• Catherine Armstrong

Lisa Graham - Cofounder of Notley Ventures, A Social Impact Investment Firm



Catherine: Hey everybody, my name is Catherine Armstrong, and today (7/11/19), I am in Austin, Texas, the first stop on my trip as tekMountain's 2019 Global Ambassador. I am with Lisa Graham. I am so excited because she is one of the founders of Notley Ventures, and they are a big social impact investment firm that is really revolutionizing the city. They are not just creating a center for social innovation - which is something they have already done and we're actually sitting in it right now – But, they also are trying to create an ecosystem for social impact in Austin. And, it's just incredible. Lisa, thank you so much for being on the podcast today. So, for my listeners, [00:45] can you please tell us a little bit about how you guys started with Notley, and how it came about?


Lisa: Yeah. So, Notley started in 2015, I founded it with my husband, and this was really something we had been talking about for years. We were really fortunate with the exit of a company, and the thought was what do we do with the rest of our lives and how do we do that to make an impact? And so, we wanted to be able to be philanthropic, but we didn't want to just make a drop in the bucket. We really wanted to make some systemic changes. And so, the way that we decided to do that was through entrepreneurship. So, rather than focusing on a specific issue, we realized that we're just really passionate about change-makers. We're passionate about new ideas, and we're passionate about supporting people who have those ideas and helping them to be as successful as possible. So, then the idea was how do we create an organization that can do that? And, that's how Notley came about. So, it started, I mean we started out structured a little differently, but now we've got with about four to five people, but since then, we've grown to 30, and we have a full staff that focuses on marketing, accounting, events. We're very event heavy, so we do a lot of events all around the country. So, yeah, that's what Notley is and how it came about. We're constantly exploring new ideas, but we have a staff that's excited about those ideas as well.


Catherine: That's amazing. You talked about some of these events that you do. [02:08] Can you tell us a little bit more about them and what you guys are doing?


Lisa: Yeah, so, the first event that we ever did was called Philanthropitch. It actually started within the company BuildASign here in Austin, which my husband ran for years. When we realized that it had this ability to really grow and expand and scale, Notley took it on as one of its core projects, we've been working on it now for about eight years. It is a fast pitch competition for nonprofits called Philanthropitch. We do is open up an application process in the city and narrow it down to about seven to eight of those applicants. We prepare them to do a pitch. So, they do a three-minute pitch, then three minutes of Q and A from a panel of judges. They're able to walk away that day with funding from multiple sources. So, they get funding from the judges who give their own money. The audience gets to vote on who they want to give their money to, and then, we have corporate supporters, so companies from all over the city donate. So, people walk away with upwards of $60-70,000 at the end of the night. It's a really amazing thing to see these nonprofit leaders who are thinking entrepreneurially but giving them a different way to give their pitch because what it also opens up for them is new avenues of funding because now they're talking to new funders. They're talking to the more entrepreneurial funders, or they're talking to somebody who speaks a different language, and they're able to speak that language. We've been doing that in Austin for seven or eight years, and we've expanded out of San Antonio, Columbus, Ohio, and we're currently exploring Philadelphia, Denver, and Nashville.


Catherine: So cool.


Lisa: Yeah. So, that's one of the big programs that we do. We also do an event called the Startup Games which gets a bunch of tech companies together. They compete against each other in different games. They all pay money, and the money goes to charity. Then, we really work to get those companies involved with the charities that they invest in. So, we do that as well. We also provide a lot of workshops and things like that to nonprofit leaders locally. Then, we'll be tacking those on to the cities that we follow with Philanthropitch.


Catherine: That's amazing. Oh my gosh. So cool. I think this would be really interesting to get your perspective on this. [04:13] So as an investment firm what recommendations or tips do you have for social impact companies getting funding?


