ThinkShout – Interview w/Lev Tsypin, Founder and President Tuesday, Feb. 14th 2017.
ThinkShout’s co-founder, president and CEO, Lev Tsypin recently sat down for an interview with me for Think Tanky’s Partnerships that Produce Impact series. ThinkShout crafts open source tech solutions from websites to a wide array of digital storytelling tools for mission-driven companies. Lev and his team are committed to building a sustainable business that honors the company’s ethos and supports forward-thinking clients to better tell their stories and widen their impact. From the downtown 4th street location in Portland, OR, to the collaborative working environment, ThinkShout is a pioneer in the tech space eager for the business challenge while remaining rooted to social change.
When ThinkShout worked on the Humane Society project, how many animals did you adopt?
That project was unbelievably rewarding for us. The Humane Society was a dream client and their Change for Animals project was a celebration of their 60 years of advocating for animals. This was a project close to our hearts as we are almost all animal owners and lovers. The Humane Society has made huge progress on Capitol Hill, boardrooms and shelters, yet more awareness is needed; more impact is essential. Our partnership was a part of their appeal for a $60 million kickoff campaign to create even more transformational change for animals. A common pattern for ThinkShout’s process, which was very apparent with the Humane Society, was our team’s commitment to animal rights, including animal adoption and volunteering for PUG rescue center. We feel passionate about what we’re doing and because this team is committed, we build relationships because people come to us who are familiar with and how we work.
You have an active blog that addresses community action and engagement. What else can you share about ThinkShout’s values?
We became a B Corp in 2015 and we encourage our team to blog about issues in and around the tech, sustainability and social change space. Recently, we become certified at the Gold Level as a sustainable business by the City of Portland and can now use the metrics established by the City to raise our environmental impact as measured in the B Corp Assessment. We like to talk about our community. Portland is a thriving town for progressive ideas and innovation.
What’s your origin story? How did you become the cofounder of a Webby award winning Tech Company in Portland?
I cut my teeth on technology during the Y2K bug so it was the initial height of the dot com craze. After years in the enterprise IT space, I moved to Portland and started as a technology director at a boutique agency called Pop Art in 2000 and I got married in the midst of this. Our clients were Freightliner and Louisiana Pacific, fine companies but no satisfaction in terms of my values. So my wife, Marti, and I left for our year long budgeted world adventure tour to South America, Southeast Asia, and the Middle East. This certainly impacted me and my work interests. Upon returning, I headed toward a degree in social justice law – took the LSAT – I was convinced being a social justice lawyer would be my way to change the world. A few people changed my mind and I didn’t head down that road but instead started launching my own companies. During my enterprise sector experience working on the Y2K bug, big projects for big corporations I realized there was opportunity to mesh that with my values by working with mission-driven organizations. Eventually, all of this pivoted toward bringing together what I did with helping non profits and purpose-driven organizations succeed. The work escalated after meeting my former business partner, Sean Larkin and in 2010 ThinkShout was launched.
When ThinkShout was launched, who else was working in this social impact space?
Really, we felt like this was a lone venture. It was tough to start a company like this and pay the bills. Early on we decided to take a project from a traditional company for money. It was not a good experience at all, more like a disaster, and confirmed our vision that we wanted to frame this around mission-driven companies and solidified our passion. Then came along because of who we were committed to working with and now the direction could not change – it’s so solidified, which is very affirming. Our team is committed to having a social impact and though we pay competitive wages, they could easily work at Intel or Nike for more, but they don’t want to. We have a team of talented people working together because they choose to be here. And that really says it all. The passion and commitment that comes from this team is really powerful.
[Side note: Both Lev and I discovered we had lived and traveled through Turkey at some point in our past. Turkey is an incredibly unique country with an extraordinary history – we didn’t get to talk about how many cups of chai we drank.]
Discuss one of ThinkShout’s highlights in the social impact space.
The Southern Poverty Law Center in Montgomery, Alabama, is definitely one of our most impactful clients and our shared knowledge deepens as we continue to work with them. They are fighting hatred; they are seeking justice and teaching tolerance. During our second partnership with SPLC, which was during the beginnings of the Black Lives Matter movement, it became more clear where the intersection was between my values and my work. Some of my team were coming to work in tears because all of this is so close to their hearts and when your values are directly inline with how you make money – that is the dream I always sought to manifest. Our redesign of the splcenter.org site was voted the People’s Voice winner in the Websites - Law category of the 2016 Webby Awards, and was named an Honoree in the Best Practices category.
Are tech companies progressive?
In the traditional model of business, the venture-funded model, where venture capitalist are investing in these ideas, there’s one goal in mind. The venture capital model (which I know from my own past experiences) is about making a small number of people very wealthy – you can’t focus on profit and take care of the other two priorities (triple bottom line); they are beholden to the investors and have one goal – the ROI. I think you can make a case for Google and Facebook in that their leaders are committed to progressive values. Facebook came out with a paid leave policy this week so that’s a huge positive. The leaders are young but while this leave policy is great, there’s probably been another 100 decisions focused solely on profit. Also, there’s a lot of pressure for beginning companies to turn a profit or investors are done. So there’s even more pressure to perform. There’s no time for social impact. One focus at ThinkShout is sustainability and, as a business, you’ve got the freedom to focus on social responsibility which means you’re not worrying about making payroll. Again, if we can’t make payroll then we also can’t think of expanding ur civic engagement. We’ve made enough good business decisions to stay grounded in our mission of sustainability and can keep this as our focus.
