Episode 8

Jeff Miller | Co-founder and CEO of Helping Hands Community

How COVID-19 inspired an entrepreneur to build Helping Hands Community: Interview with Jeff Miller

March 25, 2021 | Justin Gray | No Comments | ,

Jeff Miller spent the last 10 years of his career at the intersection of technology and transportation, once as a founding CEO, once as an executive at Uber and more recently as an investor and advisor to venture and private equity backed companies. But like everyone else, he found himself at a crossroads in the spring of 2020 when COVID-19 began to spread across the United States and the world.

In this episode, LeadMD CEO Justin Gray welcomes Jeff to the podcast to share the catalyst moment that drove him to found Helping Hands Community, a non-profit organization created to slow the spread of COVID-19 through tech-enabled, community volunteerism. Jeff shares how the organization went from idea to launch in 10 days, why the organization is completely volunteer-run, and leadership practices that have helped him along the way.

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3 Key Points:

1. Even the darkest times can present positive opportunities. Starting a nonprofit was no where on Jeff’s radar at the start of 2020. But after seeing a news story about an elderly couple afraid to go grocery shopping during the onset of COVID-19, he felt a profound calling to do something to help. After doing some research, he realized how critical the need was for elderly and immunocompromised people needing basic essentials, so he took immediate action.

2. Don’t let the quest for perfection stunt progress. Timing is everything, especially during a period as unsettling as the spring of 2020. That’s why Jeff gathered a group together to hack a solution and launched Helping Hands Community just ten days after the idea first arose. The organization has worked through bugs and kinks in the months since, but during that time, they’ve also served people in need. Had they waited to launch and iterated again and again, they would have missed key lessons they’ve learned along the way.

3. Think outside the box.  Helping Hands Community is run like a Series B or Series C tech company, with weekly all-hands meetings and daily stand-ups. But how the organization is really thinking differently is through a new model of volunteerism. The organization is reaching professionals with expertise in digital marketing, engineering, communications and more to share their skills to build the nonprofit from the group up, with zero paid employees. Unconventional thinking pushes progress forward.

Time Stamped Show Notes:

0:38 – Tell us about Helping Hands Community and how it got its start?

4:00 – How quickly did you go-to-market with this?

8:49 – How are you seeing the organization evolve and grow?

10:23 – What is this new model for volunteerism?

13:40 – What are you learning about managing a volunteer-run organization?

15:30 – How do you keep your team focused on the mission?

17:17 – What KPIs are you measuring?

22:26 – Lightning round

25:40 – Wrap-Up: Find Jeff on LinkedIn and visit helpinghands.community to get involved

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Full Transcript

Justin Gray:

Hey, hello, and welcome back. You are again on season three of Catalyst. I’m joined here today by another great guest, Mr. Jeff Miller. Jeff is the co-founder of Helping Hands Community. So Jeff, welcome to the show.

Jeff Miller:

Yeah, thanks for having me, looking forward to this conversation.

Justin Gray:

Yeah, I am as well. Tell us a little bit about Helping Hands Community, you guys have an interesting story that I intend to dive into a little bit here on the show here.

Jeff Miller:

Perfect, we’re a non-profit that was created at the outset of COVID to try and help serve those who are sheltering in place at home and need access to essentials, and we’re a tech-driven organization so we are a bunch of Silicon Valley vets that have come together in our volunteer time to build tech to solve a pretty meaningful problem right now which is the combination of growing food insecurity and the need for people to stay safely at home. And so our platform connects the dots between food sources and those who need the access to the food.

Justin Gray:

Yeah, pretty big mission, and as you mentioned, a super relevant one right now. So I normally ask what catalyst means to people at this point in the show but I feel like we’re going to kind of get to that in this story here, so instead I’ll ask you, was this an idea that you had kind of germinating before, maybe not through the COVID lens obviously, but what kind of inspired you to take that leap?

Jeff Miller:

It was pretty simple, I was watching CNN, it was mid-March right at the outset, I think the day after shelter in place orders came in San Francisco where I lived at the time, and there was a news story about this woman in Bend, Oregon who heard a couple crying for help in the parking lot of a Safeway. She walked over and saw this elderly couple crying who was afraid to go grocery shopping, and they asked her if she would go do the grocery shopping and handed her a hundred dollar bill. And it was sort of profound because I hadn’t sort of put myself yet in the shoes of what an elderly couple might be facing, and that day I called my mom who lives in Scottsdale, Arizona, outside of the traditional coverage territory of Uber Eats or Instacart or all the things that I took for granted in San Francisco.

