FaithStreet’s Coughlin: You Learn By Doing and Making MistakesAshley Fletcher Frampton / Charleston Digital News
The Charleston Digital Corridor's Leadership Profile Series is focused on the individuals who are driving the Charleston tech scene forward. This series is brought to you with support from Charleston Southern University.
Sean Coughlin is cofounder and CEO of FaithStreet, a startup seeking to change the way people give money to faith communities. FaithStreet launched in late 2013 in New York City, and Coughlin relocated to Charleston a year and a half ago. Cofounder and CTO Glenn Ericksen remains in New York City. The company is looking to add staff in Charleston.
Where did you grow up? What was life like and your memories from there?
I grew up in a small town in Virginia called Gloucester, right on Chesapeake Bay. We grew up back in the woods on a gravel road that led to a dirt road – like a country song. My dad still lives there. It's a super beautiful place. My mom was the secretary of our church growing up. My dad's a contractor. Just both super awesome people. Growing up there was a lot of baseball, a lot of running around in the woods. Not a lot of technology. It was a great place to grow up.
How did you come to be in Charleston?
My dad's side of the family is from here. My great-grandfather was a pipe fitter on tugboats. My granddad went to The Citadel. My dad was born here. So when my wife and I got married and decided that we were kind of done with the New York City thing – done with the super high rent and what they call schlepping, like it's hard to go to the grocery store – we made a list of places we might want to move: Charleston, Atlanta and a couple of other cities in the Southeast, because that's where our families are all from. Charleston was kind of the clear favorite. It didn't take too many visits here to realize that we loved it. I already knew, but she required a little convincing.
I love how Charleston is kind of growing up. It's transitioning from a small city to a medium-sized city. You see that in all the energy around technology companies and other kinds of companies. I thought that would be a fun thing to be a part of, starting our company.
In your own words, what does your company do?
FaithStreet makes it easy, fun and even habitual to give to a faith community. We want to take you from where you are to where you'd like to be in terms of generosity. We are passionate about helping givers realize the full potential of their generosity because we believe that there is a lot of freedom and peace on the other side of beginning to give your life away, and it starts with your money.
We work with about 400 churches across the country to help them do generosity better, starting with online giving and texting giving. We actually want to help their givers live their lives different through generosity. The average person gives about 3 percent of their income every year to their faith community, but if you ask them how much they'd like to give, and how much they set out to give at the beginning of the year, it's about 8 percent. It's a big drop-off. We are trying to address that drop-off problem.
What inspired you to start the company?
It was something that I care about more than almost anything, and there was a really big business opportunity here.
My mom was the secretary of our church growing up. I've always been involved in churches and faith communities. Personally, it had a huge impact on my life, has been there for me through ups and downs. I believe the local church is super important, and local faith communities of all different faith traditions are really important. Those places you show up for a service on a Saturday or Sunday, but also organizations that are working for positive good in a community. Waking up every morning and working on a company that's designed to help those communities, I can't think of anything better. I was a lawyer at a big corporate law firm on Wall Street before this, and you didn't always have the luxury of understanding the importance of your work.
I also believe it's a huge opportunity. There are almost half a million churches and other faith communities in the United States. There's millions across the world. And generally speaking, the technology that's been built for them has been mediocre. We want to build a great technology company that serves these communities.
What was your first job, or most memorable early job? What did you learn from it?
My first thing I did to make money was I sold baseball cards, sold sports memorabilia. I remember one time I stood in line for three hours to get a NASCAR driver called Rusty Wallace to sign a picture, and then I sold it to one of my dad's friends who was a big Rusty Wallace fan for like 30 bucks. It was a big sale. I think I was 7 or 8 years old. And I did that with baseball cards. I'd enlist my younger brother and we'd call all the baseball card shops in the area and ask them how much they'd pay us for the cards that we'd gotten. I also convinced my brother to give me his allowance so I could invest it.
My first real job was as a student reporter for our local newspaper. I covered high school sports and did advertising sales for them as well. I got some content training, some sales training doing that. I worked in restaurants and bars, too, when I was younger – busing tables, serving tables, bartending.
The lessons I learned throughout my work career are that probably more important than what you do is who you work with. And it's good to be in a place with a good boss, and it's bad to be in a place with a bad boss.
Did you have an entrepreneurial drive early on?
I definitely did. I was always interested in creating new things. When I was a kid, I was really into baseball cards. I tell this to people and sometimes they don't believe me, but I invented an early version of Fantasy Baseball. I had never heard of Fantasy Baseball; I was maybe 7 or 8. I would organize players into teams randomly, kind of like you would a deck of cards, and then play nine of them against nine of the others based on the statistics on the back of the cards. Which is essentially like Fantasy Baseball or Fantasy Football.
But I was always interested in creating new things – envisioning the world as you think it should be and then trying to figure out how you make it that way. I think the creative side of things was what drew me to it in the first place, and then as I've gotten older, the financial side and learning about big markets and big financial opportunities has become really exciting to me as well.
What is your management style?
I would describe it as a work in progress. When we raised our first round of capital, we hired quite a few people. I thought at that point that that qualified me to run a team. This was three years ago. I did some things well, and I made some mistakes. As we begin to ramp up again, hire some more people, I'm going to take some of those lessons and try to put them into practice.
Some things that I'd like to put into practice this time around are humility and intellectual honesty and hiring people who I trust to try to help me solve the company's problems rather than just trying to solve them just with my co-founders. A mistake that we probably made early on was thinking, OK, my co-founder Glenn and I, we have to figure everything out, hiring a lot of really bright younger people to help us do that, but trying to set up everything for them. I think this time around we want to hire maybe some more experienced folks who can actually help us with some of the high-level challenges.
