Not many people have been around the digital-media world as long as John Battelle: he helped launch Wired magazine in the 1990s, then launched his own magazine called The Industry Standard, a pioneering conference called Web 2.0, and an advertising network for publishers called Federated Media.
After stepping back from the latter, Battelle says he was looking for something worthwhile to do with his time, and the result is a startup he calls NewCo, which has raised a seed round of about $1.75 million in funding.
The company isn’t called NewCo just because Battelle couldn’t think of a name for it — it comes from the fact that his new media and entertainment venture is focused on what he sees as a new kind of company: a startup that spends as much, or even more, time thinking about how it is contributing to society as it does thinking about how it is going to make money.
Companies that do good
As he started to see more and more of these ventures starting up, whether large companies like Charity:Water or smaller startups like The Last Mile — which tries to help convicted criminals get jobs once they are released from prison — Battelle and his partner Brian Monahan thought it would be interesting if some of those companies opened their doors and allowed people in to see how they operated, or talked about their work, and why they decided to make social change part of their business model.
[blockquote person=”” attribution=””]”My partner said wouldn’t it be great if all the cool companies in the Valley opened their doors and let everyone come in and check them out, like an artists’ studio, open-house kind of thing. I said that’s never going to work, but we found there were lots of newer types of companies with open model, who were socially driven, who were happy to do exactly that.”[/blockquote]
Battelle started a series of small events aimed at doing just that, first in San Francisco and then in several other cities such as New York and London. He financed the venture himself, and had a small team of volunteers as well as partners and planners in each city. The idea was to come up with something that was halfway between an open house at an artist’s studio and a typical “unconference”-style networking event.
An open house festival
One impetus for the move was that Battelle said many people he knew were sad when he and Tim O’Reilly decided to shut down the Web 2.0 Summit in 2012 — an event that was instrumental in spreading the word about disruptive social technologies like blogging, and one that Silicon Valley looked to as a place to connect and network about new ideas.
What NewCo does, Battelle says, is look for innovative companies that are doing something to help social change, whether as a direct result of their business or in addition to it, and then it plans a revolving series of open-house type events where those companies either host a group for a talk, present some kind of event involving their product or service, or just take questions and show people around.
[blockquote person=”” attribution=””]”Twitter did one and talked about their Nest project for reaching out to families in need, some product companies do demos, some do walking tours the way that AirBnB did, or if it’s a tech shop they can show people how to use a bandsaw, or do a hard-hat tour, or a restaurant group did a tasting menu.”[/blockquote]
The labor-of-love side project became a full-time adventure last year, said Battelle, who is still chairman of Sovrn — a company that was spun off from Federated Media and specializes in programmatic advertising for publishers and brands. Last year, more than 575 companies participated in eight NewCo events in cities in North America and Europe, and this year the plan is to at least 15 of them, hosted by thousands of companies.
Social startups are global
In order to expand, and hire staff to help co-ordinate all the events, Battelle started talking to some venture-capital groups about a seed round. The funding he has raised includes True Ventures (where Gigaom’s founder Om Malik is a partner) as well as Bloomberg Beta and Freestyle Capital, and several individual investors such as Path founder Dave Morin.
Once the festival/conference side of the startup is on a firm footing, Battelle said he could see other types of business emerge, whether it’s media content that is focused on the theme of social change or some kind of social-network function that helps people who are interested in such businesses connect with each other.
Although the idea of companies that give back to society in some way might seem like the sort of touchy-feely, hippie-inspired thing that only San Francisco or Silicon Valley specializes in, Battelle said he has seen the same thing appearing in cities around the world. “It’s definitely not just Silicon Valley,” he said. “It’s happening in Cincinnati and Istanbul and Chicago. That’s one reason we wanted to raise money, to take this thing international, because the market is there.”