Paul Kemp: Welcome to another episode of The App Guy Podcast. I am your host, it's Paul Kemp. I love this show, and if you love this show as well, then do go and leave a review (I love those five-star reviews). Head to your favorite podcasting app or iTunes and help this show by leaving a review.
This is the show where I interview lots of different people from all around the world, and what I do is I deconstruct their journey and see if it can help us out in our own app journeys. Today to help us with this I have - actually one of the most interesting e-mail I've had in a long time - a founder who came to me through my good friend Steve P. Young who also does a podcast, it's Rachel Cook. She is the founder of Seeds. She is going to talk about Seeds - it's something that will help inspire your nonpayers within the app to spend their money, which is pretty helpful.
Now get this - she's got a journey that we're going to talk through, which is going from a stock trader, to a film director, to where she's coming up with this idea with having spent a night in a Kenyan jail. I've been to Kenya, so I'm fascinated by this. Rachel, welcome to The App Guy Podcast.
Rachel Cook: Thank you, Paul.
Paul Kemp: Let's go straight into that really juicy story then. I'll skip over a few things and then take you back to that night when you were in this Kenyan jail. I'm so fascinated by this... How on earth did you come up with your idea from such a remote place?
Rachel Cook: Well, I was in Kenya because I was already working on the very earliest versions of Seeds. Seeds builds social good into apps, and then we funnel capital that we source in apps into microloans, so a sustainable form of social good, channeled to people in different parts of the world, and Kenya was the first place we were working.
I was there, I was out to dinner with a friend, another American, and we just decided that because there are -- you may have noticed this, Paul, there were signs (at least at that time) all over Nairobi on telephone poles that say like "Get your fortune told. Call this number!" and we thought that would be fun to do... And it kind of lead us on this wild goose chase that brought us to Kawangware, which I think was the second largest slum in Nairobi.
It turned out that we were in a spot where there apparently had been a terrorist attack a week before. The story is kind of long and winding, but we were in the car, we'd found the fortune teller, he was in the car as well, he had started to tell our fortunes, and these plain clothes guys with AK47's came around this corner, and didn't identify themselves or anything, and just yelled at us and made us get out of the car, and then they told the driver to leave, and they got back in the car and they just drove us away.
We figured we were being kidnapped, that was what it seemed like was going on, and in a way that was exactly what was going on. But it eventually turned out that these guys were cops. They drove us to a local police stations, and they kept yelling at us, like "What were you doing there? It's very dangerous there" and so forth. Once we got back to the police station they took our phones and wouldn't allow us to call anyone to let them know where we were. They wouldn't let us call the embassy or anything.
We hadn't done anything remotely illegal, and they just held us overnight. They told us that they wanted us to wait there so that the boss of the jail would come in the next day and talk to us and make some decision about what to do with us. What ultimately ended up being the truth was that they wanted to hold on to us so they could extort some cash.
Paul Kemp: That's crazy!
Rachel Cook: It was crazy.
Paul Kemp: This is the most fascinating introduction I think I've ever had, where this is you coming up with the idea. Now, I'm actually following the story with fascination because I picked Kenya to go on my honeymoon, and it was just after a terrorist attack shooting down a plane; it was probably the week after. It was probably the safest time to go, because there was huge security everywhere. But I remember turning down the wrong alleyway in Nairobi and just feeling like you're in a different world, and it felt immediately scary, and that you were in the wrong neighborhood and you had to get out. I remember saying to my wife, "We've gotta get out of here."
Then we actually did drive out the city and I remember distinctly the rental car agency saying "Don't stop for anything!" And of course, there was a guy laying in the middle of the road, which you don't normally see... We didn't know what to do, carried on, and then I think someone must have thrown some spikes into the road, and this jeep then got a flat, and within an instant there was like about 20 people around the jeep, all holding what looked like knives (I think it was a screwdriver). They helped us out, but it was so terrifying. But you've just topped my story big time. [laughter]
Rachel Cook: Yeah, I found Nairobi to be sort of a really magical city in many ways, and it's very cosmopolitan in many ways as well, but then there's just this sort of other entire dimension that was scary. And what was worse was that they held us in this jail and the cell itself was -- I mean, it was a dirt floor, there was a hole in the ground to piss in, and then there was a hole in the concrete wall, and that was the only window.
