Grace Garey is the co-founder of Watsi, a nonprofit startup connecting medical patients who can't afford procedures to donors online. I first heard about Grace and Watsi through this article on the incredibly successful email campaign the team ran for their Universal Fund initiative. Through reading more interviews with Grace, I learned that Watsi was the first nonprofit startup to be accepted into Y Combinator and was curious to learn more. With no prior marketing experience, Grace approaches their unique challenges with ease and confidence. She applies this straightforward, problem-solving mentality to new challenges, rather than let them be a source of intimidation. It was an inspiring conversation with a lot of great takeaways.
I know that working in a nonprofit and a startup that your role must be constantly changing. Can you tell me what your role is at the moment and what that looks like?
Yes, it is always changing! As a co-founder, your role and you as a person, from the beginning to now hopefully scales, along with your organization. So I’m one of the co-founders of Watsi, and broadly I’m in charge of marketing. I spend my time thinking about how to compel people to support a stranger that they will probably never meet, online.
I’m currently exploring company partnerships, and whether there's an opportunity for us to help everyone from small startups to larger public companies give back and engage their customers and employees in a meaningful, and personal way with Watsi. How we might be able to turn some of their energy and financial support into awesome impact. That’s a new area I’m exploring at the moment.
Did you have experience in marketing before? How did you end up on the marketing side of things?
I didn’t really have experience in anything before [laughs]. We started working on Watsi on nights and weekends on top of our day jobs, right when I graduated from college.
I spent a lot of my time in school taking time off to go live in other countries and work with nonprofits. I ended up taking another quarter off of school to go work at a big international humanitarian advocacy organization in DC. So I had some experience but nothing too impressive to speak of.
I think I ended up focusing on marketing because the piece of Watsi I’m always most excited about is the opportunity to connect people in a really different way. I spent a lot of time studying foreign policy, international development, and politics. Also, a lot of time inserting myself into the existing infrastructure that is out there today. There are all these traditional mechanisms set up for how we can help people across the world that I always thought I would just insert myself into and hopefully make some kind of a positive impact.
What I realized is there is much more potential. There’s technology just coming about now for example, where we see people connecting in their social lives and summoning a driver of a car with a click of a button. The internet is connecting us directly in all these kinds of ways. That’s what drew me to see if there is a way to apply that kind of connection to some of the world’s biggest problems. The professional term might be marketing but I really think of it as just how to use the internet to share these stories in a way that compels people to get involved and act.
“As an organization scales, people have to scale with it. What that means is that my job sort of becomes irrelevant every six months, which is a good thing.”
What would you say are the most challenging aspects of the work you’re doing right now?
I think the hardest thing is something you alluded to a couple of minutes ago which is just that everything is always changing. As an organization scales, people have to scale with it. What that means is that my job sort of becomes irrelevant every six months, which is a good thing. You have a problem or an opportunity and you try a bunch of things to address it. Once you find something that works, you can pass it off to someone else and then you have to move on to the next thing.
One perpetual challenge is getting comfortable with the fact that you are going to be bad at a lot of the things that you’re doing for most of the time and right when you’ve mastered it, it’s time to move on to the next thing. There’s not a whole of gratification, and just sitting back and feeling like, “I’m really good at this. I’m good at my job!” [laughs]
Simultaneously, that's one of the things that's really motivating to me. I feel like I’m always learning and stretching and out of my comfort zone. I definitely have the opportunity to work on things and have freedom and creativity to try things at a pretty young age that I don’t think I would have gotten anywhere else.
Are there any specific techniques or processes that you use to accomplish all the different things that you need to do on any given day?
The one that I’m always striving to get better is just prioritization. In a startup where there are more things on the list of to-dos then there are people you have to realistically accomplish them, you have to have a framework for deciding what is most important. Being really clear about that is something that we are increasingly focused on. It’s an added challenge when you are lucky enough like we are that everyone on your team is super excited and passionate with a ton of ideas. We are always adding five things to the list for every one that we cross off.
