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Why Crowdfunding Isn’t Enough

why crowdfunding isn't enough

When we launched GiveForward in 2008, we were innovating a brand new concept. The term crowdfunding hadn’t been popularized yet, Kickstarter was still months away from launching, and the idea that one could simply set up a site on the Internet and ask friends and family to contribute to a medical fund was completely novel.

Today, we are in a different world. It’s hard to imagine someone who hasn’t contributed to a medical crowdfunding campaign either for a friend, a family member, or for someone they read about in the news.

To date, millions of people have visited GiveForward and raised over $170 million for out-of-pocket medical expenses and life-saving treatments. We boast a net promoter score higher than Apple or Zappos and our office walls are filled with handwritten cards from users (we call them “hugs”) exclaiming how GiveForward has changed their lives. It’s been easy to feel good about what we are doing.

But the reality is we grew complacent.

Simply put, we stopped innovating. Until one day last year we finally woke up and realized that the industry we had helped pioneer had become commoditized — a giant indistinguishable mass of crowdfunding platforms all offering a nearly identical feature set. Even more remarkable than this convergence towards the norm was the realization that every platform, including GiveForward, looked and functioned almost exactly as it did five years ago. Complacency had steamrolled innovation.

So late last year we decided it was time to take a step back and reexamine EVERYTHING. We asked ourselves a single question:

Are we really solving the problems of our users?

When we opened up a dialogue with our community the answer we got back was a resounding no. We were only solving a tiny portion of the challenges our community faced. It turns out crowdfunding just isn’t enough. So we set out to build a better solution.

Evolving Beyond Crowdfunding

Someone going through an illness or a challenging life event needs much more than financial support. They also need meals coordinated and delivered, extra help with childcare, transportation to and from treatment, and a way to communicate updates with friends and family. Most importantly, they need a community to rally behind them and let them know that they’re not alone. Until now, people would have had to navigate four or five different sites to tackle all these needs.

Starting today, they will need just one: GiveForward.


This morning, we announced the launch of the new GiveForward, a centralized place where friends go to help the people they care about in many different ways — everything from sharing photos and “thinking of yous” to coordinating meals, sending needed wishlist items and raising money for out-of-pocket expenses. We want GiveForward to be the first place people turn when someone they know is going through a major life event. But just as importantly, we want it to be the place they come back to again and again to support their friend throughout their journey.

What’s really exciting for us is that we’re already seeing this happen. During our beta period of 1650 new GiveForward pages, we saw a 322% increase in returning users as compared to our legacy fundraising pages. People are coming back, sharing and giving in new and different ways. We see this as a beacon of promise.

Looking Towards The Future

Our new vision has made 2015 our most transformative year yet. This evolution beyond crowdfunding helped us attract a new CEO and some of Chicago’s best executive and product talent to our team. It also helped earn us our biggest partnership to date. This month marks the beginning of our partnership with Nationwide Insurance, a company whose mission aligns so much with our own. When we told them about our vision for the new GiveForward, we couldn’t believe how quickly they embraced it and moved to help make it a reality. Nationwide is a Fortune 100 company, but we’re lucky that they also happen to be one of the most innovative companies in the world. We believe that the new GiveForward will be built on partnerships like this one with companies that share our values and care deeply about making people’s lives easier when they need it the most.

For GiveForward, 2015 is going to be a year of taking what we started to the next level. In 2008 we pioneered the world of medical crowdfunding, but we didn’t go nearly far enough. Today we’re evolving the world of crowdfunding into something that truly solves the needs of people going through life’s biggest challenges. It’s exciting to be innovating again. Suffice to say, we’re through being complacent.

Colleges Should Get Rid of First-Week Orientation and Replace Them with Startup Weekends

image via Webrazzi

I attended my first Startup Weekend in 2012. I fell in love. It was raw and exciting, and the energy coursing through the building was electric. While there I met two guys, Jimmy Odom and Kirk Lashley who were working on an idea called Ratingskick in a hallway covered in pizza boxes. For the life of me, I couldn’t understand what their company was actually supposed to do, but I loved the passion that these guys had. It was contagious. They ended up winning the “Most Innovative Company” award.

After the weekend, Kirk and Jimmy (who had just met eachother at the event) decided to try to bring RatingsKick to life. It didn’t work out, but a few months later, while Kirk was on vacation, Jimmy attended another Startup Weekend with a new idea for a delivery service. This time Jimmy met Daniella Bolzmann. The two of them would work on a company pitch and ultimately they won the competition.

After winning, Jimmy, Kirk and Daniella decided to make the company a reality. They called it WeDeliver. They built a product, raised a seed round, hired a team, processed millions of dollars of transactions and two years later were accepted to join the Chicago Techstars class of 2014. On top of a great company, the three of them created lifelong friendships out of random couple of weekends. That’s the magic of Startup Weekend.

WeDeliver team with Mayor Rahm Emanuel at Chicago’s Techweek

Earlier this week Techstars announced that it had acquired UP Global, the parent company of Startup Weekend. This is a big win for Techstars and an even bigger win for the global startup ecosystem.

In acquiring Up Global and their 1000 global startup events per year, Techstars Techstars is helping to facilitate serendipity, or as David Cohen likes to say helping people become more “open to randomness.” Perhaps most importantly, Techstars is helping to widen the highway of the entrepreneurial journey. It’s making entrepreneurship more accessible to millions of people around the world and widening the funnel for the global startup talent pool. Not every company will become the next WeDeliver, but more people will, for the first time in their lives, truly believe that entrepreneurship is a real career path they can pursue. And this is a great thing.


Techstars has made it clear that it doesn’t plan to change up anything major with Startup Weekend, but if their goal is to truly widen the highway for the entrepreneurial journey, I think they should partner with universities across the world so that all students are exposed to technology and entrepreneurship at an earlier stage.  Imagine if colleges got rid of their regular first-week orientation activities and instead replaced it with a Startup Weekend?  How cool would that be?  How many more Wedelivers would the world have today?

