Making Something From Nothing: Maria Underwood of Fundrage On How To Go From Idea To Launch
An Interview With Fotis Georgiadis
People invest in your as the Founder before they invest in the product. I’ve found that I do not need to have all of the answers when asked, but if I answer confidently and can show that I have a plan, a direction, and am in control, potential users and investors will also have trust and faith in me, even before the product is ready.
As a part of our series called “Making Something From Nothing”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Maria Underwood.
Maria is the Founder of Fundrage, a company that wants you to channel your anger into action when reading the news. Still in its early phase, the first version of Fundrage is a Chrome extension that launched in the Chrome store this past October. The extension will appear on news sites and, when you read an article that makes you want to take action, you can click the icon and it will suggest nonprofits to donate to based on the content of the article. Outside of the startup, Maria has been in the fundraising field for over a decade, working with large and small nonprofits, both nationally and internationally, so she has a unique perspective on why and how donors give. She is from, and currently lives in, Birmingham, AL.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dive in, our readers would love to learn a bit more about you. Can you tell us a bit about your “childhood backstory”?
I’m from Birmingham, AL and nothing about my past would indicate that I would have a technology startup one day. I’ve always been active and engaged in my community, and in school, and my parents set great examples of what it’s like to be engaged with nonprofits. Growing up I never had a clear path of what I wanted to “do”, but I knew I wanted to have a job that helped me leave the world better than I found it. I stumbled into my first job as a fundraising director out of college and loved that I could build relationships with people all day with the end of making an impact on the community. Later in life when I lived in DC for seven years and become more aware, politically, I started to feel a frustration that there were stories in the news that made me want to donate to a nonprofit, or help, but I didn’t always know which nonprofit was doing the work that would be most helpful. My background in nonprofits and belief in them as community changemakers is the driving force behind Fundrage.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
My dad used to always tell me “hang in there, be tough and smile” and I’ve found that it’s relevant in almost every situation. It helps me remember that I can get through anything, even if it’s hard, and that on the other end there’s either a lesson or a positive outcome, it’s all in your mindset.
Is there a particular book, podcast, or film that made a significant impact on you? Can you share a story or explain why it resonated with you so much?
I read Thomas Friedman’s book “Thank You for Being Late” and it changed the way I adapt myself to modern technology. In a very watered down sense, his book is about human adaptability and how technology, climate change, and the market are changing at faster rates that we can adapt, so we are in a constant state of “catching up”, causing stress. That lens gave me the perspective of creating technology for good, wanting to find tools to help people navigate the world more at their own pace, while not feeling left behind. It also caused me to re-examine my relationship with technology and helped me not feel the need to stay up to date on every single new item that’s produced. Strangely, now I have a tech company.
Ok super. Let’s now shift to the main part of our discussion. There is no shortage of good ideas out there. Many people have good ideas all the time. But people seem to struggle in taking a good idea and translating it into an actual business. Can you share a few ideas from your experience about how to overcome this challenge?
The biggest help to me in starting was talking to people. Coffees, drinks, lunches — wherever I could grab someone’s attention for a few minutes and bounce ideas off of them was invaluable, particularly since I was going to create a technology with no tech background. I asked people from different industries, took all of their (varying) advice, and was able to piece together what I thought would be a good first prototype. Starting a conversation with “I have this idea…” is difficult, and I wasn’t always comfortable sharing out of fear of being told it wouldn’t work (which I was) or that it was a dumb idea. However, all of those conversations gave me at least something to make my idea better, smarter or more streamline.
Often when people think of a new idea, they dismiss it saying someone else must have thought of it before. How would you recommend that someone go about researching whether or not their idea has already been created?
This was me exactly — I was sure someone had already figured this out, or worse, that if they hadn’t it was because it couldn’t be done. Google searching is obviously a great first step, typing in a bunch of iterations of what I wanted to do, and checking on the name multiple times in different sites, helped me realize that there wasn’t anything similar.
For the benefit of our readers, can you outline the steps one has to go through, from when they think of the idea, until it finally lands in a customer’s hands? In particular, we’d love to hear about how to file a patent, how to source a good manufacturer, and how to find a retailer to distribute it.
My initial conversations were a major step for me — my first idea was to create an app and after a series of conversations I realized that I needed to pivot away from that. I created a prototype of how I wanted it to look and used that to get customer feedback. Once that was completed, I found a developer on Upwork and started the process of actually creating the technology. I did have to change developers halfway through to someone local for some time issues, so finding a new one was a challenge, but knowing when to move on to someone else helped save me wasted money in the long run. Once the name of the company started to get a little more notice, I filed the company as an LLC and started the trademark process. For a startup, filing for a trademark can be a long and expensive process, but fortunately you can search the trademark database before you file to make sure nothing already exists that would cause your application to rejected. To gain users I started with creating an Instagram page and worked to build content that I thought would be interesting to those who would eventually download Fundrage, once it was ready.