Lisa: We invest all along the spectrum of impact. So, we have some investments in our portfolio that are purely for-profit, and then, we go all the way down to basically what we make off those investments goes all the way down to potentially just a donation. But, what we found in terms of investing in a social impact for-profit company is we look at them the same way that we look at any other for-profit company. You know, I think with certain investments that we've made more on the real estate side looking at returns is very different because it is more impact. But, if we receive a deck from an impact company versus a deck from just a regular investment, we're going to look at them and evaluate them the same way. We're going to be asking the same questions of the founders. We're going to be looking at the same numbers and everything like that. So, because we want these companies that we invest in, yes, they are making an impact, but we also want them to be successful, and we want to know that they're going to have staying power. We want to know that they're going to scale. So, we're going to be looking at them the same way.


Catherine: For sure. [05:22] So, what were some of these key points that really kind of determined things for you guys? Is it the team? Is it the model itself?


Lisa: Yeah, I think it's a lot of things. As an investor, depending on your level of investment you're going to be working with this team. So, we have several companies where we're a large investor, and we are very involved in the company. And so, for us, 100%, we met these founders, and they're just incredible people with incredible ideas. And so, you just want to back them. It's not only that. You're excited to give them money because you're excited to meet with them every week and hear about what they're doing and the impact that they're making. So, I think that is very much a big part of it. There are a lot of really smart people with a lot of really great ideas, but it's not always going to work. And so, it's also being willing to be excited about the idea and the person. So, the idea is very exciting as well. It needs to be something that we're passionate about. So, we've invested in companies that work to get people registered to vote to get more people active in government and civic engagement. We've invested in a company that provides mentors for women in business so to help them move up the ladder within their company. So, these are things that we are really passionate about, so we're able to get excited about that issue along with the founder. And, I think that's incredibly important as well. But, on top of that, you're also looking at what are the numbers look like? What does growth look like? Do they have traction? Do they have a minimal viable product? Like all of these things are important as well, but it makes it that much more fun to just be on the journey with them, yeah.


Catherine: For sure and you mentioned that growth, [06:59] what have you seen has been the most effective way to scale a social impact business? A lot of times people, they have this great idea, they're very passionate about it, they know what they want to do and things like that. But oftentimes they can't make that jump from early-stage business into a more of a long term solution.


Lisa: Yeah, we think about this a lot because I think because we evaluate them as we would a regular, more traditional investment. I think most start-ups and companies all have the same issues. Right? You know, it's the challenge of figuring out product/market fit. For me, personally, I haven't seen with our impact investments that they have a specific thing that's always in the way for them that's different from other companies. I think they're all trying to solve similar internal issues like that. I think that when you're looking for a co-founder and you're in the impact space, you have the same things you're probably looking for in a co-founder if you're in the non-impact space. But, I think they're all things that all entrepreneurs have to think about. Do you want to bring on co-founders? How much equity do you want to give away? Do you want to give away any equity? When do you bring on a CFO versus a controller versus, you know, just someone to help you keep the books, so you don't have to do that anymore? Right? All of these questions are things that you have to answer, and I don't see a big difference between an impact company and a regular company. Which I think is great because there are so many amazing resources out there for entrepreneurs. So, don't isolate yourself. Go out there, and jump in there because social impact companies are functioning the same way for sure, and they should, I think.


Catherine: No question. You mentioned impact, and I read Notley's Impact Report, and I was like oh my gosh. This is the coolest thing ever. You guys are doing amazing things. For those of you listening, if you are not familiar with an impact report, it's essentially kind of like how a public company has to publish their financial statements at the end of the year so shareholders can see kind of what's going on. But, with an impact report, they are detailing the impact of everything that they're doing, and it is substantial what you guys are doing.


Lisa: Thank you.


Catherine: So, a big part of what I'm trying to learn is how different people are measuring their impact. Because you need to have some type of quantitative number behind what you're doing to get investment and to really be able to understand what you're doing. [09:22] So, what recommendations do you have for measuring impact?