UPDATE:  5/25/15

A day or so after I published this post, WeDeliver was acquired.  Congrats to the team!

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Is Social Entrepreneurship a Scam?

Compassionate Capitalism

Former Chester French frontman, D.A. Wallach wrote an essay on Medium the other day called “When Mother Teresa Drives a Ferrari: Why Compassionate Capitalism is Kind of a Scam.”

In it, he argues that compassionate capitalism is not a viable path and that the worlds of business and social good should be separate. He specifically points out the alleged inequity of the one-for-one model popularized by TOMS shoes, which he believes exploits the poor in order to sell more commercial products. At the end of his essay, he invites the public to post their rebuttal. Here’s mine.

Don’t Throw the Baby Out with the Bathwater

As someone who has run a for-profit, social venture for the last seven years where the societal good is baked directly into the product, I can assure you that the TOMS one-for-one model does not represent the entirety of the compassionate capitalism movement. In my opinion, the best social ventures, those like Kickstarter, bake societal good right into the product rather than tacking it on at the end.  I personally think TOMS does more good then harm, and while Wallach may have some legitimate concerns with the TOMS model, reducing the entire compassionate capitalism movement to a single shoe retailer is a whack argument.

Profit and Societal Good are Not Mutually Exclusive

In rejecting compassionate capitalism, Wallach argues for a future where we celebrate the “baldly ambitious capitalists” rather than the “confused philanthro-entrepreneurs ” — a future where social justice is exclusively the domain of do-gooders working at non-profits, and making money is exclusively the domain of the “rapacious business person.”

For example, in Wallach’s world:

If you start an oil company that poisons the earth for future generations you should be celebrated for your baldly ambitious thirst for wealth. Well done, sir! Enjoy your G6.

Or what if you start a candy company that uses child slaves in Africa to pick the cacao so you can sell a Snickers for just 99 cents? High-five for you, you savvy capitalist. That’s a great comparative advantage you’ve discovered!

But if you start a shoe company like TOMS that donates a pair of shoes to an impoverished child for every pair of shoes purchased? Whoa, whoa, whoa. Hold up, there, you wolf in sheep’s clothing!!! You’ve just crossed a serious ethical boundary.

How does this make any sense?

It doesn’t.

If we take Wallach’s argument to its logical conclusion we are accepting a society where doctors, nurses, fireman and teachers deserve to live in poverty because they choose to help others, while those who work in fields that yield no societal benefits (think high frequency traders) deserve to profit off of others simply because they are explicit and open about their profit motives. This is not a world in which I would like to live.  The idea that profit and social good must be bifurcated is a false dichotomy we should reject

Who Has the Right to Drive the Ferrari?

To make his point that doing good and doing well are contradictory in nature, Wallach asks the rhetorical question:

“What if Mother Teresa drove a Ferrari? You’d be bothered, right?”

My answer to that is a resounding no. If Mother Teresa is generating an abundance of societal good in the world, then let her drive as many Ferraris as she wants.

Getting bothered by Mother Teresa driving a Ferrari is about as logical as a CEO telling her top salesperson to stop making so many sales because it’s not fair he’s personally getting rich from his commissions. If the salesperson is creating an abundance of enterprise value for the company, give him the Ferrari. If Mother Teresa is creating an abundance of value for society, she deserves the Ferrari too.

And you know what? The reality is that the Mother Teresas of the world already do drive Ferraris — They have for a long time. They’re called pediatricians and they are the ones who save kiddos’ lives on a daily basis. They possess a scarce set of skills and create an immense amount of societal good. Because of this, the average pediatrician earns $173,000 a year. And yes, some of them do, in fact, drive Ferraris

Is that okay? I think it is.

If, as a society, we can largely agree that it’s okay for a pediatrician to earn $173,000 a year in exchange for all the value she creates in society, why should we be uncomfortable if a twenty-one-year-old social entrepreneur does the same?

The only major difference between the doctor and the social entrepreneur is scale.

For instance, let’s say a surgeon can perform 100 life-saving surgeries per year and earns $7000 per surgery for a total of $700,000 per year. The limiting factor of her earning potential is her ability to scale. But what if she figured out a new technology that allowed her to perform 1000 life-saving surgeries per year instead of 100, and she was able to do them at half the cost? As a society, we would all benefit from this technological advancement. She would save 10X as many lives at half the cost to the consumer. In exchange, she would earn $3.5million a year for her work. Everyone in this situation is better off.

This is EXACTLY what compassionate capitalists do. They tackle the world’s biggest problems, like healthcare, hunger and global warming, and they use technology to figure out how to solve these problems at scale.

Elizabeth Holmes is a prime example. Holmes is the 31-year-old founder of Theranos, a blood testing company based out of California. After her uncle died of cancer that was caught too late, Holmes dropped out of Stanford in 2003 determined to find a way to detect diseases earlier. Fueled by her passion to improve the world, she developed a way to test a drop of blood at a fraction of the price of commercial labs. According to Forbes, the Theranos process is faster, cheaper and less painful than traditional blood tests and can run up to seventy screens at the same time. Holmes’ ingenuity will help save millions of lives and has already created an immense amount of societal good. Today her company is worth $9 Billion and she is the world’s youngest self-made woman billionaire with a networth of $4.5 Billion

THIS is compassionate capitalism at it’s finest. This is a formula that works.

As Dan Pallotta eloquently explained in his 2013 TED talk, the existing non-profit model — the Wallach model, is dead. The Holmes model is the model of the future.

My Own Experience With Compassionate Capitalism

Having started one of the first startups in Chicago to have success with a compassionate capitalism model, my co-founder, Desiree Vargas Wrigley and I have faced a continuous uphill battle trying to convince the D.A. Wallachs of the world that this new paradigm works. In the early years, it was the old-school VCs who would often say things like “I love everything about your business, but there’s just one thing I can’t get behind. It feels like you should be, you know, a non-profit or something.”