I remember sitting on the ground and just meditating, because no one knew where we were and we didn't know what they were going to decide to do, and they were already holding us for no legal reason.
Paul Kemp: This is where you came up with your idea then, so talk us through how you got inspiration for Seeds in such an awful setting.
Rachel Cook: Well, it pre-dated this trip, but this was sort of the very early days of Seeds. Essentially, I had been a stock trader, a futures and equities trader in Chicago and then in New York, and I was doing that after college. I moved to Chicago because I wanted to study improv and comedy writing at Second City; if Second City is unfamiliar, it's a comedy school that many known American comedians have gone through - Bill Murray, Chris Farley, Tina Fey, Amy Poehler... So I wanted to go there and just kind of come up through the comedy world.
I was doing that, and trading was my night job. I would trade the European shift, which was midnight to 9 AM Chicago time. One night I was sitting on the trading desk and I came across an op-ed in the New York Times about micro-lending, and specifically about how microloans, tiny loans made to primarily women in the developing world could be as small as four dollars... About how they were this fantastic investment and how they really helped these women out who were just completely ignored by the banks due to discrimination baked into the financial system.
I had seen that myself in my own first-world way working as a stock trader, because I was always the only woman or one of the only women at every firm I traded at. At one point I discovered that I was paid a 15% lower base salary than the eight guys who started at the same time I did, despite having a better educational background and experience as a successful trader that none but one of those guys had had. And I negotiated the starting salary as well, so that could have contributed, but it was really surprising... I kind of started waking up - I was 24 or 25 at this time and I hadn't really thought about systemic discrimination before that. And being aware of that and then knowing later when we got our trading bonuses I outperformed the eight guys who had started when I started, it just made me start to get really angry and I started to think about what I could do to try and shift that system so that it wasn't discriminating against people arbitrarily just because they're women, or for whatever other reason.
When I came across that op-ed in the New York Times, it was just like "Wow, microloans are this great investment that repaid 98% of the time in most regions", and it's women that are statistically much more likely to pay them back, it's women who are the better investment. Something about that really piqued my interest.
Then simultaneously, while at Second City, taking classes, the best sketch that I wrote was kind of this abstract feminist sketch called Mime Brothel, about a brothel full of mimes; the mimes were prostitutes, but when you thought it was going to be a sex act, instead they'd be trapped in a wind tunnel, or picking a daisy, or something. It was this really weird idea... It sounded strange on paper, but it actually staged really well and it was well reviewed, but you know, 20 people would come to see it maybe. So I started thinking about additionally how I could make things that would reach a larger audience than 20 people on a night, and that's really how Seeds came together.
It was like, okay, micro-loans exist. This kind of touches on my interest as an investor and my interest in shifting the system so that it doesn't discriminate against women. And then the other lightning bolt I had on the trading desk that night when I read that op-ed was "What if I made a film about this topic?" That would be a film that I personally at least would be interested in seeing, so maybe there are some other people like me who would like to see a film about micro-lending as well, and hopefully a film would reach more than 20 people.
So I decided to do that. I'd never made so much as a film short successfully before, but I just made the decision. I was able to find a director of photography on Craigslist who had worked of Fargo and Terms of Endearment and Groundhog Day, and it had this nice studio, Hollywood film career. I think he could just see that I was excited, I was 25 years old and I was passionate.
He was very generous, he agreed to work for no pay. I just raised the money to cover his travel, and he even let us use his equipment. Once he was involved, it became a legitimate project. We ended up filming in Paraguay, and then in nine cities in India, and then in Nairobi, and then in Detroit in the States, and the film was ultimately the feature presentation at the Chicago Social Good Film Festival. It was a new festival, third-tier festival at the time, but that had been the goal, to get it seen.
It was when we were filming in Nairobi - this was the year before I got arrested there - I saw what was going on with mobile money transfer, text-message-based money transfer, and I'm sure you and many of the listeners are already well aware of this. At the time - this was six years ago - it was just so exciting and so staggering to see that going to a sub-Saharan African country, they were still far ahead technologically.