And I realized she didn’t have any way of getting access to her basic essentials and the absence of putting her health at risk, and she’s immunocompromised. And that night I just did some online research and sort of tried to wrap my head around the magnitude of the problem and was kind of blown away that, between those who are immunocompromised, the elderly, it could be about a hundred million or more people in the U.S. That could be facing this challenge, and it just struck me that this is a point in time where maybe technology could be brought to bear. I spent, prior to this, six years at Uber, so I knew a thing or two about building networks and delivery-based services and so reached out to some of my former colleagues and said, “Hey, can we put together a hackathon to see if there’s some meaningful tech we can build to address some of the acute societal needs that were emerging because of the pandemic?” 

Justin Gray:

Yeah, just such a kind of a wake-up call there, so many of us that work in tech and can work from anywhere, we can tow the laptop too, and just kind of have that freedom to order stuff on the phone and it shows up to the front door. It can be really interesting to take a step out of that kind of echo chamber and see what folks are dealing with here. I’d love to kind of get into the nuts and bolts a little bit, just because I’m curious as to how the platform works. So you mentioned that kind of the initial code base is all put together via a hackathon, so what was that kind of evolution, how quick were you guys in market with this?

Jeff Miller:

Yeah, so V zero was building a two-sided marketplace where one side would be volunteers, the other side would be people that raise their hand to help. And so we built the structure, put together a team of designers, engineers, and I think it was about 10 days from the first phone call to when we launched our beta version and I worked on making sure we could get legally incorporated with the lawyers, and other folks put up our instance on Google Cloud, and we had other folks building out the initial wire frames on how it would work and we scrambled like any other very early stage startup. We scrambled quickly to build a hacked-together version.

My co-founder, one of my co-founders Pedram Keyani, knew a thing or two about it, which is why I reached out to him because he used to run all of Uber’s hackathons, and prior to that, helped run Facebook’s hackathon. So a seasoned engineer that knew how to build quickly, but also had the benefit of being part of some world-class organizations that know how to build for scale, so he’s a perfect co-founder for this and…

Justin Gray:

So how many co-founders do you have?

Jeff Miller:

There were four of us, there were also two of the early engineering team, a group of brothers in Texas, Neil and Yosh Patel, that were part of the early team and kind of worked around the clock along with some of the other team members in order for us to be able to launch in such a short period of time. Again, I think it was 10 days. So the first person was peer to peer and we were right about one thing, we did a great job of finding volunteers. That’s one thing that COVID… a bright shining light of COVID is that I think people around the country were looking for ways to help their friends and neighbors and do something to combat this situation that our country was facing and that so many individuals were really suffering from, so we did a great job of signing up volunteers.

We were quite off the mark, though, on our assumptions around finding people that needed help. Like if I’m a 75-year-old diabetic living in Topeka, Kansas, you’re not going to see Jeff’s Facebook posts or his Instagram feed offering to help people through Helping Hands and so, we quickly adapted our model to say, look, what are we good at? We’re good at building technology moving quick. We aren’t good at building the end trusting relationship with those people who have the most acute need for help, but there are a lot of organizations around the country that have already been doing this for years and already have those grassroots relationships, food banks, NGOs, food pantries, religious organizations. And so if we could build a set of tools that would equip them to more effectively serve their constituents, that would be our path to helping the most people.

Justin Gray:

And so, I guess launching a platform in 10 days is crazy. What version are you on here, 10 months later?

Jeff Miller:

I don’t have a legit number. We’ve learned a lot and we’ve iterated through those learnings, like a lot of early companies, right? And so, now if you look at what our service looks like, we principally serve food banks and food pantries around the country, so dozens of them, we have a platform that they can use to upload delivery days where they have 300 people, 200 people, 80 people that need access to food and they have the supply, and then we connect the dots. We’ve built out API integrations with Uber Eats, with Lyft, We also work with AxleHire, which does a lot of meal kit delivery platforms, and we build software to help organizations coordinate the boots on the ground and volunteers that can also make deliveries.

And so what we’re doing is providing that platform that solves that last mile challenge such that organizations can take the product that they have, which is principally food or a week’s worth of groceries, and get it in the hands of their constituents, much like you or I might take advantage of Uber Eats or DoorDash and have our food brought to us, now those constituents that are, I guess, at a different strata of the economic system and suffering from food insecurity, can benefit from that same convenience and tap into a lot of the investments in technology that our partners, Uber, Lyft, et cetera, have been investing in over the last decade.

