How We Started A Company Designing Volunteer And Giving Solutions
Hi! My name is Ben Sampson and I’m the co-founder of WeHero. WeHero gives companies the solutions to accomplish their social mission through powerful giving and volunteer programs to create a better culture, a better brand, and a greater social impact.
Our team works day in and day out to develop new programs and technologies that make giving and volunteering powerful and effortless for our clients. Our mission: To empower 10 million people with the tools to give easily and impactfully.
Today, we serve many of the Fortune 500 and numerous small to mid-sized companies building their social strategies and executing high impact volunteer experiences for teams.
What's your backstory and how did you come up with the idea?
I grew up in Mt. Shasta California raising cattle. Often, I like to say I grew up with 4,000 hippies in the woods to keep it simple. My parents owned a veterinary hospital. They worked hard and took immense pride in their hard work. Reflecting back to when I was a kid, I noticed that my parents were working for themselves. They woke up every day chasing their dream, working for themselves and not working to sustain someone else's lifestyle. I watched the struggles, the risks, and the wins as we grew up. That stuck with me along with the work ethic that was embedded into me and my two siblings.
At 18, I started my first small company selling organic athletic apparel such as bamboo shirts. I fell in love with the business and it felt good to have a social enterprise that made a difference.
In college, I then moved on to starting my second venture called Soul id which was a social network dedicated to action and adventure sports. It was investor-backed with a 15+ person team. This was my real immersion into the startup world. Post Soul id, I went on to run a product at market research and consulting company for four years. It was during this time that the idea for WeHero surfaced.
I think having a co-founder/partner is critical. If you’re doing it solo, you’re just the power of one in your own box with your own thoughts with no one to pressure test the ideas and make the business better.
My brother and I had been donating money to non-profits on a regular basis. In parallel, I had been interested in social businesses since the time I started my first business in high school. When we donated, we were frustrated with the experience of getting a thank you email, and then getting asked for more money, never to see where the initial donation went. “What was the impact we made?” we would always ask. We decided we would tackle the problem with an experiment building a consumer application that would measure the impact of your donations.
We set out to start building consumer-facing tech to solve these challenges with the goal of making giving and volunteering easy, powerful, and measurable for all. While this is still a core pursuit, this is not the business we are running today.
Now for the pivot. I wanted to test these concepts in the B2B market, so I started reaching out to companies to see if they were having similar challenges. Turns out, they were equally as frustrated in finding high impact volunteer opportunities and social programs. I put up a landing page and then spent a few dollars on advertising. A company reached out and we conducted our first corporate volunteer event. The client loved the event as well as the team that participated. At that point, we knew we might have something.
One volunteer event turned into two, and pretty soon, holding down a full-time job and trying to manage these social programs for companies was becoming too much. I made a plan and then took the jump. It was scary and still is scary today, but it is such a joy to be able to focus 100% of my energy on one mission – to make high impact volunteering and giving access for all!
Fast forward, today we’re executing volunteer experiences almost every day of the week from 10 people to 1000+! Additionally, we’re helping companies with their corporate social strategies as well as promoting our WeHero browser extension which makes giving easy and free for all! Without making the jump and focusing 100% of my efforts, this would have been very challenging.
Take us through the process of designing, prototyping, and manufacturing your first product.
There’s a lot that can be said here so I’ll try to give a good summary. I come from a background in product management, so naturally, I was immediately looking for product-market fit. We called WeHero “the experiment”. In developing our products we have two core items: Our volunteer event business and our digital business which today is our WeHero browser extension. For our volunteer experiences, I would identify market problems when we interviewed companies. I would then take these learnings and develop a landing page that displayed our solutions. We’d push traffic to the landing page to see if anyone would fill out a form expressing interest in our potential services. We then started with low prices and got feedback on our services. We constantly adjusted our services to match our clients’ needs and we still do today.
