Virgance: Harnessing The Community To Save The World (Business Plan Included)

Virgance, a new startup headed by Powerset co-founder Steve Newcomb, is looking to change the world – and make some money doing it. The company, which features the tagline ‘Activism 2.0’, has announced that it has closed a round of seed funding and is already profitable. Now it’s ready to reveal itself to the masses, and hopefully make the world a better place in the process.

Virgance focuses on fostering and promoting benevolent, wide-reaching and important campaigns that also stand a good chance to make money. The Virgance engineering team, headed by VP of Engineering Naseem Hakim (who helped build the very popular Facebook app Circle of Friends), is building a platform designed to help promote these campaigns across a number of social platforms. Newcomb describes the platform as “the next iteration of what President Obama did” – leveraging the power of social media to reach the masses. But these campaigns are not simply about raising awareness – they have to let the community somehow interact, and they have to have a solid business model. Depending on the campaign, Virgance gets a portion of the incoming revenues.

Over the course of the next two years Newcomb plans to deploy as many as 20 campaigns, in the hopes that a handful of them will be “homeruns” (he calls this the ‘EA’ model, likening it to the video game giant that produces dozens of titles a year, a few of which are very successful). The company’s first full-fledged campaign is 1 Block Off The Grid (1BOG), which helps homeowners looking to install solar power systems team together, using their collective buying power to get discounted rates from solar providers.

The system seems to work: in Q4 2008 only around 250 people in San Francisco transitioned to solar; during the campaign’s first quarter, it has already signed up 1,200 people (Virgance’s cut translates to around $1000 per house). Virgance was apparently so pleased with 1BOG’s success that it acquired the effort in November – and it’s likely we’ll see similar acquisitions in the near future. You can explore Virgance’s other four ventures, including on the company’s website, and more are going to be announced at the company’s SF Beta 3.2: the Virgance Equinox event on April 7th.

The company’s name is a reference to Star Wars (it’s from Episode I, so don’t worry if you don’t get it), and refers to a “powerful new force in nature that can be used for good or evil”. Newcomb says that Virgance represents a new force that is powered by the community, but stresses that it is meant solely for good – the company will not support overly negative protests or campaigns, even if they are ultimately supporting a good cause. He also notes that while some may associate Virgance with liberal causes, he has seen positive reactions from many conservatives, explaining that Virgance is just a good idea that appeals to people from all walks of life.

Newcomb has a long history with startups: he previously founded Loudfire, Promptu Mobile, and Powerset (which he left in 2007). He also sits on the board of Serious Business, the company behind the hugely popular Facebook app Friends For Sale.

Newcomb is also taking a unique approach to building his team. Acknowledging that many of the Valley’s best and brightest are keen to create their own startups, Newcomb invites them to work at Virgance with the understanding that they may well decide to move on in a year or two. In light of this “future-founder” mentality, the company holds classes every other week to teach these employees the subtle points of being a startup founder – in many ways, it’s an incubator within a startup. The company also stresses transparency, holding regular meetings where team members can ask each other questions that they “have to answer”.

Virgance seems to have a good thing going, though I question how effectively its team can create a single platform that can be applied towards all of the diverse campaigns the company winds up teaming with (I’m always wary of nebulous platforms that sound too flexible to be true). That said, having to make a few tweaks for each campaign wouldn’t be the end of the world, and it sounds like Virgance won’t have any trouble finding the talent to do it: the company is one of only a few that can claim that it offers a respectable salary and is trying to change the world for the better – an attractive prospect for those engineers who might be growing tired of toiling away on less wide-reaching projects.

There are a few other well-known companies in this space, the best known of which is Causes, which has over 21 million active users on Facebook.