Personify.it Interview

Chuks Onwuneme and Mika Passila, founders of Personify.it discuss their upcoming venture that makes volunteering easier.

Transcript

Marcus
All right, well go ahead, and the name of your company is Personify.it, is that right?
Chuks
Yeah. That’s correct.
Marcus
And what are your names and your roles in the company?
Chuks
My name is Chuks Onwuneme and I am the Founder.
Marcus
Okay.
Mika
And my name is Mika Passila from Helsinki, Finland and I am the Co-Founder.
Marcus
Great. And tell us, what is Personify.it?
Chuks
So we like to say—call ourselves the AirBnB for Social Good. Personify.it is a platform that lets you know opportunities, that connects you to opportunities to give your time. Your time for something purposeful, like doing good, volunteering, and connecting with others who share the same interests, anywhere you are.
Marcus
Okay and how did you guys come up with this idea?
Chuks
So, pretty interesting story. So I met Mika at Nokia about 10 years ago, we both worked at Nokia in Dallas as Engineers, and I remember when I got married, my wife and I woke up just one day, right, feeling really inspired to go out and volunteer and do some good so it was back in Dallas. So, you know, we spent three hours, three hours just searching for what to do and I’m going, wow, this can be incredibly difficult, you know? Like, after three hours I told her, I’m done. I called a bunch of hospitals and places and said you know, I want to go out, you know, I’ll come clean your toilet, you know, and I couldn’t get a single response. So, you know, this was again back in 2006 and I’m like, you know, there’s got to be a better way to do this and you know after we worked at Nokia for a while I traveled so much, mostly to Europe, sometimes in Dallas, but all around the world I saw this need. People were searching, searching for that purposeful thing to do and it was hard. And it doesn’t matter where you were I realized we were all in common. I could be in London at a bar talking to somebody who shares the same interests as I do back in the States and I’m like, wow, the world is all connected but it was difficult to find what to do, so when Nokia decided to shut down our office in Dallas, I thought it was a great opportunity, right, to go off and to do—make something meaningful from all these cool things that we had built at Nokia. So, I left Nokia and came up here to Seattle and decided to start this company.
Marcus
So you do this full time?
Chuks
Yes, I do.
Marcus
And for how long have you done it?
Chuks
So, I guess about two years right now. We’ve been working on it full time for about a year and a half because when I went to Seattle I was working for a company there so I started working on it part time and then I left the company last year, in spring of last year, to work on this full time. So I really have been working on this full time for about a year and a half.
Marcus
How long have you been involved?
Mika
So, a little over a year, maybe a year and a half, something like that, yeah. And I’m not doing this yet full time, I’m just, you know, part time yet. I’m still working for Nokia a couple more months but after that I’m going to do this full time, so----
Marcus
So helping people sounds great but how do you guys make a dime?
Chuks
That’s really interesting too. So we get this question a lot and one of the best ways I like to put it is, you know, it’s like a new movement. It’s a movement of these corporations and people and businesses who are just—we’re there trying to, you know, tie together their names behind something good. So we realized, companies are spending money anyways in doing this thing in looking how to make themselves look good. Why don’t we help them? Connect them to this network that we are building, right, and then we could charge them, we could feel good charging them. We don’t feel good charging charities or charity people, but we could feel good, you know, charging companies.
Marcus
So are you a non-profit then?
Chuks
No, we’re not. We’re not a non-profit, we’re a startup tech company building an awesome product that does good and we want to make a ton of money doing this stuff.
Marcus
So you mentioned Microsoft has an enormous budget for social good, right?
Chuks
Yes.
Marcus
So, why would they pay you any of that money?
Chuks
Because right now they are already paying a bunch of other consultants the same—that’s what the money’s for, they pay consultants to tell them how to make—market themselves to look good.
Marcus
Oh.
Chuks
So we just want to tell them that hey, we are going to have a cooler product, right, to make them look even better.
Marcus
