Learning by Doing: Some Thoughts on Sponsr.Us

The following is a post Eric Ouyang, founder of Sponsr.Us, wrote for the Harvard College Venture Partners’ blog.

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.
Last week, 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?

Read the press release for the Sponsr.Us launch here.
Learn more about Sponsr.Us and support our projects here.
Like us on Facebook (/SponsrUs) and follow us Twitter (@SponsrUs).

Reposted from the Harvard College Venture Partners‘ blog. Edits have been made to fit the timing of this repost.


A Personal Pivot

As Sponsr.Us gears up for launch day on Wednesday, Alex Jiang, a director at Sponsr.Us, shares his journey as a part of the team.

I took a sip of my chai latte to keep me warm as I waited for the crosswalk signal — half-expecting that it wouldn’t work at 8am on a Wednesday morning. I only needed to get up at 10am to make it to my history final. But instead I was up three hours early to walk two miles with Greg on a November morning. As another gust of wind chilled my left hand, I tightened my grip on a few Sponsr.Us papers. I chuckled to myself as I imagined what I’d be doing if I hadn’t joined Sponsr.Us (probably sleeping in), and I realized how much had changed in the six months. When I joined the team in June, I was trying to figure out what Sponsr.Us did while we finalized the fundraising platform and networked at education and technology conferences. Now Greg and I were going to meet Ms. Jordan, a vice principal at Andover High School, to continue the search for our first pilot round of student projects and give us a chance to see the fruition of our hard work.

I joined the Sponsr.Us team as a part of the development team for our online fundraising platform. At first, I wondered how much I could actually contribute. Unlike other members of the team, my interest in web development wasn’t backed up by a list of projects. A year ago, I hadn’t heard of GitHub. Another two years before that, the acronyms HTML and CSS would have been meaningless to me. But even when my dad summarized the depth and potential of web development, the opportunity to master it ignited an innate curiosity. After that, I didn’t just surf the internet, I analyzed and tried to reverse-engineer it. I wondered how sites could have animations and effects that weren’t listed in CSS documentation, so I learned Javascript and jQuery. I wondered how sites kept track of user accounts and data, so I learned about the structure of an actual website: the front-end, the back-end, and how the two worked together to serve up a website for any one of millions of people to see. But though this journey seemed impressive, I knew I still lacked experience. And if I wanted to call myself a web developer, I’d have to put my skills together and prove it.

When Greg offered that I spend a month in California with him and the Sponsr.Us team, I hadn’t fully grasped the concept and scope of Sponsr.Us. I immediately saw an opportunity to gain web development experience by working with them. My curiosity and lack of experience in web development was enough personal motivation for now, but I knew how unstable my curiosity could be. When I accepted Greg’s offer, I mostly considered sharpening my skills to somehow join the ranks of the millionaires who seemed to stumble on a lucky idea. There had to be some secret, I thought, somewhere in the heart of Silicon Valley, and I would only have to unlock it.

But it’s taken me six months to realize that people didn’t stumble on ideas and get lucky. The successful people look for purpose in any idea that they choose to pursue. All of the experience gained from developing the Sponsr.Us platform that I had hoped would give me the next big idea couldn’t rival the experience of reaching out to schools, teachers, and students with the rest of the team that gave me the purpose behind my work. For each concept of web development I learned (I doubt I can claim that I mastered anything) over the summer, I was challenged by more problems that I’d never considered before. I only felt slightly less clueless about web development than when I started. But the non-technical side of Sponsr.Us gave me a purpose to apply my skills towards; I knew that I would judge and justify whatever I did by how much value it gave others. I anchored my purpose to the idea of supporting students, not honing my own skills so that I could later build a fancy yet hollow website.

Greg might compare this to a “pivot”: when a company has some market advantage, but due to external forces, they choose to redefine themselves by switching focus to another direction. This decision often decides the company’s success. My pivot changed my purpose (and thus my motivation) for learning web development. I wanted it to open opportunities to others, not serve as just another marketing strategy or channel to mine data.

This pivot also forced me to consider the non-technical side of my ideas more. Without a solid offline purpose, no idea can survive long enough to impact others. My purpose woke me up early that November morning, motivated me on the two-mile trek to meet Ms. Jordan, and spoke for me when she inevitably asked, “So, what is Sponsr.Us?”

2013 Year in Review

Happy new year, everyone! Here’s what we did in 2013:

Sponsr.Us in 2013

Selected three projects for our first round
We’ll be launching our fundraising platform with these initiatives mid-January! Stay tuned to find out more about these awesome students.

Filmed a Sponsr.Us promo video
This past summer, we filmed a short video of us sharing our vision. If you haven’t seen it yet, check it out!

Received 501(c)(3) non-profit status
A few months back, we finally gained official 501(c)(3) non-profit status from the IRS. This means all donations to Sponsr.Us and Sponsr.Us projects are fully tax-deductible.

Decided to implement a 100% donation model
Not only does Sponsr.Us not take a cut off of donations to Sponsr.Us Projects, we’ll even cover the transaction costs! This means every penny of your donation goes to the project you’ve chosen to support.

Completed development of our fundraising platform
After countless hours of coding and iterating on the Sponsr.Us Platform, we’re finally ready for launch day.

What’s planned for 2014?

Round one. And beyond.
We’re intending on doing at least two more rounds of Sponsr.Us Projects in 2014.

Sponsr.Us Workshop Days
In 2014, we’ll be launching the first of many in-person workshops for students.

Cheers to 2014!

