Nate St. Pierre is the founder of ItStartsWith.Us, a global group of people committed to changing the world in just 15 minutes a week. He consults with organizations of any size on building and engaging community, while making it easy to mobilize their members to make a difference for others. Nate utilizes the concept of micro-giving to provide a fast, fun and effective way to channel and direct that passion to people who can benefit from it. Along the way he helps build strong bonds of friendship and a solid team mentality among every participating member, strengthening the entire community and adding to the overall impact of the group. ItStartsWith.Us is the parent platform to a number of spinoff projects, each one of which aims to change the world in a unique way.
What are you working on right now?
I’m pouring most of my effort in 2011 into Love Drop, our first foray into giving back financially. I think this project brings something totally new to the table. It combines all the elements I’ve been working on in terms of micro-giving, team building and telling stories into one cohesive system, specifically a charitable for-profit business with a pay-what-you-want subscription revenue model. But all that sounds too wordy – even I zoned out when I read that last sentence, haha… Basically my partner and I go around the country and change the lives of one family per month. Anyone can join our team by giving anything they want, and each month we come together to provide financial help as well as goods, services and special gifts to our recipients. Any team member can nominate someone they know (or know of) who could use some help. And then we go make it happen, film the entire process, and publish it as a web TV series. It’s very touching, it makes a difference, and it allows anyone to give any amount they want and literally see the difference it makes for individuals within just a few weeks. In a phrase, it allows people to “Spend a dollar, change a life.”
3 trends that excite you?
1) People realizing the power of networked groups of individuals united around a common goal to do big things (Groupon has really helped show people how this can work). 2) The fact that there’s a stronger focus right now in the business world on doing well by doing good (yes, it always hits the bottom line, but I’ve met some really amazing businesspeople who truly care about others). 3) The older generation beginning to adopt more technology. I love that I can now email my grandpa things that he’ll really like.
How do you bring ideas to life?
I love this question – I don’t think I’ve ever really thought about it too much. But I would say that in the very beginning it almost always starts with a very simple concept that can be phrased in a very simple way. And throughout the entire rest of the process I always like to come back to that idea and phrase and make sure that everything I’m doing stays true to that concept. At the start of the process there’s a lot of thinking involved. Mulling it over, turning it around, letting it marinate, constructing possible real-world scenarios. After I’m happy with it, I’ll start talking about it with people, floating it out there, seeing how it sounds coming out of my mouth and becoming more tangible, gauging the reaction of those listening. If I still like it after that, there’s more in-depth sketching, notes, outlines and designs, making sure that all the nuts and bolts can get done and I haven’t overlooked anything. If I’m still satisfied, it’s time to begin the build. I always look for ways to start small, to get positive momentum and those little wins that engage and encourage, always with the core concept in mind and building toward the Big Idea. As you build, the idea should stay the same, but the structure and function should evolve a little bit. It’s always an evolutionary process – a lot of learning and growing happens during this time. As the project gets bigger, sometimes it gets too heavy and topples over on itself, and sometimes it gets stronger and stronger until it has a life of its own. As an example of this process, especially the foundational aspect, I try to live my life by the phrase “Change the World.” I write it on my palm every day as a reminder to myself that I want everything I do to impact the world in a big way (and of course a positive way). It’s a really easy way to keep my core principle literally in front of my face no matter where I go and what I do. And if a proposed idea or partnership or consulting project or one of my own ideas doesn’t fit in with that vision, I don’t work on it. Simple.
What inspires you?
I’m inspired by people and projects that think big, especially the creative teams behind works of science fiction, art and fantasy. For instance, Peter Jackson and his team for their screen version of Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings. Orson Scott Card for the entire universe he created based off of Ender’s Game . . . there are some incredible ideas in there that will open up your mind to think about things in new and different ways. Actually, my biggest inspiration behind the work projects I take on probably come from fantasy literature, comics and film. I just love thinking about the way things could be, and then working hard to make them become so.
What is one mistake you’ve made, and what did you learn from it?
