Tag Archives: startups

5 Things I Wish I Had Known When We Launched


Pathful CEO Campbell McDonald presenting at TechStars Chicago Demo Day 2013

Yesterday I attended the TechStars Chicago Demo Day and was blown away by the presentations.  If I had any money at all, I probably would have invested in 3 or 4 of the companies on the spot.  (PathfulFindIt, and SimpleRelevance particularly resonated with me).

As several of the TechStars companies are just now launching, it made me think back to August 2008 when we first launched GiveForward.  To be perfectly honest, even today five years after launching we still don’t have a clue how to run a company.  But back in 2008 we really, really, really had no clue.

So to all the TechStars Chicago companies who are just launching and wondering what the heck you’re supposed to be doing now that demo day is over, here are some of the things I wish I had known when we first launched.

(1)  Focus Is Everything.  Startups rarely die for a lack of ideas.  But they often die for a lack of focus.  Try to find the one thing you are really good at and then set out to do it better than anyone else in the world.  For us at GiveForward, this was customer service.

(2) Your Idea Is Poop. When we launched, we were dead certain we were going to be a crowdfunding platform for everything.  Turned out, no one wanted a crowdfunding platform for everything.  What our customers told us they wanted was a crowdfunding platform for medical expenses.  It took us a year to find product-market fit, and truthfully, it was really hard for us to give up on our original idea because it was our baby and giving up on it felt like failing.  But being flexible and willing to adapt was key to staying in the game long enough to catch our lucky break (getting into Excelerate Labs in 2010). Long story short – don’t get stuck on your original idea. Chances are it’s not going to be the one that makes you money.

(3) Do The Things That Don’t Scale.  As two non-technical, first-time founders with zero real world job experience, we focused our energy on the few things we were actually good at. One of the skills we had was simply being nice to people. This turned into an emphasis on customer service and tons of interaction with our customers.  At first, the goal was simply to inject a tiny bit of humanity into each interaction.  But these frequent interactions with our customers led to an ongoing dialogue.  We were unintentionally doing tons of customer development and learning about what our customers actually wanted. Eventually, after about a year of talking to our customers we discovered that we needed to pivot away from general crowdfunding and move towards medical crowdfunding.  At the end of the day, the pivot that transformed our business was really just luck – no more than a positive externality from doing the things that don’t scale.

(4) Define Your Core Values, Mission, Vision Early On.  Write them down. And then LIVE them.  It took us two years to write down our core values.  It took us three years to write down our mission and vision. I wish, wish, wish we had done this sooner.  Your values, mission and vision drive your culture, your recruiting and your retention. They give everyone in the company an understanding of not what you do but why you do it. They give people purpose. Once people find purpose, they have passion.

Passionate team members = the greatest competitive advantage known to man.

Here is a blog post written yesterday by our newest team member Mike Danko about why he’s leaving his current job to join our team at GiveForward.   He says it much more eloquently than I ever I could.

If you are interested in learning more about why I feel so strongly about culture and values, check out this blog post.

Also, the folks at MOZ and Zappos probably do this better than anyone else in the world.  Check out both their sites and I recommend reading Tony Hsieh’s Delivering Happiness if you haven’t already read it.


If you’re in Vegas, and want to get an inside look at Zappos culture, take a free tour of Zappos’ Downtown Project. The tour goes right through Tony Hsieh’s actual apartment.

(5) Lastly, When Times Are Good, Don’t Give Yourself Too Much Credit.  When Times Are Bad, Don’t Give Yourself Too Much Blame.  This one might be the most important lesson of them all (at least for your mental health).  As a founder, it’s easy to get down on yourself  if things aren’t going gangbusters out of the gate but the truth of the matter is that so much of what we consider success is really based on luck and good timing.   Many people in the startup world like to pretend that the equation for success is simply smarts + hard work.  Well, that’s a huge load of bullshit.  As Ryan Graves, head of global operations at Uber, mentioned yesterday at Demo Day, “hustle is trendy”.  Of course smarts and hustle are a prerequisite for success but no one becomes successful without the help of others.  What many of us forget  is that the real equation for success is smarts + hard work + a good amount of LUCK.  Our first mentor and board member, Tim Krauskoph shared this wisdom with us in 2010 two years after we launched.  Once we realized how much luck plays into success, it felt like a huge wave of relief washed over us.  It made both me and Desiree more humble and more self confident at the same time because we no longer judged ourselves through a distorted view of reality where the success or failure of our company all hinged on our every decision.   If you learn this lesson early on, it will probably save you a lot of heartburn down the road.

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Success in life hinges more on seizing opportunity than having everything go according to plan.  Anyone who tells you otherwise is lying.

Don’t get me wrong. I think the exercise of putting pen to paper and writing out a plan is actually incredibly important for sharpening your mind and your focus.  But rarely, if ever, do you hear successful entrepreneurs tell you they are successful because everything simply went according to their plan. (Ha. wouldn’t that be nice!)

The far more common reality is that startups chug along for a while following a general plan.  They might have good growth but not quite hockey stick growth.  And then an unforeseen opportunity comes along out of the blue and punches them in the face. If the company is prepared, they grab that opportunity by the tail, ride it all the way home and never look back.

You can plan and plan until you’re blue in the face, but at the end of the day things hardly ever go according to plan.  If you really want to change the trajectory of your company, rather than planning out every detail for the next three years, spend your time putting yourself in situations where opportunity can come a’knocking.

