As a part of my series about the “How Business Leaders Plan To Rebuild In The Post COVID Economy,” I had the pleasure of interviewing Sam Staley.
Sam Staley is an entrepreneur in Charleston, South Carolina. He has been involved in a number of ventures and is the Founder and CEO of Event.Gives — an event software platform that has won several awards along with an investment from AOL Founder Steve Case. Staley also serves as CTO at CODE/+/TRUST, another company he co-founded, and is a mentor at The Harbor Entrepreneur Center in Charleston where he helps guide and grow other start-ups in the region.
Prior to Event.Gives, Staley developed the first metropolitan-scale Wi-Fi network in the U.S. The idea came to him while driving and looking for open Wi-Fi access in Charleston neighborhoods which led him to question: ‘Why wasn’t Wi-Fi internet available ubiquitously in a city?’ Staley quit his job as a financial advisor, wrote a business plan, secured investors and from there, grew his first venture. Staley has since started several tech companies and is a graduate of The Citadel in Charleston, SC.
Thank you so much for your time! I know that you are a very busy person. Our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your ‘backstory’ and how you got started?
My path to creating Event.Gives all started with my wife being on the auction committee at our children’s elementary school, Sullivan’s Island Elementary in Charleston, SC. I watched the committee shuffle so many papers at their events and I couldn’t bear to watch their broken processes without trying to fix them. I knew we all had mobile phones in our pockets and simply asked the question, ‘Why couldn’t we all just text in our bids?’ I’ve started several tech companies and taught myself to code a few years back, so I threw together an SMS bot that would allow us to text bids in and convinced them to try it. We did and raised twice as much as had ever been raised in years past. The committee asked to use it at another event later that year, but I learned from the first event that the biggest problem with the SMS bot was the mob check out process. I knew we had to solve this first before using it again. I paired a simple app with the SMS bot that allowed us to view our items and to checkout from our phones at the end of the night. We doubled our raise again, even over the first event. I figured there must have been other schools with similar problems, so I looked for a domain to publish the app to make it available. I started by removing letters from the word Bidder until I landed on the domain bidr.co. After publishing the app, I found out quickly that nearly every event struggled with similar problems and that bidr.co offered a much-needed solution. It took on a life of its own. We’re still building better and better software and solving more problems for events. We rebranded to Event.Gives about a year ago and keep looking for new problems to solve and processes to automate. It’s become my passion and is great fun every day to find new ways to help events raise more money!
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lessons or ‘take aways’ you learned from that?
When we were still just about a year old as a company, we found out that our community had lost its sponsor for National Giving Day. Of course, we threw our hat in the ring — what a great opportunity to help more than 400 non-profit organizations in our local Charleston community still be able to participate (and learn about our platform). Our community raised a little over $1MM dollars the year before and we set our goal to surpass that. We pivoted our platform and created our sister platform Text.Gives to create the simplest way to get donors in front of a Donate button as quickly as possible. Text.Gives is still going strong today and remains the only way to donate in as few as one or even zero clicks. But on Giving Day that year, we had no idea what kind of turn-out there would be. We took on the marketing of the event and drove so many people to the Text-to-Give campaigns of each of our local nonprofits that it brought our servers down to almost a standstill. We were on the phone with our hosting provider all morning that day, turning on more and more servers, and finally got ahead of it around 10 am. We still blew away the record from the previous year, raising $1.6MM dollars that single day for our community, but only after holding it all together by a thread! We completely rebuilt our back end the next week and learned that our infrastructure had to be as solid as our application was easy to use.
Is there a particular book that you read, or podcast you listened to, that really helped you in your career? Can you explain?
This is tough, there are so many. From a product perspective, I love Hooked by Nir Eyal. I think about the tenants in this book with every product or feature we launch, looking for ways to create randomness and gamification into every process to increase engagement. The Third Wave by Steve Case is another phenomenal read and has the most vision of any book I’ve ever read. I know you only asked for one, but finally The Tao of Pooh by Benjamin Hoffman is still my favorite book and I’ll just leave it at, ‘It will change your life if you let it.’
Extensive research suggests that “purpose driven business” are more successful in many areas. When you started your company what was your vision, your purpose?
I wanted to get rid of paper and broken processes at fundraising events to help organizations raise more money. I can’t believe I nailed it on the first try, but this is still our singular focus today. We have gotten pretty good at it and I’m a total nerd for it. I have literally spent a week working with our team to refine and shave three seconds off one of our event check-in processes. My team wasn’t as thrilled with it as me but by eliminating these three seconds, we increased our platform to be able to begin processing more than 2,000 check-ins in under 15 minutes at events!
Do you have a “number one principle” that guides you through the ups and downs of running a business?
Probably a little cliché but Fail Fast! I was at a dinner once and Peter Theil described this in a way that really solidified it for me. He said, very simply, that you should continually be trying to prove your hypothesis about launching a particular product or improving a particular process as correct or incorrect as quickly as possible in order to move onto your next hypothesis. It’s really brilliant and takes all the risks out of failing fast — you’re going to be successful at proving your hypothesis right or wrong every time!
