June 7, 2016

The Pain and Poetry of Building a Platform

“I love where this is, you’re going to knock ‘em dead, but I still think the presentation needs more kids in it.” Roland, the founder of Power Poetry was exactly right—I always tend to lead with too much data when making a point. A persuasive presentation must balance the data with the emotional hook, and as usual, Roland reminded me it is about the hundreds of thousands of young poets. We were strategizing about my upcoming Ignite talk at the 16NTC. We wanted to capture the growth story of the largest online poetry platform for young people in the country. Roland continued: “We have to go minds, hearts, and then wallets with this. So, how many people are there, and when are you going to be presenting?”

I described the audience of 2,000 nonprofit techies, when I would be presenting during the event, and whom I would try to connect with. “OK, it will be tough going on the last day. I am sure people will be tired, so take that into account. Remember this is about literacy; this is about empowering young people through the transformative nature of poetry. You’re going to do great. I really wish I could be there.”

Something in the room started beeping and the nurse came in pausing our planning session. Over the past year we hadn’t talked about his cancer and instead kept focused on the work of Power Poetry as we had been doing over the past 5 years of working together. This conversation was the last time we were able to talk in person.

Roland’s Moon Shot

Roland joked many times about our first meeting, “I didn’t understand half the things out of your mouth, but I trusted you knew how to execute my vision.” Roland was the founder of Power Writers, an in-school poetry teaching program that gave rise to the documentary To Be Heard, a story of the transformative impact the program had on 3 young writers in the group. I remember thinking his vision of closing the youth literacy gap in the country through the vehicle of poetry was a moon shot, but his passion was unshakeable. He opened my eyes to the fact that three out of five U.S. prisoners are illiterate, and that the school to prison pipeline is real and is destroying the young people in our country (Source: National Institute for Literacy). I opened his eyes to the power of web platforms to scale and talked him out of building an app.

I deferred to Roland on the content and brand ethos of Power Poetry; he deferred to me on the technical infrastructure and marketing mechanisms. Roland went up the digital learning curve quickly, and became versed in the Google Analytics data that dictated the platform’s success. Our focus on KPIs—number of poems and poets—helped us to stay on the same page when making critical decisions about new feature development or addressing bugs. We were able to quickly test different feature ideas and measure them against the critical metrics of poems and poets generated. Ideas that I thought would originally work, like SMS poetry submissions, turned out to be nightmare (Lesson: teens have a lot more than 165 characters of poetry in them). Ideas that Roland created—like online poetry slams that gave teens a focused topic to write about—turned out to be silver bullets that spurred our growth. We were never afraid to try new ideas and kill the ones that didn’t drive our KPIs.

From the day we launched, it took three years to reach 300k poets on the platform with just as many poems created. With a tiny staff of three, which at one point also included my sister Zee Hoffmann Jones, Power Poetry became the largest poetry platform for teen poetry in the country.

“If you don’t learn to write your own life story, someone else will write it for you”

Roland and my last project together was a video training series for teachers interested in teaching poetry in the Power Writers’ style. The training launched on UDemy on April 20, the same day that Roland passed away. Within 24 hours, the training had over 400 people signed up without any promotion, which means Roland continues teaching poetry.

In his final year, Roland organized the To Be Heard Foundation to be the parent nonprofit of both the Power Writers and Power Poetry programs. Its simple mission is to continue this amazing work of helping youth discover their voices and improve their literacy through the power of poetry. The motto of the organization is, “If you don’t learn to write your own life story, someone else will write it for you.” I serve on the board of the foundation and act as the co-founder/CTO of Power Poetry with the goal of reaching 1 million young poets by 2023—a promise I made in the NTC presentation and to Roland.

George Weiner's 16NTC Ignite presentation

In the presentation at the 16NTC, I closed by saying that this was a story of leveraging technology to enable a small team to achieve outsized results. In truth, for me, it is a story of trust and vision between a poet and a technologist. “The Pain and Poetry of Building A Platform,” the title of my Ignite talk carried a different meaning to me than it did the NTC audience. I am grateful to the NTEN Community for choosing our Ignite presentation and to the team for recording and quickly sharing the presentation in time for Roland to see it. It gave us tremendous pleasure be able to plan for it together before he left the Power Poetry team.

Photo credit: The Nuyorican

George Weiner
George is the Founder and CEO of Whole Whale, a digital agency that leverages data and tech to increase the impact of nonprofits and for-benefit companies, and the co-founder of Power Poetry, the largest teen poetry platform in the U.S. George’s breaching moment in ideating Whole Whale came from his 7 years with DoSomething where, under his leadership as CTO, the organization became an innovator in social media, mobile technology, and social causes. In his time at DoSomething, George oversaw the complete overhaul of DoSomething.org twice (winning a Webby Award and nominations) and helped to build a community of over 1.5 million young people taking action. Realizing that much of DoSomething’s success was owed to smart, lean use of many democratized tech tools (including Google Analytics and the Google Ad Grant), George founded Whole Whale with the goal of helping nonprofits both storied and start-up to move their missions forward with the tools at hand.