014: Turning Mobile Ads into Impact with Charity Miles

using the Whole Whale PodcastCharity Miles is an amazing fitness app that is also raising money for non-profits through ads. We learn about what it takes to create an app for social change from Gene Gurkoff.



Episode 14

George: This is using the Whole Whale. A podcast that brings you stories of data and technology in the nonprofit world. This is George Weiner, your host and the chief whaler of wholewhale.com. Thank you for joining us.

George: What if I told you that there was a way that mobile ads were helping people be healthier and also drive donations to nonprofits? Well, perhaps you probably wouldn’t believe me.

George: Welcome to episode fourteen. I’m gonna be talking with Gene Gurcoff. And he actually built the app for that. It’s called Charity Miles where every mile that you run, walk, or bike is sponsored through mobile ads and then the profits sent to the charity of choice by the person using it. So we’re gonna talk to Gene about his adventures of building an app and whether or not you know he would recommend it for everyone. Things that he learned. I’m really excited to jump into it. Well let’s talk to Gene.

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George: Hey Gene, welcome to the podcast today. I’m excited to have you hear. Can you tell me what is it that you do?

Gene: Hey George. My name is Gene. I’m founder of Charity Miles. Charity Miles is an iphone and android app that allows people to earn money for charity when they walk, run, or bike. The money comes from corporate sponsors like Humana and Timex and Johnson & Johnson who pay for advertising in the app. And then we pay them money out at 25 cents a mile to our charity partners.

George: That’s awesome! How long have you been at this?

Gene: I have been at this for almost three years. I thought of this idea in August of 2011. Took me about ten months to go from the idea stage to actually building a working product that we were able to launch and getting all the right partners on board. So we launched it of June of 2012 and we’re coming up on our second birthday. National Running day this year which is June 4th.

George: National running day. Of course there’s a National Running Day.

Gene: We launched on National Running Day.

George: Amazing. So what are the top line numbers. How many users do you have? How much have you raised so far?

Gene: We have had about 500,000 downloads. Monthly active is about 40,000 right now. And so far to date we’ve raised about 700,000 dollars. Not an audited number there, but like last I checked it was about 700,000.

George: Obviously not a small drop in the bucket, that’s a significant amount of money.

Gene: But our goal really like right now we’re just laying the tracks. And my goal’s to be able to move a billion dollars to charity by 2016.

George: Wow! How did you come up with that number?

Gene: It’s a big number and–

George: Big frickin’ number.

Gene: I think it is totally doable. Our, well we are for our clients, our playing clients which are our advertisers, is a mobile advertisement platform that allows them to connect with our members. And last year company’s spent 10 billion dollars on mobile banners. And I think that–

George: With a b? Ten–

Gene: With a b. Ten billion on mobile ads

George: –billion on shitty banner ads.

Gene: Yeah. So if I had to ask you one word to describe a banner or ad or if I would ask anyone in your audience, I bet you everyone would say annoying

George: Shitty! I just said it. Shitty banner ads.

Gene: So that’s the good news because all we have to do is be better than shitty.

George: (laughs)

Gene: And we have something that’s much better. Much better than that. And measurably performed better than that. And in that mobile advertising market is projected to be 40 billion by 2016. And I think that we have something that has the chance of capturing a good share of that market. And every advertiser that has started us and given us a test has come back for more money because it not only, they want to spend their advertising budget in ways that do good. But they need the results, the real business results to justify it. And we give them that. So we outperform all the things that they’re doing for mobile advertising or for social advertising. And it happens to do really good work for the world so it’s a total win-win. And the more success we have, the more advertisers want to come in. So I think right now I’m still in the phase of laying the tracks. And hopefully we’ll soon be able to drive a really big train down it.

George: Nice! Well I really, so most of the time I will rail against apps. I think an app is the dumbest frickin’ thing you can build. I’ll dedicate several podcasts to that fact after talking about this successful app.

Gene: And I’ll join you.