They couldn’t wrap their heads around this new world where black and white is not clearly delineated. To be fair, it wasn’t exclusively Chicago VCs, it was almost all VCs. The idea of a for-profit business that did good simply made their heads explode.

In fact, in 2012 when we were raising our Series A, this issue became such a deal breaker with so many VCs that eventually we decided to get the question out of the way before we’d even open our deck.

We would start pitch meetings by saying:

“Before we go any further, how do you feel about investing in a company that is going to do a ton of good in this world and is also going to make you a ton of money?”

When we pitched Phin Barnes and Josh Kopelman at First Round Capital, Josh responded “Are you asking if you need to add gambling to make us interested?”

Of course, Josh was joking.

The forward thinking VCs, like Josh and Phin at First Round Capital, Eric Paley at Founder Collective and Matt McCall at Pritzker VC — they got it. They understood that the world was changing and that for-profit businesses could both do good and do well at the same time.

Fortunately for us, they all decided to invest. And because of that, today we have helped save thousands of lives and kept tens of thousands of families out of medical bankruptcy. To me, this is an unqualified and resounding win for compassionate capitalism. There’s simply no way we could ever have done what we are doing as a 501(c)(3) non-profit. Our company could not have scaled. Families would have gone bankrupt. People would have died. And this, in my opinion, is why D.A. Wallach is wrong.

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GoFundMe’s $500 Million Valuation – How Medical Crowdfunding is Eating the World – Part 2

When TechCrunch reported last week that GoFundMe was raising capital at a $500 Million valuation, I decided to write a two-part blog post discussing how a crowdfunding site not named Kickstarter could attract such a high valuation. The short answer is that it has to do with the exponential growth of medical crowdfunding.

Part One of the post laid out the reasons why medical crowdfunding is quickly becoming the largest category in crowdfunding. Part Two of this blog post answers the question of “why now?”

To recap from Part One, the rapid growth in medical crowdfunding over the last five years has to do with three underlying factors:

1.  There is a massive healthcare problem in the US

Americans spend $400 Billion on out-of-pocket medical expenses each year for things that insurance doesn’t cover like co-pays, travel to and from treatment and lost wages)

2.  Healthcare costs are rapidly outpacing wages.

Increasing income inequality is hurting average Americans.  Healthcare premiums have increased close to 200% over the past 15 years while wages have only increased marginally.

3.  Medical crowdfunding changes lives.

Medical Crowdfunding campaigns have become the modern day way of letting someone know “we love you. You’re not alone.”

But Why Now?  

Modern day crowdfunding sites have existed since around 2008. Yet the New York Times reported in January that the tidal shift in the  medical crowdfunding space is just beginning.  If medical crowdfunding truly is eating the world, the next big question is why now? Why 2015?  The answer has to do with changing demographics and the evolution of social norms.

1.  Demographic shift –  Crowdfunding is moving beyond the twenty-something-early-adopter and towards the thirty-something early majority.

To understand the story of medical crowdfunding, we need to first understand the history of crowdfunding and who were the early adopters.  The story begins with Kickstarter and artists.

If we imagine someone starting a Kickstarter campaign in 2010 to produce a new album or a documentary, we could imagine that he might look like this guy.  Let’s call him Sebastian.

Hipster dude

Or if he was launching a really successful successful campaign maybe he even looked like this mustachioed  gentleman.


In general, the Sebastians of the world were twenty-something, tech-savvy, early adopters. The people using Kickstarter were cool, the projects they were creating were cool, and everything about Kickstarter exuded cool.  Had crowdfunding started with a different category like medical, it probably wouldn’t have caught on because it doesn’t have the same “coolness” factor, and the tech-savvy, early adopter cool kids never would have tried it.  To be absolutely clear, while crowdfunding existed before Kickstarter, modern crowdfunding would never have taken off without Kickstarter.

Flash forward to 2015.  If we imagine a person starting a GiveForward, GoFundMe, or IndieGoGo Life campaign she might look more like this. Let’s call her Jenny.

soccer_mom (1)

Jenny is a busy mom in her thirties raising money for her high school friend battling breast cancer.  She’s at the age where for the first time someone in her peer group might have an early cancer diagnosis.  Jenny’s not a technology early adopter. She’s the early majority.  She doesn’t use crowdfunding because it’s cool.  She uses it because it’s useful.  

In short, crowdfunding is growing up. It was popularized by Sebastian and the cool kid crowd (arts and technology) between 2009-2011.  Between 2012-2015, it began to cross the chasm beyond early adopters.   Over the past few years, much of the growth in the sector has been due to the early majority adopting this technology.

Put another way — remember when your mom first joined Facebook or got a smart phone? Crowdfunding is starting to go through a similar maturation process.  It’s not just for the young’ns any more.  It’s for everyone.  Because like Facebook and smart phones, crowdfunding is moving from cool to important.

2.  Changing Social Norms – The Shift Away from American Rugged Individualism

The other tidal shift we’ve seen in the past few years has been a shift in an American values system that has traditionally placed a stigma around asking for or accepting help.  This stigma stems from a false narrative of ‘American rugged individualism’ and has caused millions of families to suffer in silence rather than accept help from those who love them.

Over the past few years, however, social norms have begun to evolve.  This shift, at least in part, can be traced back to 2013 after the Boston Marathon bombing when tens of thousands of people across the country rallied for the victims by setting up crowdfunding campaigns on their behalf.

One such fundraiser on GiveForward raised close to $900,000 for a young newlywed couple that both lost limbs in the bombing.  Another on GoFundMe raised over $800,000 for a double amputee.  At the time, these were the two most successful medical crowdfunding campaigns to date.

The Boston marathon fundamentally changed something in the American psyche and the way we perceived crowdfunding.  We realized this wasn’t just about the victims. This was about all of us.  Crowdfunding was our way of simultaneously giving the finger to the perpetrators of this horrible crime and offering our unified support to those who were injured or killed.  It was at this moment in time that crowdfunding became a legitimate vehicle to voice our collective will.  Crowdfunding had moved beyond arts and technology.  Crowdfunding had become patriotic.