We've gotten the luxury of running a company for the past four years in our late 20s and early 30s; it's a pretty cool thing to get to do. But I think that there's this idea that you have all this responsibility, you have money, you have all these customers, and you think that you know how to do stuff. But you really don't. There's only one way to learn, you learn by doing and by making mistakes.
What lessons have you learned from good bosses? Bad bosses?
One of the best bosses I ever had was when I was a bartender. He was a manager. He was just really encouraging. He had high expectations, but there was also a lot of love there. I think it's those two things. Bad bosses can either be jerks and have super high expectations but give you no safety, no relationship, or they can be too lax and they're your friend but there are no expectations and no structure.
Do you have a routine that's important to your day? A morning ritual, meditation, etc.?
Prayer and meditation are super important to me. And checking in with a friend. Maybe it's another entrepreneur, maybe it's just a buddy. Doing some of those three things every day is really important for me. Starting the day with some prayer. Having a time where I'm not thinking about work, where I'm not thinking about the immediate, what needs to happen right now for FaithStreet. And sometimes, when I do that, the best ideas come out of that. Sometimes it's not directly functional. It's not like I did this so I could be a better CEO or so I could be a better entrepreneur. I did it so I could be a healthy human being. But sometimes the best ideas come out of stopping and listening.
And then checking in with a friend because I think that emotional health is so important when it comes to being an entrepreneur, because it's kind of lonely. You can get tunnel vision on things.
What obstacles have you faced building your business?
You have to care about your business in a way that sustains periods of other people not caring. A big obstacle is indifference.
What is your biggest pet peeve in business or among colleagues?
Probably when people overpromise and underdeliver. And also when people take a long time to make a decision.
What advice would you give aspiring entrepreneurs?
Just start. Just start the company or just start the project, whether it's part-time or full-time. There's not as much risk in it as people think, because most people who say they're going to start a company don't, and most people who start a company close up after six months, and most people who are alive for six months – most of the people I started companies with, people who are smarter than me, people who I would say are more driven than me – their company was either shut down or acquired for a decent exit, but not some huge number. These are people who I went to Harvard with, who were analysts at Goldman Sachs, developers at the best tech companies in New York City. Most of them don't become something big. But I don't think any of those people would have said, "I wish I hadn't done this," because they're much stronger human beings and they bring so much more to whatever their next project is for having started the company. So the risk is not as high as most people think it is.
What advice would you give new graduates seeking to work in the tech industry?
People say – and I haven't done this, but I think it makes a lot of sense – that the best kind of company to get a job at as a new graduate is a company that you think is heading toward a liquidity event like an IPO or a big acquisition. I think that's smart. Go work at a company that has some traits of an early stage startup but is about to go to that next level. See it happen. I think seeing things happen and being a part of things is really powerful.
I would also say try to get in with somebody who you think can really teach you a lot, no matter what stage of company that is.
What do you see as the future of your company?
Our thesis is that giving has stagnated in America since the Great Depression. In the Great Depression, the average giver to their church gave about 3 percent. Today it's about 3 percent. We are working on the question of how do we elevate that from 3 to 6 or 8 or 10 percent.
That's kind of a big challenge, but it's really fun, because as we have started to move the needle and started to change behavior, you start to see the implications of that. It's almost like working on an experiment. We're much more interested in that question, and if we can answer that question, then the problem of how do we get from 400 customers to 4,000 customers to 40,000 customers will become much easier to address.
If you're selling something awesome, then everyone's going to want it. Distribution is crucial and marketing is crucial, but we're not interested in marketing something that is just a little bit better than everything else that's out there. That's what I hope the future is for us, is really starting to have a huge impact on how people give to their faith communities.
Are you a Mac or a PC? iPhone or Android?
All Mac, all Apple.
What is your usual Starbucks order?
Just iced coffee. No cream, no sugar.
Outside of work what keeps you busy?
Spending time with my wife and our puppy. I have a little boat. I like to go surfing, play tennis. I like to be active.
What has it been like building your technical team in Charleston?
Our team is in New York. One of the great things about having a technical cofounder is that when we need help outside of him, he's got a network of other engineers.
We're definitely going to build our sales and marketing team here, which probably won't be quite as challenging. But building out a technical team anywhere is really hard. Our friends who have companies in New York City, it's really hard for them. It's a different challenge. There are more developers, but there's a lot more competition because they can go work at Facebook or Google or Squarespace or some other bigger company.
What are your thoughts on Charleston's technical landscape?
I'm just getting to know it. I think that there's a lot of energy and it seems like there are a lot of really interesting entrepreneurs doing really cool stuff. It seems like it's growing up. Or it's in some early adolescent time. It seems like it has a ton of potential. I feel like in five years, 10 years, Charleston could be kind of like a Portland or an Austin in terms of technology companies.
There's also all the capital being invested here in a lot of bigger, traditional companies, like car companies. I think that will probably continue, and as people become more mobile with their careers, Charleston seems like an obvious place to want to live. It's so small; the difference between James Island and downtown Charleston, people talk about it like it's a huge difference, but it's like five to 15 minutes away. Whereas in Atlanta, you're still in the city of Atlanta, but it's like 30 minutes from Grant Park to Buckhead or something like that. So, even though these different pockets of Charleston are really different right now, I think that kind of livability makes it a really appealing place. The peninsula is really expensive and crowded, but you can live 10 minutes away and it's affordable and still beautiful and close to the water.
It's just a great place. I'm definitely long or bullish on it as an entrepreneurial hub.