Venture Voices | Miraj Patel on Just Causes and Good Company In Startups
Welcome to The Venture Center’s Venture Voices series, a Q&A where entrepreneurs and startup founders share advice, encouragement, and inspiration for current and future entrepreneurs. Thanks to Miraj Patel, CEO of Harness, for sharing his insights!
The Venture Center: Do you think you had entrepreneurial instincts as a kid?
Miraj Patel: As a kid, I was always driven, always wanted to try new things. I was kind of the Jack-of-all-trades, master-of-none. So I love music and sports. I excelled in school, and for me, it was very difficult trying to pinpoint one career path that I’m most passionate about. Because I liked doing a little bit of everything. I’m a highly creative person; I’m also a critical thinker. So, that was kind of a blessing and a curse, because when everyone was growing up and you get asked that question at a family get-together: what do you hope to be one day? I thought, “I don’t know yet.”
Dedicating myself and my entire mind to one thing early on just seemed kind of like cutting myself short or, not exploring the options enough. So, I think that was something that stuck out from my childhood. I always had this back and forth question on my mind: what exactly do you want to do? And how are you going to leave your imprint on the world?
The VC: Where did you land in your studies in college?
Patel: So I knew first and foremost, I am a people person. Marketing really appealed to me. Creative advertising campaigns, like the Corona commercials, right? Find your beach, those types of stories that capture folks’ attention and create user action. That was what lit me up. I honed in on consumer behavior. What makes people tick? What makes people take action?
The VC: How did your current business, Harness, come about?
Patel: One of the things that we learned in business school was that there was a shift happening in the for-profit space, and it was all dependent on consumer behavior. The shift was from a one-off transactional product approach towards creating customer experiences and driving customer loyalty. In other words, creating lifelong customers. This idea of the subscription economy. Netflix is the prime example. But one thing that we firmly believe is that nonprofits actually sell the best product. They sell the feeling of self-actualization, that you actually helped somebody.
So, if a non-profit has the best product in the world, how is it that these for-profit companies continue to be the behemoth, billion-dollar companies when the nonprofit counterparts are left behind. We figured if the subscription approach works in the for-profit space, well, it’s got to work in the nonprofit space. We dove in and asked ourselves, how can we create experiential fundraising that allows nonprofits to sell the best product in the world – which is altruism and the feeling of doing good.
The VC: Did things fall into place easily after the idea, or were there twists and turns?
Patel: It’s never as straightforward as it seems. We’ve been in this for four years now and counting, and we work with several hundred organizations across America. But when we started, four years was the exit plan. And that’s the most important lesson. I think myself, my co-founding team, and now our young team of 20 or so really embraces that we were lucky enough to find a just cause. And a just cause is something that Simon Sinek, one of my favorite speakers and authors, talks about a lot. And he talks about the fact that you need to sell more than just a product or service. People don’t buy what you do, they buy why you do it. We are lucky enough to say we don’t just sell nonprofits and banks this toolbox of technology. It’s much more than that.
We believe in this future world; we believe in this world where nonprofits are playing on the same level playing field as for-profit companies. We believe in a world where creating positive outcomes in communities rise to the top. And without that just cause, you just can’t get out of bed every morning and take the punches, right? That’s what gets you through. I think that was the most important thing we learned–there is no end game, there’s nothing other than advancing our mission. And if we can do one thing every single day to advance our mission one step closer, it was a hell of a good day at Harness. That mentality has gotten us this far. And now we’re primed to take the next major step, which we’re all pumped about.
The VC: What was your lowest day as an entrepreneur, and how did you keep moving forward?
Patel: There was a time two and a half years ago when we couldn’t pay the bills the next day. We had a small team, thankfully, but we were still on the hook for payroll. The easy part is not feeding yourself. That’s the first step, but if you still have a shortfall, how do you get past that moment of “I don’t know where we’re going to go after this.”
I think the one thing that we learned from that moment, as well as communication and transparency, is that even though Harness has two co-founders on paper, really it was the initial handful of us that had the co-founder mentality. You have those conversations and it all goes back to that just cause. I think that’s why it’s so powerful. I could look someone in the face and say, hey, I can’t make it next month, but there are brighter days ahead, and we can make it in the future if you believe in this thing. And we did.
I just got a chill down my spine because that’s when you figure out that you’re not in it alone. And it’s not because of you. And it’s not because of the others. It’s because this is not about anything other than advancing our mission. And so it was one of the lowest days, but then also one of the most powerful days, looking back now.
The VC: How did you create and maintain the team culture that got you all through the hard times?
Patel: People say it’s all about the people, and it always has been right. One of my biggest philosophies is that a company means so much, but a company doesn’t mean a business – a company is a group of people. And you can either have good company or you can have a bad company. And we were blessed to have good company. And so, we work in good company to create a great company. A lot of people have this question: how do we create culture, how do we drive culture and how do we create a winning culture? But what folks don’t realize is that culture can’t be manufactured. Culture is simply a product of how this good company does business.
Once a year, we have a moment in time when we take the time to reflect on all of the great cultural moments that we’ve had throughout the year. And they don’t have to be any profound things. When you take the time to reflect on that, common themes emerge. Of being bold, and having passion, and being empathetic, and the culture starts creating itself. We gather a group of people working towards one mission. It’s just good company. And that’s what it comes down to.
By anchoring his new business in truths about human behavior and a just cause, Miraj Patel co-founded and grew Harness from an idea to a successful fintech company. A strong mission that drew like-minded people together formed a resilient team that made it through the highs and lows of start-up life, and we were proud to have Harness take part in this year’s ICBA ThinkTECH Accelerator.
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