Most importantly, with the Boston Marathon fundraisers, there was no stigma attached to accepting help. And why should there have been? These victims didn’t deserve what happened to them, and there’s no way they could have ever planned financially for these types of expenses.  Why should their financial futures have been ruined because they happened to be at the wrong place at the wrong time?

So, for a lot of people, that’s when it clicked.  It took a horrible tragedy to bring us to our senses and help us realize that placing a stigma around accepting help for things outside our control is inherently unjust.  Once this wall cracked, we started applying the same logic to similar events in our lives like when a friend got diagnosed with cancer or had a child born premature.

In essence, the Boston Marathon fundraisers helped break the stigma and normalize the idea of medical crowdfunding for much of the country. To be sure, in 2015 the wall has not fully crumbled.  But the cracks are getting bigger and it seems only a matter of time before love and compassion triumph over shame and the damaging lie of American rugged individualism.

GoFundMe’s $500 Million Valuation – How Medical Crowdfunding is Eating the World

Yesterday, Techcrunch reported that GoFundMe was raising capital at an expected $500 Million valuation.  Some folks have been surprised at how big the valuation is but when I heard the number I was surprised how small it was.

I’ve been saying for a while that GoFundMe is a $1B company.  Here’s why.

Medical Crowdfunding is Eating the World.  

Last May I gave a presentation on the trends in the medical crowdfunding space at NYU Stern’s crowdfunding conference. The presentation was called “Medical Crowdfunding is Eating the World” and argued that within five years, medical crowdfunding would be the biggest vertical of all crowdfunding.

Less than a year later, I think it is safe to say that this prediction is going to come true, and probably a lot sooner than I thought. Medical crowdfunding is already the #1 category of three of the world’s top ten crowdfunding platforms including GoFundMe, GiveForward and YouCaring with medical crowdfunding accounting for anywhere between an estimated 25%-70% of the dollars contributed on these platforms.  On top of that, the world’s the second largest crowdfunding platform IndieGoGo, recently joined the club this past December with the launch of IndieGoGo life.

Why is Medical Crowdfunding Eating the World

There are three reasons.

1.  Medical crowdfunding is an insanely massive market.

2.  Our healthcare system is shit and trending shittier.

3.  Medical crowdfunding changes lives.

Massive Market

Deloitte estimates that Americans spend $400 Billion a year on out-of-pocket medical expenses.  This is an insane amount of money.  And these are just the expenses that insurance doesn’t cover like, co-pays, travel expenses to and from treatment, and lost wages.   These are the things people raise money for when they run medical crowdfunding campaigns.

When you compare the potential size of the medical crowdfunding vertical with the size of, say, the technology crowdfunding vertical, it’s not even close.  The need for medical crowdfunding is far greater than the need for technology crowdfunding.  As a rough comparison, in 2013 venture capitalists invested $29.3 Billion into early and late stage technology companies.  Even at the height of the bubble, the total amount invested by VCs topped out at $105 Billion.

$400 Billion vs $29 Billion

If I had to hazard a guess, I would estimate the potential size of the medical crowdfunding market at roughly an order of magnitude bigger than potential size of the technology crowdfunding market.   Simply put, not everyone needs seed capital to start a business or a Bro app. But EVERYONE does need healthcare.

Our Healthcare System is Shit and Trending Shittier

Every 30 seconds an American family goes bankrupt due to medical costs, and the situation is actually getting worse for the average American.

This graph below is called the Milliman Medical Index.  It shows that the cost of healthcare for an average family of four more than doubled between 2002 and 2012.

Millimen Index

The average family of four now has more than $20,000 per year in healthcare costs.

On top of that, families are paying more out-of-pocket today than ever before as insurance premiums and workers’ contributions continue to outpace wages.

Screen Shot 2015-04-24 at 12.20.03 PM

In sum, our healthcare system is broken, and over the past decade or so, it’s only gotten worse for people.  In comes a solution.

Medical Crowdfunding Changes Lives

Medical crowdfunding saves lives.  It keeps people out of bankruptcy.  And it provides millions of people with hope in their darkest and most difficult days.

All you have to do is watch either one of these videos below and you intuitively “get” why these campaigns are popping up everywhere.

(Justin’s GiveForward Campaign) (Mark and Jenny’s GiveForward Campaign)

Medical crowdfunding is not a frivolous activity.  It’s not potato salad.  It’s not a fad.  Medical crowdfunding is the same thing people have been doing for centuries when a loved one is sick — coming together and letting that person know that he is not alone.

Medical crowdfunding is empowerment. It’s compassion. It’s love.  And that’s why it’s eating the world.


Part II

If Medical Crowdfunding truly is eating the world, why now?  In part two, I’ll discuss the evolution of crowdfunding from 2008-2015, the demographics of the space and why medical crowdfunding is just now crossing into the mainstream.

The Evolution Of The Chicago Startup Community – Going From Zero To One

I had a great conversation with Jeff Carter yesterday on Twitter about the evolution of the Chicago startup ecosystem. (H/T to Chicago Inno and this interview of J.B Pritzker for prompting the conversation).  The question at hand was: how do you build a startup ecosystem?


In building anything significant, there is always an order of operations.  For instance, for legendary 1980s Miami startup entrepreneur, Tony Montana, the order was as follows:

1. Build high-margin pharmaceutical business (get the money); 2.  Whack boss/competitor, Frank Lopez (get the power);  3. Proceed to order the Peking duck (get the duck).

In the world of startup communities, the order of operations looks something like this: 1. Build Big Sexy Startup that draws in top talent; 2. Talent spills over to rest of community helping fuel new startups; 3. Venture capital begins to pour in.

Or…if we’re using the parlance of Scarface, first you get the startups, then you get talent, then you get the money. Here’s a brief history of how this has played out over the last seven years in Chicago.

