Max Friedman is the CEO and Co-Founder of Givebutter, a modern fundraising platform powering online donations, campaigns, and events for more than 10,000 good causes. Max also sits on the board of Humans for Education, a nonprofit helping schools worldwide become financially independent, and is an occasional contributor to Fast Company’s Leadership section.
- One person can make in your life and the roles they can play as a mentor, a friend, an investor, a coach.
- Double-opt-in intro. If you’re going to introduce people, you should always reach out first and ask if they are ok with it, and can then opt them in.
- Through data and an algorithm around your network, you can kind of predict what’s going to happen geographically, economically, if you keep on keeping on within a specific network, which is fascinating.
BRYAN WISH: Share your One Away moment with us.
MAX FRIEDMAN: There’s a gentleman out there named Allen Gannet, who totally changed my life; has changed my life in many ways. I can call him a lot of things. I can call him a mentor, a friend, an advisor; later, an investor. Most of all, I feel the word mentor jumps out to me. He’s just really changed my life and helped me become the entrepreneur that I am today. Without him, I don’t even know if I would be an entrepreneur, or I wouldn’t identify that way and do the things that I’m doing today. I’m super lucky that I got to meet him.
I think it’s been 5-7 years. It was my freshman year in college and now I’m three years out. A lot of what I’m doing today is an entrepreneur with a company that got 10ish people full-time, eight people plus, is because of the work, friendship, and bond that Allen and I had over the many years since
BRYAN WISH: Take us back to when you met Allen.
MAX FRIEDMAN: We met my freshman year. At the time, I had no idea what I wanted to do. I had a general direction; some interests in politics. I was a freshman at George Washington University in the business school on track to do a double major in finance and eventually added computer science but at the time, I didn’t know what my second major would be. I did an internship in politics. Somewhere in the second semester, I was thinking about startups.
I got really interested in reading about entrepreneurs and some of their backgrounds and histories. In my next phase, I felt I wanted to work at a startup. As I was doing that, I got a little bit more into Twitter, following people. Basically, the impetus was I was reading and following some GW entrepreneurs. Allen went to GW. It all started with a tweet and just reaching out. One thing led to the next and Allen and I became friends. Instead of interning at a startup, it became, “How about you start a startup?”
We were friends first before anything else. We would hang out occasionally every month or few months. We’d grab a coffee, grab lunch, grab dinner. I was not necessarily sure what direction I wanted to take but having a role model who was someone who I aspired to be, in many ways, and someone who had successfully exited from a startup. He was just getting into investing in startups. Halfway through, the company TrackMaven that he helped start, raised a significant amount of venture capital funding. I looked at that and I was like, “That’s really cool. That’s somewhere I want to be.” Having a role model there was super influential for me to craft my journey.
BRYAN WISH: At that time of your life, did you not have the resources or support system around you? Was it hard or scary to reach out?
MAX FRIEDMAN: I grew up in a small town in New Hampshire called Hollis. I went to public school. My dad’s a doctor. My mom did a lot of volunteering. She used to work in marketing. Very traditional, Jewish upbringing. My dad started his own practice in medicine. He had that and we’d always talk about different business ideas. I had some of that growing up. That kind of came to light for me later in video games with selling electronics. I didn’t have any tech entrepreneurs. It was very new. I think there was a realization that I didn’t have that and needed it. The people I was reading about, Mark Zuckerberg, Steve Jobs; were classic lists you might put together for notable startup founders.
They were out of reach. There’s a book about this called The Third Door that I really like because I could relate to that where he did the same sort of thing and tried to interview Mark Zuckerberg and ends up meeting him and Warren Buffet and Bill Gates, who was one of the biggest ones he interviewed. He actually made it happen, as a student. I didn’t quite get there but I had a realization that I think I need someone like that in my life. That’s when I got a little bit more proactive and I reached out on Twitter.
BRYAN WISH: It’s hard to acknowledge the things you need when you don’t know where you’re trying to go. It sounds like you always had that curiosity and interest. You were reading about the things in the world that interested you and it was how do you make the connections with the people who could help you get there a little bit faster? It sounds like that process led you to Allen and that relationship because you did reach out and it made all the difference. What happened after that meeting? How did the relationship start to develop?
MAX FRIEDMAN: I feel like it’s almost unique to Allen. I almost feel he has superpowers. To this day, I don’t know anyone in my life that can deliver such quick and correct feedback. Allen will see something and just be like, “Here are my thoughts” and he’s almost always right. I’ll say, “Here’s an idea I have,” and he’ll be like, “Here’s what it thinks,” and he won’t hold back. It’s not that there’s no filter. He definitely can craft the message. It’s not a blunt personality but he will say if it’s good or if it’s bad and why, what he recommends, and then gives five people he can introduce you to to help you with whatever you’re doing.
