When you buy something, you’re voting with your dollar, giving your support to whatever brand you’re purchasing and the vendor you’re shopping with. And a startup called Shop the Change wants to help you align that “vote” with brands and businesses that match your values when buying everything from potato chips to jeans to cars.
“It’s a way to make shopping into very subtle activism. Every purchase you make, you’re telling that company that you agree with them, almost,” said co-founder Sara LeHoullier.
LeHoullier, along with Edgar Mason, launched their online shopping business last year, basing the five-person company in Olalla, a rural, shoreline town southwest of Seattle.
The company is starting with grocery items as its initial focus and hopes to expand to cover all consumer goods. Initially, shoppers will be able to pick from six values for setting their priorities: women’s rights, racial equality, animal welfare, environmental responsibility, non-exploitation/fair trade, and LGBTQ rights and gender equality. That list too, they plan to eventually expand.
To start, Shop the Change is manually compiling information on goods and sellers. They’re researching product certifications, such as organic or free-trade; public reports about businesses; external reviews and commentary; and businesses’ marketing and branding materials. The company plans to employ machine learning to do some of the research and will incorporate user feedback into the assessments. They would like to partner with other companies and nonprofits that provide similar reports and ratings for consumers, with a vision that one day Shop the Change could become the one-stop-spot for all of this information to reside.
Others in the space include reviews from Consumer Reports and Environmental Working Group, the apps DoneGood and HowGood, and browser extensions to help shoppers. But no one is providing as broad a service as they’ve proposed, LeHoullier said.
“Nobody has been able to capture all of the different data and make it simple enough for everyday people to use,” she said. Others are more niche or high-end. If you’re limited to shopping at Walmart, you need advice too.
“Everybody should be able to make change, and we should be able to meet everybody where they are,” LeHoullier said. “Some of the generics are great, it just depends on what you care about.”
The Shop the Change app is undergoing final tweaks and should be available next month.
Before launching the business, Mason worked with marginalized communities in Africa and Asia for USAID and others. After spending years helping people abroad empower themselves and their communities, he returned to the U.S. eager to assist people here in supporting the issues they care about. After conducting some market research, he joined up with LeHoullier, a web designer and former Microsoft employee who spent two years in the U.S. Peace Corps.
The app will make money through links to affiliated sites like Amazon or Walmart, which will also make it easy for people to use Shop the Change while continuing to make purchases through familiar sites. They’re also considering running ads and offering services like meal plans and recipes.
Mason said that the biggest challenge is convincing people that voting through consumer choices is easy to do.
“The concept is good. Our market research says it’s highly desired. But the concept of value-based shopping is also described as being far too tedious to be feasible for most people,” he said. “It’s our mission to change that because it’s essentially our company’s and product’s purpose.”
Explain what you do so our parents can understand it: We make it easy to align our purchases with our values, giving us a way to harness our economic power for good.
Inspiration hit us when: Edgar: I was driving out to a beach in Ghana and asked a surfing buddy, “Why are all of the used tire shops located in one area? And is there any difference between them?” The answer was basically, “No.” Then I thought, they all have the same products, they are roughly the same cost, and equally convenient to acquire, what could make someone buy one from one person rather than another: It’s the reputation of the shop owners that matters.
People want to support their community members who they respect and feel are good people. However, anyone who doesn’t know the reputations of the shop owners are shopping blindly. The same thing holds true for all products everywhere. There may be differences in similarly priced products, but in reality, the differences are generally small in terms of quality. The real differences are how responsibly something is made, under what conditions, and how the company interacts with communities, the environment, and society.
Sara: I’ve been interested in social change since a time before I knew that phrase existed. When Edgar reached out to me to help with a startup, I was immediately intrigued, and new inspiration hits me daily.
VC, Angel or Bootstrap: Bootstrap, then ideally VC or Angel. We didn’t know what we were doing when we first started. Edgar came from a different industry: humanitarian and development work. So he spent his own money so that he could take time to understand the startup world and what it takes to succeed. He didn’t want to spend someone else’s money on this education. Now, we’re in a place where we understand much of the startup landscape and are ready to seek external funding to accelerate the company.
Our ‘secret sauce’ is: Understanding our target markets and the progressive movements they desire to support. Our core team is actually made up of our target market and we’re actually itching to use the app we are creating.
The smartest move we’ve made so far: Taking the time to be deliberate in figuring out our strategy for success, rather than rushing into failure. We’ve also asked for help and advice, and found our tribe both in real life and online. It’s all about collaboration (not competition).
The biggest mistake we’ve made so far: Waited a long time to bring on a chief technology officer. That said, it would have been hard to find someone of CTO Eva Monsen‘s caliber without first figuring out what we are doing.
Which leading entrepreneur or executive would you most want working in your corner? Oprah Winfrey. In addition to creating a successful empire that has inspired and encouraged people to better themselves, understand each other and be more compassionate, she has done it all while being down-to-earth and respectful to those who work with her. She’s also the ultimate influencer, and when she believes in a product, brand or person, her support can move mountains.
Our favorite team-building activity is: Comparing notes on what crazy things our pets and/or kids have done on any given day.
The biggest thing we look for when hiring is: Buying into Shop the Change’s vision. The vision is more than being about making money or even pursuing some progressive value. It is about empowering our staff and our customers to be who they want to be, especially as it pertains to their place in making the world a better place.
What’s the one piece of advice you’d give to other entrepreneurs just starting out: Be stubborn, but try to be humble. If you’re new to the startup or business worlds, don’t give up just because you don’t know what you’re doing. Admit what you don’t know and find people to help you. Then give yourself the time and the space to develop and learn what you need to. Everyone is in a rush to succeed, but unless they have significant experience and are incredibly lucky, it’s probably not going to happen that way. Understanding a problem and what customers want takes time and a lot of research.