From school project to multi-award winning business
Is it too ambitious for a startup to drive positive change and make a profit at the same time? Lizzy Hayashida and Willie Conaghan are on a mission to build a community of everyday philanthropists, donating one cent at a time to not-for-profits across the globe. The platform is easy to use: each time you pay by card, it will round up your purchase to the nearest euro and donate your spare change to the charities of your choice.
In reality, they are changing so much more than the way we donate.
More than a school project
Lizzy: Change Donations started as a school project, and we were lucky to have lots of help which allowed us to get as far as we are today. When we first set out, we had big ambitions, and we knew we really wanted to make an impact.
It still feels a bit surreal and hard to believe that this time in 2018, we were finishing up our MBA course at Trinity College in Dublin and starting the LaunchBox accelerator program.
We spent the whole summer working on the platform. We talked to as many people as we could, refined our presentation and developed our MVP, all while finishing the MBA. It was a lot of hard work and such a team effort which allowed us to go on to win the LaunchBox program. I wish someone had taken a picture of the shock on all of our faces!
It was a great moment, and I think that gave us the confidence to really push forward with the platform. We realized that we actually have the chance to create something that both donors and charities needed. That was such a liberating feeling.
Willie: .Just before Christmas 2017, we decided that this idea had legs and we wanted to run with it. There wasn't really any doubt about committing to the idea. It was mainly a discussion about the best steps to make it happen.
Business model built on everyday philanthropy
Willie: I have always been incredibly passionate about giving back and wanted to find a career path that I believed in. I had gone through 8 years of Jesuit education, so the prayer for generosity has been drilled into my head for a while now.
We all know that profit is necessary, and you have to have a sustainable business model to continue to operate. Still I think the public sector is finally pushing back and forcing companies to think beyond their bottom line.
We’re committed to building a community of everyday philanthropists, empowering people to make a positive impact on their community through their daily spending.
Lizzy: We’re lucky to live in a time where there’s a growing trend toward making a profit with purpose.
For us, it was more a case of figuring out how we could create a sustainable business from our purpose vs how to make more than just a profit.
We’ve had so many learnings so far. One of the biggest for me has been the importance of clear communication; not just with each other, but in general: letting friends, family, charities and donors know what we’re working on and what we’re struggling with.
It was talking to the charities that convinced us that there was a real need.
The more open we are, the more manageable things become, and it’s been a pleasant surprise to see how ready and willing people are to help.
Willie: We are Americans, and I believe that we are conditioned to think that asking for help is a sign of weakness. Therefore we have a tough time admitting when we need a hand.
The biggest learning from the past two years is: ask for help.
The startup life is lonely enough as it is, so seeks out all of the help you can get. There are so many organizations, government bodies, and public support systems that offer support.
Winning the Business SPIRIT Award in 2018 was one of the first steps to start showing what we've been working on.
My favourite memory is probably winning the Ones2Watch pitching competition at the Futurescope conference in 2019, Dublin. There were so many great teams with incredible businesses, and we were just happy to be talked about in the same breath as them. Our traction and public profile started to pick up after that, and it gave us some positive momentum.
Willie: Everything is moving incredibly fast, we are working around the clock and there aren’t enough hours in the day. However, we love the energy and excitement that the public has shown us, and we are so thankful for the support we have been given from various organizations.
I tend to stay pretty even keel on an emotional level, so I take the victory and defeat with virtually the same attitude. One of my favourite sayings is “this too shall pass” which tends to be a quote used by many to get through tough times.
For me, it’s a good reminder that the nature of a startup is extremely volatile, and I need to regulate my state of mind to make sure that I don't lose focus.
Lizzy: About this time last year, we built a 5-year roadmap which helped us understand where we were and where we wanted to be. From there, we were able to work backwards, marking out milestones to help us get there.
Of course, many things have changed since we laid out our first version of that roadmap.
As a team of two, it’s easy enough just to talk through anything we need help on, but there also aren’t enough hours in the day to get everything done, so we have to divide and conquer the tasks.
Sometimes it can be frustrating when things take longer than expected, but that’s part of being a startup. Overall, having a plan has helped us set goals and prioritize (and reprioritize) with those goals in mind.
It’s natural to have disagreements, but that really comes down to communication and respect. As long as you have those two things, you can talk through anything until you come to an agreement or compromise.
Lizzy: We’ve put everything into building Change Donations, and we think it has the potential to make a massive impact on amazing causes all around the world.
We’ve definitely jumped in 100% still running a startup can be quite scary at times. I’m lucky to have a great support system both locally and abroad. I’ve learned to lean on them when I need to talk through a problem, frustration, or celebrate a big or small win.
My biggest fear is that we’ll fall short of our goal to make the impact for our charities and donors.
Talking to both charities and donors as often as possible helps us continuously improve and build with our partners in mind. It’s also been a great motivator to hear feedback on the impact we have the potential to make.
Willie: Lately, I have had a bit of a rollercoaster in my personal life. I had been unknowingly battling walking pneumonia from January to April. By the end of April, I lost both of my grandparents which made Ireland feel a lot further away from home than it actually was. It just reinforced the importance of family.
Inspiration and self-care
Willie: Courage in the face of uncertainty inspires me a lot.
I don't like people going against the grain just for the sake of rebelling, but when you see someone who actually believes in what they're doing, and they gracefully dismiss the doubts and judgements of others, I find that to be powerful.
My three role models are Jane Goodall, Paul Farmer, and Jim Kim.
Lizzy: One of the most inspiring things to me is seeing the big ideas that young people are putting into action before they’re even out of high school.
I'm passionate about what we're working on, and I don’t think you can ever fully switch off once you start your own business. However, it is vital to get away and sometimes. I’ve found that these are the times when great ideas will pop into your head!
My switch-off time is when I’m running or doing anything physically active. I wasn’t great about it last year, so this year I signed up for a few races.
Willie: It doesn't take too long for me to recharge: sitting outside, getting some fresh air, and just taking a break from screens help a lot.
In a typical 9-5 workplace you get the weekends off, but with a startup, your business is always on your mind, so you have to find your weekends in 15-minute increments -sometimes a cup of tea and a fun conversation are enough.
I bike to work every day, which has been a great way to decompress, but after a tough week, I make sure I get outside and recharge.
How to keep the momentum going?
Willie: I expect us to be fully operational in Ireland, the US, the UK, and Canada in the next five years, and looking to expand into other markets.
Most of our decisions and growth plans are dependent on funding, so if we get the funding we need our next move will be into the US. We have about 20 schools in the US interested in using our platform, so it is a natural progression for us.
Lizzy: Every great company starts with the team, and we’re putting in a lot of work to build an amazing team who has the same vision as we do: create the easiest, most flexible way to donate what you can in Ireland, the US and the UK.
We’re starting to look at new opportunities to bring on additional partners like retailers and big corporations to help them create and expand their donation options to employees and shoppers.
At Change Donations we are always looking for ways to improve our solution and support more charities. Feel free to give feedback or recommend a charity to add to the platform.
Check out our work and join the community of everyday philanthropists!