By building that relationship over time, one of the things that happened did not only do I meet people in his orbit that changed my life as well, just by going to a coworking space or an event that was a public event he was at and then later going to a dinner that was a group of friends that he was inviting me to, which was casual, not like an introduction, but then there was the other part of it which was just introduced. “You’re interested in an event startup. Here are three friends that are working on something similar or who tried it and failed.”
The introductions were so important to me to have a pillar to then branch off from versus before where it was just everyone just like an average cold tweet or whatever. Now I had someone who’s making these warm introductions for me and he would also help me soup to nuts be like, “Here’s how you bcc in an email. Here’s how you should respond.” It was really basic stuff at the time. It was coaching me on professionalism, the introductions, and the feedback on ideas. The quick iterations of that were helpful.
BRYAN WISH: I can relate to you in a lot of ways. I worked under him for a year plus. That was the most challenging year of my life. I was wearing seven different hats for him. He was coaching me pretty much every day. He was doing all the professional development with me; my email etiquette, the quick feedback when my thoughts were too complex, the systems thinking behind how he put things together, the tracking, all of it. It was this big engineering puzzle of his mind and yet it all fit within his constraints.
How I operate today within this business is like 80% of what Allen infused into and me taking 20% of it and saying, “This is how we’ll do it differently.” There’s so much I owe to him. I got paid to work for him and yet I learned 10-fold and I was also able to meet relationships that have got this business off the ground. Those relationships have built other relationships. I can relate on so many fronts.
When you met him, were you always looking to eventually start a company? Do you feel he gave you some of the foundational tools for how to build these processes and steps on your own so you could one day start a company?
MAX FRIEDMAN: My first company I started was called Happening. It was an event app. That was the first foray of my own startup. I designed, developed, launched, marketed, sold, PR’d the whole thing. Allen was a huge part of that process from start to finish. He was the one who sort of encouraged me to even start it in the first place. There’s no question in my mind that I would not have had, even from a skills standpoint, never mind relationships, never mind the mentorship, never mind the friendship and the support system needed to start Givebutter, would never have been possible without those 2 ½-3 years on Happening and that would never have been possible without Allen encouraging me and being there for me and doing all those things alongside me the whole way.
If I were to explain all the different things that Allen was to do, it would sound like he was an employee at the company but it wasn’t like that. We would sit down for a 30-minute coffee meeting maybe once a month and it was so much value. Over time, maybe we’d hang out as friends and it’d become a little bit of both. It’d be, “Here’s what I’m working on. Here’s what I’m thinking about.” Maybe that’s five minutes of an hour, two-hour hangout. Those five minutes were critical for me to develop my own thinking around different things. Without having the relationships that were developed, as a direct result of being friends with Allen and then getting introductions, Givebutter would have never been possible.
I also learned that I never wanted to be a freelancer. I was very grateful for that. It helped me learn new skills, meet someone new, which then helped me kick off the next thing. That’s just one of many people who I got to meet through Allen. That helped craft a lot of things I think about today because Nathan’s got such an interesting way of doing business and thinking about the world. He’s just such an amazing marketer.
BRYAN WISH: I met Nathan through Allen. Nathan is like Allen in a lot of ways, yet so different and hyper-aggressive in the best way possible depending on what side of the coin you’re on. I learned so much underneath him. We launched his book together. It hit the Wallstreet Journal list. His thought, detail, and rigor behind that detail were unprecedented. He was shrewd in how he got to the punch in the best way. I relate with you on the network that Allen was able to foster for you.
A lot of the systems that I learned from Nathan are things that I’ve baked into our entire launch process. You can learn something from everyone. How to manage your calendar is a huge part of it. Allen manages his calendar better than anybody I’ve ever met. It was unbelievable. It’s like a network of people and each person has their own skills within that that you kind of take in. The reason you’re able to do that is because of the warm introductions that Allen was able to make for you. Is that correct?
MAX FRIEDMAN: I couldn’t agree more. He’s like a magnet for good, interesting people. I remember when I first learned the concept of the double-opt-in intro. It’s like if you’re going to introduce people, you should always reach out first and say, “Hey, are you cool with this intro? Here’s the person I’m thinking about introducing you to,” and then opt that back in. That’s something he would always do and then I would start to do that for other people and try to provide that value back. One thing I feel I learned from Allen as well is that he, in the best way possible, is very particular about the people that he spends time with and surrounds himself with.
