January 15, 2014

CentUp Founders Believe that Content and Charities Make a Perfect Union

I first heard of CentUp while attending Cusp Conference 2013. The founders’ passion for marrying “content and causes” piqued my fascination. Here, the makers of CentUp share their thoughts on their creation, the intense rigor of realizing an idea, the relationship between design and business, and more.

On being product designers
and product-based company founders

What is CentUp?
CentUp is a social button that helps online publishers get paid for their content AND users be a force for social good. When people come across a blog post, podcast, or anything else they like online, instead of just hitting “like” or leaving a comment, they can show a bit more appreciation with some cents or dollars. Half of their donation is shared with a charity of the user’s choice.

What sparked the idea for CentUp?
We were irritated by “Slacktivism”, the idea that content is shared, but never really acted upon. People hit the “Like” button 5 BILLION times a day. Other than spreading content around, that doesn’t do much good for the world. CentUp solves two problems: it helps publishers get paid and facilitates donations to charities.

Len Kendall, Co-Founder, CentUp: business development and communications

Tyler Travitz, Co-Founder, CentUp: user experience, design, publisher relations

John Geletka, Co-Founder, CentUp: user experience, engineer, product

Two heads—and hearts—are better than one. How did each of you connect with another? And what made—and still makes—your working together work?
Two of us (Tyler and Len) worked together at the same marketing firm, and our technical lead (John) was someone we knew for a few years as well. We’re great friends and colleagues who complement each other well in terms of skill sets and dispositions. We’re also around the same age, so it helps as we all go through the same “life stages” together: marriage, babies, annuities, you know, exciting things.

What was the first thing you did
when you embarked on getting CentUp real?
I think two key days were when we signed the documents for the formation of our LLC and the day we launched the site. The first day we were able to load up a credit card and start making donations made it feel very real. Anyone can build a website or even a simple social app. Creating something that moves money was what made this feel like a business.

When did CentUp officially launch and became available? What were essential activities/steps taken to start and establish CentUp? And why were these activities/steps important? 
CentUp went live to the public in the summer of 2013 after building the app for about six months prior. While we were developing the app, we ran a crowdfunding campaign and raised $18,000 from people who basically were pledging to be customers. All we had at that time was an idea and a demo video. The crowdfunding campaign was a very important test that helped us validate the idea and understand why people wanted CentUp to exist. Our biggest priority today is getting as many online publishers as possible to add CentUp to their list of social buttons.

Who and/or what keep(s) you going in sustaining CentUp?
We are very focused on making the internet a better place. There is often a lot of negativity online. We see CentUp as a force for good, helping publishers find new audiences and earn money directly, and helping charities find new donors. Fiscally, CentUp takes a 10% fee of all transactions. This acts as a sole revenue source right now, but we plan on expanding our revenue streams as we begin collecting useful macro data about publishing and payments. Additionally, we’re looking forward to working with brands who want to amplify our community’s donations. For example, “COMPANY X” agrees to double everyone’s donations for the month of January as a way to promote their support of both the arts and social causes.

Who and/or what are your design
and/or business-related influences?
From a business perspective, we really respect for-profit companies who make social good a core tenet of their business, companies like TOMs Shoes, Warby Parker, Give Forward, and Indiegogo. From a design perspective, we skew toward minimalism and simplicity. Vignelli, Paul Rand, and George Lois are key influencers. We also pay attention to contemporaries like Shaun Inman, Cameron Moll, Jeffrey Zeldman, Eric Meyer, and Andy Budd.

How would describe the work culture at CentUp?
And why is it important?
We’re still a small team. So our culture is very much a reflection of who we are personally. We make our major decisions in a very democratic, majority-rules way. The company has three “departments” (creative, tech, business), so we tend to defer to each other when major decisions are tied to our own expertise. For example, John, our CTO, would get a stronger say in deciding on us changing how we accept payments, Tyler might lead the discussion of the visual design of the site, and Len would have a lot of say when it comes to how the company responds to a media inquiry.

What is your workspace like? How does it contribute
to doing the quality of work you want to do? 
We are quite fluid in terms of where we work. We have a dedicated space (above), part of ICNC (Industrial Council), in Chicago located inside a large non-profit incubator that used to be an old textile factory. It’s a very industrial part of town and in many ways symbolizes where we are today as a company. Things are scrapped together and dirty, but they work and they’re getting bigger and better. On occasion, we work out of one of the many coworking spots in Chicago, most-often Grind.

What is the size of your team? Do you have remote team members? And what size of company do you prefer?
The three co-founders are CentUp’s primary employees and we frequently use contractors to help us from a development perspective. We all come from agencies that had about 100 or so people. We’ve noticed that when companies are too big, they’re no longer fun to run, because all you’re doing is running them. Much like larger tech companies out there, if we get big, we’ll probably voluntary oust ourselves so someone with a Booth School MBA can run this place. For now, we’re enjoying the metaphorical corner offices.

What is your definition of growth, as it relates to business? 
Growth comes in two major formats for us. First, number of donations per day. As mentioned earlier, people are hitting the “Like” button billions of times a day. If we can get to a place where we’re seeing millions of donations per year, we’ll be quite happy. Secondly, getting new publishers to install the CentUp button is a huge growth indicator for us. The more sites that adopt the button, the more likely it is that CentUp will become part of everyone’s daily web experience.

