How to grow your SME with corporate social responsibility with Catalyser cofounder and director, Aivee Robinson

Aug 26, 2021

Aivee Robinson, co-founder and director of Catalyser worked a decade for the UN and now applies corporate social responsibility to major corporations like KPMG, Deloitte and ASIC. Tune in on her journey as she explains how she grew from struggling to download youtube videos off her phone at the start of Catalyser’s business life to leveraging technology so major corporations can scale their CSR.

What you will learn in this episode:

  • How Aivee evolved from being a children’s rights advocate to a startup founder
  • The benefits of supporting charities
  • How to approach tech projects as an non-tech SMEs 
  • Building your startup alongside your customers
  • How to scale customer acquisition
  • How Catalyser landed customers like Deloitte
  • Finding the right mentor for you and your SME
  • How working in the UN in Mongolia and China impacted the way Aivee works in business
  • How Aivee learns and experiments with marketing for Catalyser

Resources mentioned:

Notable quotes:

  • “Once a company invests in supporting a community and doing CSR, they can start to build their brand to attract better talent.”
  • “Take the time to qualify whether or not the customer actually has the problem you’re trying to solve”
  • “Who are the corporates that align with us that can go deep in the cause we’re trying to work towards and stay with us as a long term supporter to sustain long term goals?”

Book recommendations:

Reach Aivee here on:

Transcript (or download the pdf here)

Daren: Most humans in a functioning society want to be responsible. But what exactly does that look like for a small business and how do you build “corporate social responsibility” aka CSR into the DNA of your company? Find out on this episode of Forward Thinking.

Hey everyone. I’m Daren Lake, the audio content manager of Metigy. In this series we speak with inspirational business owners, brands and marketing experts to learn from their experiences on the frontline and uncover what it takes to build a world-class business.

Aivee Robinson, co-founder and director of Catalyser worked a decade for the UN and now applies her corporate social responsibility (CSR) values to major corporations like KPMG, Deloitte and ASIC. Tune in on her journey as she explains how she grew from struggling to download youtube videos off her phone at the start of Catalyser’s business life to leveraging technology so major corporations can scale their CSR.

A few things you will learn in this episode;

  • How Aivee evolved from being a children’s rights advocate to a startup founder
  • The benefits of supporting charities
  • How to build your startup alongside your customers
  • And much more

Let’s get into the episode with our Host Brendan and Aivee.

Aivee Robinson! Long time since I’ve seen you – probably about three, four years. So we were good friends. We used to work with each other at UNICEF. Then I find out that you have a thriving business called Catalyser and you weren’t in the marketing or sort of business side of UNICEF. So tell me about the transformation and how you went from advocacy to starting your own thriving business. 

Aivee: Sure. Brendan, good to be here. I think the transition was more organic than it sounds like. My professional history has been in children’s rights, international development, working with young people but always been in that sort of not-for-profit space and what Catalyser does, helps, we help companies grow their social impact.

I think the transition was quite smooth because I was able to leverage the experiences that I’ve had in the not-for-profit sector to work with companies so that they can have better CSR outcomes for the community. 

Brendan: Can you tell me about the moment when you came to the realization that you could use your skillset for good and start your own company? It’s a dream that a lot of people have, but hard to pull off. Can you tell us about that? 

Aivee: Yeah, so I didn’t start out wanting to, be an entrepreneur, but the problem that we wanted to solve was very real and really needed a solution. So essentially the problem that we were looking at was:

corporates often do a lot of community activities, but can often do them in a non-strategic way.  What that does is it compromises the sustainability of the program and also the amount of social impact that they can generate. Now, corporates have an incredible potential to contribute a lot impact-wise to the community.

I guess what we started looking at is how could we leverage technology to help them scale their community activities, their CSR activities, and take out some of that day-to-day grunt work to free up people within these companies to. Focus more on building strategic partnerships with charities and community organizations and also focus much more on long-term sustainability.  

So I guess we created a Catalyser as a platform to help companies manage and automate all of their community activities, including corporate volunteering, pro bono projects, workplace giving crowdfunding peer to peer fundraising, events, appeals. So essentially any activity that a corporate does to support charities or community organizations can all be managed on one platform. 

