Plan3000 had the pleasure of covering the NYC TechDay conference this April. The conference was full of tech innovators, but the group that stood out to us the most were those that created products for the purpose of promoting social good. We sat down with Joe Phoenix, the co-founder of Givinga, and asked him all of our burning questions about being a social innovation tech entrepreneur, and so much more.
Q: Tell us a little about your background.
A: Givinga was founded by three partners. Chris Shields is the brains behind the tech. He has 15 years of experience, most recently as co-founder of a software development, support and data architecture company. Sean Taylor also grew up in the technology industry but focused on consulting to companies. His work with businesses across industries has given him great insight into the challenges, needs and opportunities that Givinga will face as we grow and expand.
I’m a 30 year veteran of the financial services industry and had the opportunity of building and expanding asset management businesses in the US and abroad. I love thinking about ways we can expand Givinga and get people excited about the platform.
In other words, I’m the dreamer, Sean keeps us solidly grounded in the present and Chris executes.
Q: Describe the moment you realized that Givinga needed to be created and any important moments leading up to the birth of the idea.
A: It was a confluence of events actually; I turned 50, celebrated my 25th anniversary at my company and my wife’s mother passed away. I remember thinking to myself: “Is this it?” Stay with the same firm for my entire career, in a job my kids don’t understand & live a good life but not a truly impactful life. I decided it was time for a change.
I credit the birth of the idea to my mother in law. After she passed away, my wife wanted to do something meaningful for the hospice that took care of her but the process broke down. It was really difficult and inefficient from start to finish. What should have been an empowering experience left her feeling empty. That’s when the light bulb went off.
Q: What is the most challenging part about running a social innovation company?
1. Convincing the market that you’re not another charity site
2. Enticing people to use vehicles and strategies that they’ve never used before
3. Mixing capitalism with philanthropy creates a very delicate elixir
4. Getting charitable organizations to think outside the box
Q: Are there any challenges that relate to running a tech company in particular that you’d like to share?
A: Keeping pace with innovation: There are tons of really smart people doing incredible things and, at times, you feel like you’re literally treading water.
Staying relevant while staying true to your guiding principles: Infamy and outrage are driving user growth right now. It’s a Siren song business strategy and not what we’re about.
Q: What’s something about Givinga that everyone should know
A: Givinga is designed to give people, like those who participated in The Women’s March on Washington, every tool they need to expand their activism. We think it’s the answer to the “ What do I do next? ”question that everyone has after an event like that.
In the time it takes to make a sign, a Givinga user can create a Campaign, fill it with pictures and video and shoot it out to the world. Imagine having the ability to organize and connect with all of the people in that crowd that share your passion. Everyone has this power at their fingertips, they just don’t know it yet.
Q: What advice do you give to people who are picking a cause for their donations?
1. Follow where your heart leads then use analytics to confirm it’s wise.
2. Get to personally know the people whose full time job you are supporting.
3. Don’t be afraid to advocate.
4. Give your time as well as your money- together they’re extremely powerful.
Q: Do you have any advice for young entrepreneurs?
A: Think of your life as a series of phases and really focus on taking advantage of each:
Be Selfish in your 20’s and 30’s. This is not meant as a negative. Instead this should be the time you really focus on who you are and what you want to do. It’s a huge world with tons of opportunities. Explore, take risk, fail, get fired, do it again. If I had one thing to do over, I would have been much less risk averse here.
Prepare to be Selfless from 30-50: This is the period where life tends to get in the way- marriage, kids, house, college, parents, health. I found it really hard during this phase to take a lot of personal risk. Too many existential risks swirling. This is where you “hunker down”, take care of others, perfect your craft and lay the foundation for the future.
Become Self Aware 50-70. By now, you should know what you’re good at- and more importantly what you’re not good at. Many of the risks in period 2 have mitigated somewhat and you should now have a platform to think about your next phase and execute. At this point, based on what you’ve done earlier, you should have choices and the resources to support those choices. What most people fail to realize, is that this phase is tailor made for risk taking.
Self- Assess at 70 and beyond. Not there yet but this is where you smell the roses and enjoy the rest of the journey!
Q: When building a team, what are the most important things to keep in mind?
1. Know your strengths. Hire the best to fill your weaknesses. Get out of the way.
2. Don’t be afraid to be the dumbest person on your team
3. Try to hire your next boss
4. If your team looks like you, it’s not a strong team. If it acts like you, it’s lethal.
5. Encourage friction, independence and diversity of opinion but make sure they orbit around, and support, a clear and uncompromising core set of values.
Q: Were there any products or platforms at TechDay that really stood out to you, and why?
A: Startnoo: “Neighbor” of ours at Techday. Addressing the student loan crisis in the US with an innovative platform that links student volunteering to loan repayments. This is a problem that will hang over the heads of many new employees entering the marketplace and I think it has the potential to have a very broad negative economic impact. Startnoo is thinking creatively about how to solve the problem and I obviously love their philanthropic link!
Merlin: I watched Tom Hickey’s presentation and have spoken to his team. They’re redefining the PR space and making it accessible to startups at an earlier stage. They’re using technology to reduce costs and thinking innovatively about ways they can engage with companies earlier in the cycle. PR has been a real mystery for us and we have not been very successful at utilizing the resource. I believe Tom and his team are on to something that could really benefit new companies earlier- when we need to market and brand but lack the budget and resources.
Q: Have you seen anyone/any company benefiting from Givinga first hand, and if so how?
A: We’re still in Beta so it’s a little early to be taking a victory lap but I can tell you that early adopters of the platform have been amazed at the tools that are available to them and how easy technology makes it to really have a meaningful impact.
The thing I love about the environment we’re in right now is that that people want to make a difference. They want to get involved. They want to leave a legacy. But if you don’t have a ton of money to begin with, its just been really hard to get things rolling. Tools have been unavailable to you and markets have been closed. Tech changes all of that. It fosters democracy. It levels the playing field. And in our case it gives donors of any size the ability to really make an impact. I’m super excited to watch and learn as people interact on the platform and start to leverage their personal and professional relationships.