Ākina staff using Loomio

Changing the world through online collaboration

ĀKINA IMPACT MAGAZINE ISSUE #3 JULY 2016

Loomio’s goal is not to take over the world, but to empower the world to take over itself.

Co-founder Ben Knight says their online collaborative decision-making tool is designed to help groups of people make good decisions together.

“Ultimately, it’s about empowering people and their organisations to co-create a thriving future that serves everyone.”

“At present, so much decision-making is constrained by the challenges of involving the people who are affected. We’re in the middle of a paradigm shift towards more inclusive and effective ways of organising, enabled by technology. Loomio is a part of that shift.”

Loomio was born out of collaboration between activists involved in the Occupy movement in 2011 and social entrepreneurs in the Enspiral social enterprise network. The co-founders from both settings had experienced the power of collective decision-making, but also its challenges.

As soon as they got a prototype online, they realised there was widespread demand for a simple tool to help people who wanted to make inclusive, collaborative decisions outside face-to-face gatherings.

Ben says they started small, as volunteers, with just a desk and internet access.

“The idea was a magnet for people with a vision of a sustainable equitable world where people can participate in decisions that affect them.”

Ben says momentum kicked up a level when Vivien Maidaborn, now UNICEF CEO, joined the Board. “Her experience in governance positions in large community organisations was invaluable.”

Loomio team photo at a retreat

Loomio team photo at a retreat

Unlike some social enterprise start-ups, Ben says they knew a social enterprise was the right model for them from the beginning.

“We knew we wanted to push for scale to have a wider impact. We were not a traditional charity, but we were also not a traditional profit-maximising business either. We wanted to grow our revenue to be financially independent and to be scalable, so a social enterprise model made the most sense.”

And the results to date have exceeded their expectations, says Ben. “We could never have predicted what would happen.” But it has not been without challenges, he adds.

“The journey has had a lot of ups and downs – it is inherently challenging to first build a tech company, let alone a tech company that is determined to fund growth in a way that’s aligned with its social mission. It has been a challenge but has delivered real benefits.”

Ben says the team works hard because the work is meaningful and they believe in it. “One benefit is it means the team is happy in the work even when times are difficult.”

Loomio is now in a strong financial position because it has attracted values-aligned investors, says Ben.

Their fundraising started with a small crowdfunding campaign on PledgeMe to test their concept, raising $5,000 easily. One and a half years later, they had a prototype with 1,000 users but needed to fund a year’s worth of rebuild. This time they went global and raised US$125,000 from more than 1,600 donors around the world.

Another year and a half later, their impact investing has hit a new turning point, raising US$450,000 from a small group of impact investors in New Zealand, the US, Canada and South Korea.

“The real learning was that making a firm commitment to our social mission meant that we were able to find values-aligned investors.”

Ben speaking at the Bioneers Conference in California 2015

Ben speaking at the Bioneers Conference in California 2015

“We were told we were crazy by some people in the traditional investment community and even by some in the social enterprise community. People said investors were purely interested in financial return on investment and if you couldn’t offer unlimited returns, you might as well be a traditional charity.”

But Ben says they were bold and committed to their social mission first, building it into their constitution and investment round, and within a month of that they had their first lead investor on board and 16 more lining up.

“Our core values are stronger than ever.”

Loomio’s ethical business model means they are committed to inclusion. They accessed a grant from the Namaste Foundation to make Loomio accessible to people with visual impairment.

“Now Loomio is accessible to those using a screen reader – people who are often excluded from civic life.”

Ben says Loomio is an open source product, meaning that the code behind the tool is a public resource and freely available. But that approach doesn’t mean you can’t build a viable business model, he says.

“Our customers pay to use the version of Loomio we host, which is convenient and serviced through a standard software subscription model. We also offer access via a gift plan to a small number of community and activist groups.”

Loomio has a wide range of users around the world.

“Whether it’s an innovative manager in a company involving staff in decision-making, community groups building capacity to make change, or government agencies in Taiwan and the UK using it for collaborative policy development. Closer to home, Statistics New Zealand used Loomio to involve citizens in designing the 2018 census questions, and Wellington City Council used Loomio to co-design their alcohol management strategy.”

Longer term, Loomio wants to be part of the movement challenging a traditional approach to business.

“More and more people want to see a transformation in the way companies operate, so that having a social purpose becomes the norm. I look forward to a time when we don’t need to talk about ‘social enterprise’ anymore, because every business produces social benefit. In that future, it would be normal for a company to generate more value than it extracts.”

Their next challenge is raising investment in late 2016.

“We’re ready to grow from thousands of organisations using Loomio to hundreds of thousands in 2017 and beyond.”

Loomio

Established in2013
Operating ModelWorker-owned cooperative operating as a limited liability company
Number employed11
Annual turnover$400,000
Websiteloomio.org
  • 40,000 decisions made by 20,000 groups on Loomio
  • Operating in 100+ countries
  • Translated into 35 languages – the latest is Arabic