Paul Kemp: Welcome to another episode of The App Guy Podcast. I am your host, it's Paul Kemp. I love where this show takes me - around the world. It introduces me to so many inspiring founders and entrepreneurs, digging into great app stories.
Today's episode, it's with the founder of DonorSee ; he's got a wonderful app, he's got an inspiring story about making a change in the world. Gret Glyer, the founder of DonorSee, welcome to The App Guy Podcast!
Gret Glyer: Thank you, Paul. It's a pleasure to be here!
Paul Kemp: Thanks for coming on. Let's find out about DonorSee then... "Donor" being "donation", I guess. Tell us about the app and what you're doing to change the world.
Gret Glyer: Alright, so basically the idea behind DonorSee is to provide donors a way where they can see where their money is going. This is only on a massive scale, where some people are calling it the Uber for charity. On a transactional level, this is what your experience will be like:
….let's say you go on the app and you find a little girl in Malawi who needs hearing aids. She's never heard anything before, and she needs an 180-dollar bone conduction hearing aid; this is something that we have on our app all the time. So you go onto the app, you donate $180 and a week later you'll get a video of that girl hearing for the first time.
That's the same type of experience that you would have with almost anything. Let's say you donate towards a house - then you would get to see that person's house being built. Or you donate towards a little kid who needs a school uniform - you get to not only see the school uniform, but them going to school, getting their books, all that stuff.
Paul Kemp: What I love about this -- in the U.K. there's been a lot of controversy around some of the bigger charities, the way they use quite strong tactics to get their donations. And often, there's these huge charities, a lot of money goes through them, and it's a black box. We kind of never see what happens directly with our money. What difference does it make when you actually get to see physically what a difference your money is making?
Gret Glyer: On a statistical level, I can't share exactly... [unintelligible 00:13:24.17] just because we're not allowed to share that, but I'll tell you, the number of people who make repeat donations on our app is astronomically high for our industry.
For example, when someone comes to the app, they make a donation, they get to see feedback - a week later, feedback comes on their phone, they swipe it, they see this video of this girl hearing for the first time, and then all of a sudden it's like this light bulb goes off and they're like, "Oh my gosh, I gotta keep doing this! This is way better than anything I've done before." Because you're right, usually when you give to charity you get a thank-you e-mail, or you get some donor relations person saying, "We promise that your gift went to the right place", but you never get to actually see where it's going. We've had a hugely positive response in the two months that we've been launched so far.
Paul Kemp: That's why I love this industry. The amount of money in the mainstream charities, let's say - they could have easily done this with technology. But it takes someone with passion like yourself, who I assume is not extremely well-funded, but you're coming in and you're just disrupting the whole giving mechanism through technology and through apps. What's driving you to do this, Gret? I wondered about you, what's giving you the impetus to do this?
Gret Glyer: Sure. So I grew up in Northern Virginia, which is right outside of Washington DC - very wealthy area. I went to a private school for both high-school and college, and I was just always privileged. I always had the best life. I graduated from college with no debt, my parents paid for it, and I got a good job right away, and I was off to the races. I was working at this customer-service-oriented company, and they were telling me, "We're gonna fast track you, you're doing very well." It wasn't very satisfying to me, and eventually, after a year of working at this company, doing very well, making plenty of money, I said, "You know what, I can't do this anymore."
I left, and I went to Malawi, Africa. So I went from one of the richest areas in the entire world to one of the poorest areas in the entire world. In fact, in 2014 Malawi literally was the poorest country on the planet. That was shocking. When you see the level of poverty that is going on in the world, it's impossible -- I tell this to people all the time... If you live in the U.K. in London, or if you live in the U.S., you have no idea what extreme poverty looks like. It's just like a completely different planet.
I think seeing that and experiencing it for the very first time really gave me a lot of meaning and purpose that I hadn't had in my life for so long. Being able to see how small amounts of money can completely change someone's life or even change someone's life gave me a lot of motivation to say, "Okay, what can I do about this?" Because there's a lot of charities out there, but they're not doing good work. There's some that are doing good work, but on the whole, they're not transparent, and people are giving them money and they don't care where the money's going, and they don't get to see where it's going, so what can I do to change that?
When I came up with the idea for DonorSee, and ever since then, I've had a passion to turn the app into something that’ll make a real impact. An app that not only provides funding to people in need living overseas, but also changes how people in the first world see how they are making an impact.