Justin Gray:

So kind of your other partner network, as you mentioned, kind of more of those grassroots organizations has that channel kind of taken off for you guys as well? I would assume it has, but it also seems like a big feat to manage all of that as a software company.

Jeff Miller:

Yeah I mean, it’s growing. There is an acute need felt across the country by food banks and food pantries. If you just think of the impact of the pandemic, I think we went from 35-ish million people deemed food insecure to 55 or 60 million, so it’s almost doubled, and at the same time, the lifeblood of many of these organizations is volunteerism. Many of those volunteers are seniors in the demographic that can’t be out volunteering in the public space and another huge chunk of volunteers for these organizations are corporate volunteers and those programs aren’t happening.

So, around the country you’ve got food banks and food pantries that have never had more demand for their service, and at the same time, never had fewer access to volunteer resources, and because of the pandemic, they need to connect those dots. So for the first time, in many of their history, they’re trying to figure out how to do home delivery, how to do last mile. And so we’re drawing alongside them and providing them with solutions so that they can continue to feed their constituents, provide them the essential supplies they need, and do so in a way that is in many ways, is far better than the way those same constituents were able to access their food before.

Justin Gray:

It’s a really interesting underlying concept around the volunteerism subject, right? And I don’t know if anyone’s done this before and this might be my ignorance, so educate me there, but have there been many of these kinds of gig volunteering opportunities out there in the past? Normally when I think about volunteering, it’s kind of like a, it’s a heavier lift, right? It’s a commitment for a year, two years maybe, right? Have you guys kind of pioneered this in this process?

Jeff Miller:

I’m not familiar of other organizations structured like us and I don’t want to claim pioneer status as I haven’t spent the time to look and I’m sure there are a lot of innovative models and nonprofits. For me it’s novel. We run the organization as if we’re a Series B, Series C tech company. We use the same tools for communication, we’re on Slack and Notion and operating in G Suite and we have weekly all-hands meetings and daily stand-ups and product and engineering. We have a recruiting team, we have a legal team, we look a lot like a Series B, Series C startup. The difference is that not a single person is a paid employee

Justin Gray:

That’s exactly what I was going to mention. So, and is that the long-term roadmap here as well?

Jeff Miller:

We’ve been able to do, I think, an incredible amount through that model. The upside of it is, if I were to have started this or we were to have started this as a company, we would have raised the small seed around and been able to hire four to eight people. Within a month, we had over 150 people working on this. Now that’s the great part about it is that we were able to build a full fledged org in a month across all different disciplines, and I think there’s a real hunger for people to contribute what they’re great at towards a cause that they care about.

And I think we offer that in a way that traditional volunteerism hasn’t. So when I compare my previous volunteer experiences, they’re much more grassroots in nature. You go and you serve food at a soup kitchen, or you go to a food bank and you help pack groceries. And these are wonderful forms of volunteerism that connect you to the local ecosystem that you live in, but what they don’t do is take advantage of your professional toolkit. And so what we’ve done is said, hey, I don’t care what your professional background is, but I’m fairly certain that based on what you’re great at, we could find a home for you. You might be a lawyer, you might be an engineer. You might be a designer, a product manager, a finance person, a policy person, and we will let you take what you’re great at, join our organization, bring your professional ‘A’ game in a part-time capacity and do what you’re great at towards a cause that you care about.

And that’s been, I think, a really great way for us to mobilize a lot of really capable resources in a short amount of time and have a huge impact. It’s not without its challenges though, and there’s certainly some challenges to managing an organization like that.

Justin Gray:

So that’s what I was going to ask about there because, it’s on one hand, I want to think that with everyone looking at this as essentially a passion project, it may overcome and require less from a human capital management standpoint, but at the same time, people are people so what have you guys kind of found there in terms of the management of a rapidly growing organization, to your earlier point?

Jeff Miller:

So I’d say the management and leadership burden is higher because there’s just much more turnover. So, if I think of my previous life, so when I was hiring someone to join a team, I would anticipate working with them for years, right? The unit of time contribution is yours, and so there’s, you’re more deliberate in your onboarding, you spend a lot of time making the right decision, so you don’t choose the wrong person, and then you spend a lot of time onboarding them. And then they’re working a full-time job, which could be 40 to 60 hours, depending on the company, the role, the time demands of the job.

