Paul Kemp, host of The App Guy Podcast talks with Brett Hagler, CEO and Co-Founder of New Story Charity
Paul: Welcome to another episode of The App Guy Podcast. I am your host, this is Paul Kemp. This is the podcast that inspires loads and loads of entrepreneurs, app founders, startup founders, anyone who’s enthusiastic about the startup scene, the app scene, the mobile scene. We love to get guests on this show that inspire us and tell us about how they’re changing the world because it helps us all to change the world.
I’ve got a terrific guest because when I read about the mission, it’s a company called New Story — just go to New Story and you will see that they’re transforming slums into sustainable communities, doing a lot of stuff like that. We’re going to hear from the founder, he’s been on a load of podcasts and you’ve probably heard of him, it’s Brett Hagler. Brett, welcome to The App Guy Podcast.
Brett: Excited to be here, thanks for having me on.
Paul: Tell us about New Story because it sounds wonderful what you’re trying to do.
Brett: Yes, so in short, from a high level, we transform slum areas into new, sustainable communities. We do that starting out with crowdfunding houses for only $6,000 per home, so taking the family out of a slum, whether it’s a shack or a tent, and bringing them into a brand new home, for only about $6,000. To give you an example, you could go on your phone right now, go on our website and meet digital family profiles — we have it set up so that it actually looks like an app — in Haiti, families in Central America that have been living in life-threatening homelessness, see their story, see their picture. You give directly to them, and when they move into their new home, we take a move-in video of them getting their keys and their home certificate, and then we send it back to everybody that donated.
We don’t just build one-off houses, we build all of these homes in one area. What that allows us to do is actually create an entire community with school, with clean water and sanitation, with solar power, with agriculture training, with micro-loan opportunities because we have that foundation, and that’s why we say we transform slums into sustainable communities.
Paul: I love this already. We try to learn from this show, and what we’ve learned over the 468 episodes before you, Brett…
Brett: Wow, that’s a lot…
Paul: Yeah, and there’s a definite theme that comes out, which is trying to solve real-world problems. I’d love to know — I’m guessing it’s pretty obvious what we’re trying to solve, but from your words, what is it that you’re trying to solve with technology? What problem are you trying to eradicate?
Brett: Yes, so actually there’s two main problems that we’re trying to solve. The first is — — and I’ll just give an example of one family. So you’ve got a family of three kids; the kids are three years old, seven years old and eleven years old. They were born into a slum where they face life-threatening dangers every day, like child abduction, sex trafficking, weather dangers, theft, all types of violence, and they have no protection because they don’t have safety or shelter. So what we do is we use our platform that we’ve built and we put their story up, and they get funded online. We then move them into a brand new home.
So the first problem we’re solving is life-threatening homelessness, but then the second problem that I’m even almost more passionate about, is we’re solving this problem of an intelligent, talented kid being born, but has no opportunity. So literally imagine, as we’re talking, there’s the next Nelson Mandela, there is the next Einstein out there right now, at one of these slums, that has way more IQ than I do, way more talent than I do, but he or she does not have the opportunity to reach their potential and to reach their dreams. So what we want to do is we not only want to save their lives, we want to put them in an environment where they can go to school, where they don’t have to worry about getting sick every day; they’ll have clean water and sanitation. Where they’ll be able to have business training as they get older, so an entire opportunistic community. At the end of it the, net result is unlocking opportunity, and that’s what we get really excited about and that’s really the purpose of New Story.
Paul: Let’s talk about the donation side because I’d love to know… I feel like what you’re doing is you’re bringing a sense of realism to charitable causes because a lot of us are donating to big organizations, but we don’t see where the money goes. Is that another problem you’re trying to solve, which is trying to bring a bit of genuineness, realism into what you’re donating?
Brett: That’s actually how New Story got started because I went down and saw the problem that I just described, and at first — I never thought I’d start a charity, ever… I was always more technology-based and entrepreneurial. So when I saw this problem, I actually tried to go look at other organizations that I could champion and really rally around. Well, it turns out that all the ones that I’ve found, I kept feeling the same frustrations, which was a lack of transparency, a lack of accountability, a lack of innovation, and certainly a lack of technology. So I said,
“Why not apply the same spirit as a startup technology company to this problem on the ground that I saw?”
and this problem of what just seemed like traditional charity. So to answer your question, yes, absolutely.
Our team is really fired up about creating a better giving experience, and using technology and transparency to do that.
