Caffeine, Pixels, and Pivots: 3 Tips for Starting a Nonprofit-Focused Business

This is a special guest post by my friend Dodd Caldwell from

I don’t like to tell people what to do.  Situations and circumstances change and my “expert” advice doesn’t always fit.  But I’ve learned a lot recently about starting a nonprofit-centric business so I’ll just share a few things that mattered to Bellstrike (and may matter to you).

Coffee Meetings Matter – Caffeine isn’t the only element that makes coffee shop meetups so important.  It’s the education.  In the early days of Bellstrike’s development, I asked a lot of local nonprofits for a bit of their time to run my ideas by them.  I didn’t try to sell them on Bellstrike; I didn’t even have anything to sell.  I just told them what I was working on and asked them to pick it apart.  Most everyone was happy to oblige.  Getting feedback from potential customers and not just from friends was invaluable.  These short coffee meetings made Bellstrike what it is today and continue to shape us.

Impeccable Design Matters – Pixel-perfect design isn’t very prevalent around the nonprofit world.  That’s why it’s so important – great design can help any nonprofit-centric business standout even more than it would in other industries. Bellstrike received an initial rush of exposure and much of it was due to our design.  But design isn’t just aesthetics.  Design encompasses so much more: usability, personality, details, and aesthetics.

Usability – Take an otherwise complicated process and make it intuitive.  In order to make sure we did this with Bellstrike, we conducted a lot of user-testing on individuals over the age of 55 with lower incomes and little internet experience.  We figured if we could make it easy for them, it would be easy for most everyone else.

Personality – Some people aren’t going to like Bellstrike.  They’ll think it’s too playful or unprofessional.  That’s OK because some love it.   We wanted to set an approachable, fun, refreshing tone throughout our brand – from the videos, to the hidden goodies, to the way we word our copy.

Details – People notice details. On the day we launched, we had multiple people email us screenshots of typos we made deep within our Terms of Service.  I didn’t even think anyone actually read those.  Also, most companies don’t spend a lot of time designing their Help page, but we wanted to make even our less prominent pages as easy on the eyes as they are to use.

Aesthetics – When most people think of design, they think aesthetics.  To get the right look, we hired a world-class designer and illustrator.  Even when it comes to elements like buttons, we want beauty, not just functionality.  And we love typography.  With new developments on the web, beautiful fonts can now be used for dynamic text.  In the past the world was stuck with just a few web-standard fonts.

Drastic Change Matters – A “pivot” is a drastic change in a business model that still retains some of the core ideas of that model. I first envisioned Bellstrike as an Etsy for nonprofits where each organization would create a profile and upload content to it.  Donors would be able to browse for organizations to support.  But I noticed that the competitors in this space were already executing pretty well.  I also seriously doubted whether donors “shopped” for nonprofits in this way.  Finally, after talking to potential customers, I realized that every nonprofit wants their own branded, donation-enabled website.  But they oftentimes have trouble creating and updating it.  That’s where we found our opportunity.  I decided that Bellstrike would become a website creation platform.  And we may very well make other “pivots” in our future.  It’s good to stick to your guns but once you realize your plan doesn’t make sense, why not switch to a different weapon?

Whether you’re a non-profit or a for-profit, if you’d like hear more about what I’ve learned, contact me,, or on Twitter @doddcaldwell.

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