As the co-founder and executive director of the Detroit Water Project, Tiffani Ashley Bell is using technology for social good, insuring that people, no matter their economic status, have access to water by paying their water bill. After founding one technology company that ultimately failed, participating in the NewMe Startup Accelerator, serving as a fellow for Code for America, and now participating in Y Combinator, the Howard University Computer Science graduate has learned many lessons about what it will take to be successful as a technology entrepreneur. Here she shares some of her insight.
EBONY: You were part of that NewMe inaugural class we got to see on CNN’s Black in America series. How did that help you with what you’re doing now?
Tiffani Ashley Bell: I was a gung-ho engineer, and I met a venture capitalist while I was there who helped me to think about improving my business acumen. My old startup Pencil You In, which allowed service providers of all kinds to accept appointments online, was not a technology issue. It was more of a sales problem, and I was not a salesperson or a person who understood how to develop a product from a business perspective, and that caused everything to be less successful than it could’ve been.
Now I’ve taken the time to understand business fundamentals like accounting and finance. Although we are a nonprofit, it’s useful to think about that kind of thing.
EBONY: Most people are creating technology products that only focus on first-world problems. How did you come up with such a pivotal idea that could really change the way utility companies operate?
TAB: When I wake up, I spend my first hour or so scrolling through Twitter, and that day,I read an article in The Atlantic about how over 100,000 people in Detroit were about to be affected by water shut-offs because they couldn’t afford their bills. And regardless of reasons for why they couldn’t afford their bills—whether they were on fixed incomes, single parents, senior citizens—the city-run water company was turning off folks’ water with no regard for their individual issues.
I was in the middle of my Fellowship with Code for America at the time, but that day, I just kept reading about this situation, and more about what people did when they didn’t have water. People were buying jugs; they were taking water from the house next door that wasn’t occupied; they were piping it in from a neighbor. In essence, people were doing the best they could and the city wasn’t really considering this. I tweeted to find out what folks were doing who needed help, and no one had a satisfactory answer. My former co-founder responded saying she would help pay a bill if she could do it directly.
EBONY: So is that when the idea came to life?
TAB: Sort of. I was on the water company website and found a 400 page PDF with information about bills they couldn’t deliver by mail so they put the information online―including account numbers, addresses, and how much was owed. I plugged in several account numbers to the water company website and was able to see things like billing and consumption history for that particular account. There was also a “Make a Payment” button. My thought was, “What if we knew the account numbers of people who needed help and their stories and told people to come to the utility company website to help them with their bills directly?” Doing this, they could see their impact immediately on an individual account as if they were paying their own bill. We started tweeting about what we were doing and the press saw and started reporting on it. Thousands of people were signing up to give money toward bills.
EBONY: How do people get help through the organization?
TAB: All a person has to do is go to the website and apply or go to one of our community partners on the ground in Detroit or Baltimore, where we are also now helping to pay water bills. The community partners will sit and help them fill out the application. Our goal is a maximum of 10 business days to receive a response about the organization helping them. With the automated application process, we pull information from different data sources to help us make the decision.
We know there are limits to using automation and algorithms for this type of work, so whenever someone is denied, a person on staff is notified and they make a final determination. This achieves two things. First, it makes sure no one falls through the cracks, and second, it helps us to improve the algorithm.
EBONY: But couldn’t there be scammers who don’t have a real need?
TAB: We’ve gotten more stringent about qualifying people. The community partners on the ground in Detroit and Baltimore help us vet applicants by collecting documentation and doing interviews to verify need. In terms of algorithms, we use other signals to find out if people are in need or not, such as income history and other information.
EBONY: How many people has the Detroit Water Project helped so far?
TAB: We’ve helped over 900 families with over $230,000 in donations towards their water bills in Baltimore and Detroit.
EBONY: Do you have plans to take the Project further than Detroit and Baltimore, or to perhaps solve more utility payment issues than just water?
TAB: We’re getting applications from all over country, like Louisiana, Texas, Georgia, Arkansas, Florida, and Tennessee. We haven’t launched in those places, but people have applied for assistance. The inability to pay for utilities is a widespread issue, though it’s not well known or very well articulated.
People can’t afford foundational resources. This country solved distributing electricity and water cheaply long ago, but it’s still unaffordable for millions of people. With this program, we can even save homes from foreclosure due to water bills. Water bills can get added to property taxes. There are people whose homes go for tax sale in Baltimore if they are only $350 and three quarters behind on payments. Detroit’s foreclosure policy is a little less well enforced, but it’s based on being three years behind on your property taxes (which can also come from unpaid water bills).