Paul: Brett, a lot of the startup founders, the entrepreneurs that listen to this show really struggle with getting their idea off the ground. You’ve got this wonderful problem you’re solving, you’re already in the technology game, but I wondered how you actually got it started — was it with your own money, did you get some help along the way? Talk us through how you actually got it off the ground.
Brett: Yes, so a lot of times I think early-stage founders are people that are thinking about trying to get an idea off the ground. Unfortunately, I think people believe that good ideas just take off, and that’s the furthest thing from the truth. Founders make their ideas take off.
We subscribe to this idea that in the beginning, you actually have to do things that do not scale, which is very counterintuitive from what I think a lot of people think, as
“Oh, let’s just build this app, ship it, and all of a sudden it’s going to take off, it’s a good idea.”
A couple examples, then I’ll get to our example.
So when Airbnb first got started, it took them almost two years before they got any traction, and what they would have to do is they would literally fly across the United States of American, from San Francisco to New York — because most of their clients were in New York, the early stage hosts — and they would take professional pictures themselves, manually, of the apartments, to try to make the apartment look better so that it would convert higher on the site. And they were still only getting a couple dozen people a month doing that. But they had to do something that did not scale, to figure out
“Wow, okay, if we can take better photos, then it’s gonna convert higher on the site.”
And there’re all types of stories like that in Silicon Valley, where you’re starting out and you have to do things that don’t scale.
For us, the very beginning was
“Hey, let’s not try to fund a hundred thousand homes, let’s try to fund one home, and we’re just gonna start by first going to our network”
…you know, I Facebook messaged every single person I knew, and then we just literally manually pushed this boulder up the hill until it got to the top, and then things finally started going a little bit more organically.
So anyone feeling that, please know that you’re in a good spot because that’s what every entrepreneur has felt before, and now it comes down to
“Will you fight against it and will you push this boulder up the hill until you get it to a point where things start happening more organically and more inbound?”
Sometimes it takes a couple months to do that, sometimes it takes a couple years. There’re tons of stories of some of the best companies in the world right now, where it took them a couple years to get that started. So yes, it’s a long process. In the beginning literally do things that do not scale, to try to get your first whatever that goal is — whether it’s number of users, whether it’s your first… I don’t know, whatever your goal is, don’t be afraid to do things manually in the very beginning to get it going.
Paul: Terrific. Brett, I noticed that you are a non-profit, Y Combinator… We’ve had a lot of founders who’ve gone through incubators and accelerators. We’ve actually got some people queued up to try and get through, so I’d love to know your story on how you actually got YC to back your non-profit.
Brett: We were very fortunate to go through Y Combinator in the summer of 2015, and I think the way we got in — there were really two main reasons and a little bit of luck. The first was we had this idea, which was to build a crowdfunding platform and try to fund families on there as soon as possible. What we did is we didn’t wait around to build out a real, automatic, fully-coded technical site that could do all of the technical things that we wanted to do. What we did is we built a very, very minimum viable product that was basically a bunch of different landing mockup pages that looked like a real crowdfunding page, but it wasn’t. And when somebody donated, instead of it automatically updating the percentage and the meter — what people are used to — the founders would actually go in on the back and manually move the meter from this point to this point to this point, and change the percentages. Whenever someone donated, I would literally get on my phone and calculate what percentage that would be the goal. I’d mess up all the time, and people would call in or e-mail and be like,
“Hey, we donated, but not sure if it went through. What happened?” I’d be like, “Jimmy, don’t worry about it, it’s just credit-card processing, it takes a little bit of time.”
In the meanwhile, we would be scrambling to update it. But doing things like that, it allowed us to… I mean, we had our first couple homes funded in a very short amount of time, and that allowed us to not only prove that it was something people wanted online, but we could also build the end product, which was the homes, and then take the move-in video, which was kind of our end promise, and send it back to all the donors.
So to answer your question, the first part was that we shipped our idea as quickly as possible, using that mentality of doing things that don’t scale in the beginning, and that got us traction early on. So we didn’t wait around five or six months to build out this product, to do a ton of research, to make everything perfect before we launched it — we didn’t do any of that. We just launched it as quickly as we could, to see if it was something people wanted — turns out it was — and then we were able to go to Y Combinator and say
“Look, within five months of starting, this is what we’ve already done.” And that was very impressive to them because one of the things that I think was the most important is just “What are you getting done in a short amount of time? What’s your ability to execute on something in a short amount of time?”
and we were fortunate enough to do that.
