Kiva President On The Next 5 Years And Why Zynga Is Their Biggest Rival (TCTV)

Who is Kiva’s biggest competitor?

If you rattled off a list of non-profit-centric startups, the micro-lending site’s President Premal Shah would tell you that you’re dead wrong.

Try Zynga, the gaming behemoth that has given rise to Farmville and Mafia Wars and other disturbingly ubiquitous internet classics. What does virtual fertilizer have to do with micro-finance? Shah says a lot: It’s a never-ending fight for eyeballs and discretionary income.

“I think our biggest competitor is actually, probably Zynga. It’s not other nonprofits it’s actually competing for people’s attention. That fantasy football player in Canton, Ohio who might play two hours of Farmville at night, how do we get them to think about Uganda?…If building a real farm on Kiva can be as compelling as building a virtual farm on Facebook, then I think we’ve done our jobs really well.”

That perception will dramatically shape Kiva’s trajectory.

According to Shah, over the next few years, the non-profit will focus on the integration of game mechanics, social tools, mobile and new philanthropic verticals like green and water loans. In terms of numbers, Shah predicts Kiva will raise $1 billion in microloans by 2015.

Those are mighty goals when you consider that this startup only raised $500,000 in microloans in  2005, its first year of operation, and then $2 million in 2006.From those early months to today, it’s been a dramatic race up the hill for Kiva, which officially celebrates its 5th anniversary in San Francisco this evening.

Since it’s launch, Kiva has grown to 60 employees, operating in San Francisco, New York and a smattering of far flung locales, the organization has also added student loans and (somewhat controversially) loans to US citizens. Kiva’s very far away from the $1 billion mark, but Kiva has raised $170 million in microloans and assisted roughly 400,000 entrepreneurs. Kiva is currently raising $1 million every six days.

Kiva has proven itself to be beyond a fad and the robust growth trend seems to imply that Shah and co-founder Matthew Flannery do not have to worry about stagnation in the near term.

However, during our on an off camera interview, Shah was definitely anxious (as I believe a good president should be) about the changing nature of the web and whether Kiva was tardy in its efforts to innovate. Shah is cooking up an ambitious plan, which he will deploy over the next few years, to overhaul the site from design to structure— remaining true to its principles and its core mission, but adding layers that will make it more social, interactive and simply fun. Not quite a Foursquare (although there will be badges) or Zynga of philanthropy, but rather a more engaging nonprofit that borrows the most successful elements of these internet sensations.

“You can imagine us creating simple things like leader boards, so leaderboards by who’s the top lender in San Francisco. You can imagine us actually creating badges so for example,  a four basic food groups badge, if you lent to a business that sells meats, lends to one that sells dairy, lend to a vegetable farmer, lend to a fruit grower, you know you’d get the four food group badge. You can imagine us creating kind of different ways of personal achievement being realized on the website, I think that one of the most compelling things we can do is giving people a sense that by small actions in the present moment they can really affect the lives of someone else, so beyond just the gaming mechanic, it’s really kind of making sure that the feedback loop between the person that they’re trying to help is really strong and broad.”

On the mobile front, the company is already experimenting in Kenya, where they are working with a local partner to manage an SMS platform to facilitate conversation between Kiva and the people receiving loans (and eventually between lender and recipient). Depending on this  pilot program, Kiva will ultimately roll out this feature to other locations.

Shah is on the right path here.

Unlocking mobile, social and gaming (which the site has not really leveraged) could easily propel Kiva to the $1 billion mark by 2015, or well before. However, there is one major obstacle — one that Shah acknowledges is legitimate, if not issue number one.

Regardless of the roadmap, Kiva needs high quality engineers to come on board. Right now the team has 10, Shah would like to at least double that. He says the hope is to hire 15 people for Kiva’s staff this year, with the majority of that being engineers.

It’s challenging for any startup to recruit Silicon Valley’s top engineers, but for a nonprofit (which generally pays somewhere below the top salary bracket) it’s an especially frustrating task. When I asked Shah why he thought Kiva was not more effective in recruitment, he said part of the problem was a lack of awareness and the cultural attitudes towards the nonprofit sector: “Part of it is people when they think of nonprofits it’s something that they do once a year, maybe around the holidays, a lot of us in the back of our minds wanted to do something all our lives, but only after something happens, like once I retire type of thing. I actually think there’s a growing consciouness…of a lot of people who are talented developers or product managers who want to do something like Kiva just didn’t know that the opportunity exists.”

Bonus footage: Kiva’s Shah expands on his next 5-year plan: