Startups are difficult. Everyone says and knows this. It’s a time consuming, frustrating, and so often fruitless process. But as I – and many others – have discovered, it’s precisely those difficulties that make entrepreneurship such a rewarding experience.
Yesterday, our team saw the fruits of our labor come to life. On our launch day alone, we got over $400 in pledges for our projects in addition to nearly 2,000 pageviews.
From legal issues, such as gaining 501(c)(3) tax-exempt status from the IRS, to the complexities of planning and developing a comprehensive plan leading up to launch day, I’m unbelievably proud of the work we’ve done to get to where we are today. But more importantly, I’ve been humbled by the challenges that entrepreneurs face each and every day and the support we’ve received to overcome those challenges.
Let me first take a step back.
Sponsr.Us is a student-run non-profit transforming the way high school and college students start their own clubs, community service projects, and other non-profits. Our five-person team, consisting of some of my closest friends from my high school years, wants to foster conditions for experiential learning for students by helping them bring their ideas to life. We plan to accomplish this through our own online social fundraising platform and good, old-fashioned mentorship – a combination we think will not only be effective, but scalable.
Here are some of our experiences as a startup – lessons learned and suggestions for your own initiative.
You don’t have to reinvent the wheel. Leverage existing examples, tools, and people.
Our startup, like all startups, takes advantage of existing models for success and builds upon them to create a unique model for our targeted market.
Specifically, we’ve incorporated existing crowd-fundraising strategies, implemented by successful companies such as Kickstarter, into building our own platform. However, our platform is not only exclusive to student initiatives, but also adopts a 100% donation model, modeled off of the successes of Watsi and Charity:Water, where all donations go directly to the project a donor is supporting (In contrast, Kickstarter takes a cut of about 10% off of each transaction). We cover our own operational costs and even credit card transaction fees through private donors – something that we hope will really promote donations to our student projects.
Furthermore, from our own experience, and seeing the successes of programs such as Ashoka’s Youth Venture program, we know that mentorship is as essential as fundraising. We’re replicating that experience by pairing our students with mentors to guide them throughout the process. From defining a solid idea to budgeting to fundraising, planning, pitch-video filming, and actually launching and sustaining the initiative, we want to be with our students every step of the way.
Never forget the value of iterating and adapting
Sponsr.Us as it exists today is very different from the idea we started with, which was essentially just a fundraising platform open to all students who wanted to start something. Yet as we worked and did more research, we realized that fundraising is not the only obstacle students face in taking their ideas to the next step. To be successful, most individuals also need to bounce ideas off of like-minded people as well as support on how to fundraise and how to promote an initiative. What started out as just a website became an organization with a fully developed program. We hope that the ecosystem we’ve devised will work for not just the projects in our first round, but potentially thousands more as we scale up our operations and as current project members become future mentors.
Keep your ultimate goal in mind, but never be afraid to pivot to a better solution, even if it’s radically different from your original idea. We wanted to empower students to start their own initiatives, but just providing an online platform was not enough to make the difference we wanted.
Plan, but set a timeframe to launch
One of the parts that I’ve found especially frustrating is how much of a logistical mess startups are – deadlines are so often pushed back, especially when everyone on the team is in school. As any programmer will tell you, developing something takes a lot longer than you’d initially expect. There’s a fine line all startups walk between getting it right and getting a product out quickly. We’ve taken the slow path to get to where we are – and that’s fine for our case. But for many startups, that just won’t work, especially for tech startups; things just change too quickly. At the end of the day, even the best product won’t be any use until it’s launched – and we’re so glad to have launched. Pick a timeframe and work towards it in manageable milestones.
Our fingers are crossed that we’ve set a solid groundwork for Sponsr.Us not only for now, but also for the many years to come. We’ve done our research, filed the necessary paperwork, coded the platform, written the fine print, convinced as many students as we could to apply to our program, and spent countless hours debating the nuances of our organization. Plus, we’re starting small – three projects are a part of our initial pilot round.
Even then, we’ll undoubtedly run into hiccups. But hey, if we didn’t, what would be the fun of it all?
Reposted from the Harvard College Venture Partners‘ blog.
So excited to be a part of the HCVP team! Will be sharing more about my experience soon.