Then the second piece was once we got the interview… How it kind of works, really quickly, is I think we had about 6500 startups all around the world apply to our batch. Out of those 6500, they took the top 300 and said
“Hey, we want to fly you to Mountain View, California for a 10-minute interview.”
Literally, they had people flying from Africa, from London, for a 10-minute interview in Mountain View. Ten minutes, that’s it. We got the call to do that, and when we got the call we knew that they were only going to take about a third of these startups. So what our team did was — and it’s kind of one of our values now — we prepared well over a hundred hours for ten minutes. So it was like going the extra mile to prepare to know everything that they were gonna ask, and that of course now spills into different things that we do now. It’s that mentality to be the most prepared, to be the most detail-oriented. So I’d say it’s those combinations.
Paul: I love that. That’s the first time we’ve heard a real step-by-step process of you going through. So when you successfully got through, how did it actually help your business? Talk us through what actually happened after you got in.
Brett: One of the best things that Y Combinator does with really any program — and it’s crazy how sometimes it takes a program to do this when you could really do it on your own, kind of… But basically you go through a three-month program, and what Y Combinator does, they say
“Envision yourself three months from now. Take one metric, one number that’s gonna be your big goal that you’re gonna hit at the end of this, and try to make it as close to impossible, but you could still do it somehow. Pick that goal, and you’re gonna spend the next three months only focusing on that goal.”
So for people that have apps, it could probably be ‘number of downloads’ or ‘number of users’. Then you would just spend three months where that’s the only metric that you measure, the only one.
So what we did was — they make you come to them and say
“Okay, what’s your goal gonna be?”
and our team put our heads together and we said
“Alright, let’s be crazy ambitious and let’s pick a number.”
We came up with a number of 50 homes. For us, that would be about $300,000 in three months, compared to where we had been, which was not even $100,000. They said,
“Okay, great. Fifty? You guys are gonna do one hundred. Double what you came to us thinking.”
That was already an audacious goal that we thought, and then they said,
“Good, okay. That means you’re gonna do a hundred.”
And I vividly remember thinking “I have no idea, literally no idea how we’re gonna do that.” It’s $600,000 in three months, and we’re like five months into this, we don’t even know what we’re doing.
But, getting to my point, what it made us do is it made us think, okay, if we had to hit this number, if we had to hit 100 homes — or for you listening right now, if you had to hit 100,000 downloads, if you HAD TO, no BS, if you HAD TO, what would you need to do, and what are the new channels that you would have to try to go after? What are maybe the new partnerships you would have to get because you know there’s no other way you could do it? So all that made us think of new ideas, and then we measured it off of a weekly growth rate. So we said
“If we grow at 10% every week, over time it’s gonna compound and it’s gonna reach our goal at the end of these three months.”
So anybody listening right now, if it’s ‘number of downloads’, try to say
“Okay, our goal is to grow by 10% every week.”
First week let’s just say you start with a hundred — great. The next week you’re going to be 110%. Next week, 10%, and keep going. Over time, if you just focus on that, you will be amazed as to how you’re growing.
Paul: Yes, and actually investors love that because anything that grows at a regular rate is like a hot property for an investor. That’s terrific, I really feel like that’s incredibly insightful. So there’s two more things we do before we say goodbye, Brett. I think people love to know why founders get in the game, and you’ve obviously had choices along your path, to end up where you are now. I’d love to know, was there anything that caused you to get into entrepreneurship startups, and would you recommend it to others? So why become a founder, and would you recommend the lifestyle?
Brett: That’s a great question. I don’t think that it’s for everybody. The reason I got into it, and the reason I think some of the better entrepreneurs that I meet get into it is there’s always a bigger purpose than just trying to make money. Because if you’re just trying to make money, there’s a lot of other ways to make money than building a company and building an organization, and building something that means so much more than the number of zeroes that you can try to get in your bank account. So for me — I at the end of the day would really want to look back and say,
“Me and my team — I have an amazing co-founding team — we built a truly great organization that is going to last, and is going to make an impact far beyond what we could ever imagine.”
“I’m in this to make a significant impact and build an organization with a great culture, with great people”
and try our best to really make something great. As simple as that might sound, it’s having this level and this standard of excellence, and trying to make something as great as possible so that it could impact as many people as possible.
Paul: That is very, very inspirational. Finally, this is all around the world, and I guess you’ve gone to some of these locations that you help — I wondered where’s the place you feel right now is in most need? Which location around the world do you feel is in most need of your help?
