Photo: Courtesy of Dana Ostomel
Several months ago, I had the privilege of meeting with the CEO of Deposit a Gift, Dana Ostomel. At the time, she was in the middle of growing her startup, talking with VCs, and expecting a baby in a few short weeks. Needless to say, I was impressed. It’s hard enough to get a startup off the ground, but to juggle family, a new baby, and temperamental VCs at the same time is quite a feat.
Recently, I interviewed Dana about her experiences as a woman entrepreneur in NYC and what it’s like running a fast growing company.
Dana, How did you come up with the idea of DepositaGift.com?
The idea for the Deposit a Gift cash gifting platform came to me years before I got married, sitting in my tiny apartment with a variety of weddings to attend in the near future, I wondered how anyone could store or use so many presents at once, and frankly, what if they didn’t want them and they just wanted money? The reality is that it’s taboo to ask for cash, but it is ultimately the most preferred gift, so I knew there was an opportunity to bridge the gap and give people a vehicle to communicate what they would like money for and how they would like to use it. Enter Deposit a Gift, which leverages the socially accepted platform of a traditional registry, with a twist, to make the awkwardness of asking for cash go away.
My goal was to simplify the gifting process with the help of technology, not just for weddings, but for any event: babies, birthdays fundraisers, group gifts etc., in a way that makes sense for people’s lifestyles today.
Weddings were our initial target being the lowest hanging fruit given that 75% of today’s engaged couples already live together and very often are already established with the household basics that you would find on a traditional registry. What they want is the gift of bit ticket items and longer term goals, like the gift of home ownership or travel, and the best gift to get them there is cash. In the end, what Deposit a Gift does is give them flexibility, but in a format that provides gift-givers the gratifying experience they are looking for.
How are people using the service today?
Two years into being live, and one of the coolest parts about running the business has been watching users innovate with our tools. I modelled the platform on the traditional online wedding registry and wedding website, and though the bulk of our business still comes from weddings, we are seeing people leverage Deposit a Gift in so many ways. As word of mouth spreads and as our initial customers return for 2nd and 3rd time usage, we are seeing it go way beyond wedding. Baby registries are the next most obvious use, but after that, we are seeing significant growth in the area of ‘micro-fundraising’ efforts. People use Deposit a Gift to raise money for just about anything: to help friends in crisis, for IVF or adoption funds, to aid in business expansion, school trips and study abroad, personal projects and even memorial funds. In fact recently there was a fatal Coast Guard accident and friends of one of the fallen created a Deposit a Gift site as a home base for donations to various places in his honour. It’s a way to keep things centralized and simple for all involved.
How much in transactions have you done to date?
We have processed close to $3MM in gifts.
What are some of the cool ways people are using DAG?
We have a lot of people using the site for good to raise money for friends in need. Lots of fundraisers for friends with cancer — one that was very successful used the site in 3 ways: to collect general donations, to sell tickets to a silent auction, and then to take payments for the auction items at the event itself. Another successful fundraiser was used to support a woman with Cystic Fibrosis who was undergoing a lung transplant.
People very easily make the connection that if they could communicate that they want money for their honeymoon or new home for their wedding, that they can do so for other events too. What they seem to like about Deposit a Gift is that it allows them to create a gift list and be specific about what their needs are so that friends and family can know how their money will be used and contribute accordingly. On a lighter note, especially with wedding gifts, it runs the gamut from the practical to the adventurous! Here’s a top 10 of some of my favourite things people have registered for beyond the obvious:
- A bed: all they want is a good night’s sleep — they called it “Project Mattress”
- Upright Citizens Brigade improv comedy lessons
- Adoption assistance fund to start their family since it is a long process
- A puppy
- Moving van and boxes
- Die Zeit Subscription – Our favourite weekly German paper
- Portuguese language course to learn the native tongue of their beloved
- Costco membership
- Date nights
- Walls for a new basement
During fund raising, what kind of issues have you encountered being a woman and also expecting a child at the time of initial fund raising?
I think the most interesting thing about the fundraising process was that even though Deposit a Gift is a more female targeted business, it seems to be more attractive to men, which surprised me. For some reason women seem to get more caught up in the details rather than seeing the big picture e-commerce opportunity that will take us to scale. I don’t know if it was being a woman, or just me being new to this game, but some of the biggest challenges were simply learning how to navigate the VC world and pitch in a way that was meaningful to the audience. I think I also had to get over the initial fear that I was going to have issues because I was a woman and pregnant. Now don’t get me wrong, it wasn’t ideal, but I also know that living these regular life experiences, like having a baby, are one of the ways I have become most valuable to my consumers because I get what they are going through.
Were there some negative responses from VCs given when you walked in and expecting?
I had heard a lot of horror stories prior to starting the VC process and was pretty concerned, but I have to say that my actual experience was surprisingly positive. If someone didn’t give me money because I was pregnant, it wasn’t obvious. Either people didn’t notice (even when I was clearly not just overweight), or they simply asked how I was going to manage it all, which is a totally fair question. I had a plan prepared and what I found was that sharing the plan seemed to assuage concerns.
What advice would you give other women who want to go down the entrepreneurship route, especially ones who want to manage work, life, family, kids.
I think one of the challenges right now is that it feels like most investors and accelerators are looking for a specific formula in terms of team, approach and degree of difficulty that supposedly will result in a successful business, and so for women or men, if you don’t fit that mould, it’s hard. I think you need to choose an approach to starting a business that fits how you work best so you can achieve your vision; maybe that’s different for women, maybe not. I actually think that it may have more to do with stage of life. I don’t want to advise a one-size-fits-all because I hate those kinds of answers, so I’ll share my thought process in case it’s helpful. For me, I wanted to build, launch and grow as fast as I could when I had the least amount of risk and responsibility, before I had kids. So that’s what I did. I wouldn’t say that I had much of a life outside of the business then, nor frankly do I now, it’s just that now I have two startups: Deposit a Gift and my 3 month old. I’m really glad that I accomplished as much as I did before she was born, and since she is still such a new addition to my life, I’d be lying if I said I had it all figured out. But the truth is, new things are always coming into your life, baby or otherwise, and we are always trying to manage it all, whatever “it all” is to us. In my world, the key is the team I’ve built and the support system I’ve created to get the job done, which seems to be working.
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