This is very different. We anticipate that many people will be part of the org for months, not years, and that they won’t have a full-time hour commitment, they might have 10 hours a week or five hours a week. So that puts a heavier burden on the manager of a respective team to understand their needs, subdivide roles, and be very specific around what needs to get done and then to deal with the turnover, because there’s more turnover in an organization like ours. So there’s a heavier tax on management and leadership, but you can hire more aggressively because you’re not limited by your budget as it relates to team size.

Justin Gray:

And so have you found that, is it fairly easy to keep those individuals engaged? I know you mentioned that that clip is pretty short, so is it simply, hey, I’ve got a couple of weeks in between jobs or eventually I need to go out and get a paying gig or is it more kind of flash in the pan from an interest perspective? How do you keep those folks focused on the mission?

Jeff Miller:

Look I think it’s not too dissimilar from getting the best out of people in a full-time job. It’s people need to have alignment with the mission, they need to enjoy the people that they’re working with, they have to have meaningful work that is fulfilling, that they’re either learning or able to do well, or hopefully both, and they need to feel like they’re in a collaborative environment where their contributions are valued and it’s able to move the needle for the organization. And if you do those well in a full-time job as a leader, then you’re going to have a well-performing team. If you do those poorly in a full-time job, you’re not going to have a well-performing team.

And the same is true here, it’s just a heavier burden because instead of defining the role, a role that can be done by one person in a full-time job might take four or five. And so you, as the manager leader need to be much more disciplined about, and intentional around, the specific tasks and projects that a person is going to take on so that it’s well aligned to what their bandwidth is, what their availability is and what their skills are. So there’s a higher burden, as I think you’ve heard me say a few times, placed on those managers and the team in order to build out their organization, their team, and then execute around their contributions.

Justin Gray:

I’m just more curious than anything, you’re kind of blowing my mind in terms of removing a lot of these traditional success metrics that we put on organizations like revenue growth or customer acquisition and so on. What are those big KPIs that you guys are maybe measuring that people are looking at and saying, we’re making a difference.

Jeff Miller:

Yeah. I mean, we’re now nine, 10 month old organization, we’ve had, we started with weekly sprint planning and then we moved to monthly and then we moved to quarterly and we’re still doing quarterly planning, but we’ve probably been through that KPI planning cycle four or five times now, and we’re less than a year old. And that’s really important because that’s how we can ensure that there’s a clear understanding across this order on what’s important, and what’s not, and then each individual team is then managing towards those KPIs. So some of them are performance-oriented KPIs. We, in the last quarter, we were very focused on platform reliability, so we wanted to make sure that more than 90% of the requests were fulfilled in a timely manner, in a given day that there weren’t cancellations, and we were able to sort of really dramatically improve our platform reliability by focusing on troubleshooting issues, codifying what’s going wrong and then fixing it.

We have growth-oriented targets and metrics, growth measured by the number of deliveries that we’re making, the number of partner organizations that we’re signing up and onboarding. We have team-oriented KPIs around team satisfaction, sort of like your volunteer NPS. Am I enjoying my time with Helping Hands Community? If so, great, if not, why not, and what can we learn from it and make it a better volunteer experience for people. So we treat it much like a for-profit company would we. We set goals, we measure ourselves against them, and we hold ourselves accountable. Now accountability looks different, right? And we’re not firing people or what-not, we were just saying, trying to look ourselves in the mirror and say, what did we do well, where did we fall short? What do we need to do differently next month or next quarter so that we can make greater strides where it matters?

Justin Gray:

Yeah you guys are kind of disrupting the volunteerism industry there. Really, really interesting concept, which is why I didn’t ask you what the catalytic moment for you was around COVID, which is what the season is all about, because I mean, the story is the catalytic moment. I am curious though, if you had to look back critically at your life, your professional career, kind of your roadmap to this point, what do you think is, what do you think set you up to embark on a mission like this and to see the opportunity to help people and respond to it in this way.

Jeff Miller:

I might give two different answers to that because there’s two dimensions, there’s why seize this problem to solve, and then what gave me the confidence to set forth and do it. On the former, it’s definitely my mom, from the time I was a kid, volunteerism was a huge part of my childhood, we’d actually go and volunteer at the local food bank in Issaquah, Washington, where I grew up, and my mom instilled that give back to your community mentality from the time I was young and throughout my formative middle school and high school years. And so I’ve always had an eye towards being part of the community, giving back to the community, harnessing whatever resources, talents, capabilities you have, and applying them towards a greater good. I’d say full credit goes to my mom on that one. Thanks Mom, I owe you for that.