George: (laughs) You just, so from the beginning I actually realized that this was an app that made sense because you’re leveraging the core functionality of phone and really thought about your end user. This wasn’t like a, Oh make and adapt a site so you can do this. You’re leveraging the GPS so you can tell how far somebody travels, walk run or bike. And you’re tying that all together with this platform. Tell me about the process of going through creating an app because a lot of people will hear this and be like, Oh boom all I have to do is create an app like charity miles and saunter off into the sunset.

Gene: Yeah so if this really works out and I become as successful with this as I hope it will become I want to write a book called, Don’t Build an App. Because it’s like the hardest thing to do and just for everybody out there who’s listening to provide a little context here. I’ve known George for awhile and Charity Miles is actually my second app. And I used to be a finance lawyer. And I had an idea for another app which I won’t bore you with the details with. And I went to George for his advice. And he’s like, I really wouldn’t build an app. I would build a mobile responsive website. And I was like, Oh no I need to build an app. And George gave me all this advice that I didn’t take and that first project totally failed. So when it came time to build Charity Miles like I was very hesitant to actually try to make another app because the other experience had been extremely traumatic. But would George alluded to is when it makes sense to build an app is when the idea that you have won’t work any other way. You want to take advantage of the actual hardware in the phone. The accelerometer, the GPS. To actually do something useful for your users that couldn’t be done as just some mobile responsive website.


George: This is such an important part. I actually have to stop and make sure that you heard what he just said. If your idea will not work unless you build it as a mobile app, that is when you should be thinking about building the mobile app. It’s not nice, it’s necessary when you’re making this type of investment to consider exactly what it is that you’re providing. How you’re hooking in and he’s talking about an accelerometer, right? The phone is moving, is that part of the experience you’re providing your user. Are you hooking into context? Are you deeply hooking into GPS so that you can provide relevant information and make it a utility? Cause if you don’t do that, if you are not a sort of first screen app or something that you need to use on a regular basis, one out of five apps are used just once and then deleted. The numbers are really against you if you are providing value unique to the phone’s usage. Alright let’s jump back in and hear how Gene is managing.

Gene: Most things that I hear people wanting to do, people come up to me and they say, Oh I have an idea with an app, can you help me? What should I do? Like what they wanna do is most often much more easily accomplished is either a mobile responsive website, or maybe not even something digital at all. And it’s just really hard to get people to use an app, even one as compelling as Charity Miles, which I could tell anybody about it and they’ll think it’s a great idea. Getting them from that to actually downloading and using the app repeatedly is really challenging. So you know for anybody out there who’s just contemplating an app I would really think hard about what your end goal is and whether some of the easier ways of achieving that end goal rather than making an app.

George: Yeah I mean but getting back to why this model makes so much sense I mean you’re getting people out of the door, exercising for an extra cause. You’re connecting those people with increased donations and a personal connection to these different charity’s, like the Michael J Fox foundation .

Gene: Yup.

George: And then finally, you know what you’re taking advertising dollars and creating a sustaining site, right. You can’t do good if you’re bankrupt.

Gene: Right.

George: So I think you’ve got a lot of great components here. I’m curious, you mentioned monthly active users. What are the kpi’s what are the key performance indicators that you’re looking at with regard to this app that tell you you’re growing or you’re not.

Gene: Right. Good question, so our KPI’s are monthly active users and daily active users. And also the amount of money that we’re able to move from banner ads to charity. Ultimately that’s gonna determine our success because for a long time like we weren’t moving any money. It was all just our investment. We were sponsoring the app ourselves. But we knew that we needed to do that. We needed to build an audience that sponsors wanted to connect with before they wanted to give us money. So now we’re actually moving advertising budgets and that’s our KPI is what money wasn’t in the system before that is now in the system. And for us to get back to your original point, there was no other way to do that than an app. Like the only way for us, one to be a health and fitness tracker, using the accelerometer, using the gps was to make an app, could not be done as just a regular mobile website that people would use. And two the only way to move mobile advertising budgets from company’s that wanted to put those budgets into an app was to make an app. Because they weren’t gonna put the type of money that we wanted them to put into it into just a mobile responsive website.