Lisa: That's a great question. So, for us, you know, we have so many different, I’m going to say lines of business, but that's the best way for me to describe it. You can download the report from our website. You can also download other impact reports. We're going to start rolling them out for all of our initiatives because we do measure things, but now we're starting to report on them more. So, you can see that Philanthropitch Impact Report. It's on the Philanthropitch website now and all of that. So, it's kind of interesting because you could look at the Notley one, and then, you'll be able to dive in deeper to all these who are really excited about that. I think in terms of measuring impact, I think it's something you need to be doing early on, but know that it's going to change, and it's going to iterate. So, you're going to start measuring metrics or outputs and outcomes that you think are going to be really important. The more that you do it, you realize that's actually not what funders care about. So, for us, it was really important to make sure that we just tracked everything and then over time really realized what message we wanted to be, whether it was through marketing, whether it's through funders or whether it's through, getting new partners, so what are those things? So, for us, it's been really exciting to have that information. So, with Philanthropitch, what's been great is looking at number of applicants we have every year, tracking, you know, the amount of money everybody gets, the number of times some applicants who have... we've seen them go through the whole system, so we can track them from the first application to the second to the third to them actually getting on stage and pitching. So, kind of that timeline, how that gets them there because for us now we can look at that data and say, ‘Okay, what kind of educational opportunities should we be providing to that nonprofit along the spectrum to get them to where they need to be, to be as successful as they need to be.’ And so, I think tips for measuring impact really is you're not going to have it figured out the first time around. And so, think about how is the easiest way to measure things right from the get-go? What should you keep track of, and what are some tools you can do to use that? When we started out, we were just using Google docs. So, it's really just like creating some spreadsheets and making sure they're linked together in a way that everyone can share it and see it and input the data. That's the other thing too is we're really internally transparent, so you can go and see what the events team is working on and what they're tracking versus what our social media team is tracking, and they all talk to each other a ton. It's an iteration as well. What we're tracking now we might not be tracking in five years based on how we're expanding a program, but we do know that the data is there if we ever need to manipulate it any way that we need to.


Catherine: That's awesome.


Lisa: Not manipulate it. I just realized that sounded bad. I mean like take differently.


[Laughs]


Catherine: Something else that I'm really trying to dive into is how people are leveraging technology to make an impact. Because I really feel like that's kind of, in some ways, the most effective way to create widespread change - if you want to do it like internationally or across the whole country or things like that - having some type of technology that will sustain that. It's easier to scale sometimes with technology companies. [12:30] What is the coolest technology initiative that you've seen? This is kind of a broad question, I know.


Lisa: That's a good question. In the impact space?


Catherine: In the impact space


Lisa: I mean, the thing that pops into my mind is not something like a cool sexy technology that you get to carry around in your pocket and show your friends. But, something that a nonprofit here in town has done an incredible job of, they're called College Forward, and they work with getting students who don't have access to college. They help them get into college, and what they found was once they were getting these students into college, they weren't necessarily staying. So, they were trying to solve this problem, and they did have a back-end database, right? It was like Excel or whatever. Tons of tabs, super confusing. Then, they started working with universities to help with retention rates, and they got there. They're doing an incredible job. They're a great organization, and they've had a lot of growth over the years. What they've done is they created internally through Salesforce a way to track their students and the outcomes. The way that they are able to do that they are now able to sell that through Salesforce to other universities and other organizations like theirs to track their information in a way that is very usable and user-friendly. It's now a massive line of revenue for them. They were able to internally use an external tool, like Salesforce, work with a Salesforce team in creating that, and now, for them, it brings in such a large amount of revenue that they can take all their donation dollars to really help the students get into their program and continue to be successful. For me, I think that's really interesting where someone has taken an existing technology in a space that really needs this information, and now, other people can track their students as well and like really provide for better outcomes. So, it's not only scaling what they're doing, but it's scaling what other organizations are doing for students across the country. So, technology and impact that's the kind of stuff that I think is super cool, but if you sat down with their ED, Austin -who's a good friend, and he's an amazing ED. He may even be CEO over there - just hearing him talk about it, it's just really incredible what they have been able to do.


Catherine: That's amazing. So, you have a family; you guys are involved in a bunch of different things all over town. [14:54] What tips do you have for staying productive and balancing everything and staying sane in all of it?

