Since GrantStation’s founding in 1999, I have watched organizations focused on the field of philanthropy launch, and often fail. Every time one of these groups – be it a business or nonprofit – went out of business I got a little chill. It could happen to us. But it didn’t, and I attribute some of that to pure luck (and a very, very stubborn CEO).
Staffing a Startup
In the summer of 2000, we decided that we needed to move the office into Fairbanks. The cabin in the woods was just too small to accommodate all of us, and our Internet was way too slow. The business had grown considerably and we now needed a real Office Manager/Customer Services person, so I hired Angel Knapp to help set up the office in town. Angel worked with us for the next 11 years, and there were many times she helped me figure out the next steps to building this business, including how to pay bills and make salary! We worked side-by-side, making numerous decisions every day on how to move the business forward. She was a constant in my life during some very challenging years. Her determination carried me through the tough times, and I am forever grateful to her for her consistent belief in what we were trying to accomplish.
Our new working space in Fairbanks was what you might call a ‘close and cozy’ office situation. We had about 350 square feet, and at one point we had eight people working in this space. But we also had an indoor bathroom, and a place to plug in our cars in the winter (so they wouldn’t freeze), so we were all quite happy.
As you can imagine, with a small staff we all had to be willing to take on any task. I would often get to the office before the others and of course I would cover the phones. (In Alaska we were four hours behind the East Coast.) I’d talk and talk with a Member or potential Member, helping them maneuver whatever problem they faced. Most of these people had no idea they were talking to the CEO and sometimes they would call back later in the day and ask to talk to “the nice lady who answers customer services calls in the morning.” My staff got quite a kick out of this, and would never correct them, and instead just said, “Oh, let me put you through to her.”
My sister, Linda (who lives in Colorado) had sent me a six-foot long poster of the New York City skyline, I think partly as encouragement to grow our little company. We hung the poster in the small room in the back and called it our New York office. Little did we imagine that within 15 years, we’d actually have a presence in New York!
In February 2007, we once again had the need to bring on more staff so we hired Sara Kennedy to work in customer services. She was a natural at the job as she had worked with nonprofits for years and understood the issues often faced by our Members. But it wasn’t easy to keep Sara focused on just customer services. She quickly determined that our Members needed on-going training and easily stepped into the job of developing webinars. We were on the webinar scene early, providing numerous free tours of the GrantStation website for our Members and potential Members. Then we began to offer paid, instructional webinars around specific topics, such as “Building a Grantseeking Calendar.” The first time we offered this training we had 80 people sign up, quite a few more than expected. We ended up spreading all the registrations on the floor and matching them to each receipt we sent out. We soon found a better way to manage this task!
Because we were in this very small office space, with only one door, we simply didn’t have a way for Sara to go live in a quiet setting.
Just imagine this scenario:
In a small office with eight of us working away, we had to pull off a live Internet show. Sara would yell, "Quiet on the set!" and everyone got totally silent for a moment or two. Sara would go live, welcome all the participants, hand off the live feed to the presenter, put her phone on mute, and then the staff just went back to work.
My office had a door – which was a bit of a joke since there was also an opening in the wall between me and the rest of the staff. When I was the webinar presenter we would shut my door and stuff a huge chunk of foam rubber in that opening to help dampen the noise. It was, to say the least, a very Alaskan solution. I’m just surprised it didn’t involve duct tape.
What did involve duct tape was our technology! Jeremy Smith provided key guidance during those early years developing the technology we needed to keep GrantStation up and running. I’ll talk a bit more about this in a later post, but Jeremy’s involvement started during the cabin era and he is still with us today.
Each staff member in those early days worked so hard it was rather astonishing. We would not have made it through that first decade without this deep commitment on the part of our staff to provide quality information, regardless of the working situation. A real blessing for a startup like GrantStation. The wonderful thing is that several of those staff members are still with us.
Julie is our Vice President of Research and has five researchers working with her. She has scrupulously guided the development of our funder profiles since day one.
Sara has become the Director of Online Education and proves her value to the company with record breaking attendance to our live webinars, not to mention recruiting smart instructors to offer fascinating trainings.
Jeremy is now our Communications and Technology Director. He is the voice you hear hosting every webinar and knows this company and what we offer backwards and forwards. He is, and always has been, a gift to this company.
Once we moved into the Cloud – and closed our Fairbanks office – Angel was ready to help her husband grow his own business. And believe me, she had the skills to do it! We still miss her and quote her often.
Financing This Venture
Funding a startup is key, and over those first five to eight years we successfully engaged 22 angel investors who believed in our mission, which reads:
We are dedicated to creating a civil society by assisting the nonprofit sector in its quest to build healthy and effective communities.
These investors came from all walks of life, and 90% were not wealthy people. Most of them were middle-class, hard-working friends or acquaintances. A few I had never even met, and why they jumped on board so readily I will never know.
I tried to be very professional about approaching folks to invest in this new business. I would diligently work on preparing a package to give to a potential investor, and then when we met I would often hear, “Oh, I don’t need that. I just think you will do a great job, so tell me how much you need.” That happened to me over and over, so I finally stopped preparing packages and just told people what I planned to do, and how I would go about it. The investments ranged from $10,000 to $250,000.
All in all, I had to bring in about a million dollars to build the infrastructure (website and databases). I started out with about $350,000 in investor funds, $400,000 in personal loans, and a few hundred thousand in a bank loan. It was a huge gamble on the part of all of us! But 20 years later, I can say it has truly paid off – and not just financially.
With funding, staff, and mission in place, and having outgrown our Fairbanks office, in the fall of 2013 we moved GrantStation into the Cloud. And that’s another story for another day.