JustGiving’s goal is to grow the world of giving, enabling more money to be raised for good causes through the use of technology.
Initially JustGiving supported only registered charities on its website, but the founders’ vision was to support all good causes. In 2012, when I was working as part of the JustGiving team responsible for innovative products and disruptive business models, we decided to test how people could raise money for non-charitable good causes. That idea became JustGiving Crowdfunding, which has to date raised over £100 million for good causes. This is what we did.
2012 – the Inception
Initially we worked with a team from ThoughtWorks for 12 weeks. We ran through various exercises in the first week to give us direction, including user journey mapping, product in a box, and the speedboat game. After that we created some rough personas and empathy maps to make sure we knew who the audience was. From there we put together a basic roadmap and started writing user stories.
The output from a product in a box game, where we imagined how we would position the product if it was on sale in a supermarket. It’s not that different from the current design.
The initial vision was to
- Build a community
- Enable people to make a difference
- Show people how they made a difference
- Inspire people to give more and create projects
This vision gave us something to aim for. And to test it, we ran user testing almost every week to get rapid feedback on mocked-up and coded prototypes, and reported back to the business every Friday on our progress and what we’d learned.
But before writing any code we set about building the audience by building a simple landing page to explain the rough proposition, with a link to a survey for people to express their interest. The survey asked questions to help us shape the product – what people wanted to raise money for, how much and when they needed it. We then used Google Ads to drive traffic to this page.
This meant we built a set of leads we could contact once we had a working product. By week seven, our first beta tester had built a crowdfunding page and was raising money. At that point, we still did manual payments and ID verification, but we prioritised validating the key product features first before worrying too much about scaling.
The MVP in 2012 (and the world’s first fully responsive crowdfunding website)
2013 – Launch as Yimby
After the 12-week build, a team of three was tasked with validating and growing the product: myself, and two talented marketers. We moved into an office next to the main JustGiving office to foster a sense of separation. This forced us to think and act more like a startup, with JustGiving’s CEO in the role of angel investor – and we knew funding would be cut if we didn’t produce results.
We followed a mantra of do things that don’t scale to see if we could find any way of getting traction, even if the tactic wasn’t repeatable: we wanted to test anything that might work. We were genuinely failing fast and, crucially, learning from our failures.
In particular, since crowdfunding was still a new idea, the proposition was difficult to explain. JustGiving was a well-known brand, but firmly associated with registered charities. So we decided to come up with a sub-brand that would help us position the product differently and talk more about what it was rather than what it wasn’t. And for that, we needed a new name…
Output of one naming brainstorm. In Adam Grant’s excellent book Originals, he talks about how people who have good ideas also tend to have lots of bad ideas, and that the sheer volume of ideas is most important in finding good ideas. I don’t know how many good ideas we had, but we certainly had lots of bad ones.
After a lot of deliberation we settled on the name Yimby, which stood for “yes in my backyard”. It was meant as a counterpoint to the Nimby (not in my backyard) movement, which opposed development in local areas, because we wanted to position the product as a tool for local people looking to make a difference. Part of that positioning was a bolder tone of voice than JustGiving, as the goal was to create a movement and take a stand, which the neutrality of the parent brand couldn’t do. Creating a sub-brand also meant that if the product never took off, it could be quietly discontinued without harming the parent brand.
The Yimby homepage, 2013
2014 – Testing and Growing the Team
We were growing, able to show user need and demonstrate the product’s potential, so the board agreed to further investment. We started to build a team, and more importantly, a team culture and ways of working. Our team of three became eight, including our first dedicated (in both senses of the word) engineers.
Until this point, we’d had to improvise with our growth tactics, and growth had been entirely marketing or partnership driven. But with engineers, we could now iterate and use product-based growth tactics. We could now test things like increasing social shares, which became one of the best ways of driving growth.
We moved back to the main JustGiving office. One simple, yet effective, thing we did to improve collaboration was to sit close to each other. This enabled an open culture. We could all attend sprint planning, non-developers could come to standups, and we shared release notes among the whole team.
This culture and dedication was demonstrated when we decided to celebrate our first big milestone – of raising £1 million – by thanking all our crowdfunders. We did this by sending them all an individually written thank-you note. Writing 500 postcards takes ages, but everyone in the team chipped in. Small things like this set the tone for a team, and set you up for success.
One of many tweets from users about the thank-you cards
2015 – Launch as JustGiving Crowdfunding
Raising £1 million was an important milestone: it gave us the confidence to believe that this could really have an impact on people’s lives. But we’d also realised that the Yimby positioning wasn’t reflected in the use of the product. We were communicating a message about community empowerment and location-based funding, but our users just wanted to raise money for a friend. Most pages were for medical and health causes – more like the general JustGiving usage than our positioning. And while we had built a lot of great Yimby-specific features, we still relied heavily on the JustGiving infrastructure and services like the donation process and user accounts. This meant the user experience could jar as you took one journey across different brands. It was time to come home to the parent brand, and time for JustGiving Crowdfunding (the naming brainstorm wasn’t so hard second time around).