Paul Kemp: That's what I love about his show as well - it can inspire anyone to make a difference. I've actually been to a lot of places with extreme poverty; in India's pockets of poverty, in North Africa... I've been to a lot of places. It is quite life-changing, isn't it? And a lot of us are digital nomads. Are you going to some of these places and seeing people actually working there, Westerners who are deciding to use those locations to work and then try and use their time to help out the local people?
Gret Glyer: Yeah, there's these aid workers living all over the planet. I lived in Malawi for three years and I'm back in the U.S. at the moment, and one of the things that you realize when you get over there... It's kind of this funny thing - I, Gret Glyer went over to Malawi, and it was a big decision in my life. It was life changing, I didn't know a single person over there. And I got over there, and there were actually lots of other Americans and lots of other Europeans. It was interesting to talk to each and every one of them because they were all there, they all have their own story where they decided to go overseas, and they're all very interesting people. I'm sure you met plenty of them when you were traveling to these places like India and North Africa. So there are lots of these people abroad, and they're all there for different reasons - sometimes it Peace Corps work, aid relief, all kinds of stuff.
Paul Kemp: Yeah, and actually some of it feels quite dangerous as well, in some pockets of those places. This is a show about apps and we have a lot of app entrepreneurs listening to this, people working for corporate jobs that tend to want to do side projects, or maybe actually work on their app full-time... I'd love to know the process that you took to get this off the ground, because it's one thing having an idea... In 2014 you had this idea - great, but how did you actually physically get the app built, how did you fund it? Did you do it yourself? Talk us through that story of how you got DonorSee off the ground.
Gret Glyer: Gotcha. Like I said, I lived in Malawi for three years and I was living off of about $600/month, so I was by no means living a lavish lifestyle. I had a house, electricity, Wi-Fi, that kind of stuff, but I wasn't rich - $600/month. I came up with the idea for the app actually this past January, and I spent a couple months really working on it and talking to different people who I respected in the tech industry. I had never done anything technical before, I'd never written a line of code before, but I really believed in this idea; it came into my mind, "the Uber for charities", and then I realized, "Okay, what is this? How is it gonna look? What's important about it? What's gonna make it tick?" and by March I had a really good idea and a really good plan for how I wanted to have this thing sustain itself, and also how I wanted it to look... I worked with designers and all that stuff.
First what I did was I went to UpWork and I hired a guy from Ukraine to build a very rudimentary version of the app using some streams that I had designed. That cost $7,000. UpWork is a website where you can go online and hire freelancers all over the world.
It wasn't a great version of the app, it was extremely buggy and glitchy, and you couldn't even use a credit card to make a donation, you had to have a Paypal account... All sorts of stuff were wrong with it, but what I was able to do is get a handful of people to start playing around with it, and then I showed it to some investors. These venture capitalists in Raleigh, North Carolina - I showed it to them and I asked them for a certain amount of money in exchange for equity. They offered me some money in exchange for some equity but it wasn't a very good deal, so I went to one of my mentors and I told him, "Hey, what should I do? These guys are offering me money and I think it's enough to help me get off the ground, but they want a lot of equity. What's your recommendation at this point?" He said I should take it. He said, "Gret, you're 26 years old and you have an idea that hasn't made a single dollar yet. These guys are offering you a lot of money for someone in your position. I would just take it."
I spent the night thinking about it and the next morning I was gonna call them up and say, "Thank you for the offer, I accept", but before I had the chance to do that, that mentor called me and he said, "Hey Gret, I was thinking about last night and I wanna give you the funding that you need for the deal that you want." So what he did was he and a bunch of his friends who are multi-millionaires, they're business partners and they're entrepreneurs on their own - what they did was they each chipped in about ten or twenty thousand dollars in exchange for a certain amount of equity and we raised about $150,000 altogether. I was able to use that money to hire some programmers to help us get the thing off the ground. That's the version you see in the App Store today; it was professionally developed by some people in Raleigh and a few other places.
Paul Kemp: How inspiring is that? On the day you were about to take the investment, your mentor comes through...? The two things I've learned from that is the importance of getting in front of investors and having a good pitch, but also the importance of having an excellent mentor.
Gret Glyer: Oh, yeah.
Paul Kemp: How did you keep the costs under control? Because even though you had a wonderful seed, an injection of cash, I'm guessing with the idea that you had, the app can run away from you in terms of costs, with all the features that you wanted to include. How did you manage the cost side of it?
Gret Glyer: Yeah, I've told this to several people... I probably saved tens of thousands of dollars on that side thanks to a friend of mine and also a mentor - his name is Scott Barstow, and he's got a podcast and a blog that you can check out. His whole thing is basically how do you not light your money on fire when you're building a tech startup. It's designed for people who are non-technical to give them enough background so they don't do that stuff. He really helped a lot out in that, and he gave me a lot of personal advice. The basic idea there was I had the really important stuff built stateside - the server and all of the background stuff was built state-side, and then we went overseas to build the frontend stuff.
