Interview with Joe Phoenix, CEO of Givinga
Tell Us About Your Journey
The journey has been an interesting one. I mean, it started back in 2015. I had two co-founders and myself started Givinga, built it out of basically a WeWork. I think one of the first meetings that I had was actually in this office with Justin (Nesbit). And the last five years have just been a constant journey of building the company, reimagining giving, and continuing to kind of build the organization as the market dictated for us.
Tell Us The History of Givinga
My whole career was in financial services, and I just didn’t find that job fulfilling. It was fulfilling from a monetary side, but I felt like there was something missing. So I left the firm that I had been working for 25 years, and founded Givinga in 2015 with two partners, both tech specialists in the industry, and the three of us have grown the company from three guys in a WeWork to 28 full-time employees.
Givinga, if you think about what we do, we call it philantech.
Givinga is a combination of philanthropic vehicles and technology. And the reason that we combine those two things together is that whenever you combine technology with an industry, it makes that industry more efficient. It opens that industry up, it democratizes it, it makes it accessible to more people. And so what philantech is designed to do is it’s designed to take this industry that has been basically exclusive. It’s been out of the reach of the normal person that’s wanting to give and act philanthropically, and it puts all these tools in their hands and allows them to do that.
And what’s interesting about that is when you look at the clients that we work with, from very large corporations to smaller corporations, we cover a broad spectrum of groups. And, ironically, Gesmer is one of those companies.
It’s been full circle to be able to provide the output of all of this work that we’ve collectively put in together that then allows the employees of Gesmer to become much more philanthropic in the way that they’re giving money away. And that closing of the circle is really what’s something that I’m probably most proud of.
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What Are Some Inspirations That Motivate You?
Two main ones. It’s the team that I work with. We’ve been really fortunate in being able to hire just exceptional people. And in a startup, one of the most important aspects is that startup gets going is what the culture of the company is. And I think too much is spent focusing on the CEO being the culture. The culture of the company is really all the people that are interacting with each other, interacting with our clients on a daily basis. And the people that we’ve been able to find in this marketplace have just been exceptional across the board.
And I think the other one that I’d say is our customers, the people that we interact with in the marketplace are just an amazing number of people doing incredible things and trying to help the world be better, help people who are in need, and just meeting and seeing those people and interacting with them on a daily basis. It’s really the reason that we’re doing what we’re doing.
Tell Us About Some of the Challenges You’ve Faced
The first thing is when we sat down to build the company, you really have to build a long-term strategy around what you’re trying to do and then stick to that strategy as closely as possible. Take input from the marketplace when it provides it to you, have the flexibility to adjust as you’re kind of moving through all of that, and then stay true to yourself and true to what you’re trying to build, even as all these things are kind of swirling around you.
What Advice Can You Offer Other Entrepreneurs?
There’s a lot of advice that I received when I was growing the company and I guess I could condense this into a few things. I think the first one would be multiply. As you’re building a business and you’re thinking about what you want to do, multiply the amount of time it’s going to take you to build a business and the expense involved with that by at least two and a half times. As you’re sitting down thinking about it, you have a number in your head, you have a time in your head. I’ve just found that if you multiply everything by two and a half times, it’s a more realistic kind of assessment of where things are.
I think the second would be adjust. Once you put that idea out in the marketplace, it really becomes more of the market’s idea. The company becomes a public company, people are using it, and you’re going to get all sorts of advice from people. Get a product into the market as quickly as possible so that people can start giving you that feedback and then adjust it as quickly as possible after that.
The third one I’d say is persevering. This is not a linear job that you’re in. It’s dimensional. It goes forward, it goes backward. Sometimes you’re standing still, and you just have to set your goals, make sure that you’re following those goals as consistently as possible, and then persevere through all of the ups and downs that the markets create.
Sense of humor, to me, is important. As you’re working through this, you have to really love what you’re doing. If you don’t love what you’re doing in a startup, then you’re probably in the wrong startup or should be doing something else. And I’ll give you an excellent example.
When we first fundraised for the organization, I went out to my friends and family, and a buddy of mine sent a check back – I didn’t think that he was going to invest. He sent a check back to us, and he attached to the letter, to the check, “Make our friendship better.” And I framed that, and I look at it every day, and it’s just a reminder that if you can inject humor into what’s otherwise a stressful situation, it can be really beneficial to you.
And I think the final piece would be to really set realistic goals for your team. I like to encourage independence of thought. I like to encourage friction at the organization. I like to encourage diversity of opinion, but you really have to have those things revolve around an identifiable, transparent core set of principles that you never waver on. And if you can kind of get those two things working well together it really fosters a strong working culture inside of the organization.
What Value Has Gesmer Updegrove Provided Givinga?
Gesmer treated us like a success before we were a success.
I was telling my colleagues as we were coming in that every time I get in that Gesmer elevator it reminds me of the very early days of Givinga and I remember coming up here and being treated like this company was already a viable company. We’ve worked with the same lead attorney from the beginning. He feels like in-house counsel to me. And I just think that the care that Gesmer takes with companies our size and the long game that they play in looking at the ecosystem of this kind of emerging and new company in Boston and then really helping guide those companies is the most invaluable thing that they bring.
Why “Go With Gesmer”?
Why go with Gesmer? Why not? We found over the last five and a half, six years of working with this firm that, not only are they committed to this smaller company but they’re committed to the success of those companies, and providing the resources that allow us to be successful. Our interactions with the Gesmer team from literally the top of the organization to the bottom of the organization has been invaluable to the company as we’ve grown, navigated, competed, worked through the myriad of issues that arise on kind of a daily basis here. And without their team and their partnership, I just don’t think that our probability of success would have been as high as it was after partnering with them.
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