Five go live for char­ity

The Courier-Mail - QWeekend - - INSIDE THIS WEEK - STORY SU­SAN JOHN­SON PHO­TOG­RA­PHY RUS­SELL SHAKE­SPEARE

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.

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