Also, honestly, my app DonorSee is designed to help people and it has one of those missions that lots of people wanna get behind, so there were a lot of people who decided they wanted to help us for less than market value just because they felt that it was something where they could contribute to a meaningful cause using some of their talents. So that was another thing that helped our situation specifically.
Paul Kemp: What I'm learning from you there is don't be scared to ask, as well. If you have a real cause with your app, then just ask the people that are building it to really help out as well. It sounds great, it really does!
So you got to launch the app then, and often it is quite hard to get... Discovery - one of the biggest challenges the appster tribe have here is with app discovery. Were there any big things that has happened to get your app noticed, get it out there? Because I noticed there's a lot of people putting money through, donating and stuff like that... Were there any big breakouts that you've had?
Gret Glyer: There is a number of things... Some of it was just a stroke of luck and some of it was making my own luck... A week after we launched there was this random friend of mine on Twitter who reached out to a guy named Tom Woods who has a really big podcast in the states, and he's like "Hey, Tom, you should check out this app" and Tom was like, "Yeah, sure. Let's interview him on Monday." So I interviewed a week after the app was launched, and immediately we got a thousand users right off the bat, just from that, and just had this huge spike in traffic a week after our launch. That was a pretty exciting thing, and that's lead to other podcasts and stuff like that that's happened.
Another thing that happened - you're probably familiar with hurricane Matthew which hit Haiti and really devastated a lot of the areas in that part of the world. When that happened, I immediately bought a ticket and took a flight down to Haiti, and I used my influence - I have a sizeable donor base of people who are interested in donating to whatever projects I'm working on, because they've been following me in Malawi for a long time... So I immediately bought a ticket, went down to Haiti and I said, "I'm going down to Haiti, I'm taking nothing but my phone with the DonorSee app and that's it."
I went down to Haiti for like three days and what we did is we raised enough money to provide several hundred emergency disaster relief kits to the victims of hurricane Matthew. There's all this controversy about, you know, "Is the Red Cross spending my money correctly? Is the Clinton Foundation spending my money correctly?" Well, with DonorSee you don't have to guess. Everyone who donated - there were hundreds of people who donated - got notifications on their phone of videos of us passing out the disaster relief kits in real time. That was a great testimony, and we actually got written up in U.S.A. Today because of that.
There was a whole bunch of good that came from that as well. So yeah, we've had a few big breaks so far, thankfully, in the only two months that we've been launched.
Paul Kemp: Gret, it's fantastic. I love the fact that you had a big breakout. One of the first times that people have said it's podcasts, which is wonderful...
Gret Glyer: [laughs] Yeah.
Paul Kemp: ...given that you're now on a podcast.
Gret Glyer: Oh yeah, I love podcasts. It's one of those amazing things where you get 30 minutes to just passionately talk about this thing that you've built and you're excited about and you have this vision for... It really does help get people excited.
Paul Kemp: Yeah, and also once you are on one, the ball starts rolling and you can show credibility and that opens up other doors.
Gret Glyer: Exactly.
Paul Kemp: Before we carry on now, there are definitely some other things I wanna talk to you about... One is how anyone who's interested in going to live in Africa, maybe you could give some tips for that. But before we carry on, let me just return to those two sponsors. I'm not sure if you've heard of these guys... Have you heard of Toptal before?
Gret Glyer: Oh yeah, I almost used them, if that guy Scott Barstow hadn't gotten involved.
Paul Kemp: There you go, there's an endorsement as well.
Break: [00:28:07.12] to [00:30:52.10]
Paul Kemp: Gret, what I was really fascinated with is that we do have founders who start their own companies, and they're living in London, San Francisco, New York; rents - sky high. I love the fact that you lived on $600 a month. Do you have any tips for anyone who may want to start their startup but perhaps could consider doing it maybe abroad, in a low-cost location?
Gret Glyer: Yeah, for me it was just coincidence. I happened to be overseas and then I had the idea for the app. If I had been in a different location, I would have probably found a different way to make it work. But I will say that the benefits of spending a year overseas are enormous. I tell people, if you spend a year overseas it's kind of the equivalent of a Ph.D. level education. You just get opened up to this brand new level of experience and culture that is impossible to really appreciate unless you spend a significant amount of time in some other location, where you're a sore thumb, you look different than everyone else and you talk differently than everyone else, and your cultures and customs don't work in this location. There's a lot of educational benefit to that.
