Five go live for charity
How a group of Brisbane businessmen became online fundraisers
What does a house fire or homelessness or an ill child mean to any of us personally? We mostly understand catastrophe when it happens to us or someone we know or someone we love. Which is why online charity fundraising platform everydayhero is such a genius idea: this is your story, or your mum’s, or your sick child’s. It is the heart of the matter, delivered to your door.
Everydayhero was the first platform in Australia to connect the dots between fundraising and the wondrous worldwide web and, voila, from its beginnings as a small start-up in Brisbane in 2007 it now has one of the largest global footprints of any online fundraising platform. The five blokes, all close friends who risked everything to set it up, sold in 2011 for a cool $7.6 million to US-based company Blackbaud, which provides software and services for non-profit organisations and wanted to add everydayhero’s success story to its portfolio. Only two of the original owners – Nathan Betteridge and Simon Lockyer, both 45 – still work for the company; the rest now run their own new businesses.
Everydayhero’s motto – help the causes you love – has translated into people like you and me raising a staggering $300 million since its inception, for causes such as mental illness, the rescue of child sex workers in Thailand, medical issues ranging from cancer to brain trauma to spina bifida research, and everything in between. You might want to buy a wheelchair for someone who can’t afford it, or give a dying child a holiday.
This year alone, about two million people around the world will use the everydayhero site to raise money for someone, or something, they care about. Its premise is simple: rather than sign a swimathon or walkathon form and then forget to hand over the promised cash (about 60 per cent of pledged money fails to materialise), you go online, credit or debit card in hand, and the donated sum lands straight in the fundraising account.
Of course, everydayhero’s owners profit too, as the site charges its 6751 global charity partners a sliding fee scale. In Australia its 4790 charity partners pay an annual membership fee of $415, plus it collects a service fee of 1.09 to 6.5 per cent on each individual transaction, depending on services.
So what came first, the money or the love? Betteridge says the idea was definitely to make everydayhero work as a profitable business model. “Yes, it was a commercial operation but – for me and all of us, I think – it was very much doing this as a social enterprise first and a commercial enterprise second. I don’t think you’d start this business if you didn’t have some sort of social soul. It was very much driven by social conscience originally. It was ‘how do we take the practices of the business world and apply them to the non-profit world?’”
Founder of Brisbane design company Bigfish, Sheldon Lieberman, 47, is one of those million people raising money on everydayhero for a cause he loves. The Mullumbimby-based artist, musician and filmmaker was one of the first to start raising money through the site because he was a friend of one of the five blokes who started the company, advertising creative director Rem Bruijn, also 47. “Rem was ringing the agencies and design companies he knew around Brisbane trying to drum up business, using his good reputation, I guess, and because I knew him and respected him personally, we decided to get involved,” Lieberman says.
In 2008, Bruijn dreamed up the inaugural Brisbane Advertising and Design Club Charity Challenge, and Lieberman and his team of 25 Bigfish employees entered. “It sounded like a good thing to do,” Lieberman says. “Plus I’m competitive, so I thought, wouldn’t it be awesome if my little band of introverts could stick it up the big guys?”
That first year, Bigfish raised $5000 for a melanoma charity, taking out the winner’s cup, but the following year it was beaten by one of the bigger advertising agencies. Scrambling around for a better idea, Lieberman and his team came up with “Treadmill”, the name it gives to its “Run Bigfish Run” concept that has become an internet hit, involving a website with a webcam live-streaming Bigfish staff running on a treadmill in the office. Lieberman now has a huge international following, and has won the challenge multiple times.
But while Lieberman was raising money for other causes, he discovered he had his own cause right under his nose. His second child with partner Olivia (they also have a son, Spike, now 9) was discovered to have spinal muscular atrophy, the biggest genetic cause of death in children under two. His little daughter, Michi, born in 2009, was dying. “There’s nothing more tragic than a child dying, any child, and it’s been tragic for us, but for us there have also been so many inspiring and amazing things about Michi’s life that we carry every day,” he says.
So far Lieberman, his family, friends and colleagues have raised about $80,000 since that first year. Now he’s not only raising money for the Spinal Muscular Atrophy Association of Australia in Michi’s memory (she died in 2011), but for every child who will not live a long life.
A small Brisbane start-up is now one of the world’s biggest online fundraising platforms. It all started with five guys connecting the dots.
“It sounded like a good thing to do. Plus I’m competitive, so I thought, wouldn’t it be awesome if my little band of introverts could stick it up the big guys?”
Sheldon Lieberman, everyday hero fund raiser
So who are these five guys? How did they join up the dots? Well, it helps if you have a broad spectrum of talents at your fingertips, including a couple of advertising stars who understand that the first rule of communicating a brilliant idea is to marry the rational with the emotional. “You put your ‘brand’ in people’s hearts by evoking an emotional response,” says Bruijn, who worked with friend Simon Lockyer at global advertising giant McCann Erickson. It helps, too, to have an expert in financial services, particularly in the field of electronic commerce. That would be Michael Kearney, 46. “I worked for Visa International for a lot of years; my expertise was in payments – the transaction side of the business, how the banking settlement process worked,” he says.