I think the other catalyst for me was just taking my first entrepreneurial plunge, which was launching Wheelz, which was a peer-to-peer car sharing service. And building that over a few years, Wheelz is now Turo, which is doing great, I think did a few things well, did many things poorly as is often the case, your first rodeo, but one thing I learned through that first entrepreneurial journey is that it’s just about that taking that first step and then taking the next step, and that as a founder, entrepreneur, there’s far more that you don’t know than what you do, and you just get comfortable stepping into that void of uncertainty and then addressing that void by surrounding yourself with people that are smarter than you in their respective areas where you need to solve problems.

And so that’s kind of what this journey was about was, this is a problem that needs to be solved, let me find some great people that can, that are inspired to work on it with me, and then as we’ve grown, it’s like, well, here’s a new set of challenges, how do I go find someone that’s great at this? Here’s a new set of challenges, how do I go find someone that’s great at this and bring them into our fold of people that are trying to bring their ‘A’ games professionally to solve a pressing societal need today.

Justin Gray:

Yeah, great all around answer there. So I’ll pivot into the last part of the show, which is, as you might guess, the rapid fire round of questions. Hopefully they’re not just the normal boring schlock that that people normally ask here so, if you’re cool with that, we will do our quick lightning round and then we’ll wrap it up.

Jeff Miller:

Sure. And I’m curious what’s coming my way.

Justin Gray:

So first and foremost, and obviously really relevant these days, but where do you go for news and information that you trust?

Jeff Miller:

Podcasts are a good source.

Justin Gray:

Any that you recommend?

Jeff Miller:

I love the All-In Podcasts, I think it’s rich content, good discussion from a diversity of thought, and quite entertaining as well. So that’s one I like quite a bit. For news, I actually try not to consume sort of one dimensional, or one policy leaning news source, so even though I probably find myself more on the left leaning spectrum, I try and consume a broader diet of viewpoints. It’s kind of hard to do in this day and age where we find ourselves in thought echo chambers, but I think it’s important to do so it’s something I strive to do.

Justin Gray:

Very cool. What’s your guilty pleasure?

Jeff Miller:

Guilty pleasure. Probably bingeing shows on Netflix or one of the 700 streaming services. Currently I’m quite into Better Call Saul, which I started a little bit ago. I loved Breaking Bad and took me a little while to get to that one, but I’m quite enjoying it.

Justin Gray:

It doesn’t hold the candle to Breaking Bad unfortunately. What’s the worst job you ever had?

Jeff Miller:

I don’t think of it as my worst, I’d say maybe the least pleasant. I was a manual labor right out of a high school and an undergrad, and one of the worst jobs I had to do for that is I was a sweeper on a construction site where literally eight days a week for about three months I was sweeping the same construction floor, and it was just terribly mind-numbing. I was then promoted to another form of a manual labor where on rainy days in Seattle I would get to don wet gear and go chop back blackberry bushes around this job site and that was not particularly fun. Night shifts, removing insulation from above the ceiling, just a potpourri of less than enjoyable jobs that led me to want to find jobs where I could apply my mind a bit more than I was in that. I wouldn’t say it’s a bad job though…

Justin Gray:

Everyone should do construction or work on a farm at one point in their life.

Jeff Miller:

Yeah, I was really well compensated, I met amazing people, I learned a lot, I grew a great appreciation for the people that I was working alongside. It wasn’t necessarily what I wanted to do later, but I’m really grateful for having had that experience and I learned a lot through it.

Justin Gray:

Awesome. Well Jeff, I want to thank you again for joining us here today. Probably most importantly on this, beyond even contacting you, where can people go to get involved and then certainly contact you as well?

Jeff Miller:

So two things are, you can find more about us on our website, which is helpinghands.community. I was not aware there was such thing as a dot community URL so you can always just type it into Google, Helping Hands Community, or helpinghands.community. If you’re interested in getting involved and joining our team, I think we have a team page on the website or you can always just email us and we’ll see if there’s a place for you in New York, and we’re always looking for new team members that connect with our mission and want to bring what they’re great at into the fold.

Justin Gray:

Yeah, awesome mission, awesome initiative, great response to COVID, so again, thanks for joining us here on the podcast. Appreciate everyone else tuning in as well, you can of course, catch past episodes and this episode at leadmd.com/bestpractices. Give us a like, give us a subscribe, that’s what keeps us going. And until next time, never miss a chance to be inspired.

 

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