One of our best product development stories was for our WeHero DIY events. We had a prospect calling us asking if we could do an event in Austin Texas. Nobody on the team was available for the prospects’ event dates. In a split-second decision, I told the client, no worries on the location, we’ll ship the entire event experience to your office with instructions on how to run it (we had never done this or even had a plan of doing so). We quickly pulled a volunteer experience together that could be shipped in a box and was a high impact and shipped it to the client. On the day of their event, we waited anxiously to see how it went without our supervision. To our relief, the event was a huge success. WeHero DIY is now our largest product offering and we ship different high impact volunteer experiences across the country almost every day of the week!
On the digital side, we have the browser extension that we need to measure and adjust quite differently. We designed a prototype and then showed it to our friends. My brother then started developing the application to get a Beta out in the market. We’ve been iterating on this product along with the following criteria:
- What is the user feedback
- How can we make account creation faster as well as make the referral process easier for growth
- What features or adjustments to the UI can we make to scale faster
- How can we adjust the application to better serve companies and nonprofits
Describe the process of launching the business.
Unlike other businesses, our business did not have a “launch” per se. This was a big experiment for us and we tested and released solutions early and often to gain immediate market feedback. I like to say we built the plane in flight. I really liked this strategy compared to the strategies I had at other companies. There wasn’t the immense pressure of launch with a prospect of a failed launch. It also allowed us to iterate quickly to build the best solution possible for our clients. I don’t think we picked up big logos on accident. I think we iterated rapidly to fill a gap these fortune 500 companies were having.
We’ve done all of this with zero outside funding. The business has been bootstrapped from the beginning and we run it profitably with the goal of continuing to do so. There are definitely challenges with this especially when we could always use more resources. That being said, it has allowed us to pivot and adjust the business in our own timing and grow at a rate that’s sustainable without the outside pressure of investors.
This was made possible by the JIT or just in time ordering. The client would pay us upfront for their event experience and we then get to work sourcing the necessary materials and putting the events together. Now our sourcing is a little more complicated, especially for larger 200+ person events but I highly recommend JIT ordering in the early stages.
Since launch, what has worked to attract and retain customers?
I’ve been spending a lot of time thinking about how we keep our message simple. I think we all have a tendency to over complicate things and create marketing copy that isn’t clear. Additionally, I’ve recognized through recent reading that we are wired to comprehend stories. It is the greatest way to message about a product or a service. We continue to trim, and hone our message around a story where the client is a Hero which is working well.
Additionally, partnerships will be a major growth lever for us. There are an entire industry of CSR (corporate social responsibility) platform players that we’re looking to work closely with. This is key to scale not just for us but for any company getting started. Look at your industry and see who you can partner with to escalate growth. It’s really hard to build something big all by yourself.
In regards to traditional marketing, we’ve found our greatest success with Google Adwords. We’ve tried numerous other advertising strategies that have performed decently, but Google continues to be the strongest. We started out just by spending $5.00 per day and steadily ramping our spend as we received more data on what kind of advertising and site flow got prospects to convert. The chart below is our entire Adwords history. We just started tracking conversions but you can see the steady increase in spending as we optimize keywords and ads.
Another thing to point out with this steady ramp is we had to be patient on increasing our spending as we had to be sure we had the right processes in place across the business to handle an increased inflow of traffic. Also remember, we had a goal of running the business in a profitable fashion since day one which is another reason why slowly increased our advertising spend.
Our client retention is also very high. This is also no accident and the reason as we bend over backward to make sure our clients are successful and we create processes to make sure everyone in our company puts our clients first. A good example: If anyone in our company is working with a client, especially on a volunteer event, and identifies a need or way to make that client experience better and it’s a $100 or less, that team member has full authority to pull the trigger. That cost is minimal in comparison to the cost of bringing in a new long term client. Our clients are friends to us and we will support them like friends to make them successful in their endeavors to do good. I just want to highlight that process and policy are key here to make this work throughout the organization.
