An Interview with Co-Founder Ethan Austin

Ethan Austin, Co-founder of, burrito investor and ersatz ping-pong champion

Ethan Austin, Co-founder
of, burrito investor, ersatz ping-pong champion

“Culture lets us punch above our weight class and attract people we wouldn’t ordinarily get. ‘A’ players attract other ‘A’ players.”

Name: Ethan Austin

Role: Co-founder


Mission: To inspire people to help each other through generosity and compassion.

Impact: Helped raise more than $70 million for medical expenses*

Specs: 34 employees*

Also: Loves burritos so much he invests in them

*As of October, 2013


As a big fan of burritos and culture, what are your thoughts about Chipotle’s Scarecrow campaign and what it says about their culture?

Ethan: It’s awesome, they took a risk. They don’t advertise on TV. Instead, they essentially planted a flag and said “this is what we believe, and if you also believe, eat Chipotle.” They’re building a tribe of people who believe the same thing. When I decided to be an adult a few years ago and got the IRA, the only stock I bought was Chipotle. Every time I eat there I feel like I’m making money. Funny thing is I felt like I was pretending to be an adult, got an IRA, then invested it all in Chipotle.


If the Scarecrow campaign is Chipotle’s way of building a tribe, talk to me about GiveForward’s tribe. How would you describe the culture of the team at GiveForward?

Ethan: Three words: Create unexpected joy. That’s the mantra that everyone adheres to and believes in and is inspired by. It’s what the product does. It’s also what the team does. At Giveforward we try to inject a bit of humanity into every interaction and create unexpected joy for everyone. Whether for our users or coworkers. The idea isn’t to change the world, it’s to change the world for one person that day. It could be by making someone smile. 


How does “create unexpected joy” translate into your office’s culture on a daily basis?

Ethan: By not just talking about stuff but making sure you live it. We believe in story living, not in story telling. Every person when they start working at GiveForward gets $500 to use any way they like to create unexpected joy for others. It could be for co-workers or users of the site. We started an internal blog to share some of the fun ways they’ve helped other people. It’s also a way we look at our product by asking “does this create unexpected joy for people?” and if it doesn’t, how do we build it?


“The idea isn’t to change the world, it’s to change the world for one person that day. It could be by making someone smile.”


Can you share an example of creating unexpected joy with $500?

Ethan: Sure. There is a user on our site. She is in her mid 20s and has breast cancer. She’s a photographer. Her friends raised $60,000 for her. She was on the news and was going to be in Chicago for a photoshoot. We thought it would be cool if we brought her to our office and had one of her prints framed here. So we bought one of her prints, got it shipped, snuck in here, and when she got to our office we surprised her with the print framed and displayed for everyone to see in our kitchen. She had a big smile.


Hiring is an extension of the culture. When hiring, how do you evaluate whether or not someone’s a culture fit?

Ethan: I ask everyone the question, “when’s the last time you’ve created unexpected joy for someone?” and I see what they say. If you combine our values, mission, and vision into one, it’s the act of creating unexpected joy for someone. The answer to that question is often telling of someone’s character and how they mesh with our values. If they can’t think of anything on the spot, it’s not necessarily a red flag, but the people who can, it really says something.


In a blog post of yours from May you mentioned that culture is not equal to ping pong or Nerf guns, both stereotypical symbols of office cultures that try to project fun. Yet at GiveForward, one of your core values is to “Take Fun Seriously.” How does GiveForward embody this core value? 

Ethan: What I meant by that is that any office that says “here’s our culture” about those things is missing the point. Culture is about understanding and living the mission, vision, and values every day. If one of your values is fun, then Nerf guns might be part of living those values. Beer, ping pong, Nerf guns, those can be part of your culture, but they don’t define your culture. If part of the culture is “we don’t take ourselves too seriously,” then that’s it. But if someone points to those things as culture, they’re missing the point. We have those things because people in our office brought those in organically. The fridge is full of beer, we have nerf guns, but those things don’t define our culture. They’re a manifestation of the culture.