So far, we’ve saved 40 homes in Baltimore from water bill foreclosure. Overall, we have two goals: one, make sure every house with the infrastructure for water has access to it by spreading the platform to other places, and two, to get legislation passed that your water can not be turned off if you can’t afford it.
EBONY: How did your fellowship with Code for America help you to think about the Detroit Water Project?
TAB: I was with Code for America in 2014 working in the City of Atlanta. Code for America’s goal is to help city governments use technology to improve how they deliver services. I did a lot of procurement and transparency work, and I ended up working on solutions to help make it better to do business with the city and for the vendors to have more transparency into the city’s practices like what they were already paying for services.
Developing a new website for the City of Atlanta Department of Procurement was the first step. The team worked on many other open-data projects, like an infrastructure map to help citizens decide how to spend city funds through participatory budgeting for sidewalks that need to be repaired. We also improved the court experience with a court date text message notification system so people don’t receive warrants for failure to appear.
What I learned there included working with open data, as well as how to work with city governments. We got them up to speed on technology. But some of your job as a Fellow is not about the technology, it’s about culture change. In spending time with the mayor and his communications people, I learned how to work with city governments, and who to approach to spark conversations about certain issues.
EBONY: And now there’s Y Combinator, which is pretty huge by the way. How’s that helping you with the business?
TAB: Y Combinator is known as the most prestigious seed fund in Silicon Valley. They help you with growth and getting on the path to becoming a multibillion-dollar company. We came through as a nonprofit, so they help us to massively scale our impact.
It’s a three-month program organized by batches twice a year. In our batch (from January through March 2015) there were 114 companies selected from 6,000 applications, and only three nonprofits were accepted. With the experience they have, they know how to help you scale and focus on your metrics to grow, so for us that was growing donations by a certain percentage each week of the program. They also help you get ready for Demo Day, where you go in front of investors and make a two-minute pitch.
You get to have weekly office hours with the partners, many of whom have founded startups themselves. There’s the weekly one-on-one meetings and then a bi-weekly group session where you get to hear the greatest challenges of each company in your group, and we can all help one another. As you’re learning about other companies’ issues, you’re storing those issues and solutions away.
A lot of people start accelerators and don’t have the experience of running something themselves. All of the partners here have been part of a startup in some way. Y Combinator has worked with over 800 startups before you, and they know what you need to do in certain situations, which is super helpful. Once you’ve completed the program with Demo Day, you can still schedule office hours and have access to over 2,000 alumni who have run companies that you can ask for advice. They also do a great job of keeping up with you and checking on you to make sure you’re doing okay.
EBONY: Like other nonprofits, you will raise money through donations and grants, but what about venture capitalists? Are they interested in a nonprofit? What’s the return for them?
TAB: Fundamentally, VCs are interested in technologies that solve problems. Sure, they are concerned about making a return, but some are concerned about other things than just lining their pockets. One of my investors is that way and he takes an interest in human problems. So, first, he paid a water bill. Then, he reached out to me saying he liked what we were doing and wanted to put his money where his mouth is to support the organization. There are different outcomes involved here than cashing in. We’re a technology-enabled social services startup in that we’re using technology (but only as a tool) to help regular people and the return is the impact we make on the people we help.
EBONY: What other plans do you have for Detroit Water Project? You’ve mentioned it’s a technology-enabled social services startup.
TAB: One of the more longer term things we’re looking at when people apply for assistance is that their inability to pay is for different reasons. Some people have lost their jobs. Some may have lost their jobs only temporarily or had their hours cut. There are those who need a long-term solution and those that only need assistance to deal with the shock of a bill that may have come from a leak.
So we’re looking into why they need help in the first place. Baltimore does consider whether you’re elderly and what kinds of resources may be needed in those situations, such as discounts. Detroit may want to put you on a payment plan. But someone who lost their job is going to need a different response than someone with a leak.
We’re going to examine situations from that perspective and design interventions to help them. Is it useful to give them money for the water bill, or do they need help with something else that’s more long term? We’ll want to help utility companies be more intelligent about how they help people. In some ways, the software can be made to help do that. But there’ll also need to be some sort of aftercare and following up with people for sustainability and longevity. We plan to hire customer support people with social work backgrounds who understand how to work with these kinds of issues and determine how we can help people to get on their feet and not have to need help.
Lynne d Johnson has been writing about music since the early 1990s, tech since the late ’90s, and the intersection of music and technology since the early 2000s. She currently writes, teaches and consults companies on how to better engage with their audiences. Follow her on Twitter @lynneluvah.