At that time, 40% of Kenya's GDP was being sent through text message; people were doing it all the time. These were people that didn't have bank accounts and didn't have land lines, and it was just super cool... And I figured going back to the States that there must be a way to plug some other industry in the developed world into that infrastructure to send more money to those people who were doing so much with it and who were such a great investment, and that's what lead to Seeds.
Paul Kemp: This is fascinating, Rachel, absolutely. At the end of the day, this podcast is all about life, and it's inspiring the appster tribe to have a life... And I think about your life, how far apart can you get from going to become a trader and working on the trading desk - that was a dream of mine initially, 20 years ago - and then having this interest in comedy, which is, again, at the other end of the spectrum, totally... And then going and pursuing this film directing. It's fascinating getting into your life.
One of the things that I want to pick up on is the empowerment of women, because I actually personally believe that the way to get a lot of these third-world countries out of poverty is to empower women. What views do you have on that and how can micro-lending actually empower women to get themselves out of poverty?
Rachel Cook: I think that's absolutely true. I think that's the key to societally evolving in so many ways. I think it's have more metaseries about what that might mean, that I'll try and share here; they're still somewhat half-baked, but... Absolutely, to answer your question, micro-lending can be a vehicle to help communities just become more self-sufficient and robust, because these women take out these loans, they're successful with this capital 98% of the time or more in most regions, and what they tend to do after they've made money with their micro-businesses is they reinvest that capital in better education and nutrition for their families, so that's a boon for their local communities, and then it can be a boon for their larger communities as well.
That said, I've become -- this might seem a little esoteric - really interested in this idea of yin and yang, masculine and feminine energy... So not just limiting this way of thinking to the developing world, but also in the States and in Britain, and anywhere. I think the reason the discrimination in the system exists in institutionalized finance is because patriarchy is the OS of the bad parts of the capitalism. I mean, I'd say it's the OS of everything of what the Western world has become, what we think of as civilized society - patriarchy is the foundation of that. And I've been thinking about how all humans have both yin and yang, have both masculine and feminine energy, but because we grow up in patriarchal societies, we're taught to overvalue the masculine, which I would define as active, as being productive, more zero-sum thinking, more hierarchical. And the feminine I guess I'd define as being more receptive, for the sake of this example, and more about being. And yes, because we're sort of out of whack in that way because we're not balanced in ourselves and therefore in the things that we're creating, I think it's caused all kinds of problems. This is kind of complex, trying to explain...
Paul Kemp: No, I'm following you. Actually, I've been listening to Beyond Mars And Venus, which is the guy that wrote that Mars and Venus. He's released another book recently and it's fascinating to dig into the differences, and actually I've learned a lot from that, but also I've been in the institutional world of finance as well and I'm a big fan of a lot of the alternatives that are coming out. The fintech space is just great to be involved in at the moment, because of an anti-establishment movement, and this kind of move away from large institutions as a source of trust. You're on to a trend here... Do you feel like you're changing the world with this?
Rachel Cook: I hope so. That's the big dream. We were fortunate enough to compete in the TechCrunch Disrupt Battlefield competition in 2016 in London, and on stage I tried to make this point that, you know, when I was a stock trader, it was all zero-sum thinking. If I made a dollar, it meant that someone else had lost that dollar, and that's the way that system works... Whereas with Seeds, we give an app, our free tool, and they drop it into their codebase and it lets their users know that when they make a specific in-app purchase it's simultaneously going to help someone in need through a microloan. We found that that makes someone who's never spent any money in an app 60% more likely to start spending, and then they keep spending.
The app developer makes more money, Seeds benefits as well, the micro-borrower gets funds to run their business, and then that's repaid and we can keep lending it in perpetuity. I wanted to make this point of disrupt that what we're doing isn't zero-sum; instead, we're creating this greater pie for everyone involved in the ecosystem, and I think that's the direction we're heading societally. We're getting away from this sort of zero-sum thinking, this scarcity mindset, and the institutions that we've built that aren't supporting that way of being I think are going to have to fall away. They're going to have to either adapt, or it's just not going to work.
I just got a chill saying that... That idea is so exciting to me, and I'm really trying to kind of imbue that energy in Seeds philosophically and in terms of the culture we're building, in terms of our intention, and then also in terms of the practical functionality of the product.
