We’ve heard it a thousand times: Cleveland is a rustbelt city in transition. There are many paths to reinvention, but one that holds particular promise is technology. With business accelerators like JumpStart, Bizdom, FlashStarts and LaunchHouse, new companies are blooming in Northeast Ohio and the startup scene is beginning to draw nationwide attention. And the numbers are impressive: according to JumpStart, 245 tech companies generated an impact of $424 million in the last year.
Behind the numbers, however, are the people behind the ideas, and sometimes those stories fly under the radar. Cleveland is a wellspring of technological and entrepreneurial gurus, forces that are helping to shape the future of Northeast Ohio. And they have a thing or two to say about their businesses and the startup scene in Cleveland.
Over the next few months, we’ll be shining a light on those people and organizations and ideas who have, in their own way, helped to rejuvenate the city by creating jobs and attracting talent (and, in Cleveland’s case, helping to keep the talent we have here).
The subject of this week’s chat is Ron Cass, CEO of Big River.
Big River is a service provider aimed at nonprofits. Its product is a comprehensive data and campaign management system that aims to simplify donation solicitation. Big River takes, as Mr. Cass puts it, an “ecommerce approach” to fundraising — the company’s goal is to make keeping track of recurring memberships and donations as simple as shopping for products on Amazon and eBay.
So far, that strategy seems to have worked wonders.
Big River now counts the Cleveland Museum of Art and the Cleveland Zoo among its clients. And two years ago, Big River received more than $250,000 in collective seed money from JumpStart and startup incubator Bizdom.
Mr. Cass and his employees now find themselves in the cozy, Slurpee machine-sporting offices of Bizdom, located in Tower City. I sat down with Ron Cass to talk about his career, Big River, and future prospects for Cleveland startups.
Tell me a bit about your career and how the seeds were sown for Big River.
Going way back, I came here to Cleveland from Chicago to go to Case [Western Reserve University]. Then I went through a couple of startup companies. One was business consulting, traveling around the world — that was exciting. The second one was AIWare, where I was doing artificial intelligence software from about ’91-’97. It was acquired by a large company called Computer Associates in ’97, and so I spent 12 years there as a VP of Product Development.
In parallel, I also had a career with nonprofits in marketing, fundraising, and program development, as a board member and volunteer. I was on the board of Cleveland Reads, and I’m the development director of WRUW-FM. I’m also on the board of Case Alumni Association. So that gets me in touch with nonprofit organizations — what they struggle with, what they have to get done.
The combination of my two experiences is where the business came from. The software background — the product development side, the technology side, and then knowledge of the nonprofit space in terms of fundraising.
How did you conceive of the idea for Big River?
In the spring of 2011, I was part of a committee that was reviewing web design for a nonprofit, and we wanted to add recurring giving to the website. The company we were working with was an old enterprise software company — the kind that installs software, servers, databases, apps — and they gave us a very large pricetag for the project. I realized there was an opportunity with the emergence of cloud-based facilities and subscription business models to take what I knew from the technology and nonprofit domains and attack the problem with a new product.
Tell me a bit about Big River. Who is your service for, exactly? Who’s your target demographic?
Our market is nonprofit organizations. The last 20 years of ecommerce has kind of left the nonprofit space behind. The tools, the tips and tricks, and the best practices that change all the time don’t trickle down to the nonprofit space. As a result, you have a great experience buying shoes on Zappos, and a crummy experience making a donation to an organization.
Our vision is to take all the great developments from ecommerce, pull out what’s relevant to the nonprofit world, and put in those tools that fit the needs of the nonprofit. We’ve made all the funding features — things like donation levels, recurring gifts, event tickets, and membership — like the products you buy on Amazon. It allows us to provide a shopping-like experience in front of a prospective donor. Our approach is proving to be easier for people to wrap their heads around, raises money more effectively, and is easier to administrate, as well.
You received $250,000 from JumpStart and $15,000 from Bizdom in November 2012. How has Big River put the money to use since then?
We used the money to grow our customer base, primarily, so we’ve got about 22 customers right now. We’re also developing new technology, continuously refining the items that we can offer, which enables us to penetrate more markets.
In what ways is Big River unique? How have you managed to differentiate the company from incumbents in the space, like MemberSuite and AssociateAnywhere?
There is team fundraising — peer to peer type fundraising like marathons, for example - which we’re going to bring into our product in the fall. But where we really stand out is our unified approach. Our secret sauce allows our clients to not just personalize their appeal, but allows them to become marketers, and to provide better donor satisfaction for their base.
There are systems out there like Indiegogo and StayClassy that just do the team fundraising component. That’s fine, but organizations can’t integrate that data with everything else they do, so it’s difficult to reach people that donated via a team campaign and reach them effectively for their ordinary day-to-day communication. By bringing that sort of campaign onto our platform, all that data is unified — a company can know that a certain constituent is a member, and walked for the organization, and makes a big gift every November.
It seems like data is a big focus of yours.
The more data you have, the more you know about people. When we started, a lot of nonprofits would just put a PayPal button up on their page — to them, it was just a financial transaction. It’s difficult for people to think that they can have a relationship with someone over the web, but there are certainly things they can do to demolish that relationship. If they don’t reflect that person’s past giving, for instance, like when big donors are repeatedly solicited through the mail. There are tools on the web that allow you to personalize, or to look at context, or to use information about an individual’s history, so you can convey some respect for the donor’s attention or history in how you approach them.
If I’m looking at an organization that does meals on wheels, elder care, and daycare for kids. If I’m on their website reading about elder care and I decide to make a donation, all the messaging should be about elder care, instead of just going to a generic page that ignores the fact that I already told you I’m interested in elder care. The big data play is all about relevance, and about using more and more information about your donors to put a better experience in front of them, one that they’re seeing elsewhere in the marketplace.
Shifting gears a bit, why Cleveland? What about the city makes it a good fit for Big River?
I really think what’s going on right now is very exciting. You have people coming into town at a younger age who are spending what I like to call their “creative risk capital.” There are people taking risks while they can — before they have families, before they can’t take risks anymore — and I think that’s something we haven’t seen in a long time.
Do you think there’s funding to support Cleveland companies?
I think the funding will come. I’ve heard stories of firms looking to invest in the Midwest as an opportunity. You don’t need to be physically in contact nowadays — if you’re dealing with an investor, they’re always going to have your phone number anyway. I think that it’s going to take a couple of more successes for the area to keep core talent around, so you’ve got a base of talent that can feed a startup scene. After a couple of successes, I think people will be drawn to it.
What would you say to a young entrepreneur who’s looking to create a startup of their own — maybe they have an idea of their own, but they’re not sure how to take the first step?
There are a lot of opportunities right now that are funded by the state. Bizdom, FlashStart, LaunchHouse all have the ability to put that initial seed in. On a personal level, you can always work nights on the startup while making a paycheck during the day. The way things work technically, it doesn’t take a lot of resources — you don’t need to build a data center to put out a software product, and you don’t need to invest in a lot of hardware to put out a mobile app. The state of technology today is such that there are very, very few obstacles to getting something incrementally going seeing if it can grow. I’m a big fan of organic growth, making money to fund growth over time. You can start a company on a credit card and do pretty well by it. Big River’s software is all in the cloud - our physical assets are mobile phones and assets, our servers are hosted by Amazon. It’s a great time to be in the technology space, because you can innovate so face and deliver so fast and get stuff on the web in minutes. The opportunity is there.
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