2023 Most Disruptive MBA Startups: Zeestr, Northwestern University (Kellogg)

Zeestr

Northwestern University, Kellogg School of Management

Industry: Fundriasing Tech – 501c3’s

Founding Student Name(s): Lauren Biegler, 2Y MBA Class of 2023

Brief Description of Solution: Zeestr is a fundraising and events platform for nonprofits with $1 – 10 million in annual donations, that drives actionable marketing insights for improved donor retention.

Funding Dollars: $155,000

What led you to launch this venture? I spent five years running a marketing agency with clients in the nonprofit sector and utilizing the fundraising tools in the space. During this time, one resounding issue continued to present itself to us: all of these platforms are made for real-time fundraising and event success, but they lack the ability to create meaningful insights for future fundraising initiatives or how to understand donor motivation.

For years, we’ve acted as our target consumer, manually exporting and manipulating data spreadsheets to glean meaningful insights and to create strategies that will nurture donors at different stages of their journey. As users, we intimately understand these pain points.

We ensure that we constantly have our finger on the pulse of the customer’s needs, by regularly surveying both current and prospective clients in the sector to confirm or reject risky assumptions. We prioritize building technology that focuses on what the customer needs most, and rollout features that tackle client pain points that they have ranked in a highest-to-lowest priority. We are incredibly diligent to avoid the B2B trap of over customizing for our current beta clients, and continuously survey and interview at least one client a month to ensure we’re meeting true market needs.

We save users time, make them more effective in their day-to-day job, and we’re able to scale our impact across thousands more organizations by making our strategies and growth tools available to them.

What has been your biggest accomplishment so far with venture? Our first source of pride is our traction. Since launching our front-end beta version to four of our marketing agency clients on September 27, 2021, Zeestr has hosted 24 digital fundraising campaigns, processed over 12,000 transactions, raised $5.1M in donations for our clients, increased donor retention by 26%, all resulting in $144,719 revenue so far.

However, the biggest accomplishment was placing second at VentureCat, Northwestern’s annual student startup competition.

What has been the most significant challenge you’ve faced in creating your company and how did you solve it? Our greatest challenge is that we’ve built this product with clients on beta with bootstrapped funding. While this is good in many ways (allowing us to test and refine in a real work world setting), it has been challenging to fund the tech development we need to truly scale the product. We also face challenges of making custom requests to clients instead of rolling out different versions as we progress.

How has your MBA program helped you further this startup venture? The MBA from Kellogg was the best investment we made for this startup. It provided the following:

1. The mentorships and guidance from professors in the field who provided tangible feedback we could directly apply to our startup.

2. The funding opportunities made available through Kellogg’s Social Impact Department, the Zell Fellowship program and VentureCat enabled us to make significant headway in our product development and essential team hires without having to pursue Venture Capital.

What founder or entrepreneur inspired you to start your own entrepreneurial journey? How did he or she prove motivational to you?  I was not inspired by one founder, per se, but from joining startup and entrepreneurial environments and seeing how small businesses are run and learning on the job. After spending about eight years of my early career in these environments, I began to gain the confidence to think, “I can do this!” When I had an idea that I felt was worth doing, I took it.

Which MBA class has been most valuable in building your startup and what was the biggest lesson you gained from it? The New Venture series within the Entrepreneurship Pathway was the most valuable classes aspect of the curriculum for me. Namely, I was inspired New Venture Development with Professor Rick Desai and New Venture Launch with Professors Troy Henikoff and Gregg Latterman. Both of these classes allowed us to work on our venture during class and brought in leading industry experts to consult and advise. We also worked with our talented classmates who provided insights that would have been very hard to obtain or afford in a “real world” environment.

What professor made a significant contribution to your plans and why? Adjunct Lecturers of Entrepreneurship, Troy Henikoff and Professor Gregg Latterman. They both took a hands on role in mentoring me. Troy advised from the technical and funding side of the venture which is my weakest area. He helped me gain confidence in the areas that I have struggled with previously (like financial models and venture capital). He’s been an amazing resource both through Kellogg and since my time in the classroom. Gregg took a more personal approach – mentoring me as the entrepreneur. I was able to go to him for more personal and relationship advice, ranging from struggles with my cofounder to questions on how to create work-life balance.

How has your local startup ecosystem contributed to your venture’s development and success? Startup ecosystems are everything when it comes to new venture development! I talk with my Kellogg peers on a regular basis to either provide a lending ear when they need it or to express my struggles and hear how they have coped. There is truly no way to go at it alone and having a community with others in your boat is essential to survival.

What is your long-term goal with your startup? Our long term goal is to sell the company to an industry peer that can benefit from our forward thinking and unique contributions to our sector.

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