Last but not least, one of the things that keep me up at night is that we have just scratched the surface in regards to what is possible in regards to marketing. I’m eager to grow the company to a point where we can have a full-time marketing person that can drive the company forward.
How are you doing today and what does the future look like?
Today we continue to grow at an average of 20% month/month. We run the business profitably and look for areas of growth in every corner of the market. We see so many shiny objects and opportunities that we want to chase but work to stay disciplined and focused. Those opportunities will come!
What does the future look like? WeHero was created to make giving and volunteering for all. We have a goal of empowering 10 million people with the tools to give easily and effectively. What does that mean for WeHero? Continued investments in technology, people, and creating a business that scales to empower as many people as possible! In 2020, we’re looking to 5x the size of our business.
There are a lot of rough days and when I come across those rough days, I always tell myself to dig deep, focus the effort, and never give up.
Through starting the business, have you learned anything particularly helpful or advantageous?
It sounds really simple, but it has been incredibly effective. Every day, I diligently take the time to look at the entire business, look at my todo list, and do everything I can to focus my energy on 5 tasks per day that I strongly believe will drive the business forward. Sometimes, these are items that I don’t want to deal with, or that I’m not good at. That being said, if they are on my top 5 priorities for the day, I’m going to do everything in my power to tackle those items.
Another part of our culture is we really adopt failure. WeHero is an experiment, and we work really hard to identify the areas of the company where we are not our best. It’s how we grow and become stronger. At one point we had a client that was upset with our service offering. It was a learning opportunity and now we have a better/stronger process in place because of it. In addition to this, it helped me to recognize that every business has peaks and valleys. There are some days where I leap out of bed eager to start the day and others where the last thing I want to do is go to work. If you have these feelings, you’re not alone. Every entrepreneur faces this. Stay strong, own the results, and get back to work.
Last but not least, I think having a co-founder/partner is critical. If you’re doing it solo, you’re just the power of one in your own box with your own thoughts with no one to pressure test the ideas and make the business better. Being an entrepreneur can be lonely and having a strong co-founder and team by your side is essential.
What platform/tools do you use for your business?
I’ll highlight a few of my favorite tools. Hubspot has been an amazing CRM for us. Incredibly user-friendly and I love having the marketing tools built-in. Slack I just feel it is essential in this day and age for team communication. Inly.io has been amazing for our invoicing. I hate ugly invoices and Inly makes it easy. I’m a big fan of the G Suite as I personally really don’t like the Microsoft business suite.
Other tools we use:
Adsense, Adwords, WordPress, UPS business solutions for our logistics, Loom (videos and demos), Buffer, Dropbox, Adobe creative suite.
What have been the most influential books, podcasts, or other resources?
Books I have read recently that I thoroughly enjoyed:
Podcasts that I enjoy weekly:
- How I Built This
- The Tim Ferriss Show
- Smart Passive Income
- Market Foolery
Advice for other entrepreneurs who want to get started or are just starting out?
Start. The hardest part of doing a run is putting the shoes on. It’s the same thing with starting a company. Put the first foot forward and get started.
Have a good co-founder.
Make sure your product or service has been tested for feasibility. What do I mean by that? I come across a lot of companies that are dumping money into concepts and have yet to prove feasibility meaning they don’t know if the end customer will even pay for what they’re building. Do a feasibility analysis and find your product-market fit before substantial investment.
Build something you believe in. I strongly believe you have to build something you’re passionate about and really believe in.
Dig deep, focus the effort, never give up. There are a lot of rough days and when I come across those rough days, I always tell myself to dig deep, focus the effort, and never give up.
Are you looking to hire for certain positions right now?
We’re always looking for talent that can work part-time, especially where we are located in the bay area. This includes Project managers, event planners, photographers, and cinematographers.
If you’re in the San Francisco Bay Area give us a call!
Where can we go to learn more?
If you have any questions or comments, drop a comment below!
Hey! 👋 I'm Pat Walls, the founder of Starter Story.
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