(Screenshot via YouTube)
For Thunderclap founder Dave Cascino, the path to internet success took him from tree farming in Minnesota to nearly being eaten by a grizzly bear in Alaska, to Wall Street, to Occupy Wall Street, and now, finally, to family life in Williamsburg.
Thunderclap bills itself as “The first crowdspeaking platform that allows you to lend your voice to causes and ideas you believe in.” A bit like Kickstarter for building buzz, the service allows people to build a social media campaign, asking for the donation of Facebook and Twitter statuses.
Three years after its launch, it has 2.5 million users, about 8,000 campaigns per day, and has been used by the likes of the White House for getting the word out.
On a recent sweltering Friday evening, Cascino sat down for a beer to tell me about his life. He keeps a paleo diet, so the beer was a significant cheat for him (fwiw, the first evidence of beer comes post-domestication, about 7,000 years ago in what’s now Iran). He was wearing the Dave Cascino Look, which is a black T-shirt, nondescript pants, black square glasses, and a beige hat with no logo.
Cascino dropped out of college at West Virginia University after two years and worked odd jobs around the country: at a factory in Arizona, a shipping facility in Indiana, a tree farm in Minnesota.
While at the tree farm, he got an offer from a guy he’d met to join his salmon fishing operation in Alaska. Cascino agreed, and soon after was on a days-long drive on the famed Alcan Highway (the legendary road of the north) to Anchorage. From Anchorage, Cascino and his boss took a private plane to the fishing operation, which was near an Inuit village on the Bering Sea.
Salmon fishing was an adventure.
One day Cascino was driving a three-wheeler to go pick up supplies on the beach. Two massive, dead walruses had washed up on the beach and were being devoured by two grizzly bears. Cascino was having a bit of fun, driving in and out of the water, but realized he was also being slowed down by the wet sand.
“I went from 35 [miles per hour] to 30 to 25 and pretty soon I was at a near stop. I also realized behind me there were the two bears following me,” he recalled. Here’s the full thought, worth the length:
I could see the muscles bulging in their chest. It’s true your life does pass before your eyes. I thought about my family and friends and girlfriend and my mom getting the call. Then I thought of ways to get out of there, stupid stuff like poke ’em in the eye or play dead. Then the third thing that passed through my head was a Kawasaki commercial from the ’80s. It was a guy bouncing up and down on a motorcycle, and so I did that and it loosened up the wheels, and I got a bit further and hit a hard pack on the sand and was able to speed away. For the rest of the day my heart was pounding so fast in my chest I thought I was going to crack a rib.
Eventually Cascsino had enough of wandering and went back to school at SUNY Albany. After school he got a job at the high frequency trading firm Datek, which was an early pioneer of algorithm-dependent trading (and later acquired by Ameritrade for $1.3 billion). It was there that Cascino learned to code and learned that he loved doing it. After awhile he and a friend from Datek left and built their own algorithm and traded off it, doing quite well.
In 2008, the market cratered, and Cascino looked for something else to do. He found out about StartupBus and applied.
“Basically you pack 30-40 strangers on a bus from Silicon Valley to SXSW in Austin,” he explained. “You had three days to build a startup. I had such a blast on that when I got back to New York, I quit my job and started working on all these ideas I’d had for years.”
One of those ideas was Thunderclap.
One day in 2011, while passing Zuccotti Park near Wall Street, Cascino watched the protestors use human microphone in action. He wondered if there was a way people could do the same thing, amplifying one message, but digitally.
That night he worked on Thunderclap into the morning, and within two weeks he had a workable product that he shared with friends in the product studio he was working in. One of those people knew Rolling Stone reporter Matt Taibbi, who was trying to start a campaign against SOPA/PIPA, the online piracy bill going through Congress at the time.
Taibbi tried out Thunderclap. It was a tremendous success.
— Matt Taibbi (@mtaibbi) June 6, 2012
“Within 24 hours he got like 2,000 supporters,” Cascino said. “After a couple of days we were like, ‘This thing works!'”
In total, the campaign reached more than 4 million people. “We got all this press coverage and then right on the heels of that Twitter shut us down. So we went from this high to ‘we’re done’ in like 48 hours.”
It took a month, but eventually Twitter came around that the company was not actually abusing the medium, but potentially improving it.
After the Taibbi campaign, the White House took note and used it for a campaign of its own. And then several other federal agencies used it as well. Then the United Nations, which teamed up with Beyonce and Ridley Scott to use it for World Humanitarian Day. That campaign reached over a billion people on social media.
“That was all cool but we were still a totally free product,” Cascino said. “I was funding it with my trading money, which was originally slated for my kids’ college educations, but it was working and my wife was right there behind me. That’s when we said, ‘Let’s monetize this but still make it accessible.'”
Thunderclap adopted a freemium model, where to enhance a campaign’s reach, additional features have been added on, which generate revenue. About 20 percent of campaigns use these features, and the service is now about at a break-even point, even after having been built out to have four employees.
The next step for Thunderclap is a move to push notifications. The team is building out a new app called Crescendo, which aims to harness the power of Thunderclap, but also keep audiences engaged with news and updates from their causes pushed directly to their phones.
Cascino has high hopes for the new app, but of course, it’s impossible to know what will happen. He is, history would indicate, up for an adventure.