Being able to zoom out to the bigger picture and start from the end point really helps. What does this look like if we are successful? At the highest level, what does Watsi look like if we are successful? At a medium level, what does Watsi’s marketing look like if we are successful? Even at the lowest level, what does this project or this email campaign look like if we are successful?
Then working backward from there, you start with the most important things and you can tell a story about what this looks like if you’ve done a good job. Then you can whack anything off the list that doesn’t directly contribute to that. Hopefully, by that logic if you don’t make it to the end of the list the stuff at the end probably wasn't that important to your end goal.
“The other challenge is transitioning from being a maker and a day to day producer, to more of a manager and a leader. I’m straddling that line a bit, and I don’t know if there will ever be a time where I feel like I won't be.”
In a typical day or week do you have any kind of routine throughout your day that you try to follow?
The extent to which I stick to it is kind of variable, but I do think my most productive days follow a similar pattern. I try and do something outside or get some kind of exercise in the morning. That gives me energy for the rest of the day and makes me feel like I’ve done something for myself. If I end up working really late, I feel okay about it because I took some time first thing to do something that was just going to make me feel good.
Another thing I try and do is make time for projects that require a lot of creativity or thought in the first couple hours of the day. I’ve even gone so far as to arbitrarily block out the first two hours of the day, even if I don’t have anything I know I need to work on there. It prevents stuff from getting scheduled in that time. In a similar way, I try to push meetings and conversations and stuff that can be more reactive into the afternoon. That works pretty well for me I would say in terms of trying to follow a routine.
How do you go about managing your time between email and communications, versus the other work that you need to get done?
Yeah, this is one that I’ve definitely struggled with. I used to be super driven by email, which was out of necessity before we got more sophisticated with the tools we were using at Watsi. Everything came in via email, whether it was a request from someone external or a team member.
For a while, I was running our medical program and so the medical partners around the world were submitting new patients for Watsi to me via my email. I had to be on email frequently, and I found that made it really hard to make time to focus on more creative or strategic projects.
Since we’ve managed to separate out a lot of internal work, especially from email, I’ve tried to make a point to only check email twice a day. I’ll definitely keep it open throughout the day but I really don’t let myself sit down and dive into my inbox more than twice a day.
I've found that almost everything can wait at least a day. It helps me to feel more productive, because at the end of the day, answering a ton of emails doesn't. I’d much rather make good headway on a specific project and still having a couple dozen emails in my inbox. At least, I feel better, and while the difference to the outside world may be negligible, it actually matters to me how I feel at the end of the day. That’s been really helpful.
“Giving people a channel to participate and to be useful, and to really see the impact of their desire to do that, that’s gratifying to me. It motivates me because I think there is so much to be done there.”
What are the tools you use on a regular basis, the ones you touch every day?
Calendar - For everything, from coordinating with a lot of people to as I mentioned, just blocking off time to try and focus on something. It’s a good way to spend time on the things I’ve decided are most important.
Asana - We use it a lot at Watsi, both for collaboration but also task management and even aligning tasks or smaller projects with higher-level strategic goals.
Slack - Unsurprisingly we use this for internal communication. We love gifs. It’s been really helpful for getting stuff out of email. I know now that everything in email is from an external person, which helps.
Google Docs - We use this a lot for writing and collaborating and planning things.
There is a lot of meaning to the work that the Watsi team is doing and that you’re doing. On a day to day, do you ever find you can get separated from that and how do you bring yourself back to the level of having those real connections with people?
It’s a good question. It’s something we’ve been talking about a lot more recently because we’ve doubled the team in the last year. There are many more people whose day to day isn’t right in the nitty-gritty and feeling the impact and mission that we are all here to serve. I’ve totally experienced that. This time, last year I was still overseeing the writing of every single patient profile on Watsi. There were thousands of patients going through our system but I saw their faces and read their stories before they were posted on the website. It felt like a very natural part of my day to be really close to that.
