How do Life-Changing Services Get Started?
October 25, 2018
It’s easy to think of innovation and invention in terms of products: physical and tangible. But some of our greatest advancements have been in the realm of services that improve lives. These services may help us better connect, meet basic needs, free up time, or even save lives. Below, we’ll look at how 6 life-changing services got their start.
The American Red Cross has been one of the most impactful organizations in American history. It was founded in 1881 by Clara Barton, who had spent the Civil War years coordinating and delivering medical and other aid for wounded Union soldiers. After the war Barton traveled to Europe and came into contact with the Swiss-based International Red Cross, whose aim was to secure international agreements to “protect the sick and wounded during wartime” and form organizations that would provide neutral humanitarian aid when needed within a given country. When she returned home, Barton made it her mission to bring the US into the global Red Cross network. She established the American Red Cross and led the nonprofit for over two decades. Perhaps best known for frequent blood drives and disaster relief, the American Red Cross also helps active military service members, veterans, and their families. In addition, it provides a wide range of training in CPR, First Aid, lifeguarding, and other life-saving skills. The 90% volunteer organization positively affects millions of lives every year. In 2015, for example, the Red Cross gave disaster assistance to 7.8 million people, and measles vaccines to 215 million kids worldwide. In the US, the relief organization facilitated 32,000 shelter stays in the wake of natural disasters, taught life-saving skills to 4 million people, and collected blood donations from 3 million people.
Angie Hicks and Bill Oesterle revolutionized the home services industry with what started as Oesterle’s own search for a reliable contractor to restore an old house in Columbus, OH. Oesterle — a venture capitalist — hired Hicks to help create a subscription-based local directory of home service professionals, similar to the one he’d relied on in Indianapolis (Unified Neighbors). Members would be able to call into the service and receive recommendations for handymen, plumbers, and other professionals, as well as leave feedback on their experiences. It was no easy feat. Hicks had little luck and much disappointment in her door-to-door attempts to sign up members for close to a year. But her perseverance paid off and slowly but surely people started to sign up for what was originally called Columbus Neighbors. Membership grew slowly, reaching about 1500 a little over a year after she started, but momentum started picking up when the company began running newspaper ads. The following year, the company bought Unified Neighbors and moved back to Indianapolis. It took on a few more cities, changed its name, and hasn’t looked back since. In 1999, Angie’s List expanded on the phone-in model by launching its website. The site became fully interactive in 2001. Membership grew exponentially in over 2 dozen cities within a few years. Today, Angie’s List boasts more than 3 million members who find and rate home services professionals through the website, mobile app, and the phone-in service that started it all.
Eventbrite cofounder Julie Hartz’s first career was not in tech or even entrepreneurship; it was in television. After interning and working in development at MTV and FX, she wanted an environment where she could develop ideas and solve problems at a faster pace. Drawn by Silicon Valley’s energy and its merit-based possibilities, she and her husband Kevin set out to change the landscape of online ticketing. The problem Hartz wanted to tackle was inaccessibility: the online ticketing space was reserved for top musical acts and venues, therefore unavailable to small organizations or venues that wanted to throw a conference, benefit, or other type of event. She wanted a platform that would democratize ticket-selling and make it accessible to everyone, big and small. First in a wiring closet, then a windowless conference room offered up by friends, Julie and Kevin worked to simultaneously build the business and product side of what would become Eventbrite. They faced distribution and customer acquisition challenges, but found early adoption within the tech community. Tech conferences started to use Eventbrite for their ticketing and payments. Soon a variety of organizers — from yoga studios to musicians to social services organizations — followed suit. As Eventbrite expanded, Hartz noticed that people were buying tickets to events because they saw their friends were attending. Harnessing that social power, Eventbrite made social media sharing a big part of its strategy, and it’s paid off. The company now processes 2 million tickets per week and is home to sales for 2 million events each year. Eventbrite facilitates online ticket purchases for both free and paid events, with competitive processing rates, charging the organizer nothing for the former.
Katrina Lake’s years of consulting in the retail industry taught her that most people hate shopping for clothes. The hassle of stores and trying on several dozen things to sometimes walk away with nothing after hours of searching can be exhausting. Personal shoppers are great for those who can afford them. Online shopping — though more convenient and always accessible — can also be a rabbit hole with too many options and too few guarantees. In 2011, Lake launched Stitch Fix to solve this conundrum. She wanted to create a streamlined personal shopping service that could fit any budget, and didn’t require the customer to set foot in a brick and mortar store to get it. To test and fine-tune her idea, Lake began with her friends. She learned and tracked their preferences in Excel, shopped on their behalfs, and dropped off boxes to their homes. She ironed out the kinks and soon secured some funding and an office in San Francisco. Stitch Fix brings together personal shopping, technology, and the convenience of home delivery to create a winning business combination. The subscription service pairs each member with a stylist who chooses 5 pieces of clothing for them each month, based on data analysis of their preferences. The subscription fee is credited toward the purchase of whatever members keep, and they can return anything they don’t like for free. Stitch Fix serves up clothes in a wide range of prices, so it is by no means just for the affluent. The startup made $730 million in revenue in 2016, up from $250 million the previous year. Lake attributes the company’s success to its hugely customer-centric mentality, and its willingness to own its mistakes.
The 24-hour news cycle has been both a boon and a burden for people who want to stay on top of current events. There is always a great deal of information and analysis available, but that flood can be difficult to wade through. Finding a consistently reliable news source that delivers information in a digestible way has also been a challenge for many. Danielle Weisberg and Carly Zakin founded TheSkimm in 2012 to address just this problem. Having interned and worked in production at NBCNews, Zakin and Weisberg were savvy to the world of 24 hours news, but also knew that their friends who didn’t work in news had trouble finding a news source they loved and could turn to for all crucial updates. This inspired them to scrape together all the savings they had, quit their jobs, and go to work building something better for millennial women with busy lives. The company compiles and delivers the most important news in brief, snappy bites to subscribers’ inboxes in the form of a morning newsletter: The Daily Skimm. What started with two women maxing out their savings and going into debt in a New York apartment has grown to 4 million subscribers, 45 employees, and a recent $8.5 million in Series B funding. It’s also caught the attention of busy non-millennial women such as Oprah Winfrey, Reese Witherspoon, and Hillary Clinton.
Since first understanding the impact car emissions have on the environment, a growing number of people have begun to rethink car ownership. This is especially true in crowded urban areas where public transportation is abundant but parking is scarce. Still, the realization that a vehicle may be a huge convenience or even a necessity at least some of the time kept many from completely eschewing car ownership for a long time. In 1999, Robin Chase and Antje Danielson, two working professional moms in Cambridge, MA got to talking. Danielson was a German-born geochemist who understood the impact of pollutants on our atmosphere, and Chase was an entrepreneur. Both agreed on a need to reduce single-owner cars, and wanted to improve upon car-sharing models they’d seen in Europe and American cities like Portland. They determined technology to be the missing component in those other models, and set about creating something that incorporated it. Chase was able to work on the project full-time, while Danielson pitched in part-time while she taught at Harvard. They received $75,000 in seed funding, incorporated the company, and had their first batch of customers and cars on the road within 18 months. Zipcar’s model is straightforward and expedient: members reserve a car online for the time they need (anywhere from an hour to several days), go to the nearby location where it’s parked (usually an open lot or garage), and use their member card (much like hotel key cards) to gain access to the vehicle. No more committing to a full day or spending valuable time filling out tedious paperwork in a traditional car rental office just to go to IKEA or to the beach.