Unsurprisingly, Virtuous founder Gabe Cooper’s life is guided by some noble ideals: a desire to give back, make the world a better place, and support others with a generous heart. It’s that spirit that inspired him to start Virtuous, a responsive fundraising platform designed specifically for the nonprofit sector.
What keeps Gabe going is a strong network of “durable relationships”. He has cultivated these relationships among his team who is passionate about supporting nonprofits and growing global generosity, Virtuous partners who are taking on some of the world’s biggest problems like homelessness and childhood hunger, and other local startup founders who generously give their support to help one another overcome scaling challenges.
In this episode of Collective Conversations, Gabe discusses the durable relationships he has built within the StartupAZ Collective, how that community makes the entrepreneurial journey not so lonely, and what’s on the horizon for Virtuous as the company realizes tremendous growth.
What is Virtuous?
Virtuous is a responsive fundraising platform. We help nonprofits raise more money and create better relationships with their donors. You can kind of think about us as HubSpot for nonprofits.
What prompted you to create Virtuous?
I’d been working in and around the nonprofit space for a really long time and saw a couple of things. One is that I have a personal passion for generosity. I think giving our time, talent and money to great causes creates amazing good in the world, but I also think it creates amazing change in the heart of the giver. It makes us generally less selfish and more others focused.
I also saw that a lot of nonprofits are handcuffed to legacy technology that keeps them from building a personal connection with donors. Giving is one of the most personal things we’ll ever do, yet nonprofits have a really hard time creating personal connections. Founding Virtuous was really a way to lean into my passion for generosity and help nonprofits solve some of those challenges.
How long did you spend building it prior to launching it?
We had a little bit of an advantage over some tech companies in that we had a successful software consulting business, which allowed us to self fund the build out the platform. I and a few other folks from our team locked ourselves in a room for about a year and built out a platform that was more viable than it was minimum from the beginning. We spent about a year just building it out and then launched to a group of beta nonprofits.
How has the growth been?
Thankfully, we’ve had a bunch of amazing nonprofits who are big fans of what we’re doing. They were incredibly forgiving. I think this is such great advice for entrepreneurs. If you can find customers that are fans of yours that you’re really transparent with, and you bring them along, as almost co-developers or founding partners with your organization, it makes life way easier.
We had a handful of probably 10 organizations, but they were all our biggest cheerleaders. They were giving us feedback on the product on a daily basis and it allowed us to ramp up much faster.
What’s been one of the biggest challenges you’ve had to overcome in growing Virtuous?
You talk to any tech entrepreneur, and those challenges change every week. For us, it’s been making sure that we’re very clear about what types of organizations we serve — the size of organizations that are an ideal fit for our product.
The last thing we wanted to do was to sell Virtuous to people that couldn’t use it or didn’t want it. It took us a couple of years to figure out, “Oh, this is exactly the kind of nonprofit who gets a lot of value from our product.” There are bumps and bruises along the way in learning those lessons.
We also learned with our customers, in particular, they don’t want to cobble together two or three different systems to do what they need to do. I think we assumed, in the early days, nonprofits would want to pick best-in-breed platforms from several different categories, but they really don’t. They would prefer to have everything in one place. And so that’s something that we had to learn and adjust a year or two into our journey — to restructure some of the platform to meet more needs.
What have been some of the biggest contributing factors to Virtuous’s growth?
Two things. One is providing nonprofits with really leading-edge technology with measurable ROI. Instead of focusing on, “Hey, we’re going to give you a database to store your donors,” we’re more focused on how we help you move the needle on giving, and what kind of features do we develop that we can show you how we get better donor retention or higher-than-average gifts, or the core metrics nonprofits should be looking at. In short, being very focused on driving generosity.
The other thing is hiring an amazing team who’s really empathetic to nonprofits. A lot of our team used to work in nonprofit. Some of our team used to work with Virtuous customers, and they are super passionate. They love getting on the phone with our customers. They love hearing about their needs, and they love serving them. I think that approach of an empathetic, servant’s heart that’s focused on nonprofits has been amazing in helping us build trust and scale. And it makes our customers not shut up about us. Nonprofit circles are small. If you can do a good job serving one nonprofit, they’re really likely to tell others as well.
What prompted you to become a part of the StartupAZ Collective?
I love community and I don’t have a co-founder at Virtuous. For me in particular, it’s critical that I’m around other entrepreneurs that are at my stage that are facing the same problems so I can bounce ideas off of them and they can bounce ideas off of me. I think we’re better together that way.
Also, having access to people that are maybe a stage or two ahead of us that can point out, “Hey, here’s the challenge you have up ahead of you, and here’s how to avoid it.” That’s been super powerful.
It’s really good for the Phoenix ecosystem, too. If you look at a Salt Lake City, or an Austin or a San Francisco, you see a lot of collaboration between entrepreneurs — that really deep ecosystem where great talent is developed, and then that talent jumps off to start their own companies, or people have exits and then move on to do the next big thing. And that all comes through community and collaboration. This group is great at that.
What has been one of the best things that has come from being a part of the Collective?
I really enjoy how transparent that the community is. It’s more than just a networking group, or a place that you show up to consume content. We get in the room with everybody and we share what’s going on. Here’s the rough part of my business that I’m going through right now. Here are struggles that I’m having with my team. Here’s how I’m thinking about fundraising.
It’s freakishly transparent, in a really good, healthy way, which has been really enjoyable.
What’s next for Virtuous?
We are working really hard to scale. We are committed to making a big dent in the universe. For me, this is a lifelong passion. This is not a way to make a quick buck, and then go off and buy a house on an island somewhere. I want to build a big business and really make a dent in generosity.
As a team, we have a goal in the next 18 months to provably create a billion dollars in net, new generosity in the world. After that, it will be five billion and 10 billion of net, new generosity in the world.
We have big dreams, big things ahead of us, but for us, it’s going to mean attracting and retaining some amazingly talented people. A lot of my focus right now is how I’m building out my team with great folks that love nonprofits to be able to continue to double every year.
What advice would you give to other startup founders in Arizona?
It’s really about surrounding yourself with a great community. Some friends of mine use the phrase durable relationships, and I really like that word. It’s not just that you’re connected, but that the relationship is durable, meaning through thick and thin, good and bad, you can pick up the phone and be vulnerable.
Being an entrepreneur can be lonely. There’s a weight that comes with entrepreneurship that can be really hard some days. And that community of folks around you that have your back is critical.
Phoenix, historically, has been a little bit of a lonely entrepreneur ecosystem, but I think that’s changing. Entrepreneurs really need to make an effort to reach out and surround themselves with other great people that care about them and that are going through similar things.