He’s always looking forward and not backward. If I had an algorithm for my friend algorithm it’s just in my brain and people like you I admire and love spending time with, and all that is something I intuitively know. If I were to think about it and put these things in a score, it’s like shared history because we went to high school together or grew up in the same town or went to college together is way less important than moving forward. Some of the soft qualities that you would want to surround yourself with a friend or of a peer or mentor or colleague. Those are the more important things. Also, I think shared history is awesome and important but I just love this sort of forward-looking mindset when you think about the people that you surround yourself with. It’s something I’ve adapted my life around.
BRYAN WISH: Understandable; I can relate with you because it’s such an intimate shared experience. I just read an article that talked about network effects and how you kind of build the fire in your life and how that builds off of it. Because of Allen, you met all these other people. Through data and an algorithm around your network, you can kind of predict what’s going to happen geographically, economically, if you keep on keeping on within a specific network, which is fascinating.
MAX FRIEDMAN: I think it is really important to think actively about this stuff. I think if being silent or not thinking about it is a choice. If those are things that are important to you, you need to work at them. If you want to be more inclusive in your network, if you want to uplift and support diversity and inclusion, you need to be proactive about it. Not doing it is a choice. I know a lot of people with their friends, mentors, and colleagues, they think they’re not proactive and they’re reactive. It’s a mindset shift. I’m going to actually work at this and prioritize the people I want to surround myself with within my life.
A lot of people just take it as it comes. One thing I try to knock down, like a big barrier, is proximity. There’s a lot of study of proximity that is the number one indicator of friendship and relationships. Everything in your life is a factor of how close you are to people and to things. It influences so much of your life. Now more than ever, with Coronavirus, proximity is less relevant than ever. It’s even more important that you’re proactive because if you sit there, it’s like there’s just nothing. You won’t even see people. You’ll just be there even if you just live your life.
BRYAN WISH: There’s this link, in my opinion, between reflection, progression, and who you put in your corner. I always thought, when I worked with Allen, I felt he was very quick at analyzing things and giving feedback. If you think about that for his own life, I think he’s also very good at reflecting on what happened and using those as data points to decide for it. He’s a very data-driven person. Who he spends time with, the decisions he makes, they’re based on historical data from his own perspectives. Living like that might sound rigid and regimented and over the top, but honestly, I think it’s a very intentional way to move through the world. The more intentionality you can apply, the more you can get through the world on your own terms.
MAX FRIEDMAN: I totally agree. It’s a double whammy. It’s like here’s a story of how I have done something similar or I know someone that’s been in a similar position and then here’s data or research or something I’ve read that back that up. The thing I love about him too is he doesn’t usually hedge. He’s not like, “But it might be wrong or I’m not really sure.” If he’s not sure, he’ll say so. I haven’t met many people who are just like, “No, this is what I think you should do. This is how I feel about it.” It’s very confident. It instills confidence in whoever is speaking with him about anything. It makes you feel really good about whatever decision you’re contemplating. He has the cure for indecisiveness.
BRYAN WISH: You’ve built a really impressive company. You played the long game. You’ve been at it 4+ years.
MAX FRIEDMAN: Yeah, it’s been over four years at this point.
BRYAN WISH: You’ve been in it day in and day out from a company of just you, Ari, and Liran to 8-10 full-time people now. I’d love to hear about the company and bring Allen back in the midst.
MAX FRIEDMAN: We started the company, college dorm room. I was a junior. Two co-founders were sophomores, Liran and Ari. We all lived together. I was technical. Liran is technical from his 10+ years of web development experience. It happened and that was my background. We were able to build the first version of Givebutter ourselves, in-house, and didn’t raise any capital. At the start, it was very focused on crowdfunding for students. It was students and student orgs who wanted a transparent, affordable, but also modern feeling fundraising platform specifically geared towards groups which were our bread and butter. The platform is like GoFundMe geared towards the individual. We kind of sat in this really nice niche.
Over time, it was really interesting. We were still in school for the first 1-2 years of the company. We’re growing. We’re seeing validation immediately but weren’t rocket ship. It always felt like we were going to do that thing, launch in a Master’s program, get this article or whatever, and we were just going to pop off and it never really happened. We were growing and seeing regular steady growth, validation, people using it, people loving it. We did very little real sales or marketing. It was mostly product and customer-focused. That was great and basically, by year three, we were making enough to pay off our credit card bills, pay ourselves a small salary. What was interesting about our business is we were doing way more volume, having way more users, way more donors using the platform versus the revenue we were making.
We were super busy. People would often talk to us and be like, “Wait. You’re just a two or three-person team? How is that possible? You’ve got this whole product, this whole platform, all these users.” It didn’t add up. We were breaking even and hadn’t raised any money but we couldn’t really hire anyone either. We were sort of in this limbo stage of being incredibly busy but didn’t have enough cash to make those hires that we wanted to make. Actually we raised, in 2019, a very small angel round.