Chicago Startup Community Timeline

2008–2009: The Tech Desert Era

When we launched GiveForward in 2008, the startup ecosystem didn’t really exist in Chicago. In fact, I honestly don’t think I even knew the word ‘startup’ at the time.  That’s not to say there weren’t a few burgeoning tech companies and tech meetups sprinkled throughout the city, but it was still very much an underground movement.  If you were looking to join a startup or invest in a startup in 2008, it was pretty much a tech desert we aint found shit

Today, it’s easy to take for granted all the mentorship programs, accelerators, co-working spaces, and educational events that take place every night of the week in the city, but in 2008 none of that existed. There was no Techstars, no Technori, no 1871, no Lightbank, no BuiltIn, no Techweek, no Starter League, no Dev Bootcamp, no Internet, no Impact Engine etc. Here’s what did exist:  Midventures, BARcamp and Ron May. MidVentures (which later became TechWeek) was three dudes, (Geoff Domoracki, Jonathan Pasky,  Brian Mayer) and a lobby. Every three months or so they’d have a startup event called MV Mixers where four or five companies would give a 10 minute pitch in front of 15-20 people in the fancy lobby area of Geoff’s apartment building.

Here’s some photos from a February 2009 event where GiveForward and Groupon were both pitching.

Midventures Gropon GiveForward 2009

In early 2009 Groupon was a side project and Andrew Mason was actually still pitching The Point.

Midventures 2009 MV MIxer with GiveForward and Groupon

This also happened >> People had Blackberries.

midventures 2009 blackberries

BARcamp Then there was BARcamp.  If MVmixers were for the suits,  BARcamp was for the true nerds and it was even scrappier than the mixers in Geoff’s lobby.   Anyone who wanted to be a BARcamp sponsor pretty much could be, including GiveForward. Hooray!

Screen Shot 2015-04-19 at 1.03.37 PM

Mind you, in 2009, we were bootstrapped, we had made a whopping $6000 in revenue at that point and our website looked like complete ass.  We had no business sponsoring events but we did it anyway, because why not. We were like, you know, one of the biggest startups in the city. Yep, we were total big shots!


The startup bench was pretty thin in 2009, so event organizers would take any crap sponsors they could get. Hell, they even took us!

That was 2008-2009 in a nutshell. In general, there was some small underground stuff going on but there was no national spotlight on Chicago. That would all change in 2010.

2010: Groupon blows the fuck up and Techstars comes to Chicago

In 2010 Chicago got its Big Sexy Startup.   Groupon started blowing up, big time coastal VCs invested, and all of a sudden people are starting to look at Chicago in a different light. At the same time, something else awesome is taking place: Excelerate Labs (now Techstars Chicago) launches.  GiveForward was super-lucky to be part of the inaugural class.  For us, it forever changed the trajectory of our business.  But I think from a more meta-standpoint, Excelerate Labs helped change the trajectory of the entire Chicago startup community. Everyone wanted to be the next Groupon, and now there was a program that could help make that a reality.  It was a paradigm shift for the city.

2011: GrubHub blows up.

In 2011 GrubHub quickly followed Groupon as the next big success story when they announced they were raising a massive $50M round of funding. The business was going gangbusters and by this point they are well on their way to an IPO.

2011–2015: The Groupon + Grubhub Talent Explosion

As much as our low-interest-rate fueled, Techcrunch addicted startup culture lionizes the ginormous funding rounds and valuations we’ve all witnessed in the last few years, investment capital is not the primary driver of a startup ecosystem’s success.  The real driver is a deep talent pool. The effect of Grubhub and Groupon on the Chicago talent pool cannot be overstated. Engineering, product, ops, and marketing talent all moved into the city from elsewhere to be part of these rocketships. And once these companies IPO’d, many of their employees eventually spilled out to join the city’s new generation of startups.

Screen Shot 2015-04-19 at 10.08.43 AM

At GiveForward, I can say we’ve been very fortunate and have benefited in a huge way from all the post-IPO talent on the market from Groupon and GrubHub. Our online marketing manager came from Groupon, our Dev Ops guy, came from GrubHub, our CTO was formerly the CTO of Grubhub, and Mike Evans, the founder of GrubHub is one of our board members. On top of that, two more of our engineers are graduates of Dev Boot Camp, a three month intensive engineering program started by two former Groupon guys, Dave Hoover and Elliott Garms. All in all, about 15% of our team came from either Groupon, GrubHub or some derivation thereof.

Silicon Valley is Silicon Valley not because of access to capital.  It’s because of access to talent. As, Jeff Carter, founder of Hyde Park Angels and West Loop Ventures and one of the pioneers in the Chicago angel investing community stated so perfectly on Twitter, ‘Talent plays the biggest role.  Without it, there is no investment capital.’

With this influx of talent coming into Chicago in 2011-2014, the Techstars, 1871’s and Starter Leagues of the world began to spring up.  The Mentorship, office-space and educational programs that these organizations provided were instrumental in helping the Chicago startup community take hold.

2015 and Beyond: The Final Piece of the Puzzle

The final piece of the puzzle is capital.

While it’s great to have coastal VC firms investing more and more in Chicago, it’s critical to have homegrown firms ready and able to invest into Chicago companies.

Though this last piece of the puzzle has been the slowest to progress, I think we’re close to a tipping point where we are soon going to see an influx of early-stage investors moving into the midwest.    Last week alone, I had conversations with three next generation investors who are raising seed funds right now. All three of them are under 40. One of them is under 30. And two of the three were in Chicago.

You’re Awesome Dude


This awesome picture was stolen without permission from Alexis’ awesome blog about stuff that is awesome.

Last week I got a call at 9 AM from a buddy I hadn’t spoke to in a while.  It went something like this:

Me:  “Yo, what’s up?

Amigo: “Hey, I just actually wanted to call you to say thank you.”

Me: “For what?”

Amigo: “For making an impact on my life.”

Me:  “Okaaay…Wait.  What do you mean?”