Lisa: Haha It doesn't always happen. I'll be totally frank we have a lot of help, but I think in terms of staying sane and balancing everything we, Dan and I, pretty early on let go of the idea of work-life balance, and so, it's much more like work-life integration. I mean I work with my spouse. We talk about business, but that's what we like to talk about. We like to talk about the work that we're doing because it's a mutual interest, which is great. I think with kids we're really fortunate our kids are in school. We're able to drop them off and see them in the evenings. We, I think for, in terms of staying sane and doing that, we have internal rules that we put on ourselves - like there's only a certain number of nights we're allowed to be out during the week because we want to be home. But, at the same time, we do have obligations. You know, we've got an event tonight for work that we're super excited to go to, but at the same time that does mean saying ‘no’ to things. And so, I think in terms of when you're working on a project or really building an organization, the hardest thing to learn how to do for a lot of people is to say ‘no.’ So, I think for us that's been the biggest thing. I think once you agree, whether it's with somebody else or for yourself, what are your limits? I think that that's really important. So, when you're able to say, ‘Okay, I know I don't function well when I'm up till 2:00 AM coding every day, so just know, boss, I'm not going to be emailing you after 10:00 PM, but you'll see me at 8:00 AM the next morning.’ Right. So, like what are those limits that you can set for yourself? I think that that is really important, and I don't think it's unreasonable either.


Catherine: For sure. Entrepreneurship comes with a lot of fear and stress. [16:31] What tips do you have for managing that?


Lisa: So, I think the fear piece and the risk-taking pieces, I think I definitely still struggle with I mean I, like a lot of people, grew up being a bit of an overachiever and like really scared of taking risks, and it not working. The only way that you can get comfortable with it is to take risks and fail and to get okay with that because what you realize is that typically in entrepreneurship, it's not a failure. We like to call it a pivot. That didn't work out, so we have to try something new. Really, the only way to get comfortable with it is to do that over and over again. If you're starting a business and you're a business owner really working hard to create an environment and a culture that's accepting of that. So, that's what we try and work really hard to do as well because we know it's not the easiest thing for people. So, how do you create an environment where it's transparent enough, so you see people who are really working hard to this goal and if it doesn't reach the outcome that everyone thought it would, what are we going to do to change it? What are we going to do to move forward in this situation and what goes into making those decisions? So, we've really tried to do that. So, I'd say in terms of starting your organization, building that culture is important, but also, you have to just do it. Most businesses don't work. So, how can you do as much as you can and then feel good about it at the end of the day? Because really the failure is not the bad part is how you feel about it afterwards. I don't remember the other part of your question. Oh, managing stress?


Oh, gosh. I think it's different for everyone. Honestly, I find when I work out, I don't want to do it, and then, I feel really good afterwards. So, I think that's a big part of it. For me, I found that even to do that I had to do it in the morning. So, I dropped my kids off at school, and then, I go work out, and then, I go to the office because I can't go after work. I think that's a big part for me. I got to go, I have to get outside, I have to have alone time. So, there are definitely times that I work into my week where I have to be by myself - whether that's reading a book or just answering emails or something, I need to be by myself. So, it's kind of just getting to know where your happy place is and make time for that. I have some friends who meditate for 20 minutes every morning or every night before they go to bed, and I'm not saying it's easy because I don't do that regularly, but when I do it really helps. So, I would just say kind of figuring out what those things are and doing them. Go out for a hike in the morning. I would say if you need to get up early and do it, do it. But, I mean, I don't wake up at like 5:30 or anything. I definitely sleep until seven every morning. But, yeah, figure out what that is.


Catherine: That's awesome. Now, moving on to one of my favorite parts of the podcast. [19:05] What is the best piece of advice you've ever received?