Congratulations on your B Corp certification. Can you explain a bit about your process?
The certification process is quite rigorous. I’d heard about B Corp when we started ThinkShout and always wanted to participate and not wait too long. Once we hired Kristen Van Veen , who was amazing at leading the charge for us, it quickly became an undertaking we could all adopt and get behind. It’s a codification of values you need to already have as a mission-driven company. Going through the process gave us some guardrails for measurement and helped us codify and deepen our sustainable model of business. B Corp helped give us more awareness of policies to have in place and implement like diversity of management team and that foundational set of guidelines that we were able to better define. The B Corp questions really run the gamut from pay differentials to whether we have bike racks and defining our policy on working from home. (In case you’re curious, ThinkShout does have bike racks, coffee, snacks AND a great policy on working from home!) B Corp is one of the most rewarding communities I’ve been a part of as a business owner. I’ve attended two inspiring B Corp conferences where all of these business leaders gather and essentially ask: “What are you doing to make the world a better place?”
Employee culture appears to be clear and concise here. What did you do to help make this happen?
It’s a learning process of growing culture. In our early days, we may have purposefully tried to create or influence it with events and putting a lot of thought into it. That didn’t work. What we learned starting about two years ago, was to focus on our mission – vision – values and reconnect with what is at the core of this company. We started codifying our values. For example, if a fellow team member stops you to ask for help, you need to stop what you’re doing and help. So as we put the focus on values, this became an important step. Also, B Corp requires a lot of streamlining of the employee hiring and retention process.
We now hire 99% based on cultural fit. At first, there was a lot of trial and error with hiring people who didn’t fit the culture but whose resumes were outstanding. That’s why I say we didn’t arrive at the place you see today with this connected team, we’ve had to really work at defining who we are, the values that we want to hold as the baseline for all we do and make mistakes along the way – it’s a very organic and intentional process. Establish the framework, get the right people in the room and then get the fuck out of the way.
The culture is the people – it’s no longer a concept we define or discuss. Last month, one of our employees started weekly activism lunches where they gather to take on one issue and call elected representatives to voice their opinions. Back in October we started to offer a ½ day paid time to participate in any local civic cause. The reception was outstanding. One staffer created a website for preventing violence against women to reach out to his community, another group started canvassing, and another team member started offering website development tutorial classes on Saturdays here in the office geared toward underrepresented youth.
Social impact companies are growing because…
There’s a realization that businesses need to take more responsibility for our civic health. Demonstrated by the growth of the B Corp movement, moving away from the 30 year on the job (our parents’ outdated version of work). Millennials (not to get too bogged down in generation definitions) have a different set of expectations in that they expect more from their employers than just a paycheck - they’re seeking value.
How does ThinkShout help measure impact for your mission-driven partnerships?
With larger organizations, we need to lead with metrics-driven results. As part of the discovery process, we work to establish what the metrics look like and post–launch, we dedicate time to reporting on results and comparing them to the initial metrics that we set up. Of course there are also more indirect measurements like site traffic, duration of visit, sites that have memberships – growth in members, etc. Most foundations have a specific focus on giving, like the Portland-based Lemelson Foundation , which focuses on invention and innovation so the end metric is moving the needle to enable innovation through education programs supporting entrepreneurs - so telling that story is our challenge as well.
As with all our partnerships, there’s a wide range of creativity and a rigorous discovery process. Initially, we’re pretty low tech. We go onsite, gather their data, mission, values, etc. We spend a couple of days with departments, get to ask questions, talk to stakeholders and then get all of that to intersect digitally. Our past nonprofit experience is pertinent in this process as well because we want to help our organizations better understand what they want to accomplish. Some of our most enjoyable experiences are working with clients who are in a query stage – ones who want to work with us in figuring out the issue to be addressed, the new project or unique ways to innovatively grow the awareness for their partners – that’s where ThinkShout thrives and the work doesn’t feel like work.
To circle back to our process, there’s a before-and-after data flow diagram, high fidelity wire frames, information architecture/site maps, how does the content connect, creative direction or mood boards to understand what the client feels speaks to their audience the most clearly. Now that our team has grown, we tend to work with larger clients and longer term projects to continue the partnerships in any way – and these are rewarding. ThinkShout stays connected with previous clients in some capacity because we created the data and know it and will be there for our clients as they need us.
Not to get too political but our clients are all working in the social good landscape . Our partners are determined to do their part as a force for good. Ironically, under this new administration, these groups are going to be busier than ever as the challenges are greater than ever. Money funds programs and programs require a digital component. ThinkShout can feel this shift with the beginning of 2017. My friends working in the traditional business sector see no difference – people are still going to buy shoes, for example. But there’s a real and true concern in this social impact, nonprofit sector that is reeling and recovering.
In closing, Think Tanky wanted to specially thank ThinkShout for their time and their dedication to being a force for good. Lev summed it up well when he said:
And why ThinkShout is ready to continue creating positive change, empowering their clients to do good and happy to let go of that ping pong table in the basement.