Over the summer we wrote about a startup in stealth mode that was attracting a lot of attention from celebrity investors. We called it a “good natured Zynga.”The startup we were talking about is SoJo Studios. It is launching today with its first game, WeTopia, and $8 million in the bank. Ellen Degeneres is an investor; so is at least one other A-list celebrity. Warner Brothers is affiliated with SoJo Studios; Ester Dyson and Dave Morin are on its advisory team. Mattel and Clorox are launch sponsors.
SoJo stands for Social Joy, and it was founded by Kentucky native Lincoln Brown. Brown’s mission is to get people to play online games that actually impact the real world.
In Zynga’s games, users build fake farms and landscapes. In SoJo’s WeTopia, most actions have some sort of real world, charity-driven effect.
Instead of virtual currency, SoJo’s users earn Joy and they can spend it on projects like planting trees or giving schools clean water. Whenever Joy is spent on a project, SoJo gives one of its partnering charities money to accomplish the task, or a similar task, in real life.
The business model begs two big questions: why isn’t SoJo a nonprofit, and how can it possibly make money if it gives it all away?
Brown tells us he wouldn’t have been able to raise the venture capital or hire the talent necessary to make the game if SoJo was a non-profit. He’s gathered a team of 28 people whom he poached from top tech companies like Google.
He also assures us that while SoJo does plan to give charities a lot of the money its users spend, there’s still a way SoJo can make its investors very happy monetarily. It pledges to give away 50% of its net profits, but never less than 20% of its revenue.
Brown has had a few ventures prior to SoJo but none that have been tremendously successful. So how does a founder without a bunch of exits under his belt get so many people, celebrities and tech talent alike, on board without a launched product?
Brown’s contagious passion to make the world a better place seems to suck people in.
Most people say they want to be philanthropic, but Brown is the type of person who actually means it. He came up with the idea for SoJo after the earthquake in Haiti left him feeling devastated. Brown had traveled to Haiti numerous times through his church, so the tragic event felt more personal. “I went through two or three days of feeling despondent — not depressed — but it was because I lost all hope that people in Haiti would get help,” Brown tells us. “About 38 million people gave money to help out in Haiti, but most didn’t know where their money was going. When you give money, sometimes you feel like you’ve been taken and it’s a really bad experience.”
Brown strives to make SoJo more like a child sponsorship experience — users will be able to directly see how their money is being spent in the game and with charities, much like a donater can see pictures of children they help.
“It’s important to know who you’re helping, how you’re helping them, and what difference you’re making in their lives,” says Brown.
Another thing Brown wants SoJo to fix is the messaging that encourages people to donate. “People don’t like to be pressed to give,” says Brown. He estimates that the average person gets asked to give about 27 times per year. With SoJo, Brown makes giving a part of people’s everyday lives. They don’t have to go out of their way to give charities money. The charities are built into the games.
WeTopia is the first of a few games SoJo will release on Facebook. More will come during the first quarter of next year. Partnering charities include Save the Children, Children’s HealthFund and buildOn. Ellen DeGeneres will promote the show in multiple episodes of her show too.
“Play for good — that’s our tag line,” says Brown. “Figuring out how to do good and have fun is a fine line. With SoJo’s games, we want people to live in a magical world and contribute to good causes as they see fit.”