Thinking that intelligence and good ideas are enough to succeed. It’s the very rare exception when these two things (and these two things alone) generate anything worthwhile. I’ve learned that real success comes from time, effort, hard work and persistence. I mean, you certainly need good ideas, and intelligence/smarts/savvy/whatever helps tilt things in your favor, but the absolute best thing you can do once you have a viable idea is to get to work at it. Put in the time, sweat it out, build relationships, make connections, fail, fix, fail again, fix again, and go forward step by step. After a while you’ll look back and realize how far you’ve come and what you’ve accomplished while the smart guy with the good idea is still sitting on the couch playing video games.
What is one business idea that you’re willing to give away to our readers?
A job board for projects 20 hours or less that people will do for free. Anyone can request web design or copywriting or engineering help for a one-time fee to list their project on the site. Producers will do it for free in order to gain experience, portfolio projects, recommendations, connections, referrals, and freelance or full-time work. Those who own the platform will do very well. Listers get cheap, quality work done, producers get all of the above. It’s a win all the way around. Catchafire.org is doing something like this, but there’s a way to go bigger and better and more profitable. Think about it.
What is one book and one tool that helps you bring ideas to life?
You know, I don’t read many business/lifehacking/self-help/DIY/marketing/idea books. I try to, but I usually end up reading about 50 pages, taking some notes, and then never picking them up again. I would probably have to say that one of the most influential books I own (and I buy very few books) in terms of ideas is Expose 7, filled with amazing examples of digital art. Check out some examples here. These images inspire me to think about things not as they are, but as they could be. They stir my imagination, and from that swirl of ideas sometimes come some good ones for the real world. As far as tools, I really use just three: my mind, a pencil, and a notepad. Not very high-tech over here, but it gets the job done.
Who would you love to see interviewed on IdeaMensch?
Jessica Jackley, the co-founder of Kiva. The sticker on her laptop has inspired me for years. “LOVE WINS.” Also, she keeps thinking and expanding with new ventures based on her original ideas. We’re similar in that way, and I really like that.
Do you get a lot of criticism over the fact that Love Drop isn’t a 501(c)3 charity?
We get some, yes. And we can’t control that – people are always going to think what they want. But we spent a long time thinking about how to build out this project, and non-profit status was first on our list for the vast majority of that time. In the end, though, we thought we could do a better job of making an impact if we set it up as a social entrepreneurship. It’s a way to differentiate, it’s more of a story, and most importantly, it’s actually sustainable. Being a non-profit does us no good if we have to shut our doors after 8 months and stop helping people simply because we’re in an untenable position. When it’s built out as a subscription service, people are well aware of how much of their money goes to the recipient each month, and what’s more, they can literally see the effect their gifts have on this person or family every time, which is one of the big things missing from a lot of traditional charities. People choose to send money our way because they get to be a part of the amazing things we do for people on a consistent basis. And if their $5.00 per month isn’t tax-deductible, it’s really not the end of the world, especially for a good cause. But that response is for the people who actually like what we do. If they don’t like it, I simply tell them that we don’t care if they use our service, someone else’s, or if they make up their own. All we want is for people to find a way to give back that makes sense for them, and then get out there and do it. I promote my “competitors” all the time – there’s always more room in this world for people doing good. This is just one of the ways that makes sense for us.
How do you respond to people who say that they’re too busy to volunteer?
I call shenanigans on that one. I think it’s all about how you leverage what you can give to make a difference. When most people think about “making a difference,” they look to our historical icons and current cultural leaders. And the fact is, these people are the exceptions, not the rule. It’s misleading to look to them to learn how to make a difference for others. You can make the biggest impact exactly where you are, touching the lives of those closest to you. That is where we have the real power. Think about it this way: You could spend 10 hours signing petitions, making protest signs, complaining on the internet, or otherwise fighting against some big company that did something not so good. And sure, sometimes you need to do that to keep things in check. But how much more of an impact would you make on the world if you spent those 10 hours sitting one-on-one with your son, daughter, niece or nephew, teaching them solid values, working with them to help them learn, and playing with them to show them the beauty and inspiration in the world around them? In the first example you are one tiny voice in the middle of an angry throng, but in the second you are a young person’s entire world, a guiding force shaping them and setting them on the right path, so they can grow up to be the kind of person this world desperately needs. Every single one of us has the ability to make a positive impact on the lives of those around us. Every single one of us has the power to change the world.