IVCA Q&A: Excelerate Labs Mentoring Class of 2010 Desiree Vargas Wrigley, Co-Founder and CEO of GiveForward

IVCA Q&A: Excelerate Labs Mentoring Class of 2010 Desiree Vargas Wrigley, Co-Founder and CEO of GiveForward

July 20, 2011

CHICAGO - “ Two weeks ago the IVCA interviewed Troy Henikoff, the Co-Founder and CEO of Excelerate Labs, now on year two of their mentoring program for ten participating companies in Chicago. But what is it like to be one of those ten companies going through the process? The IVCA spoke with Desiree Vargas Wrigley, the Co-Founder and CEO of GiveForward, who successfully took her company through the first Excelerate class, last summer in 2010.

GiveForward is an online tool for individuals and organizations to easily raise funds for any kind of medical need. The site provides the tools and means to collect the funds, and helps the fundraisers meet their goals.

IVCA: GiveForward was in the first class of Excelerate Labs in the summer of 2010. What is the origin of GiveForward, what was the process of your involvement in the Excelerate program and how did you find out you were in?

Desiree Vargas Wrigley: We launched GiveForward in August of 2008, about a year and a half before Excelerate. When we initially launched, GiveForward was a tool for anyone to raise money for anything. It took us about a year to realize our real niche was in medical fund raising. In August of 2009 we pivoted, but up until that point we were bootstrapping the whole time. As we focused, we began to realize how much opportunity was in the market.

Six months later, we saw the posting for Excelerate Labs, a new tech incubator in Chicago, through our friends at midVentures. I applied day one. About a month later we found out we made it to the interview process, and after the interview process we found out we made it into the top ten. I heard that there were about 350 companies that applied.

IVCA: What were your goals in being part of the program? Where did you hope to take your basic venture by participating, and then by adding investor funding?

Wrigley: Our goals were twofold. First, we were a social venture in Chicago, and at the time there weren't many here. The funding sources for social ventures really didn't exist. So that goal was to get to know some investors and broaden our network. Our co-founder Ethan Austin is from Los Angeles and I'm from Kansas City, so we wanted just to get to know people and develop a network for funding.

The second goal was exposure. Even if we weren't successful in raising funds, being part of the inaugural class of Excelerate start-ups would be really great for our business. The process far exceeded our expectations. We met so many amazing mentors and potential investors through the program, including our lead investor Tim Krauskopf [Founder of Spyglass]. It was incredible that our company, GiveForward, was able to meet one of the founders of what would become Internet Explorer.  That doesn't get to happen very often in most entrepreneurial circles anywhere. It was amazing to have those connections made for you, and to find people who were interested in your business that you didn't expect to be.

IVCA: Describe your mentor relationships in the Excelerate program. What kind of learning experience did you get from them in general?

Wrigley: We spent the first month pitching to potential mentors, the idea was to find your perfect match. So we were doing five to ten meetings a day, pitching the business over and over. That experience wasn't ideal for getting people really involved, but it was enough to pique their interest. The next month is when we got to explore those relationships.

Tim Krauskopf took a liking to us and we to him, and his experience in growing a company as large as Spyglass and being through the whole going public experience made him an ideal person to have in our camp. At the same time, he had some failures under his belt, and we thought that experience would be just as valuable. We really got to know our mentors on a very personal level, for both successes and failures, and were able to ask them advice about all different stages.

IVCA: What gaps in your business knowledge specifically were you hoping to fill in the Excelerate program, and did you reach that goal by the time you presented on Demo Day?

Wrigley: Absolutely. A lot of the second month was spent bringing in these experts for small workshops, it was like getting a mini-MBA for us. It was intense, but it was really valuable. For example, I'd never seen a term sheet before walking into Excelerate and I didn't know anything about preferences or things to look out for on those sheets. We had a lot of gaps in our knowledge regarding the investment side of things, as in how to negotiate with investors and how to come to a mutually beneficial agreement.

