Joshua Browder graciously gave some of his time to talk with me about DoNotPay's past, present and future. Here's what I learned.
For a 22 year old, Joshua Browder has already made a few enemies. When your main business model is creating what he calls a "consumer union," big businesses tend to take notice. So far he has helped people overturn thousands of parking tickets, allowed them the ability to sue Equifax for thousands, and given customer service a taste of their own medicine by putting them on hold. Incredibly, Browder has done it all within one app called DoNotPay.
When I first heard about DoNotPay and its many features, I was absolutely intrigued. It seemed to me like a swiss-army knife for saving and earning money, but with no clear scope. Browder, however, knows exactly what it's supposed to be. "I think of DoNotPay as the world's first robot lawyer," he tells me over the phone. "And what that means is a digital advocate for consumers to help them fight back against corporations and governments."
The idea was born out of necessity. After Browder received his driver license at the age of 18, he quickly accrued around 30 parking tickets. "I didn't have the money to pay for tickets or hire an expensive lawyer," Browder says. So he began to appeal his tickets and found himself writing the same letter over and over again. "I thought that there must be a better way," he continues, "and it turns out software is very good at understanding rules, so I created the first version [of DoNotPay] just for a few friends and family."
It grew quickly. Within the span of a couple years, his software helped overturn more than 160,000 tickets. This got Browder thinking about similar issues that could be automated.
"I think that the average person doesn't really have an advocate to fight for them. The short-term vision is just to build really useful products that help people fight back. The long-term vision is almost a consumer union where we can actually go to these companies and say, 'We have 5 million DoNotPay users and 5 million of your customers. If you don't start treating them better, we'll switch them to your competitor overnight.' With numbers there's lots of power and I think that could really help people fight and get leverage."
Why is Browder so bent on helping people fight the establishment? He gets it honestly. His father, Bill Browder, is a political activist who lobbied for the Magnitsky Act that allows the US government to freeze assets of who it sees as human rights offenders. The act was named after Bill Browder's Russian lawyer, Sergei Magnitsky, who died of inhumane conditions in a Russian prison for his role in exposing the Russian government's rampant tax fraud.
It's events like these that have shaped Browder's perspective. "The main thing I got from [my family] is that I'm not really scared to take on the establishment. We're hopefully trying to replace lawyers and that can be scary at times." Browder adds, "Then I take a step back and realize all of the things [my family has] done and they've got a lot more powerful enemies. So what would typically scare the ordinary person, doesn't really scare me."
On behalf of Brian McCullough from the Techmeme Ride Home podcast, I asked Browder just how many more services they can create. He responds, "We have a whiteboard in the office with 50 different new services that we plan on eventually launching. There are so many exciting things. But to describe them I would say, anything you can imagine, we've thought about, and we probably have some spin on it coming soon."
Hearing this, I expressed my concern about the scope of DoNotPay. He responded confidently, "When we think about a new problem to solve, it has to be a consumer rights problem, it has be something over 50 million people experience in the US, and it has to be something we can solve in an automated way."
One of these new features is a big one. It involves the California Consumer Privacy Act (CCPA) that goes into effect on January 1st, 2020. The CCPA intends to give Californian consumers more control over what personal data companies are storing.
The intentions of the Act are to provide California residents with the right to:
1. Know what personal data is being collected about them.
2. Know whether their personal data is sold or disclosed and to whom.
3. Say no to the sale of personal data.
4. Access their personal data.
5. Request a business delete any personal information about a consumer collected from that consumer.
6. Not be discriminated against for exercising their privacy rights.
Reference: CCPA Fact Sheet
For companies like Google, Facebook, Amazon, and their colleagues, this is a big deal. However, Joshua doesn't think they're ready. "Our understanding is that lots of companies aren't equipped to deal with a flood of requests once [the CCPA] comes into effect. So on January 1st, we plan on spamming companies with privacy requests. Some of them, hopefully, will go under with these huge number of requests."
To help him create these new services, he recently raised $4.6 million in seed funding led by Felicis Ventures. "It's a lot of pressure because obviously we need to build a great company that lasts for one hundred years." The pressure of building a legacy isn't stopping him. In fact it's had the opposite effect. "I am very excited because when I started DoNotPay, it was just me in my dorm room. You know, if I had an assignment in college, I would sometimes forget to keep the servers up and the whole thing would crash. Now I have an amazing team. We're just brainstorming and designing every day."
After talking to Joshua Browder, I felt as if I understood DoNotPay better. Even though the company currently offers over 100 services, they're really focused on one thing: giving people the power to speak up. By removing costly lawyers and the stress of paperwork from the equation, the power needle moves further from corporate entities and closer to consumers.
As Browder put it, "I think it's come a long way from helping me get out of my parking tickets."
Special thanks to Jacob Tender for contributing his editing skills to this article.
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