The real value that they get is that their data and reporting is then consolidated across activities. They no longer have to manually bring all of their data together and try and do a self analysis and understand the impact it’s actually all built into the platform. That’s what we set out to do.  That’s how I evolved from being a children’s rights advocate to a startup founder.  

Brendan: Why is it important for companies to support charities? 

Aivee: So it’s really important for a number of reasons. Look, the company itself gets a lot of value internally. By doing an employee giving program companies derive values, like they’re better able to engage their employees, their employees are more loyal and they have greater retention.

So less employee churn, once an company invests in supporting the community or doing CSR, they can start to build, their brand, which helps them to attract better talent.  What we know. Younger people coming into the workforce particularly is that they want to work for the good guys.

They want to work for a company where they can align their values, a purpose-driven employer. That really helps them to attract that sort of driven type employee. They also derive a lot of value when it comes to. Just internal employee trust.  That’s really important because employees are coming in, day-to-day doing whatever their day job is, but they want to be able to believe and support the employer that they’re working for.

They’re spending so much time there.  So it really helps them internally on a lot of fronts.  Then of course, there’s the, the big reason why they do this is that the impact for the community is so great. So corporate giving is really collective giving and that’s so much more powerful than individual giving.

If corporates can leverage their workforce, to galvanize and whether it’s doing volunteering pro bono work or whether it’s, giving of money, the fact that they can collectively bring all of those individual small contributions together for the community, the outcome can be massive.

Brendan: Are there any examples of companies that you’ve worked with that have implemented the Catalyser program? Can you tell us a before and after of these guys? 

Aivee: Absolutely. We’ve worked with some really exciting companies, all really progressive and are really committed to their community program.

For example, we work with Deloitte and they always had, a volunteering program. They always had workplace giving. They did fundraising in the workplace, but what they were unable to achieve was scale. Their internal resources. So their internal foundation team, day-to-day, were just managing volunteering registrations on spreadsheets.

They were collecting donations, self counting data and creating reports. I guess what Catalysers help Deloitte do is scale that program and particularly relevant because Deloitte has been growing at such a fast pace. Their number of employees has grown year on year.

But what they’ve been able to do is hugely increased the amount that they’re giving to the community. But for example, they’re able to scale their volunteering day. So one day annually, they have impact day, which is an incredible day because you’ve got all of these Deloitte resources. Going out and supporting community organizations and they do an incredible job.

What Catalyser has been able to do is help automate using tech, all of that registration, that wait listing, that reporting that sort of organizing people into teams that has been a huge enabler. For them to be able to concentrate on deeper charity relationships, as well as creating a greater impact on the day.

Brendan: You mentioned using tech. For early stage businesses approaching a technology project is difficult. That you don’t know where to start so many options. You get analysis paralysis in your former background. You didn’t use a lot of technology. I remember you asking me how to download a YouTube video from YouTube back in 2010, your team was a bit prolific for asking me for tech help.

How did you go from that point? To having this fantastic platform? 

Aivee: It’s a good question. Non-tech founders have a unique challenge that they face, especially when they’re trying to start up tech businesses. Look for us, it was a pretty steep learning curve, but I go back, to the fact that we had a really clear problem that we wanted to solve.

The tech part is a very critical part, but it’s only one part of the story and what my co-founder and I bring, is that, you often get asked, why are you the people solving these problem? So the two of us bring, a really good understanding of the space that we’re in and the solution that was needed.

We have a good understanding of our customers and what they need now, when it comes to the actual tech in the early days. I bought a kids coding book and I taught myself some front end code and we helped to put together an MVP that we could start to show around just so that our potential customers could look at something, touch something, and really we could share our vision.

My co-founder, really up-skilled herself in agile and managed all the JIRA tickets and our whole sprint process and everything like that. For both of us, we divided and conquered in that way. Obviously soon as humanly possible, we got engineers on board to really start developing the product.