Lisa: I don't know if this is a piece of advice, but someone was telling me the other day. A friend of ours does a bunch of research with entrepreneurs, and he was interviewing somebody and he was like, ‘You've already made your money. Why are you still working?’ And he was like, ‘You know, business is just a way for me to be with people.’ I think that for me the best advice is to kind of figure out what your why is. That really resonated with me because I love coming into the office every day. I love the people that I work with. I guess a piece of advice to you is I think life is too short to be around people that you don't enjoy being around and you don't feel are helping you be the best person you can be. It's kind of that, you know, you are the product of the five closest people to you. So, for me, I think that was an interesting reflection is, okay, personally, selfishly, that's why I'm doing this really, so that I can feel fulfilled daily. But, the big picture is the impact piece. But, I think my day to day what gets me out of bed reflecting on that. And for me, I love being around people, and I love being around people that I respect and I care about and that I want to succeed and that I believe are better than me at what they do. And so, I guess that other piece of advice that Dan actually told me, it was like, oh, maybe it wasn't Dan. I'm not going to credit it to Dan. Somebody said, ‘Always hire people that are better than you at what they're hiring you for.’ And that 100% always works out. I can say for sure like pointing at like everybody that I work with, they are 100% better at what they are doing than how I can do that and being okay with that. I think a lot of people have a hard time with it, but it will help you run your business better, and you will have the free time then to do what you can really excel at, which I think is great.


Catherine: For sure. [21:01] What is your biggest piece of advice for a young entrepreneur?

Lisa: Yeah, I think networking. Honestly, I think people don't do it enough. I think people kind of misunderstand what it is. I think so much of what we've done and been successful at doing is because of our network. So, having people you can call up and talk to, having people you can refer people to and following through on your word when you do that. And so, I think that as a young person getting into entrepreneurship, email a bunch of people that you think are interesting and go to them. If you're young, you've never been out in the workforce before and you're emailing someone who's, you know, the CEO of a company and they've been doing it for a long time, go to them, take them a cup of coffee. But, when you do, have specific questions, say, ‘Hey, how did you develop this product? And, maybe, what were your issues in your manufacturing facility when you really started out in the first six months?’ So, I think things like that because people like to give back. People like to help, but I think as you start to develop that network, I just can't tell you how many times stuff has come up when we've gone back and been like, there was this person I met a couple of years ago, they were doing this interesting thing, I should call them and figure out what they're doing now. And then, what pops out of that is amazing. I think the sooner people start doing that is really important. When you're actively networking, the best question you can ask when you're done talking to the person is, ‘Who are three more people that I could talk to?’ And you just get three more names because you will have a much better chance of getting to meet with somebody if that person says, ‘Hey, have you met Catherine? You guys should really talk.’ Right? Like that's going to be much easier to get through the door than if you just kind of cold email somebody. So, I think that that's a great way to do that.


Catherine: [22:45] Do you have any podcasts or books that you recommend reading about entrepreneurship or social impact or just life in general?


Lisa: That's a really good question. We have a Notley podcast.


Catherine: Cool!


Lisa: We're available on iTunes. What are some other entrepreneurship podcasts? I mean, I think a lot of them, everyone already listens to. I do more audiobooks than books. What are some that I've recently read that are really good? I mean a lot of them people know. I thought the Bad Blood book about Theranos was fascinating. It's interesting too just from an investor perspective and a female entrepreneurship perspective. I thought it was great. It was a really good book and an interesting story. What are some other ones that we really recommend? We actually have a book club in our office for all of our staff that we are starting to get off the ground. So, we have like this whole list of books that Dan and I recommend.


Catherine: That's so cool.


Lisa: Stuff that we've made everybody read kind of a thing. If you're looking for practicality, we have our entire staff read Radical Focus. It's all about setting goals and measurements internally and having them all kind of go up to like overarching company goals. It's a super easy read. it's very practical, and it tells a story on how to implement this into your company which I think is great. So, I recommend Radical Focus if you're looking for something like that. I really liked Michelle Obama's autobiography. I think it's a great way to learn about how to be married to an ambitious person while you're an ambitious person.


Catherine: I love that. Thank you so much, Lisa, for being on the podcast. This was awesome, and I'm so excited to see what you guys are going to do with Notley in the future because it is already very impressive what you are doing now.


Lisa: Thank you. We have fun.

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