That’s something I could go way more in-depth on my process there and how that went, but the short version is we raised a very small amount of money just to make some key hires. We brought on a customer success manager and another engineer. Then we were humming along, burning a little bit more cash which was unfamiliar to us. Then we were slowly catching up to ourselves. We were basically at break-even and in the last four months, we’ve just exploded. There’s been an enormous amount of growth. We launched some key partnerships. We launched some new features and functionality that opened us up to a new set of customers.
Then Coronavirus has created this gap for nonprofits and we’re serving a much more diverse set of customers now with a lot more different tools and functionalities. It’s been a really interesting time of growth. We’re expanding the team. If you’re listening, we’re hiring. Looking for a sales account executive. We’ll likely open up a position for customer success soon. We’re all remote across the country; Los Angeles to Pittsburgh, Virginia, Boston. Lots of exciting but different and interesting challenges there. It’s been quite a journey.
To tie it back to Allen, he was influential in my decision-making process to even raise. There were so many different aspects that he helped with over the years. The time that he stepped up more than almost any that I could even think of was me thinking through the whole fundraising process to the extent that he even said, “I’ll personally invest.” It almost makes me cry thinking about it and talking about it. It was like the ultimate sign of support especially as someone who feels so passionately about this personally and shares that experience with Allen.
It was really meaningful for him to not just do that but be an incredible resource for me throughout the process, making introductions, reading my fundraising deck. I could not have done that without him. Then also being a support system when I talked to 10-20 investors who are like, “No, no, no, no, no.” I’m like, “Screw this. I don’t want to do this anymore.” We have a revenue-generating business. I’m kind of tired of all this rejection and you’re not good enough. I’m happy, I’m fine, and I’m paying myself a salary. We’re good. I don’t need this. I’m very proud of that, but then to get all this rejection was really hard. Allen was like a rock for me there to help me think about it and keep a level head.
BRYAN WISH: I’ve always been fearful of mixing business with friends and family. Allen was a business relationship but beyond business, he’s a friend to you. In the process of this, were you scared of mixing the two?
MAX FRIEDMAN: It was the single scariest thing about all of this to the extent that I didn’t even talk to anyone who I might consider a friend or family during my first wave of this because I wanted, so badly, to just be able to raise this money on the merit… I was like anyone who is outside of who I considered a friend is who I’d consider raising money from. It was partly because I didn’t want to mix the two and didn’t want to let anyone down. For me, it was so important to my mentality to say, “I earned this on just the business.”
It had nothing to do with being a friend or knowing me. Allen was one of the people who sort of said, “Swallow your ego or swallow your pride. People can make their own decisions and if they want to support you, let them.” As long as people sort of understanding the risks of investing in a startup and can go into it making that decision, I’m almost removing them from their ability to make their own choices for themselves.
The other way it’s kind of counterintuitive is these are the people, many of them know me and have seen the journey longer than anyone else has. They’ve seen what I’ve gone through, what I’ve put in, what’s come out. They actually might be some of the most informed people to make an early-stage startup decision versus an investor coming in cold and… You’d think they’re looking at it objectively but they might not know me and all the nuances there. Just thinking through a lot of those different things was helpful and Allen was super helpful with that. I was at the end of it and wanted nothing to do with family and friends. Really, I just wanted to raise a non-family and friend angel round which didn’t make sense.
BRYAN WISH: It’s amazing the difference that one person can make in your life and the roles they can play as a mentor, a friend, an investor, a coach. You went into the steps that were uncomfortable every step of the way, so you have to give yourself some credit because you reached out initially. You asked for help, and you asked to learn. He made an investment decision after 4 or 5 years of data on you watching you move through the world. Clearly an indicator for how you step into new territory. I’m super excited for you and the future of everything you’re doing. You’re an incredible friend and person first and business leader, second. How are you going to leave the world? What are people going to say at the funeral?
MAX FRIEDMAN: How am I going to leave the world? Well, I hope I entered it. I think the biggest motivator in my life is I love the idea of incrementally improving as many people’s lives as I can. My vehicle for that is technology. I just love the ability to like, from the moment I made my first calculator app with code. That idea takes up so much of my headspace because I think it’s so fascinating.
My hope is I can use that vehicle to make as many people’s lives a little bit better as I can. It makes me feel happy and gives me meaning and purpose in life. I’ll also say to you, Bryan, you’re an incredible person first, friend, as well, and business, second. I’ve loved getting to know you better over the years and I’m glad that we have this shared connection. If Allen is listening, I appreciate how much he’s done if it’s not already been incredibly apparent.