The other day I came back from a meeting somewhere, got off the train near our office, and I saw two people near the station dressed in costume. One was in a chicken suit and the other in an elephant costume. I did a double take when I saw they were handing out our Givasaurus t-shirts. This was something our GiveForward team members came up with.

If everyone believes in the values, those things happen organically. I was surprised to get off the stop and see an elephant and chicken in costume.


GiveForward's Office

GiveForward’s Office And Wolf Clock – Ayoooooooo!


Recently, one of the founders of Eventbrite, a company whose culture was compared to Disneyland, discussed her concern that their focus on having the best culture might result in mediocre performance. What are your thoughts?

Ethan: I’ve had that same thought before. I think a lot of culture comes from the founders and their personalities. We have this amazing culture that’s fun that brings in really passionate people. We could use help, I think. We have a product that blows people out of the water with a high Net Promoter score. It’s because we’ve focused our culture around having fun, being authentic, and having compassion. Now we’re at the stage where we need to scale, figure out how we grow. Executing. The culture we’ve built isn’t focused on executing – it’s focused on the other things. It’s great because it makes us what we are now.

I just got off the phone with the former CTO of Livingsocial. We were talking about building a culture around growth. If we want to be a billion dollar company, the culture has to shift in part, has to emphasize, in part, growth. Around experimentation, execution, and getting the product out through experimentation and tweaks as fast as possible. But we can’t just bring in people who are good at growth.

Figuring out the growth hypothesis has to be an organic belief from within that this is the kernel that’s going to drive things. I don’t think it means cutting back on our existing culture that we have. It means rebalancing. We’re not going to get rid of our existing culture. It has to happen organically.


 “…four of our last eight employees have been referred from a team member. It’s what I called the positive feedback loop of bueno-ness.”


In your blog you stated, “If you see me around town over the next eight months, please ask me what we are doing to work on our culture and how our hiring is coming along.  This will keep me accountable for what I need to do.  Gracias.” So, what are you doing to work on culture?

Ethan: We’re doing surveys of our team every month to get their feedback. So we see where our blind spots are and we ask how we can improve. We ask different questions each month like “Do you have the tools you need to do your job?” or “Do you feel like your voice is heard?”

We brought on a VP of people. This was the biggest thing. She was the head of HR at Dell, before that she was with a company that went from 50 people to 900. She had been there all along the way. She cared about organizational effectiveness, culture, values, mission, and a traditional HR role. I realized this woman is better at everything I want to do. She actually knows how to do it. Her name’s Michelle. She’s really good at process. She’s helping build the infrastructure that allows people to live our culture. She developed a consistent onboarding program. Now we hear people say “I’ve never been at a company that’s so organized and I feel so ready to dive in after that first week.”

We’ve become more organized and systematized around the infrastructure we’re building so we can actually live our values every day.

Also, we have visual cues – we didn’t have any up for a long time. We’re painting them on the walls. It’s an easy thing to do. But the power of visual is big. Repetition is big.


Also, how’s hiring coming along?

Ethan: Hiring is great. So four of our last eight employees have been referred from a team member. It’s what I called the positive feedback loop of bueno-ness. Culture lets us punch above our weight class and attract people we wouldn’t ordinarily get. “A” players attract other “A” players.


Lastly, your love of burritos has been well documented. Any recommendations?

Ethan: I’m going to say stick with Chipotle. I’ve tried a lot of burritos in Chicago. Had a lot I loved in San Francisco. But my favorite still is Chipotle. Disclosure, I own the stock.


Note: To learn more about GiveForward or to begin a fundraising campaign for someone you love:

Post navigation

  • Justin Price

    Interesting interview, Aaron. Looking forward to hearing from more from the variety of people you’ve come across.

  • Wouter Sliedrecht

    Cool piece. And spend your money where you invest is a winning strategy. Looking forward to the next blog.