Paul Kemp: Yes, let's talk about that practical thing, because that's fascinating. One of the big challenges of the appster tribe listening to this is getting those in-app purchases. What you're saying then is if there is an incentive to either make a micro-loan or see some impact from that purchase, and if it's an add-on to whatever they're getting, then there's more likelihood that they'll actually press that button and make that in-app purchase. Is that right?
Rachel Cook: That's right, and to our knowledge, it's the most effective way to get someone to start making purchases in an app, if it's at a micro-purchase price point. I should finish the story regarding -- after we finished the film and I came back to the States and I was thinking about... Like, it just seemed like there was a way to plug something into that micro-lending infrastructure to get these people who were doing so much for this capital more capital access.
Around that time, I'm sure you and many of the listeners remember - this was right after the earthquake in Haiti, which I believe was in January 2011, and Zynga used Farmville at that time to do this charity thing in which they sold virtual currency and let their users know that when they bought this specific virtual currency, it would go to rebuilding schools in Haiti after the earthquake. And I think they did it like a PR & marketing thing, but I think they did have good intentions. They did it just for a short amount of time, but to their surprise, they found that nonpayers - people who were playing but had never spent any money - were suddenly also about 60% more likely to start buying, and then they just kept spending after that.
So they sort of accidentally stumbled upon what turned out to be the most effective user conversion/payer conversion mechanism.
I wondered if there was a way that we could build a product that achieved that same uplift, that would work in all type of games, and then ultimately the current product can work in any app or on any website that enables purchases. I wonder if we could build that and if it would still deliver that same value if we were focusing on micro-loans rather than on charities. It turns out it does work, it works incredibly well.
It's encouraging to realize that what happens to be the most effective way to make money in this instance is also a tool that helps other people.
Paul Kemp: Rachel, I still want to understand then, because I'm absolutely fascinated by this... When there's an in-app purchase through Seeds or the platform of Seeds, then you call it a micro-loan. Does that mean that the user has the potential to get that money back then after a time?
Rachel Cook: That's a great question. We don't have it set up that way, that would be more complex. It could be interesting to do later on.
Paul Kemp: Another idea.
Rachel Cook: Yes, it would add many layers of complexity, but the way the product works right now is our recommendation algorithm - we're just in the beginnings of building this, but we show the user an item that they're going to be more likely to want, as the type of social good, the type of micro-loan they're going to be more likely to want to contribute to. Maybe it's a region of the world they're interested in, or a type of business, or something. It's two dollars, or it's some micro-purchase amount.
They make that purchase, they make that decision, and then we move the money to micro-finance institutions that we're working with who deploy the capital. That's what's true right now. Ultimately, we're going to look at blockchain solutions to move the money. We're actually going to be filing an ICO very shortly as well; I don't know if any listeners are going to do an ICO, but that's also fascinating.
Paul Kemp: Is that an Initial Coin Offering?
Rachel Cook: That's right. It's really exciting to me, because I think it's going to render a lot of the way venture capital works obsolete.
Paul Kemp: Let's talk through that, because I haven't actually had anyone talk through an Initial Coin Offering as a way of raising finance. What does that entail?
Rachel Cook: My understanding is cursory right now, but we're going to be doing this in the next couple of weeks so we're going to be learning a lot... [laughter] Essentially, you create a token that you then make available. You can do a pre-sale and then a crowdsale. The token, as I understand it from a legal standpoint, in the States at least, the token can be a security or it can have a utility. If it's a security, then you run into all kinds of other regulatory hurdles, so it's best to make a case for the utility of the token.
In our case, there are a variety of different things that the token could be able to do. We can put portions of the recommendation algorithm that shows a user specific types of social good on a blockchain... That's something we have to figure out from a technical standpoint in the next several days. But we issue these tokens, and people can just buy them. If you make a case for the utility of the token, that it's legally sound, you don't need to raise exclusively from accredited investors, you can raise from anyone, and it can have a global reach.
It's a little like crowdfunding, in the sense that anyone can contribute, but they're essentially buying -- you're not giving up equity, but you're creating this other option for people to take part in the upside of what you're doing.
Paul Kemp: It reminds me a little bit about Kickstarter, that you can actually get rewards for the more that you contribute towards a project. But the utility you talk about - that could be a discounted initial use of the software, or some reward for being an early contributor.