Amigo: “Well, remember when we were at that Dodgers game a few years back?”

Me:  “Yeah…”

Amigo:  “I was struggling with my business at the time, and you said to me ‘if you believe in what you’re doing keep going.  You’ll figure out a way to make it work’.  Well I stuck to it like you said, and the business today has never been better. Two weeks ago, we hit $1M in revenue.  So I just wanted to say thanks.  That conversation had a huge impact on my life”

Me:  “Well holy shit, man!   Do I get a cut??”

I didn’t actually say this last part.  It was more like this:

Me:  [stammering and kind of speechless]  Uh…I don’t even know what to say.  Thank you, man.  That means a ton to me.  I’m really at a loss for words.

After I got off the phone I thought to myself. “Jeez, well that was a pretty radical way to start off a morning.”  So, knowing how good it had made me feel, I decided to pay it forward and give this same gift to others.  Over the next few days I emailed three people to let them know how they have impacted my life.

The nearly uniform response I got back from everyone was something along the lines of: “Wow, thank you.  This means more to me than you realize.”

I recommend trying this out yourself.  It’s easy.  It’s fun. And it makes you feel good.

If someone has made an impact in your life, whether it’s a friend, a parent, a teacher, a sibling, a boss, let them know, and be as specific as possible about the piece of advice that helped shape your life. They likely have no idea that what they said had an impact on you, and I guarantee it will make their day.  It will probably make yours too.


Why You Should Focus On Distribution Before Focusing on Product

Winning companies have either a remarkable product that ‘sells itself’ or a strong product with remarkable distribution. As a startup founder, one of the fundamental questions you have to ask yourself early on is: should we focus our energy on product or distribution?

95% of the startup world answers, “product, no questions asked.”  I disagree.  Either option is a viable path but if you are a first time founder nailing distribution is going to be a helluva lot easier than nailing product.


The big problem with focusing all of your startup’s energy on product is that the “build it and they will come” argument only works if your product is an order of magnitude (10x) better than your competitors’  (H/T Peter Thiel).  If it’s not at least 10 times better than your competitor, then you’re essentially still competing on marketing.

Think about that for a minute. In order to win on product alone, you need to build something 10X better than anyone else!!!  It’s not impossible, but as anyone who has ever tried to build a product will tell you, it’s really, really, hard.

To build a 10X-better product you need a team of extremely skilled individuals (think Tony Fadell).  On the other hand, to nail distribution you only need one person who’s willing to hustle and understands how to play the game (think Gary Vaynerchuck).

When making a decision on which route to go, it’s important to be honest with yourself and leverage the skillset you actually have, not the one you wish you had.  When you look in the mirror, do you see Tony Fadell?  If so, by all means go the product route. It’s your best best. If you don’t see Tony Fadell and there are no Tony Fadells on your team, then the Vaynerchuck route will probably give you a better shot at success.  The beauty of the Vaynerchuck route, especially as a first-time founder, is that you don’t need specialized skills to pull it off.  Anyone can do it.  You just need to commit to out-CARING your competition.

That’s primarily why I have a bias towards distribution.  It’s not because I think distribution is an inherently better lever. Truthfully, it’s probably an inferior lever.  But it’s just a bit easier to pull off.  In the startup world, the odds are so stacked against you.  If you can continually make decisions that move the odds slightly more in your favor, you give yourself the best chance of catching a few lucky breaks.


The second reason I have a bias towards distribution is because even if you nail product, it doesn’t guarantee success.  More often than not, the difference between commercial success and commercial failure is the distribution.  A great example of this is Kickstarter’s coolest cooler, which raised $13M and is the most successful Kickstarter project of all time.

So what is the coolest cooler?  Well, it is exactly what it sounds like.  It’s like the fucking swiss-army-knife-Megatron-bad-ass-MoFo of coolers with everything from a built-in blender to stereo speakers to LED lights to help you locate your beverage after the sun goes down.  Is it 10X better than the competition? Dude, seriously? IT HAS A BLENDER IN IT!!!!!! it’s probably 20X better than the competition.

So, they had this amazing product.  It must have just sold itself, right?

Of course not.

I think the most interesting part of the Coolest Cooler story is that it wasn’t initially a success.  The dude who pulled in $13M for his cooler, posted the same cooler on Kickstarter eight or nine months before and only reached $100,000 of his $125,000 goal.

So what changed? He made a few tweaks to the design and launched it in the summer when people were thinking about margaritas. But the biggest difference between the two campaigns is that the second time around he had a bunch of loyal fans from his first campaign who were willing to shout from the rooftops to get the word out from the start.  These raving fans were enough to seed the campaign, build momentum and get the flywheel spinning.  From there, the press [i.e. a distribution channel] got hold of it and it took off.

In essence, during the first go-around, Dude had great product but no distribution strategy. When he got a second bite at the apple, he succeeded because he had figured out how to play the game; second time around, he already had his distribution channel built-in.

Same product.  Different distribution strategy.  Wildly different results.

Here’s another example:

A few months back I wrote a blog called “Nobody has a clue what they are doing.”  It was an decent post, but certainly nothing groundbreaking or novel. For the most part, no one really cared about it.  Then, a few days in, a VC by the name of Hunter Walk found it and tweeted it out to his eight-five thousand followers.  Shortly after that, Marc Andreessen who must have seen it on Hunter’s feed, tweeted it out to his two-hundred-eighty thousand followers.  And then BOOM!  All of a sudden, it seemed like everyone in the startup universe got blog FOMO, shared it like a billions times on Twitter and collectively decided it was a brilliant post.

Hooray! I just nailed distribution.  My formula: create a okay-to-solid product, catch a lucky break, and then stumble my way into the distribution jackpot of Hunter Walk and Marc Andreessen.  For about one day, I won the Internet.