That is a huge challenge in terms of finding engineers who are willing to come on the journey with you. From day one, see your vision, just, pencil drawing, wire frames or something, and really build it and help bring it to them.

Brendan: Did you find it easier to recruit these traditionally hard to find people because you were working for a cause?

Aivee: We attracted a certain type of engineer. We were able to attract people that perhaps had long careers in corporate, and we’re really keen to use their powers for something that. Believed was giving back or had some social impact. We were attracted a family of engineers who were quite unique in that way.

But what that meant was that, we really had a team who were on board with the vision and what we were trying to achieve.  

Brendan: So you develop the MVP and you went out to validate that with potential customers. What happened next? You I’m guessing you did the traditional lean startup loop. Did you gather the feedback and then build that into the next iteration of that?

Aivee: Yeah. So we, I guess unlike a lot of startups, we didn’t build a product until we’d signed our first customer. We almost co-created our product with a real customer who is a paying customer, which was great. That was a really exciting process because It meant that the feature set that we were building was responding directly to very real challenges.

And it took the risk out of us building it in a vacuum and trying to assume what our users needed and wanted.  We bootstrapped from day one and we took it quite slowly because we were in this sort of co-creating phase, always validating that what we were building was what our customers actually needed and was actually solving their day-to-day problems.  

So we went on that journey, building a feature set onboarding a new client, speaking to them, understanding their pain points, creating a new feature set and just adding to the product in that way. 

Brendan: As I mentioned, you don’t have a traditional marketing or business background. How did you get these early customers on board? You’ve got people like Deloitte now as a massive companies. Can you talk us through your sort of flow there? 

Aivee: We started initial sort of market research while he was still working full-time jobs and I guess took our time a little bit with the market research.

We wanted to really validate the market. We really wanted to understand that companies were willing to pay for a solution to this problem. Wanting to understand the size of the problem and how real the pain was for our potential customers. What we did was we took a strategic consulting project with the peak body in our space.

We actually built their technology platform, as consultants in a way designed, end to end a comparison tool that allows companies to go on and see how the giving program results compare against industry against company size, that sort of. The platform also enables their national awards program and also enables a lot of sort of education resources and things like that.

So that was a really great thing to do because it helped us to, educate ourselves really deeply about our space. It also helped us to gain access to some of these potential companies that were having these problems and also helped us to understand all of the stakeholders in our space very deeply.

That was great to do. And I really, helped with cashflow. So that was great.  Gave us, some initial funds to be able to embark on the project, those early conversations, we really didn’t go. It wasn’t really a sales meeting at that point. It was more in that customer discovery phase, where we were saying, we’d love to think about building a solution to this, what would you buy?

What would you need and what would help to solve your problems? And really did that very thoroughly before we did one line of code. I’m on your website now. 

Brendan: By the way, how do you scale your customer acquisition 2019 and beyond?

So it’s really about a solid sales process and having a really strong sort of playbook and really understanding the customers really well.

A book that both of us were given by a mentor very early on is. New strategic selling, which is a real oldie. So it’s not really like a cool startup growth hacking type book.  It’s probably dying away on the shelves all over the country, but it was published in the eighties. Yeah. Good decade by Miller and Heiman.

What that book talks about is really interesting for us and has been really practical as a guide. Miller and Heiman talk about sales as a robust process with really strong qualification for your customers. Really strong science in the questions that you ask to really identify who the potential customers are.

They also talk about sales, being about a joint venture, which was really appealing to us because we both don’t come from sales backgrounds and it can be quite difficult, to start going outside. So Miller Heiman, talks about this joint venture, where the customer and the seller both get mutual benefit out of the partnership.

What that really comes to, is being able to identify customers that actually really need your product as opposed to trying to sell to everybody and really being able to take the time to qualify whether or not a customer actually has the problem that you’re trying to solve. It’s an old book, but I found it really practical and really hard.

I guess in answer to your question, growth for us is really about following that process in terms of really trying to spend the time to identify who are those companies out there that are really committed to supporting the community and are trying. Using a lot of really manual processes, emails and spreadsheets really counting coins and all this kind of thing that’s stopping their growth. 

