Those Early, Exciting (and Painful) Years


Part Two

Those Early, Exciting (and Painful) Years

There is a challenge that all entrepreneurs have to address when starting a new business. It’s not what you are probably thinking – finding the money for a startup (although that is also somewhat daunting). The real challenge is defining who you want to be as a company, who you will serve, and how you will deliver that product or service. Now this may sound fairly straight forward but it is not. For an entrepreneur to be truly successful you have to feel passionate about what you do.

Before I launched GrantStation, I served as the Economic Development Director at the Fairbanks North Star Borough in Alaska. I had a checklist of questions I would ask each person who came into my office looking for help to start a new business or launch a nonprofit. Those questions included:

  •             What skills do you have?
  •             Where does your passion lie?
  •             What is your area of expertise?
  •             Do you have access to startup funding?

There were other questions as well, but these were the main ones. The one question that seldom had a ready answer was the one about passion. People with whom I consulted usually had a fairly decent idea about the business they wanted to start but the motivation behind their idea was often lukewarm.

For me, it was an easy answer. I loved working in the third sector – with nonprofit organizations.

For me, it was an easy answer. I loved working in the third sector – with nonprofit organizations. And I thoroughly enjoyed raising money for good causes. Having been a fundraiser in Alaska since the early 70s I was aware of the ongoing need for up-to-date information about who was giving money and for what cause, and how to best make applications for their support. Attempting to raise significant funds for environmental issues in Alaska in the 70s, and then for public radio and television in the 80s, was difficult, not only because the funding resources in Alaska were limited (only half a million folks lived in the entire state) but also because information about foundation and corporate giving was often out of date. 

So developing the basic business concept was pretty obvious but it got tougher when we began trying to define the exact product or service we would provide.

Building GrantStation

Building a profileWe knew from the get-go that GrantStation would be an online business offering a searchable database of grantmakers. We also agreed this should be a membership or subscription-based service and that the quality of the information must be the most important factor. After numerous discussions Julie, Toni, Steve, and I decided that even though we were in all respects a ‘business’ we wanted to interact with those who used our service as a nonprofit would with their members. We wanted to be considerate, respectful, and provide as much guidance as our limited resources would allow. Our decision: GrantStation would be a membership-based business. A bit of an odd duck. (We were definitely a social enterprise before the concept became so popular!)

The next roadblock was struggling with exactly how we would build these grantmaker profiles for our database. The first question was to ask ourselves which funders we would include and which ones we would not. We were well aware that there were other services, such as the Foundation Center, that served as an encyclopedia of funders, and we certainly didn’t want to reinvent the wheel. What we wanted was to make the research process as quick and easy as possible for our Members. Early on we opted not to include funders that don’t accept unsolicited applications. We made that decision because we wanted to save our Members time. We didn’t want them to plow through endless profiles of funders who would not even read their requests! That decision cut out tens of thousands of grantmakers and allowed us to build a truly boutique business focusing on those funders most likely to fund an organization’s programs or projects.

Defining the search terms that our Members would use in their research was another dynamic task that we revisited often, and still do today in order to stay current with evolving interests in the nonprofit world. For example, when we first launched the database we didn’t have searchable categories around such key words as climate change, sustainable development, or even community and school gardens! Those concepts weren't even on our radar, and now they are all heavily used search terms.

Cindy & Julie
Julie and Cindy away from the computers and out in nature.

There were many, many conversations over those first few years that centered around these issues, and I have to say Julie’s foresight, her understanding of including (or excluding) certain information, was key to making our database such a success.

One issue that I was adamant about was making sure that our funder profiles reflected what each grantmaker wanted to invest in today, and any plans we could determine for future investing. I really wasn’t too interested in their past activity, although many a fundraiser will argue with me over this idea. But I felt then, as I do now, that past activity is just that – past! Grantmakers, especially government funders, can move slowly but their focus is always evolving and to be a successfully grantseeker you have to be either in step, or one step ahead.

I was also determined to get the geographic scope fine-tuned so that our Members weren't spending time sending requests to funders that didn't target their communities.

They say the devil is in the detail, and they are right! There is a mysterious element hidden in the details, so something that might seem simple at first takes a lot more time and effort to complete. And this was very applicable to the work we did in those early days.

But it was the passion for what we do – helping nonprofit organizations, educational institutions, and small governments identify and secure the funding they need to do their good work – that drove every aspect of our thinking as we built GrantStation.

Those first five years or so Julie, Toni, Steve, and I had many conversations about how this would all play out, and somehow these lengthy discussions resulted in a beautifully developed database that was, after starting with no subscribers in 1999, serving over 3,000 individuals and organizations by 2004.

Those many hours spent in sorting out the criteria we would use to build funder profiles, and the key words folks would use to find the most appropriate grantmaker for their work, allowed us to move forward with great confidence in the service we would provide. But there were still many hurdles to jump to grow this little business, as you’ll see in my next post.

Read Part 1: The Founding of an Idea