What is Pond? A Fort Wayne-based tech startup making a splash in the nonprofit sector and beyond

Five years ago, if you would have asked Mitch Stein where he thought he would be in 2021, the answer wouldn't be: Living at his parent's house in Southwest Fort Wayne and running a national tech startup.

As recently as March 2020, Stein was a corporate executive in Manhattan, working in investment banking for Goldman Sachs. In his most recent role, he was in technology banking, running strategic transactions for big tech companies, software, and internet businesses. 

While managing these transactions, Stein learned a lot about how digital marketplaces function. He also saw the need for a more effective, impact-minded marketplace for the nonprofit sector, in particular.

Why nonprofits? By sheer numbers, nonprofits make up about 5.6 percent of the U.S. GDP. They're also a large source of where public and private dollars go to meet people's essential needs in the U.S.—especially in times of crisis, like a pandemic. 

Mitch Stein is Co-Founder, CEO, and CIO of the tech startup Pond in Fort Wayne.

But when Stein served on the board for a nonprofit close to his heart in New York, he got a painfully intimate insight into how much money being donated to nonprofits isn't making the impact it could in society, and the reasons are largely not the fault of nonprofits themselves. Instead, they're the result of systemic challenges.

Many nonprofits are resource-strapped administratively, unable to update internal technologies and processes, which could save them time and enable them to reach their full potential. During the pandemic, the situation is exacerbated by relief dollars earmarked for specific programs and services without enough administrative support for nonprofits to function sustainably.

In Stein's mind: There has to be a better way to meet nonprofits' and society's needs. So working with a colleague at Goldman Sachs and a Fort Wayne-based team that has grown to include 10 employees from Brooklyn to San Diego, he has designed a streamlined marketplace for nonprofit tech. The goal is to help organizations update their technology tools and to give tech providers a direct line of communication with the nonprofits who need their services. 

They call it Pond. At first glance, it appears to function like a dating app, asking nonprofits and tech providers to fill out free profiles about themselves, and then sending them on virtual "dates" to determine a fit. 

Pond's website is joinpond.com.

But if you ask Stein, Pond is more than a match-making service, and its potential applications extend beyond the nonprofit sector alone. It might even open the floodgates to a new, user-centric model of digital marketing. 

It all goes back to why and how Pond was developed.

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In the early planning stages of Pond, Stein was inspired by the travel marketplaces he encountered at Goldman Sachs. His initial concept was to create a user-friendly way for nonprofits to shop a variety of tech providers with transparent pricing and reviews.

"I thought: I'm going to make a free marketplace that makes it as easy for a nonprofit to get the tech tools they need as it is for you to put a trip together—picking your flight, your car rental, your hotel, your tours," Stein says. "It's all right there. It's transparent. There's a community around it. There are reviews."

Mitch Stein is Co-Founder, CEO, and CIO of the tech startup Pond in Fort Wayne.

Stein designed the original version of Pond (by a different name) around this concept. He quit his job at Goldman Sachs and hired two engineers to build out the platform. They launched the first marketplace in September 2020 with networks of nonprofits on board and tech providers sponsoring the platform. The problem was: Nonprofits weren't using it.

What Stein and his team realized was that their free marketplace wasn't providing enough value to nonprofits to outweigh their cost in time and energy to even search for tech providers. It was still expecting nonprofits to do the hard work of shopping themselves, making hasty decisions about services that may or may not be worth their limited resources.

So Stein's team thought: What if there was a way to flip the paradigm? What if there was a way to have tech providers shop for nonprofits instead and even pay nonprofits to hear their pitches?

With this in mind, they created Pond to function less like a travel marketplace and more like a social network. But unlike Facebook or Instagram, which are designed to cater to advertisers by selling user data and keeping thumbs scrolling neverending news feeds, Pond's network is designed to streamline and, thus, minimize the amount of screentime nonprofits need to spend to find a tech solution. It also pays them for the time they do invest in meetings on the site.

All nonprofits have to do is fill out a simple, free profile on Pond, outlining their technology challenges and needs. Then tech providers will reach out to them in a once-a-week email roundup of meeting invitations. They can choose to accept or decline these invites, and for every meeting they accept, they earn $100 in Pond credits, which can be used toward the service(s) of their choice from any of the vendors they meet with.

Pond allows nonprofits and tech providers to create free profiles on its site.