George: Yeah and it’s really great because what you’ve ended up with, you know Seth Goden, a marketer that I absolutely love to follow you know, calls most banner ads interruption advertising.

Gene: Exactly. Terrible.

George: And you’re able to go beyond that, not just saying Oh we have this and now we’re going to interrupt the crap out of them with this thing. You’re trying to align it with, you know the actual organizational mission of whatever you’re trying to pull in with the charity and tie that all together in a simple platform. Can you give an example of one of these cases where you know you’ve aligned a charity nonprofit and so it’s not just an interruption?

Gene: Yeah that’s a great question and that goes back to your question about metrics too. And when I speak with company’s I ask them what their metrics are and they’ll usually say like how many people click on our ad. And what I like to tell them is that you know they’re not measuring, when they measure how many people click on their banner ad, they’re only paying for that click and maybe they’ll show that ad 1000 times in order to get one person to click on it. And they’re measuring that click and they’re paying for that click so they’re happy with that because it’s something they can easily justify. But they’re not measuring the 999 people that they’ve really annoyed.

George: (laughs)

Gene: And if you’re you know that matters like. I think that they need to take that into consideration and when I make that case I think it helps re frame the conversation. So the ads that we have in our app I mean we very purposefully display them in a way that’s not just a flashing banner and it’s part of the experience for those of you out there listening I hope you download the app and see the way that we do it. When you walk your sponsor, whether it’s Johnson & Johnson or Timex or Humana, is seamlessly integrated into the back-splash behind you so that it’s not interrupting your experience. It’s not annoying you. They’re there supporting you helping you make a difference for a cause that you care about and that frames their message in a much different context than jumping into your face and saying.

George: Yeah you’re giving away their money, this is great!

Gene: (laughs) I’m giving away their money, but you know these companies wanna have a relationship with you. Everything that they do with advertising is about creating a relationship. You and I are sitting in here doing this podcast and someone were to come in and open the door and be like, Hey I gotta watch, I wanna sell you the watch.

George: By the way this podcast is brought to you buy Speed Stick.

Gene: Yeah.

George: Speed Sticks, made for men. The only–

Gene: It’s annoying, right. It’s not going to be a good way to start our relationship. If someone came in here and interrupted our conversation. But if they come to us in a context in which we’re looking for them to support us and which we’re looking to hear their message and they present it in a way that’s meaningful the results are gonna be much better. And we can show very very dramatically the extent to which our audience responds. We’ve run a campaign for we’re doing a campaign with Humana now. And over the last 30 days we’ve driven 92.5% of all tweets about Humana on twitter. And they’re currently spending a lot more money on other banner advertising that we’re outperforming. I can’t even tell you the ratio. So when they see that it helps them think about, Okay well maybe we can start moving of that money into charity models because we’re driving the conversation in an authentic way. Much more efficiently than they are with their other forms of advertising. Likewise with you know whenever we’ve had anything Timex we drove like over 80% of the tweets about Timex for the holiday season.

George: So it sounds like you’re also measuring some social monitoring.. right? and sentiment analysis around how people socially interact with your app as a–

Gene: Yeah we’re all about for our brands especially it’s a lot about measurement. So when after you’ve gone for a walk with charity miles in the app yourself we ask you. Hey George do you appreciate Timex’s support yes or no? And most of the time almost all of the time people say yes. But they could say no and it’s not going to affect whether or not the money goes to the charity. So we’re able to then report back to Timex and say, hey we showed your ad to 40,000 people and 30,000 said thank you. Immediately after we ask you that you have the option if you want to share what you’ve done on facebook or twitter. And to thank the sponsor on facebook or twitter. And people do that about 50% of the time.

George: Now this is something that you tested along the way or did you just, you happened into like a brilliant digital foot in the door strategy?

Gene: We tested different iterations of it along the way. Actually when we first did it we required that you share on facebook and that was an awful strategy. People hated being required to share.

