Brent Grinna – Founder and CEO of EverTrue

[quote style=”boxed”]I have lunch or coffee with every member of our team on a regular basis. There is no agenda other than to get their perspectives on how things are going personally and professionally. I love having that dialogue with all members of our team — especially the people I interact with least on a normal day.[/quote]

Brent Grinna is the founder and CEO of EverTrue, a leading social donor management platform for nonprofits. He was inspired to found EverTrue after serving as a volunteer for his alma mater, Brown University.

At Brown, Grinna served as the captain of the varsity football team and was a leader of the Senior Class Gift campaign. He spent four years in finance at William Blair & Company and Madison Dearborn Partners. Prior to founding EverTrue, he received his MBA with honors from Harvard Business School.

EverTrue participated in Techstars Boston and was selected as a winner of MassChallenge. EverTrue is backed by Bain Capital Ventures.

Where did the idea for EverTrue come from?

I volunteered to serve on my reunion fundraising campaign for Brown University. During that process, I was equipped with spreadsheets filled mostly with out-of-date information. That made it challenging for me to effectively reach out to my classmates and prioritize my efforts.

I went on to learn that nonprofits raise $300 billion per year in spite of inaccurate or inaccessible data. As donor information rapidly shifted from legacy databases to social platforms like Facebook and LinkedIn, I saw an opportunity to connect donors and nonprofits with highly accurate information accessible through intuitive interfaces. That was the catalyst for founding EverTrue.

What does your typical day look like and how do you make it productive?

My wife, Katie, and I had a baby last October, so that has radically shifted my schedule. I typically wake up at 5:30 a.m. and catch up on email and my to-do list for an hour or so. I then spend an hour playing with my son and getting ready for work. We are in the midst of our second annual company “1,000,000 Step Challenge,” so I walk to work to keep up.

My days are generally spent working with our product, marketing, sales, and account management teams. I also work frequently with our board. I occasionally sling a little JSON around the office just to keep our engineering team on its toes.

After work, I swing by CrossFit The Taj with one of our engineering team members. I try to get home by 8 p.m. most nights when I’m not at one of the countless events in the Boston startup ecosystem.

How do you bring ideas to life?

When we were establishing the company, “The Lean Startup” wasn’t yet en vogue. However, while it wasn’t deliberate, we accidentally benefited from many of the Lean Startup principles. We focused on identifying a problem, developing a hypothesis, mocking up a solution, and getting feedback from potential users of our software. While there’s always room for improvement, this approach has kept us very close to the customer and helped ensure we obsess about their problems — not our solutions.

What’s one trend that really excites you?

I’m excited about the move toward an application programming interface for nearly everything. Philosophically and architecturally, the first wave of software companies consisted of inflexible walled gardens. Systems didn’t talk, and that stifled creativity and innovation. Web 2.0 companies slowly bucked this trend, starting with Salesforce and accelerating with Facebook and other social platforms.

Internal and external APIs have become a must to compete in both software and hardware businesses. Consumer tech is leading the wave. My scale connects to my food diary, and that diary is integrated with my fitness tracker. The same level of connectivity will transform the enterprise in the near future.

What is one habit of yours that makes you more productive as a leader?

Rob Kaplan was one of my professors in business school, and one of his strong recommendations was to constantly seek feedback. I’ve taken that lesson to heart and genuinely love getting constructive feedback from my team. It isn’t always easy for people to share — especially newer team members — but I try to do my best to proactively seek it. This helps me diagnose the root cause of challenges and keep my finger on the pulse of the company. I hope it helps my team understand that I want to do my best to serve them as a leader.

What was the worst job you ever had and what did you learn from it?

I grew up on a farm in rural Iowa, and most of my childhood was spent around agriculture. My first — and worst — job was on a chicken farm. My cousins and I were on a team that caught chickens and loaded them on trucks during hot summer nights. The work was difficult (chickens are much stronger than you’d think), and the pay wasn’t very good.

We competed against the other teams to see who could get the most done in the least amount of time. I learned that sometimes a job might not be fun, but — if you’re going to do something — you need to give it your all. I also learned that chicken farms smell pretty bad.

If you were to start again, what would you do differently?

Our early team had the skills and network to understand the customer pain point, develop a product, and go to market, but we underinvested in strong design. We didn’t hire our first full-time designer until a year after we started the company. His contributions have greatly improved our product and marketing efforts, and I wish we’d started working together a year earlier than we did.

As an entrepreneur, what is the one thing you do over and over and recommend everyone else do?

I have lunch or coffee with every member of our team on a regular basis. There is no agenda other than to get their perspectives on how things are going personally and professionally. I love having that dialogue with all members of our team — especially the people I interact with least on a normal day.

What is one strategy that has helped you grow your business?

Our market is extremely word-of-mouth-driven — much more so than other markets I’ve worked in. Nonprofit fundraising professionals are extremely collaborative, and they openly share best practices in a way that most “competitors” simply wouldn’t. Our first 100 customers were almost entirely driven by word-of-mouth referrals, and referrals continue to account for a substantial part of our growth. Delivering great products and great service is even more important in markets like ours.

What is one failure you had as an entrepreneur, and how did you overcome it?

I applied to MassChallenge as a solo founder in 2010, just as I graduated from business school and began to build EverTrue. I was excited about the possibility of joining the accelerator and enthusiastically presented to the selection committee. The program accepted 100 companies, but EverTrue wasn’t one of them.

I then applied to Dogpatch Labs, which had just been started by Polaris Partners. I was rejected by that program as well. Many of my friends were accepted to both programs. It was really disappointing because I didn’t know how I would build my network without those platforms.

Eventually, I met some great people in Boston who provided mentorship and guidance. A year later, we were accepted into Techstars, and we reapplied to MassChallenge. We went on to win $50,000 at MassChallenge and benefited greatly from both programs.

What is one business idea that you’re willing to give away to our readers?

I’d like to see a Zillow for commercial real estate. I know many people are working on this challenge, but innovation in commercial real estate is drastically lagging behind the residential sector. The team at T3 Advisors is doing some interesting work in this regard, but the majority of brokers are still emailing PDFs of properties to prospective tenants.

Tell us something about you that very few people know?

If I hadn’t founded EverTrue, I likely would have accepted a job in São Paulo. I studied Spanish, Portuguese, and Italian in college and hope to resume those studies in the future.

What software and web services do you use? What do you love about them?

I travel frequently and love applications that help me when I’m on the go. I discover new places to go with Foursquare or Yelp. I love the United Airlines mobile app, and I hope I never need to use its website again. Uber and Lyft provide economical on-demand transportation. I love booking lodging at the last minute with Hotel Tonight.

What is the one book that you recommend our community should read and why?

I’d recommend “Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead” by Sheryl Sandberg. Gender balance is extremely difficult to achieve in the technology sector, especially at early-stage companies where risk is greater, benefits can be limited, and HR is less developed. The advantages of gender balance are real and extremely positive. I’m fortunate to work with strong female leaders in all areas of our business. We will continue to invest in making EverTrue a great place to work for all sexes.

What people have influenced your thinking and might be of interest to others?

I think Adam Nash at Wealthfront is one of the best emerging CEOs and product thinkers in Silicon Valley, and I recommend his blog. Locally, I’ve enjoyed spending time with Brian Halligan at HubSpot. He consistently gives back to the community and sets a great example for the next generation of SaaS leaders. Lee Hower, Rob Go, and David Beisel have done fantastic work at NextView Ventures.


Brent Grinna on Twitter: @brentgrinna
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