Mission Research: Making Fundraising Software Affordable for Small Nonprofits
Charlie Crystle came to realize that there was more to life than sitting on the beach, enjoying the fruits of selling his second startup company. Like a true serial entrepreneur, Crystle can’t sit still for too long.
After leaving ChiliSoft, a server software company he started and sold a few years later for $70 million, Crystle took some time off. “I spent a bunch of time in Central America trying to relax, but ended up doing some consulting,” he says. “I quickly realized that the support technology for the nonprofit sector was so poorly designed and expensive, it was ridiculous. I knew there had to be a better way.”
So Crystle leaped back into the fray by launching Mission Research, a Lancaster-based software company with a suite of applications that automate common back-office functions for small nonprofits. The company’s core product, GiftWorks, enables nonprofits to easily track donors, donations, mailings and important interactions with supporters.
Targeting Small Nonprofit Organizations
Most software for the nonprofit sector has been targeted at large organizations. Mission Research’s target audience is the 1.7 million organizations that make up the small nonprofit market-the fastest growing technology sector today.
“We make software anyone can use and everyone can afford with a focus on the nonprofit and small business sector,” Crystle says. The company refers to its technology platform as the “hybrid web” because it combines the power and security of desktop applications with web-based functionality.
“For example,” he says, “through GiftWorks, a development officer can create target lists of donors based on specific criteria, upload the data and push it out to Google Maps and develop an efficient plan of attack.”
The Value of Practical Experience
Having built ChiliSoft from zero revenue and a handful of employees to an organization of 70 people that sold for $70 million, Crystle knows something about preparing for rapid growth. Mission Research, which currently employs 18, has gone from 50 to 3,600 customers in the past year, and revenues have increased fourfold. Currently 25 percent of the company’s business comes from referrals. Crystle expects 10,000 customers by the end of next year.
“You have to have the gall to think you can grow a business so fast,” says Crystle. “But you also need the plan in place to deal with the collateral effects. We have a scalable sales and support system. We can still provide personalized service and decent margin even with our growth rate.”
The Role of Ben Franklin
Crystle says that Ben Franklin Technology Partners (BFTP) has contributed greatly to the company’s current success. In addition to providing Mission Research $300,000 in capital, Crystle says the guidance provided by BFTP’s Transformation Business Support Network has been invaluable.
“They helped us develop a business plan model and have done a good deal of market research for us,” he says. “Their HR support in recruiting and ongoing personnel issues has been great. These are services that over time would have cost us significant time and money if we’d had to go it alone.”
Crystle attributes such rapid growth-currently at +10 percent from one month to the next-to a relentless focus on customers. “We built the company around customer research. We get thousands of suggestions a month and read them all. It definitely guides future development,” he says.
Crazy Is As Crazy Does
Having experienced the ups and downs and dizzying pace of a rapidly growing early-stage company, some might call Crystle crazy for jumping right back in. “Crazy is a relative term,” he says. “I think it’s crazy to not follow something you believe in and crazy not to have strong beliefs. It may be more comfortable, but not terribly interesting.”
And jump back in he did. “It takes a certain tenacity and lack of respect for fear. We still have fear. I’m totally leveraged. I’ve invested everything in this company. I had to believe it was not going to be just successful but dominant,” he says.
Keynotes December, 2006
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