By:Brent Weaver Issue: Conscious Capitalism Section: Collaborator Profile
Turning Giving into Growth
If there’s one good thing that’s resulted from the recent era of corporate irresponsibility we’ve endured, it’s this fact: people now are more likely than ever to buy goods or services from businesses that are associated with good causes. But while big companies spend a fortune on marketing that calls attention to their good deeds, smaller businesses – especially those that establish strong connections within their communities – don’t need a big marketing budget to get noticed. More often than not, if you’re strategic about your giving, the good deed will speak for itself.
When my business partner Steve and I started our web development firm, we were fresh out of college with big dreams and a small bank account. We started our company – HotPress Web – out of our apartment in the Uptown neighborhood of Denver, Colorado. Friends since high school, we had partnered on various forms of web-related businesses even when we lived in different states. It wasn’t until 2005 when we both finished college and joined forces in Denver that we got serious about growing a business that would be sustainable in the long-term. Our apartment was across the street from a venerable Denver restaurant – Strings – with a reputation for feeding the “who’s who” of Denver. For months as we scraped for business and dined on our lunch of Ramen noodles, we watched from our apartment window as well dressed men and women pulled up to the restaurant, handed their keys to the valet and disappeared through the door. We made a pact that when the right time came, we’d treat ourselves to a fancy meal at Strings.
As luck would have it, business began to pick up over the next several months. We established a solid client base of small businesses and non-profit organizations and declared this as our target market moving forward. One day after signing a fairly significant contract, we made the trek across the street to celebrate. The contracts kept coming in and over a period of several more months we got to know the Strings’ owner, Noel Cunningham, quite well. In fact, after being chided for stopping in to Strings only sporadically we began making weekly appearances for lunch or happy hour.
As HotPress Web continued to grow, Steve and I began to focus more on our long-term marketing plan and defining our values as an organization. From the beginning, we’d agreed that community involvement was important to us. Now that our success was beginning to afford us the time and resources to do some pro-bono work here and there, it was time to put our money where our mouths were.
In our chats with Noel at Strings, we learned about his charitable foundation – The Cunningham Foundation – that he operates with his wife, Tammy. They launched the Cunningham Foundation, which supports self-sufficiency programs for impoverished Ethiopians, after a visit to Africa several years ago. They were touched by both the poverty and amazing resilience they’d seen in the small village of Yetebon, Ethiopia. Noel spoke very passionately about his foundation,and you could tell how incredibly important its mission was to him. But when I went to the Cunningham Foundation’s website, I didn’t get that same sense of passion. At that point it clicked: this is somewhere we can make a difference.
Like any business strategy, philanthropic giving should be organized to maximize return, whether that’s experience gained, connections established, higher visibility in the community or increased sales.
As a fairly new start-up venture, we had nothing to lose and all of the above to gain. It was also a good strategic fit because the needs of the cause – a website overhaul that would help raise awareness and drive donations to the Cunningham Foundation – were directly related to our business. Furthermore, the cause itself – a non-profit organization – connected with our customer base, many of which who were non-profits themselves. In our eyes, this match made perfect sense.
So in 2007, we approached Noel about redesigning the Cunningham Foundation website as a pro-bono project. His immediate response, “What’s in this for you?” Not exactly the reaction we’d hoped for, but understandable considering we were a couple of 25-year-olds running our business out of the apartment across the street. In our minds, we’d already taken on this cause, so we remained persistent. Every chance we had, we’d talk to Noel about our clients and the types of things we were doing to help them increase donations or sales and how we could be doing the same types of things for his foundation. Eventually we broke him down, and he accepted our offer – with the caveat that we join the Cunningham Foundation on it's annual November trip to Ethiopia that year. Despite the risks of leaving our business for a 10-day trip to Africa, it was an offer we couldn’t refuse. After all, we’d convinced Noel to let us redesign the Cunningham Foundation website, and we couldn’t think of a better way to build content that would help tell the foundation’s story than by documenting the foundation’s work first-hand. Our job would be to document two of the Cunningham Foundation’s most successful projects, Quarters for Kids International and the Hope Bracelet Project.
The trip to Ethiopia changed us. As recent college graduates barely scraping by while trying to build our business, we’d made sacrifices – or so we thought. But the villagers of Yetebon, Ethiopia, helped us put things in perspective. They had so little. It dawned on us that even with our limited resources as a small company; we were capable of doing so much for them. From that moment on, we gained a true understanding of how the efforts of a few could impact so many and we knew that making the world a better place – however we did it – had to be part and parcel to who we were as a company. When we returned from Africa, we began the overhaul of the Cunningham Foundation’s website. We uploaded videos and photos highlighting the foundation’s funds at work providing food, clothing and education for children, and supporting the construction of dorms for orphans and new libraries. It not only brought the foundation’s story to life in an amazing way, but it captured that same passion that lit up Noel’s face when he talked about their work in Africa.
Naturally, through both the trip to Africa and our work redesigning the Cunningham Foundation’s website, we gained a deep understanding of each of the foundation’s projects. One of the most well known – The HOPE Bracelet Project – was gaining popularity among Noel’s Denver following which included just about anybody who’s ever eaten at his restaurant, because they are prominently displayed at the front of the house. A collaboration between the Cunningham Foundation and bead artists from around the world, this project has enabled students in Ethiopia to learn the art of jewelry and bead making. The foundation then sells the jewelry, donating 100 percent of the proceeds to benefit the area of Yetebon.
At the time, the bracelets could only be purchased at Strings. Demand was high and Noel often had customers buying two and three bracelets at a time for friends and relatives who’d admired the bracelets but lived in other cities. This presented another opportunity for Steve and I to lend our professional expertise; why not sell the bracelets on the foundation’s website? At first, Noel was apprehensive. He liked the idea of people coming into his restaurant to buy the bracelets. Understanding the impact e-commerce can have on product sales, we were able to convince Noel by pointing out the impact it could have on the villagers of Yetebon. If it had a negative effect on bracelet sales at Strings, we’d nix that part of the website. After launching the online store, the foundation sold 40 bracelets in four days. Inside Strings, bracelet sales continued to increase. To date, online sales have helped raise more than $15,000 for the community of Yetebon.
The trip to Africa and the website redesign project cemented our relationship with the Cunningham’s. As a result of our successful work on the foundation website, Noel hired us to build a new website for Strings. He referred us one after another to colleagues in the restaurant business and introduced us to the prominent business people who came through his door at Strings. Next thing we knew, a $30,000 pro-bono commitment had returned more than three times its value in revenue from new business. We’d taken a risk and put in some long hours of pro-bono work, but we instilled trust in a true partner who to this day continues to be one of our most effective brand ambassadors.
This, our first stint at being young business philanthropists, inspired and energized us. There’s no denying we aren’t motivated by the financial success it’s had on our business. But more importantly, we now understood how the collaborative efforts of just a few people can have a lasting and widespread impact on so many. That principle is ingrained in everything we do, both as individuals and professionals.
Today, we’re fortunate that HotPress Web continues to grow, and we attribute much of that growth to our decision to live our value of community involvement each and every day. As the company has grown, so has our commitment to causes that we not only care about, but also can help us grow as a company too. We continue to work with Noel and the Cunningham Foundation, and this year expanded our work by chairing the planning committee for the foundation’s first fundraiser, the Hope Ball. We also helped bring Lemonade Day, a citywide event focusing on fostering the spirit of entrepreneurism in young people, to Denver for the first time. We’re fortunate that as a small business we’ve been able to make a big difference, and hope to serve as proof to other entrepreneurs that capitalism for the common good is alive and well in business today.