You’d think that for a small, recently launched e-commerce start-up Black Friday would be a pretty important sales day. But Truly M.A.D. founder Abhi Vallabhaneni and his staff weren’t checking sales or patrolling social media last Black Friday. They shut down their site for the day and set off to volunteer with a local non-profit to decorate and write holiday cards for seniors living in support homes.
Vallabhaneni’s company, Truly M.A.D., is a new online retailer that sells everything from headphones to sweaters and gives anywhere from 20 to 100% of the profit it makes on each product to charity. It’s what Vallabhaneni calls a “conscious marketplace” and it joins a growing number of other companies who are balancing doing social good with a sustainable business model. (See website at www.trulymad.com and connect with Truly M.A.D. on Facebook.)
“Everyone wants to be part of something that’s bigger than themselves,” Vallabhaneni said. “That’s essentially what we’re doing, in an environment that works for us.”
Here’s how it works: Truly M.A.D. (short for “making a difference”) creates campaigns by grouping together brands that want to make change with charities. Right now, the site is in the middle of its first campaign, called “Road to Empowerment: Africa.” Over 20 brands, including the bag company Esperos and reusable water bottle company Vapur, are matched up with four charities who work across Africa. For example, Set Her Free works with young girls formerly enslaved by the sex trade to restore their lives. The organization empowers the young women to become self-sustaining by providing a safe environment, education and rehabilitation.
Several unique aspects of the Truly M.A.D. business model allow for the donation of their profits from each product sold on the site. For one thing, Truly M.A.D. doesn’t buy or store inventory like most retailers have to do. Rather, brands let Truly M.A.D. purchase products after they’ve already sold them to customers because being part of a campaign helps them fulfill a level of their social responsibility — as well as enhance the image of their brand to their customers.
At the same time, Truly M.A.D. aims to help charities spread awareness about their work — an important benefit for a charity that may not have a big marketing budget. The company relies on its foundation partners to determine which charities are most effective in their work.
Essentially, Vallabhaneni said, Truly M.A.D. is betting that people — given the choice to buy the same product at the same price — will choose the option that gives a portion of their money to charity.
“Our bet is people will choose to do good,” he said.
At one point in his life, Vallabhaneni worked in an opposite world. Born and raised in India, he left for England where he graduated with his bachelor’s and master’s degree and started working at an investment bank. By 25, he was a partner at a London hedge fund.
“In finance, it’s a zero-sum game. If you win, someone else is losing,” he said. Recalling growing up in India, he thought often about what he calls the “birth roulette,” and the privileges he had in life that many others aren’t afforded.
“I realized there’s a bigger purpose to life and thought, ‘If I just keep doing this I’m going to be stuck.’”
After moving to the Bay Area in 2010, he started learning more and exploring the “social venture” space, or “socially conscious” companies like Tom’s Shoes or Warby Parker that direct portions of their profits to social causes. He soon was asking himself, why don’t any retailers work with existing brands continually direct a portion of their profits to charity?
Last June, Truly M.A.D. and its growing staff moved into WeWork, a coworking space in downtown Berkeley and set up their own place to build their platform. They started with a two-person office, and then expanded to an office that fits the Truly M.A.D. staff of five (plus boxes filled with new products.) [Berkeleyside has its office at WeWork Berkeley.]
“WeWork has been tremendously helpful for us,” he said. “It makes it easy to start from scratch.”
He also said posting messages to the WeWork community has helped them find marketing and public-relations professionals who are interested in working with them within a matter of hours. They even made a recent hire through a contact at WeWork.
In 2016, Truly M.A.D. is planning new campaigns with charities, signing on more brands, and is looking to expand its reach and, ultimately, the amount of good its partner charities can do.
Special offer for Berkeleyside readers: Truly M.A.D. is offering a 75% Good Karma Coupon to Berkeleyside readers! This means when you make a purchase, 75% of the profits from your order will go towards the Road to Empowerment: Africa campaign – for every $1 they make from your order they will donate $0.75! Coupon Code: Bside2016
This story is written and sponsored by WeWork Berkeley, a community of professionals and entrepreneurs with beautifully designed office space at Shattuck and University. Interested in learning more about WeWork? Contact the Community Management team at firstname.lastname@example.org or 510-275-4235