Brett: That’s a good question… It’s tough. Honestly, we wouldn’t pick a location unless there was significant need there. It might be cliché to say, but all the locations that we’re in, there is significant need. We’re talking about life-threatening dangers. This isn’t just
“How can we take a family from a pretty bad situation to a better situation”,
“How can we take a family living out of a hell hole”,
the closest thing you can get to that on this earth. And how can we not only save their lives but then, as I’ve mentioned before, give them the opportunity to use their God-given talent and intelligence?
The areas we’re working in right now, Haiti — Haiti is the poorest country in the Western hemisphere. If you just look at economic numbers, that would be the poorest area. But then we’re also in Central America, which is still very poor, and they have different types of problems there, and different types of needs. So I’m not giving you the best answer, but really in any of our locations, there is significant need.
Paul: But also I’m guessing as well — these places have slums, but also people are working remotely now all over the world, and I’ve got someone who just messaged me today, he’s traveling through India, these really rough parts of India…
Brett: Oh my gosh, yeah… I haven’t been there yet, honestly.
Paul: Okay, well add that to your list… The thing is though, there are so many great locations to be based from to help people on the ground, and I wondered, have you actually traveled to some of these locations and have you met other entrepreneurs working remotely?
Brett: Yeah, absolutely. I’ve been to all of our locations, and the social entrepreneurship ecosystem is fantastic. You find really quickly who’s doing great work in these areas, so I get inspired all the time by people doing different things and trying to solve different problems with innovation. Honestly, one of the things that’s been on my mind a lot is using mobile — mobile phones and creating products and apps for that, whether it’s a for-profit company or a non-profit, that can deliver solutions and just whole new worlds for people that have never had access to the internet. Imagine that — imagine never having access to the internet, and then imagine getting it, and being able to learn from it, to research and to read. So to answer your question, yes, I get inspired all the time, and meeting those types of people is a really good place to go for inspiration.
Paul: That’s wonderful. There’s going to be full show notes now on episode 469. Just go to theappguy.co, search for Brett Hagler, you’ll see links there. Brett, how can people get in touch, and for anyone listening to this, what would be the best action they can take now?
Brett: I’ll give two options (if that’s okay). We have a really cool platform where anybody can start a digital fundraiser with us. For example, for your next birthday, you could give up your birthday and create a page on our site, and ask your friends and family for donations instead of gifts coming up. On average, you’re going to raise about $1,200, you’re going to bring in about 13 friends that you inspire, and you’re going to go through this process together with your friends and family, and it’s an awesome experience.
Just as an example, what we’ve had people do recently is give up their wedding registries and create a fundraising campaign on our platform where their friends and family are giving out a home, instead of extra chinaware or something. So those are two options where you could create any type of campaign, fundraiser that you want on our site. I will directly connect you to a family in need and you can see everything.
And then the other way, kind of a bigger level is if maybe your family or your company would want to sponsor a home because a home is only $6,000. That’s also another really great way to get involved.
Paul: Where should they go?
Brett: The best place to go is just our website, which is newstorycharity.org.
Paul: Wonderful. Brett, there’s one thing I just meant to ask — you’re really well connected in the social entrepreneurship… I’ve done a lot of these episodes, and it’s one of the first chats we’ve had about social entrepreneurship, I think. I wondered where you go to get plugged into the community, to the network and meet other social entrepreneurs?
Brett: It’s a good question. Ted is a good place — I get a lot of inspiration from Ted talks, and Ted as a community — there’s a ton of social entrepreneurship there. Endeavor is a really good place to meet social entrepreneurs… I think those are probably two of the best places to start.
Paul: Yes, great. Actually, you reminded me now — I can’t help this, but I was in Bali, and I remember one of the Ted talks was actually creating a village out of bamboo, and we went to the bamboo school, which I think was sponsored by Richard Branson and some others, and there was this whole village… It was amazing. So yes, absolutely, Ted, Ted talks and the community. Brett, I could chat for ages. It’s been so inspirational, thank you so much for coming on this show, and thanks for being so awesome in what you’re doing to change the world.
Brett: Yes, absolutely, and if anybody wants to reach out, if there’s any way I can help, I’m pretty active on Twitter, @BrettHagler.
Paul: Great. Brett, all the best, thanks for coming on.
Brett: Thank you so much!
Paul: Bye for now.