As soon as that became someone else’s responsibility I definitely felt it. It was amazing how fast I could go a day or two days without reading a patient profile on Watsi.
We’ve recently started to try and build in more opportunities, to make sure that everyone on the team is really connected to that. Whether it’s explicitly stating what the impact goal is for every single project. So, at the outset of every project, be it marketing, engineering or design, explicitly talking about what this is going to do for our bigger mission and goal. There's smaller day to day things too, like having a Slack channel called #stories, which we’ve had for the last couple of months where Katya, who now runs our profile stories operations program, will post in stories that are inspiring to her as she encounters them in her day.
It’s definitely something we have to be really proactive about.
What would you say was the most recent moment where you had to go outside of your comfort zone or do something that scared you?
There is an ongoing one that is taking on the company partnerships stuff. It’s just an area where we’ve been pretty reactive in the last year or so. We’ve started being approached by more companies who want to know what are our partnership options are and we’re like, “Oh, interesting. We should have partnership options!”
It’s not something that we have a ton of experience with and it’s going back into exploration, and entrepreneurship mode and figuring out how to build something from the ground up without a ton of context.
That’s definitely outside of my comfort zone because I don’t feel like there is a real road map or a game plan that I can steal from someone else.
The other challenge is transitioning from being a maker and a day to day producer, to more of a manager and a leader. I’m straddling that line a bit, and I don’t know if there will ever be a time where I feel like I won't be. We are still very much all hands on deck and blurry roles, that’s for sure a reality but I do also feel like I’m in the middle of a transition right now. Where I have one leg on the escalator and it’s going up and the other one is on the ground [laughs]. I’m trying to make that transition and be as powerful an enabler and a strategy setter as I can be. While at the same time letting these amazing people that we’ve hired just do awesome creative things, and be way better at their jobs than I ever could have been.
“We have tech entrepreneurs who come on and support a kid in Ghana who needs surgery so that he can play soccer again, because they played soccer growing up. There is this commonality that’s not related to almost anything else about the way that they would self-identify in their life.”
Why do you do what you do and what makes it so meaningful to you?
It comes back to trying to solve a problem I feel like I’ve experienced myself. Which is that I grew up hearing stories about people in need around the world and wanted to help. I felt what I think is a pretty common human impulse to help, and to be useful. The more I learned, the less I felt like I had an outlet to really be useful in someone else’s life. That felt at odds with the way the rest of my life worked.
I had Facebook friends in other countries and I was acutely aware of these things that were happening to people around the world. It felt like without some kind of an outlet I would be prone to tuning out and not wanting to hear about these things if there was nothing pragmatic and practical I could do. I feel like that is something that happens to a lot of people.
After having had that experience and then turning around and helping get Watsi off the ground, it's been really gratifying. I hear from people now who feel like they are able to come to our website and have a positive human connection with someone that’s based on similarities they share versus differences. We have tech entrepreneurs who come on and support a kid in Ghana who needs surgery so that he can play soccer again, because they played soccer growing up. There is this commonality that’s not related to almost anything else about the way that they would self-identify in their life.
Giving people a channel to participate and to be useful, and to really see the impact of their desire to do that, that’s gratifying to me. It motivates me because I think there is so much to be done there. Selfishly, I feel like I’m solving a problem that I have myself and contributing to a world that I would prefer to live in.
Who would you want to see on Ways We Work?
Deepa Subramaniam - She’s the Director of Product for Hillary for America and is just an amazing person.
Tiffani Ashley Bell - She’s the founder of another non-profit that went through Y Combinator called Detroit Water Project which lets you pay someone’s water bill in Detroit online.
Tracy Chou - She’s an engineer at Pinterest who is also a great gender and diversity in tech advocate.
Cindy Wu - She is the founder of Experiment.com. They help people doing cool scientific things crowdfund their projects.