Once we can identify these companies that actually have this real pain, we know that we can add value to them.  That’s where the sale, becomes a much more mutually beneficial partnership where we really feel confident we can help them and they get a lot of value from the product.

Brendan: Yeah. So how do you get intros to these big companies like Deloitte, for example. How do you get your foot in the door? They’re traditionally hard companies to sell into massive organizations. How do you identify the right person? And then how do you get in front of them?

I’ll give you one of my favorite examples that I’ve heard. So someone finds out who the best person is, and then to get in front of them, they find out what shoe size they are. Don’t ask me how they found that out. Then they sent them one shoe. They said, if you want the other shoe, you have to meet me at this cafe at this time and it worked. 

Aivee: Maybe I should start buying some shoes. So definitely I’m not sending people’s shoes, but look for us, it’s we try and make it as organic as possible.  That kind of goes in line with our sales philosophy. I guess they’re trying to identify the right customer as opposed to any customer.

So for us. We work with companies like KPMG, Deloitte, ASIC some of these organizations are really big.  So in terms of navigating to who we need to see, we get a lot of introductions from our customers. We’re really, grateful that we’ve been able to work with these amazing companies and they’ve derived so much value that, they’re championing us to other organizations.

That’s allowed us to really grow quickly without sort of investing so much in the traditional marketing and sales channels to date in terms of other sort of, it works, we’ve had incredible mentors that have been able to make some warm introductions.

We approach companies who we can see are really committed and doing things, but don’t have a technology platform today. There’s lots of different strategies that we have, but I guess it always comes back to who can we’d deliver value to. So you’ve mentioned mentors a couple of times, so they’ve been important in your journey.

Brendan: How can early stage businesses get the right type of mentor? Do they have to have that mutual benefit out of the partnership that you mentioned? One of the lessons from the book. Oh, and how do they find you? How do they find the right mentor? 

Aivee: There has to be some time invested in this because there are a lot of people out there who are, have incredible skill sets and really want to help particularly, really keen to get involved in the startup world.

We’ve spoken to a lot of really amazing people, but whether or not they’re the right fit to be a long-term mentor for the organization for us is a different thing. It comes down to obviously first and foremost, like a personal fit. You have to be really able to establish a good relationship with these people, they have to love what you do and you have to really, appreciate, what their skillset is.

For us it was about identifying areas where my co-founder and I might’ve had gaps and then strategically trying to zone in and find mentors to help fill those knowledge gaps. We’ve found mentors everywhere. So we found mentors through customers. We found mentors through being at startup events or speaking on panels, that sort of thing.

People approaching us after. One of our advisors I would say is found us. He was a judge in a competition that we were at and our business plan came across his desk.  We connected afterwards and he’s been really a great support to us as we’ve grown. So yeah. Look, we did build an advisory board about a year ago.

And that again, took some sort of strategic thinking in terms of the skill diversity that we wanted on that advisory board. What range of backgrounds and networks did we want to be able to access? We targeted people who had, lots of SaaS experience.

People who had overseas networks, people had no acts in Asia were able to help us grow into new markets and really people who had built businesses up from the ground kind of old school way, which was, starting out with a loan and really just building it out.

In the sort of startup space, it’s a little bit different to how it used to happen, but we really, they wanted to learn from how they did it, back in the day. 

Brendan: Awesome.  This has been a  pretty serious conversation. We’re 20 minutes in and not many laughs. I don’t think we’ve had this much of a serious conversation ever. You’re onto the fun part of the podcast. 

Actually one other question I had was around your time at the UN. I don’t think I’ve sold you enough in this podcast, your amazing background. You worked in the UN in Mongolia, is that right? And China. What lessons have you taken from the time in China and Mongolia working for the UN into your new business?

Aivee: I don’t know that it directly informs things but the experiences that I had working overseas with young people with young offenders. Then of course, we at UNICEF with you, Brendan has helped me to really get a really good understanding of the organizations that we exist for. 