Rachel Cook: I think that could be an example of a utility, yes. There are a lot of interesting technical implications, but in addition to that -- TechCrunch Disrupt was in San Francisco last week, and three female founders got on stage and talked about their previous or upcoming ICO's, and the idea was... So I'm a female founder; I'm a solo, non-technical female founder. I've raised about a million dollars in a seed funding, but it's been a slog, and I've had many male founder friends who I knew had less traction or not as strong of a team or less revenue than we have raise money much more easily, sometimes from the same investors who had turned me down... And there are a variety of variables that contribute to that, but anyway - these women got on stage and the question was "Could ICOs level the playing field so that discrimination in VC no longer holds female founders back?" So it's just kind of this other element of what I was seeing as a stock trader kind of showing up in this other area of institutionalized finance, and I think ICOs can transcend that, and that's really cool.
Paul Kemp: Rachel, you are changing the world.
Rachel Cook: [laughs] I'm trying... I'm following what's interesting to me, at least, and what I think is exciting and what's important.
Paul Kemp: As we wrap up then, because we have only a few minutes left - this is a show to inspire all those who are listening right now to your story, because I'm blown away by it. But I wanted to take you back to that time when you were a trader. Imagine you are doing that now, or alternatively -- you've obviously gone and done all these other things... Has this journey of yours been worth it and would you recommend this life to others?
Rachel Cook: Absolutely. What I'd recommend though specifically, and if I had a time machine - I don't know if I'd go back and tell myself this, but I would say that when I was sitting on the trading desk and had that idea to make the film, which was sort of the first step on this alternate path, I really just listened to myself. I've gotten better and better at just kind of honing in on what my intuition is telling me and really trusting that more so than relying on external things and external indicators. The more and more I've done that and the more consistently I've done that, the better life has gotten, and the more true life has gotten.
I practice Vipassana meditation; if that's unfamiliar, there are these wonderful courses you can do that are completely free, and they feed you and they house you, and you go and you meditate. The site is dhamma.org, if that's interesting to anyone. Just doing that, I think of that as sort of a practical application of this feminine energy idea that I talked about; you're sitting there and you're receiving, and some of the best problem-solving I've done for the business has happened while doing Vipassana. It's made everything so much better...
Paul Kemp: I've been doing meditation for about a year and it's just with the Headspace app, but is that where you're doing mindfulness? Is it a mindfulness sort of meditation where you focus on the breath?
Rachel Cook: Initially you're focusing on your breath; ultimately, you learn to observe the sensation of your breath, and then they invite you to use that awareness that you've kind of honed when focusing on your breath to scan your entire body, observing any sensation that you feel. The idea is that you don't react, you don't avoid or suppress, you just observe. As you do that, you recognize that the nature of all things is that they're impermanent, that they'll change, and kind of deeply understanding that... Not just intellectually, but sort of really experientially getting that. It just makes it easier to confront anything that seems difficult.
It's wonderful, I can't recommend it--
Paul Kemp: Well, I'm not recommending this to any of the listeners, but I did hear somewhere that some founders were really struggling with a lot of different problems, so they had an experiment where they issued LSD or some hallucinogenic drug that tapped into your subconscious, and they solved pretty much 80% of the problems they had.
Rachel Cook: So interesting...
Paul Kemp: Yes, it is fascinating when you talk about tapping into that huge resource. And the other thing I wanted to mention as well is that you're one of the first to talk about intuition on this podcast. I find that so important, because during all the years that we've evolved as human beings, apparently intuition and gut feeling and gut reaction is vitally important. It's evolved, and we should trust it a lot more, because it pretty much got us out of life and death for our ancestors. So trust your intuition if you're listening to this.
Rachel Cook: Absolutely. The unconscious mind can process large amounts of information that the rational/conscious mind can't necessarily process.
Paul Kemp: Yes, and I do have people falling asleep listening to me, so we're feeding into their subconscious right now. Rachel, let's just remind people -- if you want to get in contact with Rachel, I will put show notes up; it's episode 537, so go to theappguy.co and you'll be able to get some links there to Rachel... But how is the best way of getting in touch, what's the best way of connecting with you?
Rachel Cook: Sure. You could tweet at us. We're @Seedstweets. Also, the website is playseeds.com if you want to visit us there. Either is fine.