When Opportunity Knocks You Better Be Prepared

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A World Give Day Surprise for Fatima

May 4th is World Give Day.  It’s the one day a year where people around the world come together to support the causes that they care about most, whether that means giving money, giving their time, or perhaps just giving free hugs.

For this year’s World Give Day, I am holding a mentor-thon and  giving all the money I raise to a little girl named Fatima. Fatima is 4 years old and battling leukemia in Los Angeles.  Friends of the family started this GiveForward fundraising page to relieve some of the financial burden as they cope with the high medical bills.  Fatima’s family doesn’t know we are helping and I think it would be awesome to surprise them with a big donation on World Give Day representing the collective generosity of all the awesome people on the Interwebz! My goal is to help make Fatima’s page rock!  I’d love your help!

So how’s a Mentor-thon work?  Good question!  For the next 24 Hours, I will be using Clarity.FM to take as many phone calls as possible  from anyone who wants startup advice.  Whether your question is about business plans, raising seed capital, finding a co-founder, hiring your first employee. marketing, customer acquisition strategy, blogging, you name it. I’ll answer it.

The goal is to raise $500 for the Ortega family.   All you have to do to help is go to my Clarity.FM page and click the button that says “call me now”.  It’s $2 per minute and all the money is being donated to Fatima through the family’s GiveForward Page.

So that’s it.  Give me a call!!!!  Like ASAP!!!  And if you don’t have any startup questions, ask me about burritos.  And if you don’t have any startup or burrito questions, pay it forward this World Give Day by sharing this on Facebook or sending this along to someone who might.  Let’s make this happen for Fatima!

Click here to talk turkey with me! —> https://clarity.fm/#/ethanaustin

Alternatively, if you think talking to me will be a real snoozer and you’d rather just give directly to Fatima, you can donate on her GiveForward fundraising page here —>  http://www.giveforward.com/friendsoffatima

As an extra incentive to give, I’ll match up to $100 (in total) on donations that use the hashtag #WorldGiveDay in the donation comments.  Let’s go Internet.  Let’s make something amazing happen!

Thanks for your support and happy giving!

– ethan

PS – I hope this post inspires you to do something meaningful on World Give Day.  Feel free to share your plans or idea in the comment section.

PPS – If you haven’t used Clarity.fm before it’s a super-cool website started by Canadian entrepreneur extraordinaire Dan Martell (sorry, no relation to the Model, Rick Martell of WWF lore).  Basically, Clarity allows startup founders (or anyone really) to call up successful entrepreneurs to get advice.  For instance, you want to call up Mark Cuban for advice?  Boom! Here’s his profile. Give him a call.

Clarity is still in private beta, but there are already some really awesome entrepreneurs in the network like Dave McClure and Micah Baldwin.  Holy crap, right?  Imagine not having to deal intro emails and LinkedIn nonsense.  Imagine actually using your phone for (gasp!) talking and not just emails and text messaging. Clarity.fm eliminates all the gatekeepers, and gives people direct access to the most bad-ass, nerd-celebrity entrepreneurs in the universe.  I love the fact that it is democratizing mentorship and bringing back the phone call like it’s 1996. I only wish this service existed when we were first starting GiveForward.


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All First Time Entrepreneurs Should Start Social Ventures

Do you run a startup?  If so, chances are you are probably going to fail.  More than 90% of startups do.  And if you’re a first time entrepreneur, oh boy, your odds of failure are even greater -like 99.999%.   There’s no getting around it – startups are hard.  But here’s a trick that might give you your best shot at success.

If you are a first time entrepreneur, start a social venture.

Here’s the logic:  If you do good, people want to help.  If people help you, you have a better chance to succeed.  On the flip side, if people don’t help, you are on your own.  If you’re on your own, you better be damn smart and know what the hell you’re doing. By default, if you’re a first-time entrepreneur you have ABSOLUTELY NO IDEA what you are doing!!!  Therefore, if you are a first time entrepreneur you should start a social venture to give yourself the best chance at success.

I know I’ll probably catch some flack from the social venture community for saying this, but compared to a regular startup, I don’t think you have to be as smart (in terms of business acumen) to run a social venture.  Running a social venture is like cheating because everyone in the world wants to help you out.

Here’s an example.  I went to an incredible concert this past weekend called the Bridge School Benefit.  It’s a concert that Neil Young has organized for the past 25 years with all the proceeds going to the Bridge School for autistic children.  The show had an all-star lineup including Arcade Fire, Eddie Vedder, Beck, Dave Matthews, Mumford and Sons, and Nora Jones.

All these artists volunteered their time because they wanted to help the cause – it feels good to do good.  I think the same rule applies for startups: if you do good, people will want to help you.

We see the same phenomenon at GiveForward all the time.  In the past few weeks alone, I’ve had a former  producer for ABC and CBS news in NY offer to pitch stories for us pro bono.  I’ve had two CEOs of software companies offer to give us their software for free – no charge whatsoever for as long as we want to use their software.  These acts of generosity from strangers give us a small leg up on the competition.

Now, don’t get me wrong.  By no means am I saying starting a social venture is easy. I’m just saying it’s a tiny bit easier.  However, when you’re in a world where the odds are already so severely stacked against you, that tiny leg up might just be the difference maker.

So if you’re a looking to become an entrepreneur and trying to figure out what kind of company to start,  do yourself (and the world) a favor and start a social venture. You’ll do more good for world and more importantly for you, you’ll give yourself a fighting chance to succeed.

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