Child CEO Brings Light to Darkness—by Accident
I started my company in 1989. I was not 12, but I tell people that I was. “I went from babysitting to being a CEO the same year. It was crazy!” In the beginning, I didn’t have a good idea of what I sold. I thought I sold stuff—mugs, T-shirts, hats.
As time when on, I realized I sold change in human behavior. Or, as Tom Cruise said in Risky Business, “I deal in human fulfillment.” What I also realized is that my clients often did not know what I was selling, or what they were buying.
The first time I understood that I did not sell stuff was when a client said, “I need to buy some X,” and I asked “why?” She stopped with her hand in the air. She stayed there a bit. Finally, she said, “I can’t answer that.”
Now this was a discerning, self-aware person who mistook my "why" question for something far deeper than it actually was. I asked “why” to find out if there was an event or some timeline I needed to accommodate. She answered thinking I had asked about the purpose of the product she was buying. Clearly I was the beneficiary here. This was an opportunity to skip a grade, so I pursued the course of conversation she had set. “Tell me,” I said, thoughtfully resting my chin on my hand. “What drove you to call me?”
She started to walk her own decision-making backwards. “Well,” she said. “I was in a meeting, discussing how to get people to an event to register, and someone said, ‘We need some branded product.’ I just went and started getting it. But, you are right!” she said. “I don’t want branded product, I want people to show up at the event. Branded product was just the easy answer.”
“Ahhhhh,” I said with great import, as if I had seen it all before, Yoda-like. “Product you want?”
“Yes!” she said, leaning back with wonder. “I just wanted to take my task and do it, instead of thinking about the true purpose, the true goal.” She looked at me with wonder, amazed that such a young person could hold such wisdom. Little did she know that the only wisdom I held was, “Do not talk now.”
For any decision you make, ask yourself why you made that decision, and whether anybody needed to make that decision. Rinse and repeat until you get to your true purpose.
Katrina VanHuss has been instilling passion in volunteer fundraisers since 1989 when she founded Turnkey. Otis joined in the fun in 2013 as Turnkey’s resident human behavior expert. One thing led to another, and now as a married couple, they almost never stop talking about fundraising, volunteerism and human decision-making, much to the chagrin of most dinner companions.
Through their work at Turnkey, the pair works with the likes of the American Lung Association, Best Buddies, Leukemia & Lymphoma Society and the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation, using human behavioral tendencies and recognition to create attachment and high fundraising in volunteers.
Katrina and Otis present regularly at clients’ national conferences, as well as at BBCon, NonProfit Pro P2P and Peer to Peer Forum, and are the co-authors of the 2017 book, Dollar Dash. They live in Richmond, Va.