What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me When I First Started Leading My Company” and why? (Please share a story or example for each.)
- You will get a lot of advice. Ignore most of it.
When I first started talking about Fundrage, I felt like squirrel changing directions every time someone gave me a new idea. In an industry I’m not comfortable with, it took me some time to gain my footing and learn to synthesize the information and then ultimately, to trust my gut.
- Start before you’re ready, but start.
I first had the idea for Fundrage back in 2016, but it took me until 2021 to actually put the bones around it. I was lucky to be in Birmingham where we have an amazing accelerator program for people with potential ideas, which I was accepted into and it sped me up, but if I had started earlier I’d be farther today. There will always be excuses to not try, ignore them.
- It’s okay if there are days everything goes wrong. The next day something will go right.
It’s easy to quit when things are going wrong and you feel like you’re so early down the road you’ll never make it over the next hill. I had nights where I couldn’t get the technology right and couldn’t figure out where to take the next step and felt so overwhelmed I wanted to throw in the towel, but usually the next day it would get fixed and watching my idea come to life was worth all of the heartache.
- Imposter syndrome isn’t real.
Being a technology founder is surreal to me, but I take issue with those who say they feel like imposters (which, I’ll admit, I have done). Everyone has moments of feeling like they’re just faking it until they make it — but the thing is, you’re the one doing it. You’re the one putting in the work and creating something new so you’re not an imposter, you are, quite literally, the opposite.
- People invest in your as the Founder before they invest in the product.
I’ve found that I do not need to have all of the answers when asked, but if I answer confidently and can show that I have a plan, a direction, and am in control, potential users and investors will also have trust and faith in me, even before the product is ready.
Let’s imagine that a reader reading this interview has an idea for a product that they would like to invent. What are the first few steps that you would recommend that they take?
First of all — start. Take a first step and move it forward. Talk to people who would have different perspectives on the product or technology use before you dive in. Write out your plan, have someone tear it to shreds, then re-write it. If you get started creating too soon you could get down a road where you spend time and money on something that could have been better. Do your due diligence to make sure you know if there are competitors to what you’re doing and how you’ll differentiate. After all of that, start to draw out or prototype your idea so you can get feedback before you go into full creation mode.
There are many invention development consultants. Would you recommend that a person with a new idea hire such a consultant, or should they try to strike out on their own?
I always think the more brains around the table on an idea, the better. Most founders have an expertise in a portion of what their company will be doing, but have blind spots in other areas. As a single founder, I’ve created an advisory board of people in different industries — tech, marketing, nonprofits — to bounce ideas off of so that I can have a robust look at strategy. Whether or not you hire a consultant, which would be a financial investment, I’d recommend having an inner circle of people dedicated to at least listening to your direction and able to provide strategic advice.
What are your thoughts about bootstrapping vs looking for venture capital? What is the best way to decide if you should do either one?
I’ll be honest — I’ve asked a lot of other founders about this one as well. I spent the first year bootstrapping to work a working MVP in the Chrome store, but as a technology company I’m going to need some heavy investments to really build out the full, working idea of Fundrage. I’m in the process of speaking to VC firms but as a social impact company, it’s important to me that my investors are the right fit for the company. Bootstrapping is great if you don’t need capital investments, doing it on your own as long as you can gives you total control, but it’s also important to know when you reach the point where you’ll get farther with a larger sum of investment, even if that means giving up some percentage of the company.
Ok. We are nearly done. Here are our final questions. How have you used your success to make the world a better place?
What I love about Fundrage is that it’s designed to introduce people to new nonprofits. There may be an article that makes you want to take action on something you have never thought about, but you don’t know where to find out which nonprofits to give to, which are legitimate, etc. The machine learning technology is designed to show you nonprofits that are local to you, along with other Charity Navigator vetted nonprofits, that you might not have heard of before. Creating a tool that helps give people a positive outlet when they wanted to stay informed, and results in funding to nonprofits, is a really exciting way for me to make big impact.
You are an inspiration to a great many people. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger.
It would be that if something frustrates you, do something about it. Or if you love something and want to preserve it, do something about it. Apathy is the easy route — particularly when we are inundated with news, mostly bad, from every angle each day. Get involved in a group that’s making a change, support local businesses that you care about. Making big change isn’t hard when everyone’s doing something small.
We are very blessed that some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US, with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them.
There are many incredible women founders rising to the top of their industries. I’m so inspired, as many are, by Sara Blakely’s story with Spanx because of how scrappy she was at the beginning. Showing up to parties and bringing her prototype for her friends to try on — she wanted to make it happen, believed in it, and she did it. That’s the attitude I take into my company as well. It’s on me to make it happen, so I will.
Thank you for these fantastic insights. We greatly appreciate the time you spent on this.