Develop and regularly meet with a variety of mentors—experts you trust and respect in different fields like business, marketing, leadership, life/faith, and family/marriage.”
Chris Lesner is the Founder and CEO of Project World Impact (PWI). Chris was born in Michigan, but grew up in Japan, Australia, and Germany—which has given him a natural global perspective. As a sophomore in college, Chris helped start a marketing company in Indiana that, in just two years, grew to have Fortune 500 clients and multimillion dollars of revenue. At age 20, Chris founded PWI, a company passionate about helping nonprofits. Near the end of college, Chris left his original company, to devote his full-time to PWI.
Chris now lives with his wife, Jenn, in West Chicago, Illinois. He serves on the Wheaton Academy Foundation Board and the NCS-Chicago West leadership team—a significant non-denominational Christian men’s group. Chris is President of the PWI Foundation. He is a guest lecturer at Wheaton College and a sought after advisor and speaker. He has also been featured on radio programs, podcasts, and in newspapers—which highlight leaders in the entrepreneurship space.
Where did the idea for Project World Impact (PWI) come from?
It seems like I’ve always had a heart to be an entrepreneur. When we were living in Australia, I was like 13 or 14 years old, I told my dad that I didn’t want to work in a big corporation like him (he spent almost 40 years with General Motors), but I wanted to be my own boss.
Although I tried launching a few small business ideas in high school, my first taste of a real business start-up came when I was beginning my sophomore year of college. Two people who were starting a marketing company near my college in Indiana asked me to join them in the venture. The company really did well—growing to multi-million dollar revenue in just two years.
As I approached the end of college, I was in an unusual, but very positive, position for a 20 year-old entrepreneur. I was about to graduate with an International Business degree—and I had just been offered a six-figure salary and equity in the company I helped create and grow while in school.
But in my heart, I knew that was not the path I was supposed to take—instead I took a leap of faith. I turned my back on that great opportunity because I felt that I had another opportunity to actually change the world by starting Project World Impact. Here’s the thought that really motivated me to start PWI: “What if I could help tens of thousands of nonprofits who are in turn helping tens of thousands of people. Then, indirectly, we’d be able to touch the lives of a hundreds of million people!”
With that huge vision in mind, Project World Impact was created.
What does your typical day look like and how do you make it productive?
In a startup like PWI, there is really no “typical” day.
We have two parts to the company: a nonprofit hub, where people can find nonprofits by the cause they serve or the location they serve (we also provide fundraising software to nonprofits on the hub—20+ unique products); and a full service marketing company (serving both nonprofit and for-profit companies) where we run marketing & advertising campaigns, do graphic design, build websites & apps, create video’s, etc.
Some days, my focus is almost totally on the nonprofit hub side—working with nonprofits already on the site or meeting with nonprofits who are not yet site. A lot of days, I am meeting with marketing clients—sometimes conducting all day offsites/seminars or helping them develop their marketing strategy, or making sure the projects/products that we committed to them are on track and meeting the quality requirements..
At PWI, we have less than twenty people onsite at our office in Wheaton and another twenty or so that we work with remotely. Some of my days are spent managing and leading the team—conducting weekly team meetings, meeting with team members on critical tasks they are working on, and setting the next steps and future strategy for the company.
In terms of making it productive? I think that’s an area for improvement. Right now, my philosophy is that there’s a good chance PWI will succeed if I work harder than anyone else, so my workdays are usually 12 hours or more with considerable weekend work as well.
How do you bring ideas to life?
I know this sounds funny, but it’s just natural for my mind to be thinking of new ideas and approaches—for both PWI and for other ventures in the future. Because of that, I have to keep a close watch so that I don’t overwhelm our folks with all of these new ideas.
Usually, I bring those ideas to our leadership team and we discuss the priorities for any new ideas. Then, it’s just a matter of finding the resources (design, programming, writing, researching, project management, etc.) either inside or outside the company to bring those ideas to life.
All of our nonprofit apps and tools are a good example. My original thought was for projectworldimpact.com to be mainly a “hub” for nonprofits to be found and to receive donations with no fee. However, it became clear that it would really enhance the site if we could offer a much greater value proposition to the nonprofit. So we began developing software and apps that would give them a unique “internet” approach for improving their fundraising, visibility, and operations. Now we’ve got over 20 products available to nonprofits, with at least a dozen more in the works … it’s exciting.
What’s one trend that really excites you?
Millennials tend to be more cause-minded, but the traditional approaches to getting people involved and getting them to support nonprofits financially just don’t work as well with them. When you combine that with the fact that most nonprofits haven’t embraced technology and the latest internet marketing approaches, there is a huge market for a company like PWI.
