"Adults underestimate kids," says Andrea Lo, who, at 27, is something of an expert on youngster capabilities.
In November 2011, she launched Piggybackr — think Kickstarter for 8 to 15-year-olds — in San Francisco. The fledgling online fundraising platform is banking on just how effective young people become when they care about a cause and learn to use kid-friendly tech tools. So far, the model is clicking.
For example, in October 2012, parents of a wheelchair basketball team in Berkeley, California, launched a Piggybackr fund drive. "Parents often want to do everything," says Lo. "But giving back to the organization meant a lot to the kids. They created amazing [fundraising] pages and, in their own words, explained why they cared so much." The parents had never before hit a funding goal. With the kids using Piggybackr, the team raised $5,000 in a month, $1,500 above target.
Piggybackr, a for-profit business, is already generating revenue and boasts some impressive user metrics: "Kids on average are raising $200 each from one to 50 donors," says Lo. Campaigns have so far focused on just the Bay Area, and Lo continues to fine-tune her company — "we're making improvements to the site every day" — but give it time.
She's seeking additional funding to expand staff, launch publicity, develop a mobile application (of course), and attract nonprofits and foundations. To broaden reach and credibility, she's pursuing organization and corporate sponsorships and signing national partners, such as high school robotics teams and California YMCA Youth and Government. "I'd love to talk to the Girl Scouts," says Lo.
Just as crowdfunding is reinventing startup financing, Piggybackr is on track to transform and scale up our nation's multimillion-dollar youth fundraising efforts. The questions now are how well will it do this, and how soon will it succeed.
Starting up in slow-mo
Despite growing up in Silicon Valley, Lo never thought of becoming an entrepreneur. Oblivious to its high-octane glory, she saw home as simply as where she went to high school.
At the University of California, Berkeley, Lo enrolled in the Haas School of Business, choosing the corporate consulting track. "I sincerely thought I wanted to go into law, and a consulting training background would offer experience working with big clients in a corporate environment," she says. "I studied white-collar crime, fraud investigation and forensic accounting."
Graduating in 2008, she accepted a long-time offer from a company where she'd done work as an undergrad. A month later, the country slid into financial meltdown. "Lehman Brothers collapsed and it was scary," says Lo. "I watched friends being laid off." Her job was secure because the firm focused on distressed companies.
But by 2010, that career no longer beckoned. "I realized I was more into being creative and improving the status quo. That's not what you do in a financial accounting job," she says. "Now that I'm a CEO and done everything there is to do, financials are still my least favorite thing."
She began thinking about a startup. Her then 11-year-old sister, Chelsea, provided inspiration. Passionate about saving the rain forest, Chelsea was selling $1 bracelets to raise money. In helping her, Lo was struck by the dramatic gap between adult fundraising options, such as using online or mobile technology, versus kid choices, like selling candy bars or washing cars.
Lo helped her sister to fundraise online and Chelsea not only raised hundreds of dollars, but learned to use technology, gaining confidence along the way.
Although she now had a startup idea, there were still some hurdles for Lo to overcome: She had no technical training and no clue about launching an online business.
Baby steps to being kid-friendly
"The media paints entrepreneurs as super-glamorous," says Lo, looking back. "But I have friends who've been working for years and failed multiple times before getting to where they are. People don't realize how much prep work goes into every success story."
She speaks from vivid experience. For about two years, Lo researched her idea while teaching herself how to design a website prototype. She also spent nine months as operations manager at Caring.com, an online resource for caregivers. "It's important to have savings and a budget," she says, laughing, "and to eat at home a lot."
She devised a cleverly cheap — and analog — stratagem to gain early feedback, using a sheet of construction paper as "the site" and Post-it notes as movable "pages" to interview educators, parents and kids.
Networking and hard work earned Lo entry into two business accelerators. In 2011, she worked with the Founder Institute, which offers a "Female Founder Fellowship," and in spring 2012 she joined the prestigious 10-week AngelPad program, founded by ex-Googler Thomas Korte. Lo was the sole woman in her group. Typically, AngelPad gives its startups $50,000 to $150,000 in seed money. By summer 2012, Lo had hired a full-time chief technology officer and a fundraising expert for online community outreach.
After more than a dozen site iterations, Piggybackr has honed its mission, moving away from attracting teachers and parents in order to better concentrate on serving and educating youngsters. "It's an amazing way to offer experiential learning in a real-life setting," says Lo. "Kids need to set goals, persevere and ask for help. They learn that getting money and capital enables them to do stuff."
She's also streamlined the business model. Setup is free. Every donation carries a charge of 5 percent plus a $0.30 transaction fee, and Piggybackr covers all credit card and other transaction fees. Premium users such as organizations and corporate sponsors pay more.
While still relatively small overall, online contributions are growing faster than other sectors of giving, up 11 percent in 2012 over the previous year, according to Giving USA. As mobile giving expands and donors and nonprofits become technologically sophisticated, online giving will only accelerate. Youngsters, meanwhile, are bound to gravitate toward mobile and online tools.
That makes Lo's goal very clear: "Our No. 1 focus [right now] is making products that really help kids to successfully raise money."