Thank you for all that. The COVID-19 pandemic has affected nearly every aspect of our lives today. For the benefit of empowering our readers, can you share with our readers a few of the personal and family related challenges you faced during this crisis? Can you share what you’ve done to address those challenges?
I’m kind of sad to admit this, and it was a surprise to realize, but my regular daily schedule actually resembles the quarantine in a lot of ways. I have a pretty short commute to and from the office and get there pretty early and leave fairly late most days (because I thrive on proving my hypotheses right or wrong every day I guess!). For my family, it’s been a bigger challenge. My wife is an amazing artist and her pseudonym is ‘The Gallavantor.’ She earned it honestly. She’s loved getting to spend time with our kids and focus on her art at home, but she’s a huge social butterfly and has been coming out of her skin the longer we’ve had to socially distance from friends, family and our community. I think like everyone though, we’re making the best of it; doing a lot of Facetiming, cooking together, teaching the kids to play poker and enduring marathon games of monopoly!
Can you share a few of the biggest work related challenges you are facing during this pandemic? Can you share what you have done to address those challenges?
I miss our real-time collaboration. Our teams have all gotten pretty good at tele-working and Slack is a must have, but we collaborate a lot when we’re all at the office and I look forward to getting back around the table in real-life with all of them.
Many people have become anxious from the dramatic jolts of the news cycle. The fears related to the coronavirus pandemic have understandably heightened a sense of uncertainty, fear, and loneliness. What are a few ideas that you have used to offer support to your family and loved ones who were feeling anxious? Can you explain?
I say take a break from it. National news cycles will always repeat themselves over the course of a few weeks and the more micro-crises you can avoid the better off you might find yourself. Look around you and react to what you see in real-time in your own community. You’ll find a lot of truth there and will probably see a lot of ways to contribute to positive outcomes.
Obviously, we can’t know for certain what the post-COVID economy will look like. But we can of course try our best to be prepared. We can reasonably assume that the post-COVID economy will be a trying time for many people across the globe. Yet at the same time the post-COVID growth can be a time of opportunity. Can you share a few of the opportunities that you anticipate in the post COVID-19 economy?
The biggest opportunity I anticipate is hybrid in-person and virtual events becoming the standard event format and I think that our platform is at the forefront in allowing this. To put it in perspective, by March 15 we had lost every in-person event we had scheduled for spring 2020. We worked around the clock to build this new software and even held conversations with auctioneers who told us what would make the platform work best for them. As a result, we created a new virtual auction experience that resembles the live stream of Facebook Live where participants can bid on items and donate in real-time. Since launching the new software in April, we have been able to help organizations raise more than $500,000 virtually and expect to reach at least $2 million in May. In the post-COVID-19 economy, we are going to see organizations slowly resume in-person events. Only difference is that they may not be able to host the same amount of people in-person as they did before due to social distancing. This is where I see an opportunity for our platform to play a key role as it will allow organizations to not only host hybrid in-person and virtual giving events, but also open these events to a larger audience that might not have been participating in-person previously.
How do you think the COVID pandemic might permanently change the way we behave, act or live?
I think a lot of schools and families have learned that homeschooling is more of a viable option than any of them realized before and I think we’ll see some type of hybrid schooling in the future. Possibly, three days at school, two days of virtual learning, etc. Also, every single large and small business just learned that tele-work can be very successful. I anticipate that commercial real estate will change permanently as businesses begin to downsize corporate campuses or local offices as a result. Lastly, I think we’ll see less human interaction in the near term as people are less comfortable with personal contact. We need human connection, so I hope we’ll get back to handshakes and hugs soon enough.
Considering the potential challenges and opportunities in the post-COVID economy, what do you personally plan to do to rebuild and grow your business or organization in the post-COVID economy?
As an entrepreneur, it was vital for me to make decisions for my company that allowed us to continue working amid the pandemic. The reality is that we went from the largest February we’ve ever had to losing all of our scheduled in-person events, so we really needed to pivot in a way that made us sustainable, but also supported our customers that were having to cancel events due to the pandemic. In response to this problem, we ultimately developed a solution that has created a new class of giving events, now and for the future. Moving forward, our plan is to continue to develop innovative solutions to help organizations raise more money. Every day, we are brainstorming new ways to do this and enhancing our software. Right now, we’re working to expand the capabilities of our platform to be used for large public events. Our goal will remain the same — to enable events to raise money and now, we’re also helping auctioneers who would have lost their livelihoods as a result of event cancellations, continue working from the safety of their own homes.
Similarly, what would you encourage others to do?
I would encourage others to think outside of the box and continue to innovate. It’s times like these that really push people to get creative and find new solutions to improve our lives for the better, now and for the future.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote?” Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
‘The most important decisions you make are the ones you make when no one else is watching’ — smib
How can our readers follow your work?
Our website: http://event.gives