What we learned from TakeCharge.io

Back in 2014 several of our ControlShift customers came to us with the same problem: They were global advocacy organizations working for progressive social change but struggled to accept donations in all of the currencies and across all of the payment platforms in the countries where they operated. At the time, no fundraising tools were truly global so each organization raising funds globally needed to either cobble together their own in house software or assemble dozens of vendors to accept funds everywhere they had supporters.

We thought there might be an opportunity to build a shared, sustainable global donations infrastructure that could help these organizations raise money online efficiently. So we raised $25k in funding from the New Media Ventures Innovation Fund as well as some matching funds from prospective customers and got to work on what eventually became TakeCharge.

We shipped a prototype a few months later and started processing donations. However, we never achieved the sort of traction that would have allowed us to make TakeCharge.io into a sustainable venture.

After four years of operations and $1,128,100 in donations processed, we finally shut down TakeCharge.io and turned off the servers last week. I wanted to share the lessons that we’ve learned from the project along the way in the hope that they might be useful to other founders.

Lessons Learned

  • Side projects make bad startups. We’d originally envisioned TakeCharge as a new parallel organization and product, not a total pivot from our existing ControlShift distributed organizing platform business.

Despite our best intentions, the reality became that our team was very busy making ControlShift work and not doing whatever it took to make TakeCharge a success. The seed funding from New Media Ventures allowed us to hire contractors to launch the prototype, but revenue never reached a point where we could redirect resources away from our core product to grow it after the initial spurt of activity. As ControlShift, our distributed organizing platform became more successful it became more difficult to justify the distraction of sustaining what we began to see as a side project.

Startups really need burning focus and fanatical dedication to succeed. It became impossible for our small team to justify the marketing and engineering resources required to make TakeCharge a success while ControlShift demanded so much of our attention. It’s needs were always the first to be delayed or subordinated — so other donation vendors with a more focused team were able to quickly catch up and fill the gap in the market we had initially seen.

  • Processing fee revenue models require more capital. ControlShift grew to sustainable revenue without significant outside investment so we thought we might be able to repeat that for TakeCharge, and we had the spreadsheets to prove it should have been possible.

The difference is that ControlShift is an enterprise SaaS product that charges a significant monthly subscription while the TakeCharge sustainability model was a one percent processing fee of donations processed. This would have generated a reasonable revenue stream at scale, but it’s much harder to bootstrap your way there versus landing a few large organizational contracts that can quickly cover the ramen costs of the founding team. If we were to do it again, we’d have negotiated much larger subscription contracts, pre-payment from the initial customers or tried to raise much more capital to allow an attempt at scale.

  • It’s hard to kill useful things. We decided to wind down TakeCharge over a year ago but we’ve only just now managed to finally turn off the lights. We wanted to ensure that every customer had a seamless transition to another tool that could meet their needs. Luckily several vendors like ActionKit, Classy and Raisely have all rolled out workable global donation tools since we identified the initial gap in the market. We worked with all of our clients to find an alternative service that would meet their needs but it took much longer for customers to wind down their usage than we had anticipated. We’re proud of our team for stretching to try and make TakeCharge a success and also glad we were able to responsibly wind it down when it became clear it was no longer growing towards sustainability. While TakeCharge did not work out, we believe that a willingness to take risks and fund new experimental ventures to move the sector forward is essential. We’re so grateful that New Media Venturestook a risk on our scrappy team of organizers and engineers. While it was ostensibly a failure we did turn a $25k investment from New Media Ventures into $1.1M in donations to advocacy organizations which is a startlingly good ROI by most measures. Beyond capital NMV also continues to be an invaluable and supportive community of founders for us to be a part of and one we’re committed to continuing to contribute to.

TakeCharge was always fully open source and the code remains available on Github. We’re proud of the organizations we were able to help along the way, but we’re even more excited to be able to focus all of our energy on ControlShift and VisitThem and the amazing distributed organizing that those platforms are facilitating.