So, if my blog was a startup and I wanted to scale it, what would my next steps be?  Well, I’d basically have two choices, the product route or the distribution route.  I could either magically become a really smart, insightful, amazing writer like Tim Urban at Wait but Why and draw people to my blog because of my brilliant writing (odds of this are about nil) or I could try to build a relationship with Hunter Walk and Marc Andreessen so that when I write decent-to-above-average blog posts in the future, I can ask them to tweet them out for me.  Neither of these are easy to pull off, but the latter is slightly more feasible.


To become a company that can last for decades, you really need both great product and great distribution. The point of this blog post isn’t to say, you should only focus on one lever for eternity. That would be silly. The point is help you think about which lever to focus on first.   If you’re a first-time founder and you don’t initially have the resources to bring a Tony Fadell into your team, you’ll likely increase your odds of success by focusing more of your early energy on distribution.  Once you’ve achieved product market fit and you have figured out enough of the distribution side to see real adoption, find your Tony Fadell, inspire him or her to join your team, and go out to build your 10X-better-product that changes the world.


some great blog posts (several of which take a different view point than this post) see below:

Short reads:

How to Avoid Delusional Thinking In Startup Growth Strategy

Why You Should Find Product Market Fit Before Sniffing Around For Venture Money

Why Growth Hacking Isn’t BS

Long Reads:

Zero to One

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150M+1 New Reasons to be Thankful at Techstars

Earlier this week David Cohen wrote a wonderful blog post entitled, 150M New Reasons to be Thankful at Techstars where he announced a massive new $150M Techstars fund for early-stage ventures involved with the Techstars network. In the post, David gave thanks to the people who helped make Techstars what it is today.  Of course, with typical David humility, he failed to include one very important person: David Cohen is reason 150M+1 to be thankful for Techstars.

David invested in GiveForward as part of his original $5M fund back in 2010.  He has been one of our biggest advocates over the past four years and there is no way we’d be where we are today without him.  I can’t truly thank him for what he has created, but here are a few of the things I am grateful for.


I’ll never forget our first big conversation with David.  It was shortly after Excelerate Labs Demo Day in 2010 and we were sitting in the board room of a Chicago VC who had just offered us a term sheet with horrible terms.

We were scheduled to have a call with David right after our meeting with the VC.  But the meeting ended up going an hour long, so we awkwardly asked the VC firm if we could use their boardroom to make a call to another investor.  When we got David on the phone, we let him know of the situation.  We told him that we were excited to get our first term sheet.  But the term sheet kinda sucked.  Unfortunately, we didn’t have any other offers and we didn’t know what to do.  We were a little paranoid that the VCs were listening in on our conversation, so we whispered into the speakerphone: “David, they want to give us $1 million at a $2 million post money valuation.  Should we take it?”  Without any hesitation, David whispered back.  “Run.  Run away as fast as you can!”

This turned out to be great advice.  We declined the offer and instead managed to close a $500K seed round with a group of incredibly supportive angel investors, among them David Cohen.

Belief in Us

After we closed our seed round we didn’t have much interaction with David for awhile.  He told us that he was going to be a “passive” investor, and for the first few months, I don’t think we recieved an email from David longer than six or seven words.  But in the third month of our relationship, everything changed.

On April 14th, 2011, we sent out our monthly investor update.  The title of that month’s investor update was called:  The Power of Hugs.  Here was the actual intro paragraph.

This month, the theme of our newsletter is hugs. I know you’re probably thinking “Hugs?!?!!  What the hell is he talking about? I want to hear about numbers.”  But I think it’s important for you all to understand GiveForward beyond just our revenue and monthly traffic numbers [which are really good this month by the way].  I think it’s important for you all to understand our culture which is the foundation for everything we do.  So without further ado, let me tell you about the power of hugs.

I remember feeling really insecure and almost deleting the entire email before hitting send.  We had just closed our seed round with all these high-powered investors. We had a billionaire in the group, an entrepreneur who had taken his company public, a dude whose name was on the U. Chicago business school, and several other uber-successful tech founders. My partner Desiree and I, on the other hand had no idea what the hell we were doing and I was about to send an email telling them about the power of hugs.  Um, yeah, great idea, Ethan.

After mustering up all the courage I had in my entire body, I finally decided not to delete it.  Instead, I hit send, closed my eyes and hid under my desk, confident that I was going to get laughed out of the room and they were going to ask if they could take all their money back.

To my surprise, David wrote back the following email to us and cc’d all of the investors.

You are simply awesome. Your updates are awesome. Your outlook is awesome. You are inspiring.  I love companies that care. It’s how I try to build companies too – the rest usually “just works”. And I love the 85/15 thought. Spot on.  Congrats on the progress. I’m back in Boulder or I would have loved to hang in NYC. I’m coming to Chicago in early June, let’s be sure to get together then.

He signed it,


For me, this singular email was a huge turning point in my career as an entrepreneur.  It gave me so much confidence that we could be ourselves without worrying about being second guessed by our investors because we were a little unorthodox in our approach.  The fact that three months into our relationship with our new investors, David was not only tolerant of our weirdness but that he embraced it, meant everything to us and gave us the courage to go out and build a great company and a culture we could be proud of.


By far, one of the most important things an investor can do for you is intro you to other VCs and investors. In this regard, I cannot think of a better person in the universe than David Cohen. David literally intro’d us to all of our Series A VCs and several of our angels.  Founder Collective, First Round Capital, Jason Seats, Howard Lindzon, Tom Peterson – all of them are investors in GiveForward because of introductions that David made for us.  I often joke that what you say in your pitch meeting is less important than who introduces you.  But it’s not entirely untrue.

And it’s not only investors.  David has connected us to all sorts of people through his network.  One that stands out in particular to me was Rand Fishkin. A few years back I was struggling with how we could build a strong company culture.  I asked David who was the best person he knew who could help us build this strong culture.  A few hours later, David hooked me up with one of my business idols, Rand Fishkin, who was kind enough to jump on a call with me.  Rand gave me advice about values and culture that stuck with me ever since and had a profound impact on our company.


