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February, 2011

GiveForward – an Excelerate 2010 company

Excelerate has changed the game for another Chicago startup!  GiveForward, founded by Desiree Vargas Wrigley and Ethan Austin (and part of Excelerate’s 2010 program), leverages a social networking platform to help people raise money for out-of-pocket medical expenses.  Despite facing opposition from investors back in 2008 when the company was started, GiveForward has successfully raised $500,000 in its first round of funding.

Prior to joining Excelerate, GiveForward’s founders were unable to convince investors that their business should be a for-profit enterprise.  They heard time and time again “you should be a non-profit.”  The tenacious founders marched on, undiscouraged.  They bootstrapped the business and in 2010, GiveForward was selected as one of the 10 startups in Excelerate’s first summer intensive program.

During their summer with Excelerate, Wrigley and Austin made an invaluable connection.  Tim Krauskopf, serial entrepreneur, founder of Spyglass Inc. and former Motorola exec, took a particular interest in GiveForward.  He offered advice, support, and set the stage for a successful fund raise, leveraging his connections to assemble a group of interested investors.  Krauskopf’s confidence in the company is evident, stating that “There are a lot of fantastic new tech ventures coming out of Chicago right now and GiveForward is one of the best.”  And as the lead investor in this fundraising round, he put his money where his mouth is.  I asked Desiree Vargas Wrigley for a few words of wisdom.  Here’s what she had to say.

Four pieces of advice you’d give to aspiring entrepreneurs?

1. Good things take time: Understand that everything is going to take longer than you expect. Go into your venture hungry for success but realistic about how long it will take.  Find metrics other than revenue to gauge your early success.  Low days are inevitable so other key indicators are key.  They’ll get you through the tough times.

2. Form relationships: Don’t just network, build friendships.  People want to help people they like, so be a nice person.  Don’t just reach out to people who can do something for you.  Take the initiative to help someone else first.

3. Flexibility is key: Be willing to adjust your vision.  Just because you think your idea is brilliant, it doesn’t mean that your customers are going to.  Take a step back every so often and ask yourself if you are providing the best solution to your customers’ needs

4. Be genuine to build a rapport: At GiveForward, we know it’s going to be a long time before we have a real marketing budget to get our brand in front of a million people.  But we also understand that happy, successful GiveForward users brings us more traffic, more donations, and more new users.  That’s why one of our core values is “Cultivate through Compassion.“  We make it our mission to turn every point of contact into an opportunity, and superfan conversion is as good as it gets.


Three valuable takeaways from your Excelerate experience?

1. How to communicate your vision and get investors to buy in: The most important thing we learned at Excelerate was how to talk about our business in a way that instilled confidence and excited our audience.  Once you master that, you can grab the attention of anyone in any room.

2. How to spot a bad term sheet: We had no idea what anything on a term sheet meant before we joined Excelerate.  By the end of the summer, I was giving advice to other young entrepreneurs on what to look out for and what to reasonably expect.

3. The power of networking: Perhaps the most valuable takeaway from our Excelerate summer was the network.  We had no Chicago network when we started GiveForward.  By the end of Excelerate, we have 20+ people we could call for advice.  Just having access to these brilliant people was priceless.


To date, 10,000 users have joined the GiveForward site.  Nearly half have registered in the past six months, more proof of the power of Excelerate.  All it takes is one champion like Tim Krauskopf to believe in your business and take it to the next level.  But first you need the connections, and there’s no better place than Excelerate Labs.


Filed under: Status Updates — February 25, 2011

Come hang out with the Excelerate Team – Friday at 5:30!

You’re invited to an impromptu Excelerate Labs applicants party so that you can mix, mingle and get to know the Excelerate team in a casual environment.  This will be a great opportunity to learn more about the program and network with fellow entrepreneurs and potential mentors.

The best part?  Founders from last year’s Excelerate companies will be there to share their experiences and answer your questions.  The party starts at 5:30 this Friday, and drinks and pizza will be served.

Excelerate Labs Applicant Party Details

When: This Friday, February 25th from 5:30-8:30PM

Where: Sandbox Industries, 213 N. Racine Ave, Suite 102, Chicago, IL 60607

Who: You, The Excelerate Team, fellow entrepreneurs, founders from last year’s companies


Don’t be shy.  We can’t wait to meet you!

Filed under: Status Updates — February 21, 2011

One of America’s Most Promising Startups: Interview with the CEO

Be part of a team that builds something new & control your own destiny


FeeFighters is a comparison shopping site that keeps credit card processers honest, and was recently named one of America’s Most Promising Startups by Business Week.  This Excelerate 2010 company has found incredible success since participating in the summer intensive program, and we had the opportunity to chat with co-founder and CEO, Sean Harper.

Your company was operating prior to joining Excelerate.  Why did you decide to join?

Sean: When you are staring a business, having more people on your side is really important. Excelerate is a focal point in the Chicago startup/tech community, a community which is just getting started but has lots of potential.

I spend a lot of time in the Bay Area and a big part of what makes that area special is the connectedness and sense of community.  Everyone knows everyone and getting introductions and connections is easy.  That environment makes starting a new business a lot easier and is a lot of fun to be in.  Josh and Stella and I hoped that joining Excelerate would help us be part of that kind of community here.

What did you expect to get out of the Excelerate program and what did you actually get out of it?

Sean: There were five major things we were hoping to gain from our summer at Excelerate.

1. Connections and an expanded network

2. Mentorship and support

3. Opportunity to build relationships with other startups like us

4. Press/Buzz

5. Connections to investors

We came in with really, really high expectations and Excelerate met these expectations with flying colors.  We have friends that have participated in similar accelerators that have been around longer so are better established (like Techstars and Y-Combinator).  Based on our experience and the successful outcomes of other Excelerate companies, it’s clear that the Excelerate program offers the same level of support, resources and opportunities as those programs, quite an accomplishment given that Chicago was starting with less of a startup infrastructure than the Bay Area, or Boulder, or Boston and 2010 was Excelerate’s first year!

4 pieces of advice for aspiring entrepreneurs?


  1. Don’t give up – entrepreneurship is about creating your luck through hard work and staying in business.  If you believe and work hard, you will make it work and good things will happen to you.
  2. Don’t be scared – the stability of a normal job is illusory, you can be fired at any time, but if you are part of a team that builds something new you control your own destiny.
  3. Add people – they will bring new energy to your business.  Find people to get involved, and stake them in.
  4. Put new people on a vesting schedule in case it doesn’t work out.

3 Valuable Takeaways from your summer at Excelerate?


  1. In-person usability testing is hugely valuable.
  2. Without a product you don’t have a company, so build something.
  3. A simple product or company or value proposition is critical.——————————————————-
Filed under: Status Updates — February 16, 2011

We Want YOU to apply to Excelerate Now!

Apply to Excelerate 2011

We Want YOU!

Technori did a nice piece on Troy Henikoff, our co-founder and CEO for 2011.  It is fun to read about his background and get a feel for why he got involved in starting Excelerate in the first place.  Go read it, but more importantly, go fill out your application for Excelerate 2011!

Filed under: Status Updates

Huffington Post believes the Midwest may be the next Silicon Valley

There was a great article in the Huffington Post that highlights a lot of the entrepreneurial activity and venture investments going on in the Midwest.  It is great to see that we are finally getting recognized for all the great things that are happening here (including a nice shout out for Excelerate…)  You can read the details here:

Filed under: Status Updates — February 13, 2011