GiveForward provides people with online fundraising pages to raise money for their loved one’s out-of-pocket medical expenses. In essence, we help people answer the question everyone asks when a loved one gets sick: What can I do to help?  To date we’ve provided this answer to more than 350,000 people who have contributed $30,000,0000 to help their loved ones in times of need.

Founder Ethan Austin

Founder Ethan Austin

What makes your company/product different from your competition?

On average our users raise around 15% more on GiveForward than they would on competitors’ sites.  I believe the reason for this higher success rate is because we out-care the competition and dedicate ourselves to creating happy and successful customers.  For instance, each user gets one-on-one attention from our team and is assigned a personal fundraising coach to help guide them to a successful outcome.   Most importantly, every decision we make at the company is filtered through the lens of how can we create unexpected joy for our customers.   How can we cheer them up during a crappy day?  How can we make them smile during a stressful and scary period of their lives?  How can we turn what is ostensibly a one-sided transactional experience with a web application into a transformative life-altering and magical experience that they will remember for the rest of their lives?

If we can help them raise $10,000 or $20,000 to save the life of their friend battling cancer, then that’s an obvious success.  But even if they only raise $100, if we can interact with them in an authentic way so they know there are actual humans behind this website — and that these humans behind the website are rooting for them, then we consider that a success as well.

What is it like to start a company in the Rust Belt?

Starting a company in Chicago has been a great experience. We launched our company right around the time the Chicago startup ecosystem began to take off so we’ve had the good fortune of being in the right place at the right time.   In 2009, we nearly had to close our doors as we were running out of money but we were lucky enough to get bailed out in 2010 when we got accepted into Excelerate Labs. It’s a huge testament to the Chicago startup community that we even exist today. The support we’ve had from the startup community here has been nothing short of incredible and there is absolutely no way we’d be in the place we are today without so many people who were willing to believe in this idea before we had any traction.

Tell us about your fundraising experience in the Rust Belt?

When we did our angel round in 2011, we raised almost exclusively from Chicago investors, except for a few outsiders like David Cohen in Boulder and Howard Lindzon in California.  Tim Krauskopf, our original board member and Matt McCall of New World Ventures were particularly helpful in getting us over the hump.  Tim believed in us from day one and helped us secure the first 40% of our $500,000 round, which is typically the hardest part  Shortly after we had the first 40% committed, we somehow finagled New World Ventures into making their first seed investment ever.  To this day, we have the proud distinction of being the smallest investment New World Ventures has ever made, but it wasn’t the size of the investment that was important.  What was important was having the endorsement of the biggest institutional investor in town.  I remember talking to Matt McCall on the phone behind Wrigley Field, and Matt saying “I want you guys to know you can splash our name around as much as you want.” Those words were a huge confidence boost and helped us go out and secure the remaining 60% of our round.

This summer, we raised an additional $2 million round, but did most of our fundraising on the coasts. We ended up raising from Founder Collective and First Round Capital.  I think we were the first investments both of them have made in a Chicago company.  So hopefully, we’ll start a Midwest trend!

What is the biggest lesson you’ve learned?

One of the greatest lessons I’ve learned is that so much of life is outside of your control.  Our mentor, Tim Krauskopf has always told us when times are good, don’t give yourself too much of a pat on the back and when time are bad don’t give yourself too much of the blame.

Most people might not want to admit it, but so much of success is often based on luck and good timing.  Of course, it’s true that the harder you work, the luckier you tend to get, but that’s not always the case.  At the end of the day, all you can do is work your tail off to put yourself in a position to get lucky and then hope to stay in the game long enough to catch a few lucky breaks. We’ve been very fortunate in that we’ve had good luck, good timing and have had a ton of people who have been willing to help us along the way. But if you take luck out of the equation it’s likely the difference between success and failure. I think that once you understand this, it makes you both more humble and confident at the same time.

What is the future for your company?

We want to build a company that lasts for decades and changes the lives of millions of people.  This starts by educating the public about what is going on behind the scenes when their friend or neighbor gets sick.  Most people assume that if you are in the middle class or upper-middle-class and you have health insurance than you’ll be fine if you get sick.  But the reality is that your sick friend or neighbor is probably suffering silently.  Take cancer for example — the average out-of-pocket cost for a person in the first year of a cancer treatment is over $8,500. Yet, a recent study showed that half of all Americans couldn’t even come up with $2000 in the event of a medical or financial emergency. That means that a $6500 gap is preventing people from getting the treatments they need to get better and live healthy lives. Personally, it scares the hell out of me that $6500 can mean the difference between life and death.  I know, through GiveForward, we can help put an end to that.

I think if more people knew these facts and knew that their friends were suffering financially, they would obviously want to help. The problem is that in our culture we tend to give money only at happy times like weddings and anniversaries and don’t often think about giving when our loved ones need it the most.  That’s crazy to me.  Our goal over the next few years is to change the culture in our country so that it becomes common practice to support loved ones financially when they are sick.  No one in our country should be dying or going bankrupt because they can’t come up with $6500.

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