Yesterday, Sprouter, a site that allows entrepreneurs from all over the world to network and collaborate, posted their interview with our beloved Chipotle-winning, banana-costume-wearing boss, Ethan Austin, on their blog! In it, Ethan reveals the origins of GiveForward, some tips for other entrepreneurs (plus a super secret important tip on how ESSENTIAL interns are for success ;) ), and a look at GiveForward’s future. Thanks for picking Ethan’s brain, Sprouter!
by Erin Bury
Social media for social good is an emerging trend – using online tools to make a difference for different causes around the world. In our latest edition of Sprouter Talks we interview a Chicago-based startup called GiveForward. GiveForward has the tagline “fundraising made simple” – it’s an online fundraising tool started by Desiree Vargas and Ethan Austin. They had the idea that they could change the world by making it easy for people to raise money online for the things they care about. Individuals and organizations can sign up for their own free fundraising page on the site, and direct people to it to donate. Donors can search for causes they want to support in their community, or can use the Give5 feature – select your interests, projects are suggested, and you choose your top 5 and give $1 to each. We spoke to Ethan Austin, Co-founder & second banana at GiveForward, about why you need to be flexible at your startup, why interns are key, and why weird is good.
Sprouter: Tell us about how you got the idea for GiveForward and how you started it.
Ethan Austin: My partner Desiree Vargas is the one who came up with the concept for GiveForward. It all started with an idea she had for an adult internship program, where 20-somethings could leave their boring, entry-level jobs to temporarily pursue another field with the hopes of transitioning into that industry. She was trying to figure out how to fund the program, and having been involved in web design at her former job at the Kauffman Foundation, she instantly thought of doing something online. Shortly after, she decided to scrap the adult internship program and instead create a site that would let people raise money for anything…charities, new companies, research projects, volunteer travel, even medical expenses.
S: What were your biggest challenges starting GiveForward?
EA: The fact that there never seems to be enough hours in the day. That and a lack of cash. Our marketing budget pretty much consists of a few t-shirts and some misprinted beer cozies we got for free a few years back. We’ve been really fortunate to have an awesome community of users who have spread the word for us, but at the same time, it would be nice to have even a modest marketing budget to help spread the word faster.
S: What are the top 3 tips you’d give to early-stage entrepreneurs?
EA: Go the extra mile to be super-nice to your customers. Think about how much it sucks when you call up your bank or your cable provider and they put you on hold for twenty minutes, transfer you to three different people and then accidentally hang up on you. This is the kind of stuff people love to complain about to their friends. You want your company to be the opposite of this. If you go out of your way to treat your customers like kings and queens they are going to tell others about your company. Word will spread and your business will grow.
Weird is good. Don’t be afraid to be yourself. People like authenticity, so let your personality shine through. If the objective of your communication strategy is to avoid offending people, your company is going to come off as bland and sterile and no one’s going to remember you. Sure, you might succeed in not offending anyone, but you’re not going to win any fans this way, and as a young company that’s what you need to be doing.
Be flexible. One of the most important things for early-stage entrepreneurs is a willingness to adapt your business to the needs of the market. Initially, we anticipated that the largest number of our users would start fundraisers for non-profits. But instead, our users kept using the site to raise money to help their friends pay for medical bills. While we always anticipated that people would use the site for medical expenses, we never realized how just how huge a need it actually is. Now medical fundraisers are 80% of our business and our primary focus.
I know you asked for three tips, but I’m going to throw in a super-secret bonus fourth tip for free: Get yourself some interns! Interns = Supreme Awesomeness and will allow you to accomplish way more than you could otherwise. Plus they make going to work a lot more fun. I mean, honestly, without interns, how can you have an interns vs. bosses 2 lb burrito eating contest? That was a trick question. The answer is you can’t.
S: What do you think can be a game-changer for an early-stage startup?
EA: That’s hard to say because we haven’t had a game-changer moment yet. I suppose creating an iPhone App that lands you on an Apple commercial or getting yourself on that Oprah show could be kind of helpful.
S: What’s coming up at GiveForward?
EA: Partnerships with health-related organizations. In 2010 we’ll be looking to hook up with hospitals, cancer centers and other health-related non-profits so that we can reach more families who need help paying for their medical expenses. If you know any hospitals or health-related organizations that could use our services to help the families they serve, give us a holler and we’ll send you a virtual high five! firstname.lastname@example.org
You can reach Ethan on Sprouter here.