Not all startups are about billion dollar exits. Some of the most interesting projects are first and foremost experiments in life design – answers to the question, what kind of world do I want to live in and how can I create it?
Agave Lab founder Andy Kieffer, a Bay Area transplant now living in Guadalajara, is taking this type of attitude with his latest venture, Avisora. When Kieffer moved to Mexico, the idea was to get out of the rat race and find a better atmosphere for building technology and raising a family. Now Mexico is his home, and he sees technology as a means of making it a better place to live.
Created in the spirit of former New York Mayor Giuliani’s broken windows theory, Avisora is a crowdsourced complaints and tips virtual hotline designed to collect data on local issues and drive change from the bottom up. Kieffer gives example of potholes, trash pickup, and local crime as the kinds of issues he hopes Avisora will address, but acknowledges that it will be the will of the people that dictate the platform’s direction.
“By making it easy to report, our goal is to drive the big data of life,” he says. “Then, like checking in on Foursquare, users can add their vote on pre-existing reports to show that they too are annoyed by it. In the end, we aim to provide consensus on what problems are the most important for the highest number of people.”
Initially, Kieffer toyed with the idea of launching Avisora in conjunction with some government entity, but instead opted to be a proverbial thorn in the side of existing institutions, rather than be viewed by the public as too close to the problem. The company will make its data widely available to federal and local governments, citizen groups, and NGOs – first in Mexico and eventually across Central and South America.
“Our hope is that the non-political, high-volume, indisputable nature of the data will both increase the pressure on governments to act as well as give them real-world data that helps them address the right problems in the right way,” Kieffer says. “The public officials I’ve spoken to say they’re interested in this level of scrutiny and accountability, but we’re not sure. We hope it’s well received.”
Within the platform, Kieffer anticipates two types of networks developing: geography-based and cause-based. In the former, regional and local issues like potholes on a specific street or public transportation between two destinations may become pet issues. In the latter, proponents of causes like the environment or education may band together from distant corners of the country to drive awareness and change.
When users sign up for Avisora they can select the geographies and causes that are important to them and receive notifications when new items are added to each. Kieffer believes the platform has inherent virality, as users are notified of items demanding attention in their pet areas and are then compelled to share and spread those causes to attract additional votes and ultimately drive governmental response.
In a benevolent twist, Kieffer has no business model in mind for Avisora. He’s funded the project’s development out of his own pocket to date, including employing six staffers full-time, calling it “an attempt to give back to a country that’s been very good to me.” Today, Avisora is launching an Indiegogo crowdfunding campaign with the goal of raising additional funds and increasing awareness of the initiative.
“At first, I thought I was the only one bugged by the fact that things were constantly broken, that maybe it was a cultural thing,” Kieffer says. “But then I realized that everyone was bugged but no one could find a way to do something about it. There are resources to fix things, but the government is dealing with imperfect info as to what’s important to fix, so the process is totally random. We want them to apply citizens’ perception as one element of the decision making process.”
Avisora combines elements of Change.org, the US federal petition site, and NextDoor, the hyper-local social network for sharing neighborhood-level info. Celebrity musician Alex Eberd of the band Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros recently launched a similar initiative in the US called SecondGov aiming to drive public accountability through civic participation.
Mexico seems like a perfect location for an experiment of this type. The country has seen smartphone adoption double annually for the past four years, Kieffer notes, and citizens are familiar and comfortable with driving change through activism.
“Public shaming is almost more effective here than back home – the political situation is more populous,” Kieffer says
At the moment Avisora is a passion project, not a business, and as such runs the risk of losing steam if Kieffer can’t attract the necessary financial support and public participation. Even if it does succeed in those areas, there remains the possibility that real change will be hard to come by. Government, in Mexico as well as elsewhere, is a tangled web of constituencies and masters to serve, none perhaps more powerful than the politician’s own self-interest. Unless Kieffer and Avisora can create a scenario where public officials see how participating in this experiment is to their own benefit, it may be difficult to create meaningful change.
Nonetheless, startup entrepreneurship is nothing if it’s not staring off into the abyss at a set of insurmountable odds and then taking the leap of faith regardless. Kieffer believes in Avisora and in the power of the public will to drive change. Mexico is his adopted home so he has a vested interest in seeing this experiment succeed.
Avisora is an example of a marriage between civic involvement and technological innovation that could benefit nearly every country in the world. If the experiment succeeds in Mexico, it may not be long before we see it duplicated elsewhere. That could be Kieffer’s biggest legacy.
- Agave Lab VenturesCompany building seed fund investing in Mexican startups that target LATAM.
We are more of a company builder than a traditional venture firm. This is what we do:
1 Target traditional sectors in Mexico and LATAM that are under-utilizing technology and are ripe for disruption and rapid adoption,
2 Work with business leaders in these sectors to identify real-world problem areas,
3 Coordinate with startup entrepreneurs to innovate within the bounds of these problem areas,
4 Invest only after business leaders agree to be customers, board members, future investors, and/or potential acquirers,
5 Build initial product using in-house Agave Lab team,
6 Provide aggressive, daily, hands-on mentorship and training, to founders,
7 Hire and stage new talent into the new company,
8 Maintain a tight focus on execution and achieve profitability before the end of the six-month incubation period,
9 Seek follow-on funding lead (if needed to scale) from industry sponsors.