In 2012, David invited us to present to the LPs of his Bullet Time Ventures Fund at their annual meeting in Boulder.  Only three or four of his portfolio companies presented and the other ones were bigger companies like Twilio and Mocavo. I remember it felt like a really big honor to be invited.  But more than anything what stood out to me about that trip was how David went out of his way to make me feel comfortable while visiting. He not only offered me a spot to crash on his couch and took me to my favorite Boulder eatery for lunch (Chipotle), he went out of his way to organize a meetup with a handful of local entrepreneurs so I would have people to hang out with at night.  That’s just the way David rolls.  He’s good people.  All the people in his universe are good people.  And that’s what makes him so awesome.   He cares about you as a person as much as he cares about you as a portfolio company. He’s not just an investor.  I consider him a friendvestor and someone I know I’ll be able to count on for the rest of my life.


whatsapp techstars

The Whatsapp Message I sent to David when I heard the news about the $150M new fund.

Last but not least, when David invested in GiveForward, he brought us into his family.  Not his biological family, but his Techstars family.  And it truly does feel like a family – a crazy one, but one that I’m extremely proud to be a part of.  Thank you, David, for bringing us in.

PS – also thankful for the introduction to Whatsapp before it was an $18B company, for helping my friend land a job in Portland, for connections to guys like Brad Feld and Micah Baldwin and for always being there when we’ve needed it. Fistbump

The Habit of No

via the

Most people at startups are in the habit of saying yes.

This new year if you are looking for a resolution that will transform your startup, get in the habit of saying no.

The Habit of Yes

The habit of yes occurs when a founder asks you to help him with something that “will only take half an hour,” or when a co-worker asks you sneak in a “quick” bug fix to the weekly sprint because it’s an “easy fix and should only take ten minutes.” We’ve all been there and our natural inclination is to say yes.

There are lots of reasons why we say yes but most of them have to do with the fact that saying no feels rude. Yes, on the other hand, leads to happy co-workers, happy founders and a conflict-free environment. Yes, for lack of a better word, is nice. It is pleasant. It is agreeable. And everyone likes yes.

The Danger of Yes

But yes is a dangerous habit to fall into. Saying yes here and there might seem harmless. But all those little yeses add up. They compound on each other, and they can transform a decisive strategy with clear objectives into an all-you-can-eat buffet of tactics and activities with no common goal.

The true cost of yes is far greater than most of us realize. When we say yes to the small things, we’re also saying yes to switching costs. We’re saying yes to scope creep. We’re saying yes to shipping late.

Falling into the habit of yes is like running a marathon where every three miles you decide to run in a different direction for a quarter mile before getting back on course.

The habit of yes means never crossing the finish line before your competitors, or worse yet, never crossing at all.

Everyone wants to be respectful of their co-workers but invariably saying yes to every request is actually disrespectful to the company. Yes leads to mediocrity. Yes is execution’s achilles heel. Yes is a non-confrontational cop-out. It circumvents the reality that we need to make hard choices.

Ultimately, yes isn’t respectful. Yes is the insidious startup killer.

The Habit of No

The habit of no is one of the healthiest habits your startup can develop.

At its most basic level, the habit of no is about accepting the reality that all ideas are not equal. The habit of no means ruthlessly prioritizing ideas, setting goals and then sticking to them. No is having the conviction to eliminate the good in order to get to the great.

The Path To Greatness is Paved with No

The reason that no is so important is simple: no company has ever achieved greatness by being good at ten different things. They achieve greatness by being best-in-the-world at one thing.

The best companies have a singular thesis about what the future looks like and then maniacally execute against that thesis. They ignore the outside noise. They know exactly where they are going and then say no to any ideas that don’t take them closer to achieving their goal.

Take Google for example. Today Google offers everything from cloud storage to grocery delivery but that is not how Google won the Internet. Google won the Internet because long before you could use Google to video chat with Nana halfway across the country, Google figured out how do one thing 10X better than anyone else in the world: sell ads on the search engine results page.

The same idea can be applied to investing in public stock markets. No one has ever become a billionaire by betting on index funds. Investors win big when they have a thesis about what the future looks like and then place all their chips on the sector or company they think has the greatest chance of creating that future. The greater the risk, the greater the reward. The startup world is exactly the same.

Moonshot or Bust

To fully understand why the habit of no is so critical for startups, it’s necessary to understand the binary dynamic of how venture-backed startups operate.

If you are at a venture-backed startup, by definition your singular objective is growth. You’re not aiming for single or double digit growth. You’re shooting for 1000% YoY growth.

Your objective is to land a moonshot or die trying.

Startups that fall into the habit of yes never hit the moon. Instead, they divide their time between a handful of activities and end up doing all of them at a B+ level. In the real world getting a B+ is an okay outcome, but in the binary world of startups a B+ is the same as an F. B+ work might get you 85% towards the moon, but it will never, ever, ever get you all the way there.

Once you realize that B+, A- or even A work isn’t good enough to hit the moon, it necessarily changes the way you have to operate.

Developing a Habit of No at Your Startup

When a startup has a culture of yes, the people who have the courage to say no may get labeled as unhelpful, selfish or “not a team player.” But this couldn’t be further from the truth.

The habit of no is actually all about teamwork. It’s about acknowledging what is required for everyone to reach a common goal, respecting this common goal and giving your company and your co-workers the best shot of achieving it.

If your startup’s goal is to land on the moon, the next time someone asks you to do something that pulls you off course from achieving this goal, you should politely decline.

If you’re afraid you might ruffle some feathers, share this blog post with them in your response.

Or even better yet, have an open discussion with them. Show them your prioritized list of tasks you are working on in order to achieve the overarching company goals. Once all the information is on the table, decide together if the new task is more or less likely to move you closer to your company goals.

The habit of no can be scary but it can also be transformative. It starts with one person and then it spreads. It’s certainly not the easiest habit to develop, but if you can commit to keeping your head down — to executing on a common goal, and inspiring others around you to do the same, you might all look up one day and realize: “Holy shit! We’re on the moon.”

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