Pond is a Public Benefit Corporation, which earns a $20 “tip” on each meeting it schedules for tech providers. That $20 is added to the tech provider's $100 fee per meeting, making it $120 total. 

Until tech providers schedule their first meetings on Pond, they are able to join the network for free, just like nonprofits, says Kiara Anderson, Pond's Co-Founder and Chief Technology Officer based in New York. In this way, Pond's early adopters are finding that its model benefits nonprofits and tech providers alike. Kiara Anderson is Pond's Co-Founder and Chief Technology Officer based in New York.

"If nonprofits evaluate 10 different tech platforms with a $100 reward for each conversation, they now have $1,000 dollars to spend on their tech services and a range of options to choose from," she says. "In turn, Pond helps tech providers get personal meetings with extremely qualified leads who want to hear from them, so instead of dumping money into ads or making cold calls, they’re getting directly to the pitch phase for their products."

Since testing its prototype in January, Pond has launched and continued to refine its platform. It currently has 145 nonprofit users and 75 tech providers in 30 states. Its tech services include tools for donor management, fundraising, marketing and communications, grants management, volunteer management, corporate engagement, and more. 

Pond's team has grown in size, too. It currently has seven full-time employees, and four (including Stein) are based in Fort Wayne. A few Fort Wayne nonprofits have started using Pond, too, including Turnstone Center for Children and Adults with Disabilities, which appears in Pond's demo video on its websiteSonia Hildner is a Creative Brand Specialist at Pond based in Fort Wayne.

Stein says next on his team's agenda is attracting investment from Indiana venture capitalists, hiring a few new staff positions, and of course, expanding Pond's pool of users and tech providers.

"We're at the stage now where we think every nonprofit should be using Pond," Stein says. "It's not only free, but also it can also be anonymous, depending on how much information you want to share, and it literally pays you to save time and do the thing that you're wasting time on already, which is finding tech solutions."

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If Pond sounds "too good to be true," that might be the hurdle it faces in working with nonprofits, says Rena Shown, Chief of Development & Strategic Partnership at Turnstone, who has been using the platform with her team. Rena Shown is Chief Development Officer for Turnstone Center.

"It's going to take fundraisers a minute to understand what Pond actually is," Shown says. "Most of the time, it seems like vendors aren't there trying to help us. It usually feels like vendors are trying to gain access to you for their own interests instead of being interested in you and the needs that you have as a nonprofit, so that makes Pond different."

Having worked in the nonprofit sector for nearly 10 years, Shown says this is the first time she's seen a platform designed to connect nonprofits directly to the tech services of their choosing, like a matchmaker, or provide monetary credits to them for meeting with vendors.

She first learned about Pond through a friend in Fort Wayne, and she was excited to give the platform a try at Turnstone, which has been resource-strapped trying to pivot and maintain its essential services during the pandemic, like many nonprofits.

While Shown hasn't accepted all the meeting invitations she's received from tech providers on Pond, she says the platform has had some unexpected benefits. In addition to saving her time, it has helped her discover new tools and services she didn't realize existed on the market. One such service is a donor letter automation tool called Addressable, which automates handwritten correspondence with donors.

"I listed in my Pond profile that I wanted to improve communications with donors, and that’s how Addressable found me," Shown says. "When I found out about their letter automation service, it was so innovative. I didn’t even know I was missing this tool, but I could immediately see how it fit into our strategy box at Turnstone."

Rena Shown of Turnstone, right, talks with a representative at the tech provider Addressable.

One feature Shown wishes Pond had that it doesn't offer yet is the ability to connect with fellow nonprofit leaders about which tech services and strategies they're using so they can swap best practices. She believes creating more opportunities for nonprofits to fraternize could also spark more ideas for tech providers on Pond, allowing them to see what nonprofits are looking for and design products that meet their needs.

"That’s something exciting about this platform, too," Shown says. "It's an innovation that could inspire more innovation."

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As the leader of Pond's technology team, Anderson says Shown's requests are similar to what she's heard from many users so far. Her team is currently creating a way for nonprofits to connect with each other on the platform. They're also working on a way to add independent, nonprofit consultants to the marketplace, in addition to nonprofits and tech providers.

Once Pond has refined its model in the nonprofit sector, Stein hopes to expand the company into other markets, like furniture or hotels, where it can work directly with consumers, helping users like you find products you want—and get paid to shop.