How do you get the word out about CentUp?
How do you attract customers?
We lean on our publishers quite a bit to engage with their own readers about CentUp. If people don’t ask for donations, they won’t get anyone to donate. So we actively encourage our publishers to highlight and reward their top supporters. We also do one-off projects, like Headlines Against Humanity, that relate to our mission and subtly share our mission and attract people to our site for the first time.

When and how did you arrive at the company’s name?
Since we all came from the world of marketing, we’re predisposed to terrible puns. CentUp has a double meaning in that it pays tribute to small donations (cents), but all sounds like “sent up”, which implies the idea of a piece of content getting pushed up in popularity.

How can people find out about using CentUp?
To learn more about using CentUp, people should visit our website. We also have this great overview video:

Overview by Chas Fries of CentUp

Publishers, interested in using CentUp, should check out our dedicated page.

On creativity, design, working

Design writer Alissa Walker wrote an article called “Women in Industrial Design: Where My Ladies At?” Where are the Ladies in Design/Development/Strategy at?
It’s unfortunate that women are under-represented in the field, though it seems that may be changing. There are a number of great initiatives aimed at improving women’s participation in design, coding and marketing. For us at CentUp, our efforts certainly wouldn’t be possible without the support of the awesome women in our lives, who have each lent their own expertise in UX, social media and public relations to CentUp at one point or another.

How do you handle disagreements while you’re working?
We tend to just debate issues (like adults) until we come to consensus. As we get bigger, disagreements may become more frequent, but given we all spent at least 7 years in a corporate setting, we’ll manage to figure things out. We’ve seen far worse.

Was there a part of your work that was particularly trying,
and how did you deal with it? 
As a bootstrapped company, every day can be trying from a financial standpoint. We left high paying jobs to build a business, and every time we have slow days or don’t see progress, we’re reminded of the paycheck we walked away from. That said, we know we’re working on something important and beneficial to and for a lot of people. Growing something that we’ve created, rather than something someone else has created, is hugely rewarding.

What tools do you use and recommend to work on ideas and make them grow, to collaborate and get things done?
We lean heavily on online collaboration tools. We use Google Drive and Docs, Hangouts or Skype, but honestly most of our ideas start over beer and move to a sketchbook or whiteboard. The whiteboard is such a great tool, because it gives the idea time to marinate.

We use a RelateIQ to help us manage our client relationships, and MailChimp to handle personalized emails to our email lists, which is a great tool for the design-focused. In the past we’ve used wireframing tools like HotGloo, but recently we’ve turned to rapid prototyping (straight to HTML/CSS) to build features as quickly as possible.

How do you stay creative? What are some of your sources of motivation/inspiration? 
Since our business is content-focused, we spend a lot of time sifting through content on the internet. Fortunately, there are so many great thinkers and doers. Each day we find new and inspiring content. Great sites like Dabble, Brain PickingsFast Company, and many more, are certainly sources of inspiration, but we also often turn to offline resources like conferences and local meetups and events. A CentUp favorite is CUSP.

What is your definition of bad design?
Bad design is not considering the end user. It’s a lack of empathy. If you can’t put yourself in the user’s shoes, you cannot be successful at design.

If a person approached you and said, “I have this idea
for a web-based product/service, but I don’t know where to begin. Where do I start?”, what’s your response? 
The standard response is usually, “it’s 10x harder than you think it is.” That’s not to discourage people, it’s to help those seeking advice really think long and hard about how they want to bring their idea to life. Coming up with ideas is easy. It’s the execution that no one gets excited for.

Any other aspects of your company that would be interesting to creative practitioners and aspiring product/business makers?
In design school, being a good designer was about the Gestalt principles, color and typography. It certainly is about those things, but to be a successful (web/digital/product) designer today you really need to understand how to code. HTML, CSS (SASS/LESS), Javascript (JQuery), the Terminal (yikes!), GitHub. These are things designers need to know about, understand and be comfortable with. Tyler, our lead creative, spends a big majority of his time working on the front-end development of our site. He spends very little time in Photoshop, other than perhaps making assets every now and again.

What is a must-experience place
that must be on everyone’s bucket list? 
[Len] Wisdom Trail just outside of Hong Kong. [Tyler] Have Foxy play you a song at his bar on Jost Van Dyke, BVI. [John] A South-African Safari.

How does the city of Chicago contribute to your work? And what makes Chicago special for startups/business/creativity-at-large? 
We have a lot of pride in the fact that we’re a Chicago-based company. We even put together a simple site that celebrates all the great startups and design firms on our radar called Crafted in Chicago. Chicago has always been a city focused on hard work and practicality. Though Silicon Valley is filled with hard work, they often neglect the “practicality” part, with companies that have 100 employees and zero revenue. We knew that from day one we needed to be making money, even if it was just a dollar. Chicago is also arguably the perfect combination of large city and cheap cost of living. We have access to everything, and we spend exponentially less on housing, talent, and transportation. Above all else, the people of Chicago are incredible. Many move to the coasts because they can make more money, or get a more important job, but people move to or back to Chicago because of the kindness of the people.

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All images courtesy of CentUp.

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Typeface of quotes is FF Meta (1991) designed by Erik Spiekermann.

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