Five-and-a-bit years ago, Nelson Rayner had an idea. He was based at the Colenso advertising agency in Auckland, where work included some pro-bono toil for charities. One of the things he came up was a fundraising model in which people authorised advertising to appear on their computer desktop screens, with the revenue from those ads going to a nominated charity.
At the time it seemed too unwieldy, or too risky to the client, and they didn’t want to go ahead with it. But in part thanks to a colleague’s enthusiasm, Rayner decided to persevere with the concept, joined by a couple of friends who became business partners. Last year, the fruit of that thought, Donate Your Desktop, won him the Google / Advertising Club of New York Young Innovator award.
The prize opened a lot of doors, says 29-year-old Rayner when I meet him in one of those spruced up east London pubs around the corner from his home in London’s digital start-up nerve centre, Shoreditch (the Old Street roundabout down the road has been labelled “Silicon Roundabout”).
It attracted media attention, and reassured investors. “It gave them a lot of confidence that it was a viable product, that it was recognised on an international stage, rather than just a New Zealand idea spawned by a guy in a shed.” Back in New Zealand, such recognition is helpful, too. “It adds clout. People in NZ love any sort of certification from an overseas organisation.”
The product has since been overhauled and rebranded as Little Lot, in part because people were confused about precisely what was being donated, and in part because it encompasses the crucial expansion from computer desktops to smartphone lock screens, tapping in to the boom online market: mobile.
“Right from the start, this is about 2009, it was clear we had to do mobile. I was working in display back then. Basically my first job in an advertising agency was building banners and doing the creative for banners. And even back then people were asking, how can we get mobile users?”
The concept can be difficult at first to get your head around. I ask Rayner to spell it out in simple terms.
“The application updates your desktop background on your computer, or your Android lock screen on your smartphone, with adverts, every day, based on the preferences you’ve put in when you signed up. And the ads that are on that screen generate advertising revenue, and of that advertising revenue, 75% goes to the charity that you’ve chosen, and 25% goes to us to grow the business.”
Given the values of the sector receiving the bulk of the income, Little Lot won’t take any old advertising, but they can’t fixate on companies’ ethical credentials to the nth degree.
“We try to make sure that the companies we partner with are reasonably responsible,” says Rayner. “At the end of the day, the users just need to decide are they prepared to have someone who’s reasonably responsible on their desktop, or not give money to charity through the service.”
Attempts to patent the business model have been rebuffed, and with a handful of similar offerings springing up in the last few years – most of which seek to attract users with personal rewards, rather than aggregating for charity – Rayner is itching to see Little Lot go global. Having overcome some technical and strategic hiccups, Little Lot is currently in soft-launch mode in New Zealand. A full push complete with a marketing campaign is imminent, with roll-out overseas to follow.
“Obviously whenever you launch something within a certain country, making it go viral or trying to get a tipping point, is pretty tough, especially in a country of less than five million,” says Rayner.
“The crucial thing for us is to try to get that critical mass, reach that audience number, before somebody else does. Because it’s unpatentable, the only way to protect is through contracting different charities, making connections with charities overseas.”
Donate Your Desktop had about 5,000 users, and Little Lot has only attracted about 1,500, but Rayner is confident that can scale up swiftly.
“New Zealand is a tiny market, and we’ve had relatively decent saturation for no marketing at all. And so 10,000 is our minimum critical mass in New Zealand … As soon as we hit that tipping point – 10,000 – our media partners start selling the media space, and hopefully the ads become higher quality … Once we reach 10,000 we go overseas.”
Rayner’s involvement off late has focused on the creative side of Little Lot, with the business reins held by his partners in New Zealand. His day job is at a West London brand agency, and he’s also “working on another business plan”, he says, coyly. What’s that, then? “It’s a mobile app.” Charity related? “No.” Will it make you a millionaire? “That’s the plan,” says Rayner, with a laugh. “Honestly, though, I’ve never done anything primarily or purely for money.”
Toby Manhire visited London on the British High Commission / Financial Times Scholarship, sponsored by British Airways.