Why Making a Difference and Helping Others Make a Difference is the Key to Success: With Raphael Crawford-Marks

By Yitzi Weiner and Casmin Wisner

“One of the core elements of feeling really good about your job is feeling a sense of purpose and pride in what you do.”
I had the pleasure of interviewing Raphael Crawford-Marks, co-founder and CEO of Bonusly in Boulder, CO. He and his co-founder John Quinn created Bonusly to improve employee productivity, retention, and engagement using a social recognition platform that teams love to use. Organizations of all sizes use Bonusly to reduce employee turnover and increase productivity by fostering recognition-rich cultures that celebrate success every day, while giving leaders insights into their team’s strengths and accomplishments.

What is your backstory?

My path has not been a straight one. In the nineties, I dropped out of high school to work at dot-coms. I then went to Hampshire College, where students design their own academic programs. There I studied artificial intelligence before volunteering in the Peace Corps in Honduras. When I returned to the States, I taught software skills to disconnected young adults in San Francisco and New York before returning to my lifelong passion of building software for people.

One night over beers in Brooklyn, my co-founder John Quinn and I were venting about the lack of recognition at work, and companies that only asked managers to dole out recognition and spot bonuses. We knew that our peers had the best perspective for identifying and celebrating contributions, but there was no way to for them to do so easily. That was the night we decided to build Bonusly, first as a side project and eventually as the full-time endeavor it is today.

Having held various roles in tech, I’ve observed a lot about what motivates modern employees and how management tends to get involved. As Bonusly grows — we’ve raised over $2M in equity funding and we’ve grown to 18 employees — I’m implementing what I’ve learned about leadership, recognition, and employee engagement as a CEO while building a product that helps over 1,000 companies worldwide achieve the same goals.

Can you share the funniest or most interesting story that occurred to you in the course of your career?

My first software job was as a tester at a video game company. This company made a very successful line of virtual pet software. The new version under development added a feature where the pets would run away if they were being abused . The idea behind this was that kids who play the game might be learning about how to take care of pets, and should receive negative consequences for abuse.

Every feature had to be tested to make sure it worked properly. So, for a week or two, a large chunk of my job was to abuse virtual pets.

Are you working on any meaningful non-profit projects? How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?

Since Bonusly was founded in 2012, we have worked with dozens of national and international non-profits like the ACLU, Habitat for Humanity, and the Special Olympics as a way of enabling employees to use their bonuses to give back to causes they care about. In the wake of hurricanes Harvey, Irma, and Maria, and the earthquakes in Mexico City, we received an outpouring of requests, both from internal team members and Bonusly users, for the ability to donate their bonuses to organizations that support hurricane and earthquake relief efforts. We responded by adding the Red Cross and UNICEF Mexico to the Bonusly reward catalog, where donations quickly surpassed $62,500 for the Red Cross and $6K for UNICEF Mexico.

One of the core elements of feeling really good about your job is feeling a sense of purpose and pride in what you do. We felt this was an opportunity for us to live our company values and increase the impact of Bonusly, while also offering that opportunity to do good to our customers.

Can you tell me a personal story about a customer or brand who was impacted by your cause?

Once we opened up our platform to allow users to donate toward hurricane relief, the response was incredible. In the first few hours, our users donated around $10,000 per hour. Below are just a few of the responses we saw on social media:

Here’s another example of how our customers are utilizing Bonusly from Zander Lurie, CEO of SurveyMonkey:

“We have a reward system called Bonusly where people can award Bonusly points to someone for living one of our values. We have five corporate values. If you do something that embodies ‘trust the team’ then staff can send you a Bonusly reward and everybody internally can see it. You can even send me one for ‘powering the curious’ or to Irena for ‘you are accountable’. She is six months pregnant and she’s living the value of ‘you are accountable’. Our team sees the value system being honored.”

What are your “5 things I wish someone told me when I first started,” and why?

  1. Don’t cut corners on hiring. Early on we realized that we weren’t giving enough attention to our recruiting efforts. We had hired several exceptional employees but we had made some significant errors too. Our goal is now to make the best decision possible by removing our biases toward decisions. We always have multiple people on our team interviewing candidates and having them ask tough questions, making the hiring process a shared effort that consistently yields stronger results.
  2. Relationships are the most valuable thing. Relationships need to be nurtured. When you’re young, it’s easy to feel like valuable relationships just fall in your lap, whether they’re friendships or mentor relationships. As I’ve gotten older, I’m realizing that really strong, meaningful relationships are hard to come by. Taking the time to nurture those is very important.
  3. Get a few mentors. I value the advice I’ve received from seasoned founders. A lot of the time, my knee-jerk reaction to advice will be an emotional one. But it’s important to be receptive to and think critically about the advice my mentors are offering. I try to listen to people who have been where I am and are ahead of me in the process.
  4. Support employees in taking risks. Empower your employees to take risks within reason. Risk is part and parcel of innovation. Accept that as a fact and consider the possibility that risk could be the very thing your organization needed all along. Bonusly exists because my co-founder and I both took a huge risk, leaving our full-time jobs to pursue something we believed in. We endeavor to encourage our employees to do the same.
  5. Plan for the long-term. When we launched Bonusly, we were offering it as a free service. It quickly gained traction as the top-of-mind, peer-to-peer recognition system, and then we had to figure out how to monetize something that we’d been giving away for free. Lesson learned: plan for the long-term to meet future needs.
Office warming party at Bonusly.

Is there a person in the world whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why?

I’ve been a huge fan of the band The Octopus Project for close to two decades. I’d love to get pancakes with them and learn about their collaborative and creative process.

Raphael is co-founder and CEO of Bonusly, which helps organizations across the globe lower turnover, boost morale, and inspire engagement by building a recognition-rich culture. G2 Crowd recognized Bonusly as 2017’s top performing employee engagement solution.


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If you would like to see the entire “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me” Series in Huffpost, ThriveGlobal, and Buzzfeed, click HERE.

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