I think there's certainly a lot of monetary benefit in terms of it being a low-cost place. That's something that people can look into as well. I would say if you want tips on going overseas, that's always the tricky thing - how do you get over there? I personally went to go teach at an international school in Malawi, and that was a really great setup for me because they paid for me to go over there; they gave me my monthly paycheck and I was able to get my feet on the ground out there. A lot of times people choose to use teaching as a way to get overseas, and English as a second language is a big way to do that.
I wasn't making a ton, but there are a lot of places where you can actually make pretty decent money being a teacher overseas. That's definitely something to look into.
Paul Kemp: Yeah, and I'm guessing they help you as well with the visa processing...
Gret Glyer: Oh, yeah. I mean, it's one of those things where it depends on where you are. The particular establishment I was with, it was one of those things where you show up at the airport and they kind of like fast-track you through customs. They really have good relationships with everyone, and they've been there for 20 years... Lots of different stuff like that is also really helpful.
Paul Kemp: Wonderful. And the Wi-Fi speed in Malawi, was it decent?
Gret Glyer: It was horrible. [laughter] I was there for three years; when I first got there, I couldn't even watch a YouTube video. By the end of it, you could kind of watch one if you put on the lowest setting and not too many other people were using the internet. It was tough... That was a big reason for why I came back. I really felt passionate and I wanted DonorSee to be a big success; I felt like it's gonna help lots of people on both sides of the world, and I felt like I'm gonna have a better shot at doing this in America where I have good internet and I'm able to Skype with people and interact with people a lot faster than I can in Malawi.
Paul Kemp: Finally, before we say goodbye to you, I'd like to just ask you... For those people that have listened to you and are actually in that corporate job, doing something they perhaps realize that maybe they regret and they wish they'd made a different decision - do you have any suggestions on how you make this huge leap? Because you were on a certain path, and you made such a drastic decision that I'm guessing a lot of people around you were probably questioning what your thought process was at that time. Do you have any practical tips on advising anyone who's in that same part of their life but actually going down the path that they are starting to realize is the wrong path? How can they make the change?
Gret Glyer: I would encourage the listeners to really think about opportunity cost, because I think a lot of people are worried, like "I'm gonna be away from my friends for a year, I'm gonna have a blip in my resume for a year...", they're worried about what it's gonna cost them to spend that time overseas, leave their corporate job and all this other stuff. They're worried about a whole ton of stuff and it's probably harder for them to imagine, but I will go ahead and confirm for them - when you spend a year overseas, you become a lot more solid in who you are; you can't hang on to any part of your identity that isn't your true identity until you spend a significant amount of time where your only frame of reference is things that are totally foreign to you.
I also thing that you can kind of spin your resume however you want; if you spend a year overseas, a lot of employers are thrilled about that. That's a really great thing that you can talk about in interviews, and it's something that will set you apart for future employment. Then I also think - if I'm being honest, that all your friends are gonna be jealous that you're going overseas and you're spending a year overseas, and when you come back they're gonna wanna know where you were and they're gonna wanna hear about this experience, and they will be the ones who are gonna be questioning, "Oh man, I wish I had done something like that." That's always the case.
I guess I'll leave it at this one thing - you hear people all the time saying, "I wish I had traveled when I was younger." You hear that all the time. You never hear anyone say, "I regret traveling when I was younger", because no one does. It's a big, big benefit that can really transform your life, so I would just say go do it.
Paul Kemp: Let's try and direct people then to how best they can help and get involved. What can we do to connect with you and DonorSee? What's the best thing we could do right now?
Gret Glyer: Anyone can reach out to me on Twitter, I'm pretty active on there. That's @gretglyer. I'm happy to also just take e-mails from people. That would be firstname.lastname@example.org. You can follow me on DonorSee; if you sign up for DonorSee, you can follow me and anytime I post a new project, you'll get to see that. Feel free to reach out, I'm pretty available.
Paul Kemp: In terms of actually saying that, it's DonorSee, D-O-N-O-R-S-E-E. I'm guessing that it's a unique name; if you search that on the App Store, you should find the correct one. That's great. Use the app, or use the website to donate.
Wonderful, Gret. It's been, honestly, so inspiring... It's one of the reasons why I do this show - to meet people like you, and realize that not everyone is cut from the same cloth, that we all go and do some different things, and thank god we have people like yourself doing the stuff that you're doing, so thank you so much for being such an inspiration to the world, and coming on the show.
Gret Glyer: Paul, it was my pleasure, thank you so much for having me.
Paul Kemp: All the best! Bye for now.