"If brands want to market to you, they could be paying you for your attention instead of paying Facebook," Stein says. "We see a huge, greater opportunity to take the way the world is now with social media data collection and digital advertising and actually use that for good."

It's this big-picture thinking that convinced Fort Wayne entrepreneur Kristin Giant to work for Pond as a full-time employee. While Giant still runs her impact investing firm Hyper Local Impact, she has taken on the additional role of Chief Growth Officer at Pond, a company she believes is impact-minded and laying the foundation for much-needed change in the nonprofit sector and the world of big tech.

Kristin Giant is Chief Growth Officer at Pond, a tech startup in Fort Wayne.

At the onset of the pandemic, Netflix’s popular documentary, The Social Dilemma, drew attention to the "dangerous human impact" of digital marketing and advertising on social networks. It revealed how tech companies collect and sell user data and work to keep people addicted to devices. Giant says that due to the nature of the current system, many well-intentioned nonprofits and companies advertising on social media might be inadvertently contributing to problems in the attention economy.

"Your nonprofit might care deeply about youth, and yet, you're pouring millions of dollars into Instagram ads, and data shows that Instagram is driving young people to literal death," Giant says. "If you don't examine the whole transaction, you might be funding the very thing you're advocating against."

The Black Lives Matter movement is teaching us the power and limits of social media.

Pond offers nonprofits and tech providers an alternative by removing the attention economy from the equation and putting money directly into nonprofits' pockets instead.

"It's rare when we talk about systems change that people have a practical, needle-moving solution," Giant says. "But Pond offers that by working with the current system, as it is, and also by having a big, audacious goal to dismantle the attention economy."

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So far, Pond has been funded out of pocket by Stein's personal savings, as well as investments from his mentors and family. To take its services to the next level, Pond's team is seeking investment from venture capitalists in Indiana and beyond. 

"We're using insider capital to get to the point where we have an airtight investor pitch for a seed round venture investment because we know investor's ears tend to turn off when they hear the word 'nonprofit,'" Stein says. "Our pitch is: We agree that the nonprofit sector is a bad investment by traditional business standards, and that's why Pond is a good investment—because we plan to make it a legitimate market."

Giant sees Pond as an additional opportunity for Indiana investors to support a high growth, Hoosier-run tech startup—particularly one serving Indiana's burgeoning nonprofit sector. 

"People often talk about the pipeline problem for innovative tech ventures in Indiana, but we're seeking venture capital for Pond this year," Giant says. "This is an opportunity for venture capitalists to put their money where their mouth is, so to speak."

Kristin Giant and Mitch Stein

So far, Stein says funding a tech startup in Indiana has been challenging compared to his experience in New York. He hopes more Northeast Indiana investors will see value in supporting a local tech startup rather than trying to attract a big tech company from out of state. 

On the plus side, he's been able to find talented employees, like Giant, in Fort Wayne and save money on other aspects of launching a business in Indiana—like rent.

He echoes Giant's point that Fort Wayne is an ideal place to launch a business serving nonprofits, in particular, because Allen County's human service sector is a major economic force. It contributes more than $722 million to the gross regional product and employs nearly 1 out of every 20 paid workers in the county.

While Pond's employees work remotely and are located across the U.S., Stein says the company will retain a strong base in Northeast Indiana as it grows. Pond held its first national retreat in Fort Wayne this year and is already providing jobs to local tech-savvy residents, like Thein Aye, the daughter of Burmese refugees in Fort Wayne and a recent graduate of Indiana University.

As a fast-talking, energetic 25-year-old, Aye developed a passion for marketing and PR late in her college career when she saw a social media influencer receive a curated care package from a lifestyle brand. While she didn't initially find many tech-oriented PR opportunities in Fort Wayne, she began researching and networking voraciously on platforms, like LinkedIn and ClubHouse. That's how she connected with Pond and landed a job.

She's now the company's Branding and Content Coordinator, and she feels lucky to be a part of a startup, charting its own path in the tech industry right in her hometown. Since Pond's model is unique, Aye says it can be difficult to explain at times, but that's what makes her role exciting. She gets to be part of a team helping people across the country understand a new, more optimistic alternative to digital marketing and how it can be used for good.

"We’re trying to do something different," she says. "And we’re seeing a lot of traction."
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