Ben Rattray, the founder and CEO of Change.org, remembers the pivotal moment as if it were yesterday, even though it was more than a decade ago. There was a single key exchange between Rattray and a sibling that propelled him, inexorably, toward launching Change.org.
“I was talking with my younger brother, Nick,” recalls Rattray, who in 2002 was a senior at Stanford. “He was coming out as gay, and he was sharing with me what most affected him as a closeted gay American: It was that so many people refused to speak out against those who were anti-gay. There were just good people who stood by and did nothing. I suddenly felt ashamed at what I had not done.”
But more than shame, Rattray, who was born in Santa Barbara, Calif., felt compelled to alter what had seemed his inevitable trajectory toward a career in investment banking. Instead he sat down and over three days sketched out the skeletal outlines of a business plan for what would become Change.org.
“At that point,” Rattray, 33, says, “I was totally gripped by the idea and I couldn’t imagine not pursuing it.”
The “idea” was for an organization that could help people create the change they sought in whatever issue, large or small, that they cared about. The emphasis would be on “empowering” movements through the accrual of signatures from across the globe in support of a cause.
“It is precisely through our petitions that a very big cause or notion—like further environmental protection—becomes manageable, say, through cutting down on the use of plastic bags,” Rattray says. “Suddenly that makes the global issue more workable. It’s so inspiring to be in an organization where everyday people can unite their voices around a common objective.”
Petitions formed through the company have become some of the most famous grassroots campaigns in recent memory: A 22-year-old collected 300,000 signatures to persuade Bank of America to drop a monthly fee for debit card customers; more than 1 million people in Spain signed on to demand the resignations of the prime minister and others accused of corruption.
Recently, with Change.org marking 45 million users and aggressively looking to expand its global presence, Rattray felt it necessary to make a bold hiring move when it came to Change.org’s next vice president of sales.
Enter Amanda Levy.
“After already chatting with people involved in running large sales teams at Google and Yahoo, we brought in Amanda,” Rattray says. “And I remember our president and COO, after talking with her, walking into my office, shutting my door, and simply saying: ‘We’ve found our new VP of sales.’ ”
It takes little more than a nanosecond of speaking to Levy to feel her irrepressible love for pushing products and ideas. In July she assumed her influential position within Change.org—already the Internet’s dominant petition platform—a fitting position given the devotion to selling that’s in her DNA, inherited from a commercial real estate salesman father. It has fueled her rise from a graduate in urban studies and development planning at Cal-Berkeley, through her contribution to the now-legendary sales growth at Yelp, and then to Twitter.
After engineering stellar sales results at both of those Web 2.0 giants, Levy became a prized recruit for Change.org.
When SUCCESS caught up with the 32-year-old, she had been in her new post all of seven weeks, but her freshness at the position didn’t prevent her from sharing an insight or two on her already extensive track record of sales and marketing success.
Q: Often business-people find ways to complicate things. Do you have a simple philosophy about sales?
A: When all is said and done, sales is really a transfer of enthusiasm from one person to another. And when it comes right down to it, I simply love selling. I embrace it and am extremely proud of it.
Q: Did you learn something from your father that made you a natural?
A: My dad could sell anything, and he would always do it in a very honest and respectable way. I just grew up with salesmanship in my blood, and learned all the basics starting with how to shake hands in a firm way. My dad and mom taught me that the path to success is about finding that hardcore enthusiasm for whatever you do. I love what I’m selling, and that is always critical to my success.
Q: If you had to boil down the formula for successfully managing a sales team, what would the elements be?
A: I believe in being totally direct and crystal-clear transparent with everything I do. I don’t hide anything in conveying what I believe we need to achieve and how each person is part of that goal. When I started at Change and wanted to cultivate those goals from the bottom up, my personal target was to meet with everyone for one hour to understand who they are and where they are coming from, including their motivations. I wanted feedback on what is happening in their jobs and, most importantly, how I can help them.
Overall, my desire is always to get my staff to totally buy in to a clearly articulated vision and then to execute on that vision—usually by removing every obstacle in my team’s way.
Q: If you had to boil it down, what would be the most important keys to being successful in your particular position?
A: Goal setting may be the most important thing you can do to be successful. You should have every single person on your team have a series of goals broken down by quarter, by month, by week, even by day. And these shouldn’t just be a cold matrix of numbers-related goals for personal improvement, but rather they should mean something: They should be written down, in front of each team member, and should be looked at every day, helping to chart progress on a daily, weekly, or monthly basis.
Q: What is your main motivation when you sell to someone, and what fundamentally drives you to achieve the success you have?
A: Well, in the case of Change.org, it is my desire to have an impact on doing something good in the world. But I realized through my earliest jobs that one of the vital factors for me being good at what I do is being passionate about the product I’m selling. I know in my heart that this product will work so well for them. So for me, Change.org is very easy to sell…. We sell permission-based connections between organizations and aligned supporters. We sell to organizations that rely on individual donations, advocacy or other forms of people power to drive their movements and campaigns.
I find success because I’m always incredibly proud of each of the companies whose product I’m selling. Secondly, I really want to win. When my team is winning, I’m winning. To fire up a sales team is an unbelievable thrill for me.
Q: Is there an underlying emotion you bring to your work that is responsible for your success?
A: I strongly believe in being scrappy—scrappy and the underdog—regardless of the economic times we are living in. I want to take what I’m doing as far as humanly possible.
Q: In a rather nonconformist decision, you took a year off from the sales world before starting at Change.org. Why?
A: I did take all of last year off because, after all those early successes, I wanted to make sure my professional and my personal lives were aligned when it came to enjoying successes in both. For sure, it was a scary thing to do, but it was the right time and the right place to travel the world and do everything from volunteer community work in South Africa to living in a hut on an animal reserve. In many ways it was life-altering. When I came back, I knew I wanted to channel my skill set toward a successful sales team on behalf of an organization that would have a positive impact on the world—namely Change.org.
Q: Why do you like working for dot-coms, in particular?
A: I feel that an Internet company has to be especially good at one thing. The companies that try to dominate a large swath of ideas or products—I’m not sure they do as well as those that are focused on doing one thing very well.
Take Twitter: It was always only going to be about a new way to communicate, using 140 characters. It was the simplest of things, but it completely changed the way people communicate. With Change.org, we are a petition platform. There are 1,000 other things we could be, but all we want to be is the best social change petition platform.
Q: You have a lot of time to continue building a legacy, but is there something you would most like to be remembered for?
A: I want to be remembered for being an accomplished female leader in the tech world. I would like to be a person who is respected and can be considered a role model for others, showing that anything is possible, regardless of gender. You simply have to put your mind to it.