In the world of start-ups, necessity is the mother of invention. Sometimes so is boredom.
And Shamar Smith and his mother, Shari Smith-Jackson, each had a mild case of it.
Smith, 16, a rising junior at Mastery Charter School-Pickett Campus, was tiring of volunteering, something he has done since fourth or fifth grade. He has fed the homeless, cheered on children with disabilities competing in Special Olympics, picked up trash, and delivered Christmas presents to the critically ill.
His mother, 35, was a probation and parole officer for the City of Philadelphia who, after 11 years, wasn’t feeling it anymore. “It just became about the paycheck. It was not a passion of mine," said the mother of two from Mount Airy.
Feeding her need to do something more professionally fulfilling, Smith-Jackson set out to make her son’s volunteering “fun” again. She focused her efforts where kids his age live — on their cellphones — having noticed that Shamar’s friends also were devoting lots of hours to volunteering, “but not interacting about it.”
Out to change that and, in the process, inspire more volunteering worldwide, Smith-Jackson and a former classmate from Temple University, Shakira Miller-Grier, have developed Pay It Forward Live. Debuted in the App Store — currently offered for free — in February, the app wants to inspire friendly competition among community service volunteers with a platform where they can post photos and videos showing off their good deeds and where others can rate them. The broader goal is to encourage more giving back, said Smith-Jackson, who resigned from her job in September 2017.
“People do a lot of things for social media. Why not let the community benefit from that," Smith-Jackson said in a recent interview. “I want it to be global. I want it to have an impact all over.”
In April, Pay It Forward Live took the $20,000 top prize in the social impact category at Temple Fox School of Business’s vaunted business plan competition, Be Your Own Boss Bowl. Months after, the win was the source of a rarity: a teenager complimenting a parent.
“I’m proud of her,” Smith said of his mother after some delicate prodding from a reporter.
That he inspired something entrepreneurial in her, he quickly added, is “embarrassing a little bit” because it stemmed from “me being unprepared, being irresponsible.”
By that, he was referring to the many lost papers documenting his volunteer work that school and the Boy Scouts have required in order to award credit or badges. The Pay It Forward Live app provides an electronic way to track volunteer hours.
Future versions — assuming $100,000 can be raised from a planned investment round — will include a premium model that will enable users, for a fee, to access challenges and get notifications, and will also let organizations use the platform to recruit volunteers, also at a cost. In-app advertising also will be offered.
Given its early, still-building stage, Pay It Forward Live expects to end 2019 nearly $42,000 in the red, but to net $157,400 on revenues of $396,000 in 2020 and net $412,000 on revenues of $882,500 in 2021, according to Smith-Jackson’s presentation at the Be Your Own Boss Bowl.
Sam Corso, founder of New York-based app developer TechSuite, had several reasons to pause when Smith-Jackson approached him more than a year ago. For one, she didn’t have the $18,000 he quoted her to begin work. But Corso was impressed by Smith-Jackson and the mission and agreed to start working on the app absent the full upfront payment.
Given that Smith-Jackson was a first-time start-up founder and lacked technology expertise, “I was pretty impressed ... with her understanding of what needed to be done,” he said. “Also, to showcase the different things going on in the community to help organize people to do something great, that really resonated with me. It’s something I try to do on my own."
Corso said he expects that Pay It Live Forward, once fully built out, will be in big demand. Projections are for 10,000 users by the end of 2019, increasing to 95,000 in 2020 and 175,000 in 2021. In her pitch at the Be Your Own Boss Bowl, Smith-Jackson said there are 62 million volunteers in the United States, citing the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
With Pay It Forward Live, Smith-Jackson and Miller-Grier are “solving a real pain point for nonprofits, for corporations, and for volunteers,” Ellen Weber, executive director of Temple’s Innovation and Entrepreneurship Institute, wrote in an email. “Nonprofits needed a good way to manage their volunteers and create outreach programs, corporations needed a way to manage their social impact and measure their volunteer outreach, and volunteers needed a way to track their efforts.”
All that “resonated with the [Be Your Own Boss Bowl] judges, who came from corporate and nonprofit backgrounds,” Weber said, calling Smith-Jackson and Miller-Grier’s use of social media and the plan for rewards-based programs “novel and appealing.”
Along with the competitive component that the use of social media will enable and the increased engagement among volunteers that will spawn, Pay It Forward Live will be different from competitors such as VolunteerMatch and JustServe in that it will count even random acts of volunteering, not just works in scheduled, restricted time slots, Smith-Jackson said.
That said, she suggested no amount of apps encouraging volunteerism is too many.
“I just want this app to expose how big this world is, the volunteer world,” Smith-Jackson said. “There are so many things we can do.”