Would people see Microsoft on the app?
Chuks
Yes. So what would happen is—it’s not some type of advertising thing where you go ahead and see a bunch of like, you know, advertisements, no. What it is, is we’ve designed this platform where if people do something good they earn points or badges, right, from the sponsoring organizations, sponsoring businesses, so if it’s Microsoft or like a restaurant, whatever, right, this is where they come, they say hey, you know what, for this event, we’re going to sponsor this event and they’ll put out what they are sponsoring, either discounts or charitable donations, whatever it is. So, you as a user, you would go out to do stuff, you see a company saying, I am sponsoring this event, so they earn points and redeem those points, for these, you know, whatever it is that this company is giving, charitable donations or rewards or whatever it is, so that’s the way it comes in. It’s not some advertising, you know, platform where any company comes in and puts out a bunch of crap. No, it’s just social good platform and the users will tend to see the companies who are involved in social good.
Marcus
How much of a risk have you guys personally taken to start this company?
Chuks
Pretty much—so put it this way. I left my comfortable job at Nokia. I had the opportunity to continue an awesome job at Nokia. But after 8 years I felt it was time to go do something meaningful, so I left all that stuff behind me, because I knew I was building something really awesome, right, and, you know, I’m so passionate about this stuff because it’s been my life to serve personally and I feel, you know, trying to extend this around the world to give people these opportunities, right, we sort of help them like help the whole world, so you talk about risk, yeah, I’ve sort of put in everything I’ve got right, and I’ve put in my all, essentially out there, I’m trying to find partners, right. So when I approached Mika, I knew he shared the same vision as I did because we worked together at Nokia and so it was funny I gave him a call from Dallas, I was still in Dallas, and I called him and I’m like Mika, here’s what I’m working on. Are you in? And I said that, he’s like yes, I’m in, so.
Marcus
What’s your biggest fear? You know, you put a lot on the line, what’s the thing in the back of your head that you have to get up every morning and fight against, in terms of your own, sort of, self fears?
Chuks
Personally, for me, the biggest fear I’ve got is losing my personal steam. Really, because I feel like that’s the only thing on the line for me.
Marcus
Okay.
Chuks
Once I lose that, this whole thing is gone.
Marcus
Yeah.
Chuks
So I have to feel motivated to doing this thing every single day, every other thing is secondary to me.
Mika
Just building on top of that, my personal fear is, you know, it’s been putting so much time and energy and money into this, you know, so it might be two months from the family and on this product and so, I need to balance between giving time to family and then I have three boys and wife and I like to keep it that way.
Marcus
That’s right.
Mika
So that’s kind of my biggest fear, balancing in these two worlds, so.
Marcus
That’s wise. If Personify.it were a Super Hero, what would be its super power?
Chuks
[Laughing.] That’s a good one. I think its super power, someone asked me this question when I was interviewed a while ago and I said essentially it is convincing anyone instantly to do good, right now!
Marcus
That’s pretty good. So this question isn’t even an original then?
Chuks
[Laughing.] Well, you know, asked the same question in a different form----
Marcus
Sure----
Chuks
----but, you know, I think the answer is pretty much the same.
Marcus
Great. Anything else you’d like to just end with here, that our viewers should know about you guys?
Chuks
Yeah, so I guess, what we’re doing is really meaningful and I guess a lot of people are really looking for meaning. Now if you look around here you see a lot of real cool stuff. Now we have been a part of that. We spent our lives building really awesome, cool stuff and we’re thinking, you know, what if you could use all of this cool stuff we’ve done, right, to make a difference, you know. We really want to make a difference and for us to make a difference, right, well people think of grandiose things to do, but sometimes it’s as simple as really looking next door and saying, wow, I can really help somebody next door, right? It’s a simple thing you can do, the human things, right, and we’re trying to mix that with fun, right, with a tech backdrop, there.
Marcus
Great. Thank you both very much.
Chuks
Thank you.