And it helps to have a marketing hotshot, someone who knows about product placement and brand management, and that would be Betteridge, who went to school with Lockyer at St Joseph’s College, Gregory Terrace, and is one of his oldest friends. “Simon and I were doing some joint market research for a small charity in Brisbane and we were trying to help them figure out how to raise more money,” he recalls. “This was back in 2000, and it was really our first exposure to the sector. I’d been working in marketing for Sara Lee and it became really obvious to us in the research we were doing that the charity sector had a distribution problem. The only way they could raise money back then was if you literally rattled a tin in front of someone or they sent you something in the mail, which was very common and still is today.”
Add to the talented mix of four a Sydneybased friend – sales specialist Paul Wenck, 45 (the business needed a Sydney branch since most of Australia’s biggest charities are based there) – and the little band of five was set to make Australian fundraising history.
As remarkable as it seems, as recently as ten years ago online commercial transactions were in their infancy. “That’s sort of how the whole thing
came about – we’d had this idea [for improving distribution in the charity industry] but we hadn’t yet connected it to the internet at that point,” says Betteridge. “Michael had just returned from Singapore, where he’d been working for Visa, so all of a sudden we had the payments expertise. We’d all been to uni together; Simon had the advertising expertise and through Simon, Rem had the creative experience, and we put them together.”
Bruijn adds that at the start of 2007 “we had nothing but the idea”. He says they began by talking to charities and in April 2007, the everydayhero site went live. “By that point, we’d signed some charities who were prepared to give it a go. You’ve got to remember this was before ecommerce, before Kickstarter, before the iPhone; it was a different world. People were still scared of eBay, about their money getting stolen.”
Kearney says many charities didn’t even have a website. “They were asking things like, ‘How does the transaction model work?’ So there was a real gap, a skillset gap, I guess, but pretty quickly they could see that we could provide that for them.”
Betteridge says they were fortunate when it came to technology. “It was done on a shoestring when we launched, obviously. Dion Sanderson, who still works in the business today, was our first software engineer. Our backgrounds weren’t [in] technology, so between him and Michael on the payments, he helped us bring the vision to life.”
All five left their permanent salaried jobs – with sick pay, holiday pay, long service leave provisions and good promotion prospects – to take a leap in the dark. In the early days, when they rented rooms in a cheap inner-city building with no staff, the five of them did everything themselves. “I used to answer the phone – ‘Let me put you through to our marketing department’. We had one phone!” says Lockyer. Betteridge adds: “Yeah, there were some long, long hours.”
All acknowledge supportive wives, partners and children. “But it was the right time to do it,” says Lockyer. “The right time to take that risk. We could do it and there was the ability to recover if it didn’t work out.” But, slowly, slowly, they began to make a “marginal profit”. They began to draw salaries, but pretty much everything they earned was ploughed straight back into the business. “We did launch into Hong Kong in 2008 – in the middle of the GFC – but retreated in 2010, when it was obvious we were getting a little ahead of ourselves,” says Betteridge. Yet only a couple of years after starting, they processed their first million dollars in donations. “We thought that was a milestone … it started to go up and up from there,” says Betteridge. By 2010, they had a team
“We measure our success in terms of our heroes, the people who are using our platform to do good.”
NATHAN BETTE RIDGE
of 24 employees, but their risk was about to pay off beyond their wildest dreams.
All five friends came from families with a social conscience and were motivated by something other than profit. “A lot of the time with advertising you’re trying to make an emotional connection with things that are tenuous – fizzy water and stuff like that – but when you have something really tangible to emotionally connect to, you can do really amazing persuasive, powerful work,” says Bruijn. “Some of the most powerful work we’ve ever done has been for causes, so once you’ve tried that, you want to keep doing it.”
Lockyer says they figured out early what their business was about. “When you think about it, these fundraisers, these heroes, are out there telling their own stories, about their causes, in their own words, and they’re trying to get their friends and supporters to go, ‘That’s fantastic, this is important’. We needed to help them push that forward, and that would make the business successful. So, you know, we always saw ourselves as sidekicks. Everydayhero, the business, was Robin – it wasn’t Batman.” Adds Betteridge: “We measure our success in terms of our heroes – the people who are using our platform to do good.”
And that big day in 2011 when they told their staff the business had been bought for millions? Betteridge again: “You’ve got to picture this tiny office, right, and we’ve got people sitting on top of people, and working because they’re passionate about it, and suddenly these guys in suits came in and they all thought the business had gone into liquidation. So Simon had to step in and recover the moment.” Lockyer finishes the story. “It sounds like a cliche but it’s true – we were suddenly able to offer these people a bigger career, a bigger pathway, we were part of a bigger business. And everyone could see that this was going to take it to the next level, which meant for the people who had started with us, it was very, very emotional.”
Today only Lockyer and Betteridge work for Blackbaud, the company that bought the business. Bruijn owns his own advertising firm, Brainheart; Kearney runs his own consulting firm, and Wenck continues to work in sales in Sydney. “If you look back from where we are today, the business has tripled, the people have tripled, and we’re going to grow faster next year than we ever have before, so it was the right decision [to sell],” says Betteridge. “It wasn’t an easy decision, but it was the right one.”
SUITE OF FOUR … FROM THE ORIGINAL FIVE EVERYDAYHERO FUNDRAISERS ( L-R): REM BRUIJN, NATHAN BETTERIDGE, SIMON LOCKYER AND MICHAEL KEARNEY.