One risk of integrating into the main JustGiving website was whether Crowdfunding would cannibalise other products, the pages where people raised money for charities. To understand this, we ran an A/B test to see if having a crowdfunding option decreased the number of fundraisers. It didn’t, but we saw a significant minority click on crowdfunding, so we knew that it met a need outside our existing products.
The fundraising “interstitial”, where you could choose how to raise money, in 2015
JustGiving Crowdfunding launched in April 2015, and volumes increased so much that our customer success team was overwhelmed. But these were nice problems to have, and we had our own development team on hand to make changes quickly.
JustGiving Crowdfunding homepage, 2015
Support from the senior leadership team also shot up. We got more resources and, crucially, we were given the space and freedom to get on with what needed to be done.
2016 – Accelerating Growth
The CMO formed a crowdfunding management team, comprised of leads in product, strategy, marketing, and technology. The four of us had one clear goal: growth.
The strategy lead defined a version of startup metrics for pirates, where we had four key levers we could pull to accelerate growth, like acquisition and conversion.
This became our reference point, and all activities – both product and marketing – had to align with one of these levers. We tracked these metrics month-on-month to see how they were moving, and our quarterly roadmap sessions were based on the ideas people had to move a specific lever. Importantly, these roadmap sessions were open to everyone on the team, which by that point had grown to include customer success, marketing, development and different members of the UX and design team.
We prioritised our roadmap based on whichever lever we thought was the most important to pull at a given time. For example, during that year, we doubled conversion by rebuilding the onboarding process and removing key points of friction. By estimating the effort and reward of each roadmap item, we could tell the team why some features were prioritised and, more importantly, why other features weren’t. This transparency meant everyone on the team was heard, they understood the priorities, and they got behind them.
The relentless focus on growth mechanics was the main reason for our tremendous growth that year.
The first sign of hockey stick growth, 2016
2017 – Scaling and Going Viral
Following our breakthrough year in 2016, the team stuck with the tactics we’d been using. We hired a dedicated business analyst to get an even-better handle on the numbers. This analyst produced a weekly performance review showing progress against targets and the results of any feature changes or A/B tests. For the developers in particular, this reinforced their connection to the product, as they could see the outcome of their work, instead of just the output.
Our ways of working were noticed as a key part of our success, and other internal JustGiving teams tried to adopt some of our practices – namely around transparency of data, clarity of purpose, and making roadmapping even more inclusive.
The team’s dedication was put to test, as we had to manage a number of unprecedented tragedies in the UK that year. The Westminster terror attack, Manchester bombing, and Grenfell Tower fire happened in April, May, and June 2017, and each led to massive outpouring of support for the victims on the website. Some pages had gone viral before, but not on this scale – at the height of the Manchester response there were 36,000 concurrent visitors on the site, three times the previous record.
On a practical level, our development team quickly built a caching feature to handle the spikes in traffic, and we adopted server side rendering. Some of this work was planned, but most was done on-the-fly as we re-prioritised the roadmap to handle viral pages. We were being genuinely agile and responding to the needs of our customers, with autonomy and the confidence to make decisions and adapt.
Manchester Evening News’ Crowdfunding page, the biggest crowdfunding page so far
As we scaled, the problems we were solving as a team changed in line with the awareness of our product. By this stage, as a product manager, I was spending more time preparing for live TV or radio interviews about our product than worrying about finding product/market fit.
By the end of 2017, we had enabled over £100 million to be raised for good causes and our product had become well established and trusted by millions.
What did we Learn?
It’s hard to distill five years into a blog post, let alone a summary paragraph. There was no one tactic that stood out, but these were some of the things that helped:
- Have one goal, make it clear, and make it realistic
- Get senior buy-in early, and keep them informed
- Make sure everyone knows the outcomes of their output
- Align product and marketing roadmaps and involve the whole team in planning
- Make customer success part of the team and actually listen to your customers
- Build in room in your roadmaps to change direction when necessary
- Recognise success when it happens
We weren’t always great at all these things, but the combination of them all over time mattered. Most importantly, success was an outcome of the team and all the people who worked on the product. There are too many to name, but over the years, I was lucky to work alongside many talented domain experts.
Ultimately, growth is hard work, but hard work leads to growth. You can’t “hack” it, and most “overnight success” stories are years in the making. Continual iteration based on customer feedback, a handle on what metrics to move and a little bit of luck were just some of the things that enabled us to build this product and help raise millions for thousands of good causes.