Our customers are the corporates, but what we’re trying to do is create social impact for charities and community organizations.  So that’s hugely exciting.  The background that I had has really helped me to understand the challenges they have in terms of securing long-term stable funding. The challenges they have working with corporates. It’s really difficult for charity to establish and sustain a corporate partnership that is multi-year and often multi-tiered.

Often a corporate might say, look, I’ve got some volunteers and I really want to do something, but for charity, what charities really want to see is. Who were the corporates that aligned with us that can really, go deep in the cause that we’re trying to work towards and stay with us as a long-term supporter and help us achieve long-term goals as opposed to, one-off engagements and things like that.

That gave me a good perspective on how hard it is really for charities to establish those really meaningful, deep corporate partnerships. 

Brendan: Yeah, definitely. Moving on to yourself now, Aivee. What is one area that you wish you were more of an expert in business right now? I’m not just saying this because I’m talking to you, but definitely marketing.

That is one of the areas that we’d love to tackle with Catalyser. So, as I mentioned, Catalyser bootstrapped. We grew organically largely by customer referrals in the first couple of years, but now we’re trying to. Expand into new markets overseas, we’re trying to, achieve that sort of growth.

And what we really need to do is start to grow a brand awareness and we need to get our name out there.  We really need to start reaching a much broader audience than we can through referral networks and things like that. 

How do you go about this marketing process? How do you learn how to do marketing?

Aivee: So it’s been quite organic for us. I guess tried to use the sort of agile process, or we tried to run lots and lots of very quick cheap experiments, really to get data as quickly as possible so that we can know what areas we want to invest more into.

Across the spectrum, whether it’s SEO or whether it’s events or whether it’s content, that sort of thing, we’ve really tried to see what response we can get and whether or not that’s actually reaching the customers we want to reach. We’ve got a good plan now, and we can use the data that we’ve got to really scale the marketing to get out there. 

Brendan: That’s interesting that you’re very data driven now. I remember at UNICEF, everyone was anti data to an extent hard department to deal with. But no, this is really interesting. I’ve been very impressed with your story in the last three years. I can’t believe it’s been three years since I’ve seen you last. A lot of new developments. It’s like talking to Ivy 2.0, maybe 3.0 very impressed. 

Talking about marketing tools for a second. What is your marketing stack look like these days. Are there any smaller tools, a hundred dollars a last week, like to ask the guests, if they can recommend any tools that have made a big impact. 

Aivee: Okay. For marketing, a CRM is really important. We try a few but we found that Airtable was excellent. So we use that. We tried a few sort of bigger base, so when it comes to CRM, but we felt that yeah.

There was just so much functionality that we didn’t quite need.  So air table we fulfill is like a perfect fit for our size. Lets us do everything we need it has great integrations, but isn’t too much in terms of feature set. If you can use spreadsheets, you can use Airtable. Yeah. We’ve recently moved our website over to WordPress, which has really helped because we can access now a lot more plugins and applications and things like that. So that was a good move.  Has just enabled us to do more. 

Brendan: What did you guys move over from? 

Aivee: A self built website. As I learned front end code. Yeah. It was my personal project. That wasn’t, easy to plug into or integrate with and we really needed the dev support. So now on now when press, we can, do a lot more things very much more quickly and much more easily, we use all of them. The canvas and the Photoshops and all that sort of thing to do our creative staff and SEO, we’ve got used as a plugin, that sort of thing.

We try and achieve a lot without too many tools, but what she’s space will be growing. Not in the tool area. It’s pretty same. Yeah. 

Brendan: Excellent. So Ivy, congratulations. You’ve made it to the abstract part of the podcast. I’ve got a few surprise questions coming up that I’m pretty excited to see your answer to the first question.

If you could have a billboard anywhere in the world, it could have text visuals, whatever you want. Where would you put it in? What would it say? 

Aivee: If I’m doing it for Catalyser, the market we really want to go into is Asia, which is where we’re seeing huge growth, interest and opportunities.

I would build a huge billboard, over Southeast Asia. One leg in Singapore, one leg in Hong Kong. It would probably be our key value prop.  I guess the conversations that we have having in Asia is really around people want to support their communities. Yeah. Something around, that we are available and that we are tech to help them do that. 

