Case study

Catalyser: Charity giving done better

November 15, 2023
| minute read
Catalyser: Charity giving done better

Make your charity dollars count and have fun while giving. Angela Kwan and Aivee Robinson are two childhood friends that have over two decades of corporate law and humanitarian experience between them. Their business Catalyser, is a tailored Software as a Service (SaaS) company dedicated to making employee giving easier and more effective for employers of all sizes.

In this article you’ll read about:

  • The Hidden Issue of Employee Giving and Stumbling into a Startup
  • The Philosophy of Catalyser: Solve Real Problems, and the Business will Follow
  • Growing Pains and How to Deal with the Uncertainty of Entrepreneurship

The Hidden Issue of Employee Giving and Stumbling into a Startup

Angela Kwan and Aivee Robinson worked in separate fields for the first fifteen years of their careers. Angela took an interest in law and property development from 2003 to 2015, co-founding a real-estate management firm in 2014. Aivee was a specialist in NGOs since 2005, ending up as the Head of Advocacy for UNICEF.

Even though they hadn’t reconnected in nearly five years, the pair had seen the same problem occur in their respective workplaces. Angela found that in the corporates she worked for, there was a lot of time spent on giving programs to charities, but the efforts weren’t strategic for the business and much of the effort had limited impact.

“There would be emails they would send out about how many hours we did for volunteering. Corporates would use the activities for team building, but it wasn’t always meaningful activities. On one occasion we painted shipping containers. Another time we packed boxes. Even though they weren’t necessarily bad experiences, I thought that so many of the activities weren’t as effective as they could’ve been.”

Aivee had the same experience, but had a different take with her NGO background.

“The lack of resources was always a problem. Charities with clear missions and committed people were restricted in accomplishing their aims because they needed to secure funding. This was frustrating when we knew we could be making such a great impact on real lives.”

She also realised that corporates wanted to hold comprehensive programs with these NGOs, but the execution of these programs were ad-hoc and time intensive.

“It was obvious that the many one-off events taking place weren’t meeting the needs of businesses or charities. Corporates wanted deeper, multitiered relationships that really engaged their employees. But the problem was many corporate-charity relationships were not meeting their potential.”

So in early 2014, the pair met up at a dinner in Surry Hills to begin planning a solution. They talked to potential stakeholders and clients, trying to figure out the best route to take.

“Both sides of the table wanted it, but it wasn’t really happening.”

The Philosophy of Catalyser: Solve Real Problems, and the Business will Follow

Even though Angela and Aivee had deep domain expertise in their respective fields, starting a business was not the first thing they had in mind. Instead, they wanted to know what solutions already existed and why they weren’t cutting through.

“We embarked on a journey that was driven by curiosity in the beginning. Back then we didn’t think we would build our own startup. But over time, it became clear that the right solution was not available in the market and we had an opportunity to create it. ”

When the pair reconnected, they were still doing full time work at their respective firms. It was only in the evenings and the weekends did they work on the idea.

“We bootstrapped from day one. Our concept was evolving quickly and as neither of us had a technical background. There was a steep learning journey that we needed to go on, but we had deep domain expertise in corporate social responsibility (CSR) programs and a customer willing to sign on before we built our MVP. That was an important sign that people wanted us to continue.”

As they began building Catalyser, Angela and Aivee continued to stick to their founding philosophy: solve real problems, and the revenue will follow.

“Even though bootstrapping put pressure on our lives, you remain in control of the concept, values and direction of the company. We agreed that until we crystallised the mission, business model and vision of the company, we wouldn’t attempt to raise capital from investors.”

“We genuinely wanted to add value to both the charities and the corporate organisations. For the charities, we wanted to help the small guys, as it was often difficult for them to find a voice in the corporate partnership space. And for corporates, we wanted to make it easier to build deep connections with the charities that they worked with.”

Growing Pains and How to Deal with the Uncertainty of Entrepreneurship

Similar to Marty Spargo’s story with REIZE, the journey towards creating Catalyser was not a straightforward one.

“I think both of us are we’re good at grasping new ideas, and it helps us when trying new things. We know what questions to ask. But whether we hit the answer straight away, that’s not as certain.”

One of those difficulties in execution turned out to be a task they just finished working on—hiring. When we dug into how they approached the task, their answers told us a lot about the unique process the co-founders used to respond to new challenges.

“Since we’re both non-technical founders, hiring technical staff was very difficult to understand. We had the standard questions: Where do you find them? How do you know what you’re looking for?”

“So we sought advice and talked to as many people as possible. Our first approach was to try to go it alone, posting jobs and handling the process ourselves. This turned out to be a time-consuming and difficult path—we received hundreds of applications of varying quality. We got burnt a few times.”

“We soon realised that for a startup, recruitment is not just about the skills, but also about the fit. Of course you want your team to be skilled, but for us, finding people who could share our vision was more important.”

“We learnt a lot in that process—and you can see how we approach difficult problems like hiring. We throw everything at it and see what comes out. And often, it’s not the obvious answer that tends to work, but that’s what the journey is about.”

“We definitely find the experience bipolar. The highs are very high and the lows are challenging. We win a client—amazing. We have a technical problem that we can’t seem to fix—it’s very scary. We’re used to working in professional settings where you already know 80% of the answer. Now it’s more like 20%. We’re learning as we go.”

“We’re committed to what we’re building here. And even though it’s been difficult, we’ve learnt to embrace the uncertainty and surprises that come with this journey.

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