is a terrific example of how high tech business can support the social sector with a modest (at most) impact on the bottom line. Really glad we're realizing the benefits of this Google program!

Friday, May 11, 2007 and Lobster

We just did a site upgrade on our third in as many months. Among the dozens of improvements in this update are two that I'm particularly jazzed about. The first is the initial international changes as we take global. Users with disabilities outside the U.S. can easily see which books have global permissions, which are required when we can't rely on our copyright exemption (which only works inside the U.S.). Now that it's easy to see which books are available, we need to ensure that we add many more books with these permissions. Crucial first steps on the road to taking this service global!

The second one may not sound like a big deal, but we greatly simplified the process of signing up for for schools. This is crucial as we continue to rapidly expand into serving students. It used to take lots of handholding from Susie Mckinnon, our sales manager, for schools to sign up. Now I'm getting delighted emails from Susie about multiple schools that simply went to the website and signed up by themselves in the first day or two of the upgrade. Now, that's the way a great website is supposed to work!

What does this have to do with lobster? Not much, other than the fact that tomorrow is Mother's Day. My tradition is to make smoked lobster for my wife, Virginia, and the local newspaper, the San Jose Mercury News, was kind enough to print this fact in an article titled: What notable business leaders are doing for Mom. Oh, and they called me a notable business leader! I hope you have/had a great Mother's Day.

Tuesday, May 08, 2007

Challenges for Solving

We often brainstorm about things we would like to build. I was recently looking at the Rockefeller/InnoCentive partnership. InnoCentive is a place where you post problems you'd like solved. We came up with a similar list for Benetech. However, since our issues are all information tech issues, we don't fit the InnoCentive model (which is hard sciences). But, I thought I'd share some of these ideas so people have some picture of what we're thinking about.

1. “The One Place” – a single global database for accessible content on top of all of the other, partial databases.

2. Plug-in for Mozilla to allow disabled users to surf websites and to read books and newspapers directly, without requiring a screen reader and therefore making book access more practical in developing countries, as well as libraries (because you don’t need to buy a $1000 piece of software).

3. Firefox add-on that "optimizes" pages for screen readers. E.g., remove useless visual information that a visually impaired person wouldn't care about.

4. Email encryption strategy: build plug-ins that automatically send encrypted email by implementing Simson Garfinkle’s proposals (MIT)

5. Navigating with voice activated software
a. Help to target aging population, people with physical disabilities using a voice interface
b. Could be reapplied for other projects afterwards

6. Spec out and build an HTTP-based protocol whereby developers would write applications that serve the same kind of navigational, search, browsing and download options common to web sites, but instead for screen readers. This proof of concept would also require a prototype screen reader that could communicate via this protocol as opposed to "reading" pages in a browser. The experience might be akin to navigating an automated phone answering system (e.g., 1-800-TellMe). This would be worth doing with someone like the University of Wisconsin’s TRACE Center

7. Cell phone based book and newspaper reading for disabled and illiterate poor people

Food for thought, I hope!

Saturday, May 05, 2007

Skoll World Forum, as seen from NZ

I just came across extensive blog coverage of the Skoll World Forum, written by Vivian Hutchinson. He heads the Social Innovation Investment Group and the New Zealand Social Entrepreneur Fellowship. He did a comprehensive take on the conference that I found very interesting.

Of course, one of the reasons I liked his blogging is because he used several photos I took, which I posted on Flickr! I just got a brand new camera and I've been having lots of fun taking pictures of the many events I attended in the last two months. Go to my Flick page to see photos from the Skoll World Forum and the Gathering of the Social Enterprise Alliance.

There are always interesting conversations going on when you get lots of social entrepreneurs together. There always seems to be a definition conversation going on, something along the lines of either "what is a social entrepreneur?" or "what new name should we use for social enterprises?" Tim Freundlich passed along a tongue-in-cheek answer from the Gathering to the last one: Socially Transmitted Enterprises, aka STEs.

Wednesday, May 02, 2007

Council on Foundations

I just returned from a couple of days at the Council on Foundations annual meeting in Seattle. I was part of a panel that included Orlando Ayala of Microsoft, Linda Segre of, Sally Osberg of the Skoll Foundation and was moderated by Akhtar Badshah of Microsoft. The title was "Changing Poverty through Profit."

It was very interesting, hearing a blend of corporate positioning from Microsoft and Google combined with real interest in social issues. Of course, Sally Osberg kept the social side of the equation by providing real examples of social entrepreneurs making impacts (while working with corporations). I followed up with examples from my journey from tech entrepreneur to social entrepreneur.

The questions from the audience were great, and it was one of the better panels I've been on (thanks to good prep work from the Microsoft team that organized the panel, especially Jane Meseck). I was also able to talk to many people from major foundations, and had a really good talk with Mark Kramer of FSG, one of the thought leaders in the field. Before I left town, I also got to swing by and explore more opportunities around books for people who are print disabled. Pretty good return for time invested!