George: Really? That surprises me.

Gene: So we didn’t share for you, we didn’t autopost it. But at the end like it was a requirement that you shared on facebook and ultimately people really didn’t like that. And it wasn’t authentic when they did it. Now you don’t have to share and people are doing it 50% of the time. So which in like the digital world is like, a huge amount of time to share.

George: Yeah you’ve really happened onto it that you leveraged the foot in the door strategy by saying, we appreciate it. I mean yes or no, like of course they did they’re giving money and I’m the type of person who appreciates this why not share it is a better intro into the share. Very smart.

Gene: And they’re telling all their friends like how much they like Timex and how much they like Humana. And that is great advertising for Timex and Humana. So in a very authentic way. So those are measurements that we can deliver back as well. And also really helps the charities because embedded in the message too people will say, I just ran 3 charity miles for Michael j Fox foundation thanks to Humana for sponsoring me. That’s not only great advertising for Humana, that’s great advertising for the Michael j Fox foundation. And it’s moving the needle for our charities as well.

George: So let’s shift gears a little bit and talk about how you’re managing to keep up with your 40,000 monthly active users from a technical perspective. There’s like, well over 35 different devices and growing you know, you’ve got your ios, you’ve got your android. How are you balancing this, what is your development team look like?

Gene: (laughs) Thanks for that George. For those of you out there who can’t see this, he just winked at me. Cause he’s teasing me. I have a really good part time developer that George introduced me to when I started this and he’s worked really hard on this to make it happen. His name is Albert Swanter, his company is called Bohemia Innovation. Any of you guys out there who are looking for a great developer I highly recommend him. And you know we’ve run very lean because we’re on a very small budget. And keeping up with all the developments is really hard so just to give you some examples. We work almost perfectly on iphones. We have some bugs here or there but generally speaking, if you work on one iphone it’ll work on all of them cause they’re all the same operating system and the same model. But whenever apple releases a new operating system it creates havoc for us because we’ve gotta like upgrade to the new operating system and then some people don’t upgrade their own operating systems we’ve got some people on ios6 and some people on ios7 and it doesn’t work on both and it’s just harder that way. Android was really hard and from a developer perspective it’s just challenging because there’s so many different android phones.

George: And you built native now for both you started off on phonegap.

Gene: Yep we started on phonegap so for all those of you out there who knows phonegap is a program that basically you could program a site in html which is just like any website. And then wrap it in this free thing called phonegap that makes it look and feel like a regular app with minor modifications. And so when we first did charity miles really on a shoestring we did it that way because we didn’t wanna pay to program in natively for both iphone and then pay again to program it for android.


George: So phonegap is an open source mobile framework that makes it easier to build once and then repeat across the other platforms of different android and ios iphone devices. And it can save time and really help prove the concept and sometimes it is just exactly the technology you need depending on the type of app you’re building. And what’s nice about it is it helps you get to market with your concept. In a what they mvp or minimal viable product and often cases can even support the app on a long term basis. Again depending on what you’re building. In Gene’s case he needed unique hooks into things that weren’t supported as well such as an he mentions it again, the accelerometer and some of the GPS. But keep an ear out for how many different version, how many different ios like even versions that he has to deal with. And the headaches that he is going through around this.

Gene: Um and it worked pretty well. There’s some challenges and limitations to phone gap in terms of how it interacts with the hardware particularly on android phones. It’s a lot harder to you know, there’s so many different types of android phones that whether you’re programming in phone gap or natively it’s just to make it work with all the different gps and accelerometers and screen sizes on androids is really challenging. Phonegap is just a little bit more challenging. So then when we have like initial success we had a minimum viable product that worked and people liked and were a little bit more of a budget we programmed native for both iphone and android. And it’s very challenging to keep up, like our competitors. There’s nobody that’s doing what we’re doing in the charity space but there’s a lot of other fitness tracking apps out there, I mean they have over 100 developers. And it’s really hard to keep up with that and I think it’s a big challenge for u. We have a lot of bugs right now. Some android phones that were working, not.