One other thing … the internet has given just about everyone access to an amazing amount of information. However, there’s still no easy way to find out what nonprofits are doing both locally and globally! Even though there are 130 million internet searches per month looking for information or ways to get involved with various causes, the search results will generally yield one or two nonprofits (usually the big ones), but the other 99+% remain hidden with little hope of being found. Those nonprofits are at a loss as to how to generate new traffic or let people know what they do. PWI’s solution was to create a central hub (projectworldimpact.com) where millions of users could easily find ways to get involved in the causes, countries, or nonprofits they care about. Projectworldimpact.com is a combination of search engine, social platform, news resource, and online marketplace.
What is one habit of yours that makes you more productive as an entrepreneur?
I think that personal and professional development is really important to continually improve my effectiveness. To do that, I attend at least one leadership oriented conference a year and I read a lot of books. Actually, I daily listen to audiobooks and complete about two per week. The subjects can be related to business, marketing, leadership, faith, or just be inspirational.
What advice would you give your younger self?
When I first started PWI, I outsourced the development of our really complex website to an outside company—actually three different outside companies—and all three failed miserably. We finally hired our own resources and managed the development in-house ourselves. So, the advice I’d give my younger self is “whatever you do, don’t outsource the core parts of your business”.
Tell us something that’s true that almost nobody agrees with you on.
This may not be what you were expecting.
Because of my father’s job, I had the opportunity to live on four different continents. However, I was born in Detroit and lived there until I was seven years old. So, although I now live in Chicagoland, I am a big Detroit sports fan—Lions, Pistons, Tigers, Red Wings, and the University of Michigan.
Here in Chicago, almost no one agrees with my choice of sports teams and they definitely don’t agree that the Lions have a chance of winning the Superbowl in the next few years.
As an entrepreneur, what is the one thing you do over and over and recommend everyone else do?
I’ve been really fortunate to have some great mentors in my life. So my recommendation would be to develop and regularly meet with a variety of mentors. In my case, I’ve been able to have access to dozens of experts that I really trust and respect in different fields – business, marketing, leadership, life/faith, and family/marriage.
What is one strategy that has helped you grow your business? Please explain how.
There are two things I’d like to mention. First, we try to envision and develop quality products that will uniquely benefit nonprofits in a way that makes it easy for them to see the benefits. Second, our goal is to truly help people, so we have given away thousands of profiles on the site and helped over a hundred nonprofits get a major $240k internet marketing grant.
What is one failure you had as an entrepreneur, and how did you overcome it?
As I said above in #6, we actually failed three times during the development of our website and it cost us well over $500k. We overcame it by abandoning our outsourcing strategy and making the investment to hire top-notch quality programmers in-house. The developers we have in-house now are not only really talented, but they also fit well in the culture of the company, which is a real plus.
What is one business idea that you’re willing to give away to our readers?
I have about a dozen new business ideas—some of which are extensions to the PWI strategy and others that are totally unique ventures. One of the unique ventures is a “Live Grocery Price Comparison” app and site that updates in real time and by geography. Similar products exist, but none with a marketing component that allows for remarketing to users as they are nearby stores, based on what grocery items they have on their grocery list currently.
What is the best $100 you recently spent? What and why?
I am crazy about a music group called NEEDTOBREATHE. Recently, my wife and I not only went to their performance, but paid extra to hang-out with the band beforehand. I also recently signed-up for some professional golf lessons. Why? Well, sports and music are the two main stress-reducers for me.
What is one piece of software or a web service that helps you be productive? How do you use it?
Calendly is a piece of software that interfaces with your calendar and shows the potential openings for meetings. So, when I send someone an email asking for a meeting, I include my calendly link—the person can see openings in my calendar and schedule the meeting when it’s convenient for them.
What is the one book that you recommend our community should read and why?
Start Something That Matters by Blake Mycoskie. Blake was the first to develop a revolutionary business model that married profit and social good—resulting in Tom’s Shoes. It really inspired me and verified that you can be a socially conscious entrepreneur.
What is your favorite quote?
It’s a quote from the Bible—Isaiah 45:2 “I will go before you and will level the mountains”
- Don’t outsource the CORE elements of your business—you place your organization’s future in the hands of someone else.
- A good method for personal development is to listen to a wide-range of audiobooks and podcasts while you are in your car or sitting at your computer.
- Develop and regularly meet with a variety of mentors—experts you trust and respect in different fields like business, marketing, leadership, life/faith, and family/marriage.
- It is possible to both make money AND make a difference. Read Blake Mycoskie’s book, Start Something That Matters.
- If you want to listen to a unique music group try NEEDTOBREATHE.
Project World Impact on Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/ProjectWorldImpact/
Project World Impact on LinkedIn: https://www.linkedin.com/company/project-world-impact