Team Sponsr.Us
Eric, Kevin, Gregory, Brandon, and Alex

Thoughts on Starting a Student-run Venture

Through building Sponsr.Us, we’ve learned a lot about the process of building a student-run organization up from scratch. Here are four tips we’ve got for you from our own experience to help you start your own venture.

User, Need, Insight

All ventures — for-profit and non-profit — need to address a problem. I like to frame this using the “user, need, insight” format. The idea is that you can describe your solution in a single sentence: User needs x, because insight. Sponsr.Us’ statement sounds something like, “students need both a social-fundraising platform and a mentorship network to make their projects a reality because a holistic approach to supporting student ventures gives them the highest likelihood for success.” Having a one-sentence description in this format touches on all of the key components of your venture: your audience, your solution, and, most importantly, why your solution in particular is the right one. One level higher, having a statement like this allows for you to have a clear message about the goal of your organization since it concretely explains your organization’s purpose. Describing your venture as involving a specific user, need, and insight is far more powerful than simply saying that you aim to achieve something. 

Have a plan (but don’t fall in love with it)

When we first started Sponsr.Us we envisioned a platform that democratized access to funding for student ventures. By using the power of the Internet, we wanted to give students access to the same opportunity for funding that we had at our schools. We naively believed that access to funding was the sole barrier between students and making their venture successful. At first we thought that the solution was to simply provide students with this fundraising platform, but we quickly realized after working with a number of potential projects that funding was not the silver bullet we initially thought. Instead, we learned that the largest reason for failure of student ventures is lack of access to the advice and mentorship needed to overcome the inevitable hurdles. Thus, what began as simply a “non-profit, Kickstarter for student ventures,” evolved into a program to support student-run ventures financially and personally. The moral of this story is that adapting and pivoting is inevitable; projects that don’t succeed fail to realize opportunities for change.

Team = Trust

The most important part of any venture is not the solution to the problem being solved since, as you can see above, solutions are bound to change. Instead, what’s essential is having a strong team that buys into each other, not just the vision at hand. All teams hinge on trust — actually, all relationships for that matter hinge on trust. You have to trust your teammates. They have to trust you. It is simple as that. Ideas can change easily. People, less so. 

This is why I love working with Alex, Brandon, Eric, and Kevin. Our own leaps forward resulted from the trust in each other, or sometimes, in a single person, to have the best interests of the organization in mind. Disagreements, no matter how large, only made our organization stronger, because we knew that it would lead to better results. On the other hand, some of our sidesteps have been a result of a lapse in trust in each other. Trust is hard to gain, but feels awesome to have, and with it, you can jump through any hurdle.

On a similar note, have someone outside of organization who you trust be a sounding board. That voice of someone who is not directly involved can work wonders in helping you iron out problem within the organization and solidifying any ideas that you may have.

Social ≠ media

Social media is awesome for helping to spread the message and progress of your venture. We have been trying to ramp up Sponsr.Us’ social media presence recently, but social media is no substitute for real life interactions. Being truly social is about creating an emotional connection in-person. We’ve learned that there is no better way to connect with potential partners, projects, and supporters than by talking to them in person, or at least over the phone. By creating a personal connection with the person being pitched, we learned that they are far more likely to support us. To continually make strides forward, you have to be constantly pitching people on your venture and updating them on your progress. Whether it is a friend or a family member or the person sitting next to you at Starbucks, you should be able to capture and hold their attention with your pitch. Be social. Don’t rely on technology as a substitute.

Stay tuned for more tips from the Sponsr.Us team. We’re students, just like you — and we want to give you the benefit of our past.  We’ll be putting these thoughts under the “Advice” category.

As always, if you want any feedback on your project — just let us know!

What’s next?

I’m excited to announce that Sponsr.Us is officially off the ground! Our first task? Finding a few awesome student-run clubs, community service projects, and non-profits looking to get started. We’re open to applicants from anywhere in the country, so if you have an idea that you want to launch, let us know!

To connect with students, we’ll be doing outreach to high schools, colleges, school districts, and relevant non-profits over the coming weeks and months. Help us generate buzz about our organization and stay in the loop by liking our Facebook page and following us on Twitter.

Whew! What a rally this summer — we’ve made a ton of progress and laid the groundwork for our next phases. In particular, we’ve wrapped up the development work for our social crowdfundraising platform. That means that as soon as we’ve found the projects we want to launch with, we’ll be ready to go. The Sponsr.Us Platform will connect projects to potential donors, who will pledge to make donations to projects when the students are able to reach a predetermined fundraising target. As soon as a project reaches that target, our secure platform will process pledges into donations so that students can take the next steps in making their project a reality.

With 501(c)(3) tax-exempt status, which we received back in April, we’re now officially recognized by the United States government as a charitable organization.  Achieving this gold-standard for non-profits was an exciting milestone and validation for us that our mission has a lot of potential.

If you haven’t already, check out our new short video below, which provides an overview of our mission. It’s our first stab at making such a video, so we hope you enjoy it! Feedback is welcome and appreciated.

Where are we headed next? As the school year starts, primarily we’ll be working hard to push our mission forward by connecting with as many students as possible. If you’re a teacher or administrator, please reach out to us if you’d like to connect your students with us.

We’re also campaigning to raise funds to cover our operational costs — especially our outreach and promotional efforts. Please support our mission by making a tax-deductible donation to our volunteer-run organization at http://sponsr.us/donate. As a student-run 501(c)(3) non-profit, we rely on donors to make our organization possible. Interested in joining our team? Send us an email to join [at] sponsr.us.

Sponsr.Us is just getting started — and we have a ton in store. Our first round of projects may be small, but we hope to grow that quickly as we move forward.

Upwards and onwards!

Eric Ouyang

Founder of Sponsr.Us