The doorbell rings. You heave yourself up out of your comfy recliner and go answer it. Oh wait, you need to put on a shirt first. There’s no time to brush your teeth, so you answer the door anyway. Standing before you is a Girl Scout with her mother, holding a box of assorted cookies. The variety is amazing, and you can’t help but purchase five different kinds. You pay for your purchase and say thank you, close the door, and wander back into your chair to continue watching the newest episode of your favorite drama.
While no one can dispute the broad appeal of Girl Scout cookies—and certainly we only have great things to say about Girl Scouts and their cookies—one might wonder, “Isn’t there a better way to raise money for organizations we care about than this time-consuming method?”
That was the kind of thinking that led Jon Carmen to start his current business.
Originally from Syracuse, N.Y., Carmen met his wife in Boston, Mass., where they were studying. His wife is from Buffalo, so naturally, she wanted to return to the place she called home. Fifteen years ago, they moved to Western New York, where Carmen worked in digital online advertising.
“I’ve always been an entrepreneur,” said Carmen, “even before I knew what it was.” His first foray into the startup realm was selling guitar strings online, a business that was acquired by a company in Dallas, three years after its launch.
Today, he is co-founder of SimpleFund, a fundraising technology platform that allows anyone to raise money for their favorite non-profit directly from their smartphone, faster than some of the traditional ways like selling candy bars or cookies. The mobile app is free, and every time a user takes an action like reading an article or watching a video, they earn points. Those points are translated into dollars, and that money is donated to the user’s selected organization. Each action can earn the user as little as a penny to as much as $30.
“It might not seem like a lot of money,” said Carmen, who launched the first version of the app in November 2016, “but it adds up quickly.” And no one has to buy anything, sell anything, or ask anyone for money. For example, Lightning Cheerleading in Lancaster, N.Y., raised just over $3,000 for their organization. That kind of money buys a lot of uniforms and pom-poms.
Carmen and two other founders—not employees—of SimpleFund are seeking to expand their company. They have had a lot of great feedback so far, and users on the platform have been able to raise more than $25,000 for nonprofits since launch. The founders’ goal is to grow into a $50 million business that supports millions of users. Currently, SimpleFund is working on a deal with Blackbaud, a public company that builds software for the largest nonprofits in the world, to become partners in technology. This alliance will make SimpleFund a preferred technology vendor, giving them access to work closely with Blackbaud customers.
Getting users has been the company’s biggest challenge, Carmen said. “We thought our market was groups like the PTA and little league, but we have found users tend to be more at the university level. For example, fraternities and sororities use the mobile app to help with fundraising for their philanthropy efforts. This generation has grown up in a mobile world and the app just makes sense to them. Basically, we stumbled upon the market that is profitable for us.”
He counts this as a success, as well as that, in November 2017, just one year after launching the product, they received their first outside investment capital. Carmen is thankful for the confidence shown in them by venture development organization Launch NY last year.
While the life of an entrepreneur might seem glamorous to some, Carmen is quick to point out that it takes “years and years of hard work to be successful.” He advises aspiring entrepreneurs to work for someone else for at least a year or two to gain perspective, and to make sure it is really what they want to do. For every overnight success, there are years of hard work behind it. Saving a lot of money before launching a business is also recommended.
Carmen doesn’t regret moving to his wife’s hometown more than a decade ago. “Buffalo is good for us,” he said. He appreciates the cost of living and notes that it is “cheaper than other places to start a business. I also appreciate the educated young people who are potential employees.” He believes Buffalo is growing, and he looks forward to growing SimpleFund along with the city that the Carmens call home.