George: So how do you prioritize which version you mend. You didn’t mention blackberry or the–

Gene: Now we’re gonna try blackberry and windows. We get like I get probably like 10 or 15 emails a day people requesting it for blackberry or windows, but they just don’t have enough of a market share right now for us to an unlimited budget focus on. And if we had a bigger budget I would make it for them. But I don’t have the capacity to do it. And for android phones we look at what are the 15 most popular models of android phones and program it for those 15. And you know frankly some of the less expensive android phones their hardware is just not good. So it’s just never going to work on those phones anyway because the GPS is so not accurate that it, just the hardware just isn’t good enough to make it reliable. But we’re doing the best we can and hopefully as we continue to have success we’ll be able to hire more developers or make it up our algorithms will become more sophisticated, we’ll be able to smooth everything out it’ll be able to work on all the phones. But that’s definitely one of the challenges and another reason why I caution people against making an app. Because unlike making a website, unless what you’re doing absolutely has to be an app, it’s really expensive. And it’s like never ending, it’s like you gotta keep updating and updating and updating and updating.

George: That’s a significant investment you know a large percent of all of your budget goes toward this app. You’re a small lean team and a lot of this is going toward what need to be up with the development but you’re super humble and I really appreciate your honesty. One thing you share is the fact that you won a people’s choice web award this year. So this is you’re talking to one of the best frickin’ apps out there.

Gene: Thank you.

George: With regard to health and fitness, associating people. So Gene I deeply appreciate your time today. How do people find you, how do people help you?

Gene: You know the thing, thank you for that George. I think that the best way for people to help us is to download charity miles and go for a walk. We say that every mile matters and we really mean that so just to give you a few example, every mile for feeding america at 25 cents a mile feeds two people. Every mile for girl up at 25 cents a mile sends a girl to school for a week. And I know that a lot of people listen to this so it really matters. And if the people listening to this will download charity miles to your iphone or android. Just walk a mile for one of our twenty eight charity partners. It’ll make a big difference. And please tell your friends. Thanks.

George: Thanks bud.

Gene: I really appreciate it.


George: I deeply appreciate Genes honesty here. Especially as an entrepreneur building an app like this. He did just win the people’s choice webby. He’s one of the best in breed right now. And sometimes when you’re talking to entrepreneurs they put on the rose colored glass and say everything is great, things are working perfectly! He gave us an honest view of what it’s like to manage, market, maintain a mobile app. And so the next time you’re in a meeting and someone kind of jaunts in saying, let’s just build an app, cause everyone has a phone. You can maybe play this podcast. You can pull up an example of a fantastic one of charity miles and ask that question. Will this idea work? Is it possible for people to somehow use this idea unless it’s on a mobile app. Does it use the unique features of the phone in a way that can’t easily be done through, for example phonegap or a mobile website. I think more often than not, you’re not going to build that app because it’s not just building that app, you also have to build the technical strategy that’s gonna keep that app working. What happens when the new version or the new phone or whatever comes out? That’s on you to make sure that your upgrades are there. So building an app means having an engineering team, having a digital strategy, and having that long term support in mind when you’re gonna launch it. Again I love what Gene has done, he’s got tremendous vision here. He’s taking mobile ads and he’s turning it into meaningful interactions with people that then drive donations to nonprofits. Again you have a phone right now I’m pretty sure. Give that app a download, charity miles, in either the playstore or ios. Well as always, resources will be found at Wholewhale.com/podcast. Thanks for joining us.

(outro music)

George: This has been using the whole whale. For more resources on today’s show please visit wholewahale.com/podcast. And consider following us on twitter @wholewhale and thanks for joining us.

George: Todays music came from a band called The Panics coming out of Serbia actually. Also love to remind you that you can always text the word podcast to 36453. again you can text podcast to 36453 for quick little s&s training we like to do on mobile. Alright, thanks again.