IVCA: Describe your Demo Day experience. Did you feel confident that you were covering all the bases in your presentation? Did you feel you communicated everything to your satisfaction?

Wrigley: The prep for Demo Day was really intense. We spent the month of August writing, re-writing, memorizing, re-memorizing the long scripts and creating slides to go along with that script. It was a humbling process for us, because you think you know how to talk about your business and you have eight minutes, so it shouldn't be that hard to get your point across. But being concise and talking about your business in a way that's compelling for people in only eight minutes is really a skill that most entrepreneurs don't have. It was nice to have the constant feedback about the presentation from the mentors.

We were asked to go first on Demo Day, which was flattering because they had confidence in our presentation. Even though we didn't get a ton of investors from that day, we did get a couple big ones. They responded not only to our business concept but the way we presented it. That couldn't have happened without the coaching from Excelerate.

IVCA: What aspects of your presentation on Demo Day did your eventual investors point out they were most impressed with? In other words, what motivated their investment in your venture?

Wrigley: I think the viral component to our business was attractive to investors. It's not every day that an investor has the opportunity to be part of a company that has the potential to become a household name, like GiveForward does. As a very consumer facing site, I think that resonated with investors. Other investors liked our social aspect, it felt like they were giving back, but at the same time they were making a sound investment in a company that has proven there is a market for what we were offering, and that people want to buy it.

IVCA: What lessons from Excelerate do you still apply to your venture today, and why has that lesson remained so important for GiveForward?

Wrigley: One of things we learned through the process was how to be focused and to stay true to our vision, while at the same time being flexible enough to adjust to small changes. You have to learn how to weed through all of the advice and the suggested revenue models. That's something that every small business struggles with as they grow, because you see the opportunities but your 'bandwidth' to address these opportunities is usually significantly smaller. It was taking one thing at a time, getting to be really good at that one thing and then deciding whether to move on to the next thing. That is the lesson we learned and continue to focus on.

IVCA: What did Excelerate teach you about general interaction with investors?

Wrigley: One of the things I wasn't so good at before Excelerate was talking about GiveForward in a concise way, in general conversation, and in a way that would be appealing to potential investors. For example, I went to a panel for one of our mentors who was recognized for his work in the entrepreneurial community. While I was waiting in line for a glass of wine I ended up standing next to a fund manager, and pitched him on GiveForward in a minute and a half, and two weeks later we had a check from his fund. It was simply something I wouldn't have had the confidence to do before Excelerate.

IVCA: How did the investment funds you received help to take GiveForward to the next level and what kind of success are you currently achieving?

Wrigley: Before we did our round it was just me, my partner Ethan Austin and one employee. With the funding we were able to hire two developers, so finally we brought the technology in-house. We were able to hire a marketing and PR person, who was amazing in getting us in getting us in some really great media sources. We were also able to hire another fund raising coach and recently we brought on a couple business developers. So we expanded our staff significantly.

We went from being in one or two hospitals in December of last year to being in over 170 hospitals around the country. We now have partnerships with Livestrong and many patient advocacy organizations, and other groups like Northwestern University and the American Cancer Society are recommending our services. We have traction.

IVCA: Finally, what other aspects of GiveForward can you convey to the IVCA membership?

Wrigley: One thing that we're very excited about is that there are more crowd funding sites popping up, which proves our industry is viable.

As far as the activity around start-ups right now, I hope that investors will continue to look at seed stage opportunities as a really great way to support this next generation of entrepreneurs, because there are so many people excited about building businesses in Chicago, and that keeps smart people from Northwestern and the University of Chicago here. It will also bring in people from all over the Midwest to support these businesses. We can do a lot for our economy by having investors really strengthening this seed stage growth.

For more information about GiveForward, you can visit their website by clicking here or contact Desiree Vargas Wrigley directly at [email protected]