Brendan: When you hear the word successful, who comes to mind?

Aivee: Brendon? I dunno. Look for us there, obviously. Obviously successful people, but as we’ve been growing the business what’s become really apparent to us is that while the commercial successes, of course like the priority and hugely important, we’ve been trying to also grow a particular type of business.

And there’s definitely informed by the organizations that we’ve worked for, the professional experiences that we’ve had. So for us, really that whole, where a certified B Corp and we committed to that, we really. Very serious about, offering people flexibility and, different types of working arrangements.

And so what’s happened is that, we employ loads like a huge diversity of people, loads of parents who have, caring responsibilities or other responsibilities and, loads of other people who wouldn’t. Might get overlooked by our typical corporate. So when it comes to success, it’s probably someone who has been able to create a business that not only is commercially successful, but is able to look after its people as well.

Brendan: You have two young kids yourself. Is it hard to balance running a thriving business with being a mum? 

Aivee: Yes. You always feel like you’re doing everything in a rush and everything less thoroughly than you’d like, but they’re also awesome. Like they’re also really helped me keep perspective and, they’re just the funniest people in my life, one’s seven one’s five. It’s motivating when they understand, what I’m going to work every day to do.  Yeah, it’s great. Like it’s really good in terms of just maintaining perspective and motivation.  

Brendan: If you could give a 20 year old Ivy Robinson, one piece of advice, what would that be? Are you back in Mongolia or China at this time?

Aivee: 20 now I was living in Melbourne. It would definitely be around getting some tech skills, earlier. You can learn anything. We’re proof of that. It would have been great to, have had a much stronger foundation just across the board.  I know lots of kids these days are all getting into coding early and that sort of thing is awesome.

It’s great because it’s really. That foundation in, being able to download YouTube clips on your own and things like that, that I didn’t really have because my background was all. Humanities and riots and kind of use work and that sort of thing.  I really had no exposure to the tech world in my former career. So it was a very steep learning curve. Everything is figureoutable, but it was a hard curve. 

Brendan: Some solid advice. You’re pretty good at these surprise questions, I must say. Very fast responses. This is the final question. Are you ready for launch? You’re on the first flight to Mars with Elon Musk and the first settlers aboard the space X star ship rocket.

So what business do you start when you land on Mars and how do you market it to the new Martians?

Aivee: Right… Yes, look. I would probably take a different approach. I would try and find the broadest market possible. For us, we’re a SaaS business. We sell to enterprise it’s very specific, but if I was marketing to Martian selling to Martians, what is a very basic need that everybody has? So what’s the broadest market I could possibly target, maybe something like, bottled water, which is like the biggest scam ever, but we would definitely not. 

We don’t want to be bringing plastic to another planet. Maybe something a little bit more sustainable or maybe something like some sort of sugar based food, hook them, get them addicted kids.

Repeat customers! It sounds like a gateway drug. But something that they would buy and that they would keep coming back for. Essentially something that they need. Something that the broadest market needs that was, the easiest to. Scale. Yeah, that would be what I would want to do.

Brendan: Bit disappointed at that answer. Oh, you smashed all the other answers. I thought it was going to be quite good, but it was all right. The rest of the podcast has been amazing. Thanks for coming on. It’s been fun. Let’s not wait another three years to catch up again. I, yeah really looking forward to seeing what the next three years of Catalyser, it looks like.

You’re really generous person building a fantastic company that’s going to make a big difference and can’t wait to see where you take it. 

Aivee: Thank you, Brandon. Good to talk to you.  

Brendan: Is there anything that you’d like to say before we depart today and how can people find out more about Catalyser?

Aivee: Sure. Catalyser can help any company of any size to grow social impact and help to really manage and automate all of those different types of activities that you do for charities communities. If you’d like to know more, our website is Catalyser.com. You can find us on LinkedIn and Catalyser, a giving or Twitter @catalysergiving

Brendan: Amazing and all of Aivee’s resources that you mentioned, you can find in the show Metigy.com/podcast. Aivee, once again, it’s been fun. Thanks for coming in.

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