Product leader Kristina Philip shares lessons and stories about building software to advance social philanthropy.
With the world wide web in its third decade, more individuals and businesses continue to shift their attention towards deciding what kind of impact they want to make in the world and the legacy they want to establish. Kristina Philip, formerly Product Owner at Sustainably (now Head of Product at xDesign) reflects upon her time at the company, and believes that now more than ever, many are taking what she describes as “small collective actions which can lead to big positive outcomes”.
Sustainably was founded in Edinburgh, Scotland in 2017 by Loral Quinn and Eishel Quinn, as a way to make a positive impact in the world with cashless purchases. With the Sustainably app, consumers made a difference every time they spend and made it easy for them to give their spare change to their favorite causes and become philanthropists.
The app idea is comparable to how a cashier asks you to donate your spare change to charity while standing at the cash register; Except instead of the cashier asking the question, the process happens automatically with the support of Open Banking technology. It’s like what Loral and Eishel said in one of their past campaigns, “We’ve created a platform dedicated to sustainable living and giving.”
When Kristina joined Sustainably, she became instrumental in defining the product management culture and the cadence for how they delivered their award winning technology to the world. I asked about her experiences and what it was like to launch software designed to do social good. Here’s what she shared and learned.
Sustainably was an app that allowed consumers to do “micro-donations” to charities that were supported by the company. It allowed them to donate in two ways: “Monthly Happiness” and “Roundups.” Kristina explains:
“With the app, it placed control into where people can give. When they chose a charity, they saw where their money went. They also retained their privacy so we never shared details with charities. Users could adjust their charities of choice whenever they wanted, and changed amounts whenever they wanted.”
Monthly Happiness requested a maximum donation each month while Roundups took pennies on every pound spent until it reached £5, then donated it to their chosen causes. Consumers also received updates on how their donations were used, as well as thank you messages.
When they first launched the app, it became apparent there were many charities that wanted to address social challenges. Sustainably quickly saw the opportunity in onboarding all these organizations, and it became the impetus for building a B2B type of service — the fundraising platform.
The platform was designed to give eligible organizations the capability to leverage services, receive donations and connect with Sustainably’s consumers — a network of ready and willing digital philanthropists.
It also provided ways to help organizations understand how supporters engaged in charitable giving. “Fundraisers were able to access data insights about supporters’ purchasing trends,” Kristina says. “Access to this type of data was useful in exploring potential partnerships with businesses interested in supporting causes.”
With the app and fundraising platform in place, Sustainably ultimately developed an environment where supporting causes and fundraising was automated and easy for everyone. “It was about building that socially responsible ecosystem where we bring good people together to benefit good causes they can connect with,” She says:
“There’s something about the idea where if I’m doing my shopping every week at TESCO and I know that every time I buy from them, I’m giving to causes I care about; And that’s quite compelling.”
It was by definition a truly innovative idea. However, the journey to these accomplishments was not without its hurdles. As you read further, you’ll learn how Sustainably as a company navigated the challenges.
Kristina joined Sustainably with a background in traditional banking. When she joined she was quite aware that Open Banking was a technology large European Union banks were reluctant to support. This knowledge among other things, placed her in the right position to help the startup navigate risks or pitfalls when leveraging banking technology in order to deliver on the proof of concept.
While their USP and prototype demonstrated potential for success — the scope in regard to the company’s business architecture and software implementation was complex. Nevertheless, they succeeded in raising investment and it was time to deliver on their promise — but as a startup, they have never built software before.
They needed a plan for organizing the systems design and engineering work to be done. What they needed according to Kristina was a product development strategy:
“I needed to set up a framework first in order for the development team to work in a flexible fashion. This included figuring out what the sprint activities looked like and the approach we would take, then turn the details into initiatives, epics and user stories.”
A bespoke combination of Lean and Kanban techniques according to Kristina worked best, so she worked with the product team to review the respective practices. After a few conversations, they devised processes which accommodated all the necessary inputs and outputs, ranging from reviewing requirements, customer data, wireframes, prototypes, process models, the backlog, and other relevant data and materials. Once the sprint ceremonies, sprint goals and time-boxes were in place, the immediate priority was to launch the coded version of the app.
As a startup, they understood that although the proof of concept  was good — it was not a mature product, yet. The launch was critical because the release of a coded version  was the real test for whether the product idea  was viable and could attract subsequent investment.
They saw value in prototyping a proof of concept , to releasing a coded version into the market , so they can make adjustments quickly based on lessons learned from experiments and user feedback. It’s the process for building a minimum viable product (MVP). Emphasis on “process” because the “product” in “MVP” is not an end point. It’s a step in the process.
The objective was to release a version of the app  they can afford to test based on the proof of concept . That’s what “minimum viable” means.
They succeeded in their delivery of the coded version . The next step was to learn, iterate, and continue working towards the mature product .
In larger organizations you split up activities like vetting ideas, reviewing data and user feedback, at the same time other teams focus on delivering and maintaining services. Large companies have departments for operations, research, design and quality assurance, when at a startup, each or all of these “departments” could be one person.
Fast-forward to shortly after delivery of the app — Kristina and I talk about moments where in Sustainably, each employee had a broad range of responsibilities at hand. This is where using Dual-Track agile became a part of their strategy.
“Now that the product was up and running, we shifted completely to working in discovery and delivery tracks. Because we were a small team, we needed to be open to the unexpected.”
The Dual-Track method allows teams to work on discovery and delivery (development) activities concurrently. The two activities include:
- Discovery: research, evaluate, and test ideas in order to determine the right product and capabilities to build.
- Delivery (Development): Build and release the product to market.
Although these tracks run concurrently, Kristina recommends that one should not have any work coming through the delivery track that hasn’t already been through discovery.
To continue work towards the mature product — the objective was to continuously engage in the Lean method’s “build, measure, learn, iterate” cycle over a series of Kanban-based sprints. During the sprints, they needed to learn from the app’s performance and from user feedback. They also needed to be ready to address bugs, spikes and other incidents, and be open to make adjustments — all as quickly as possible, as she explains:
“When we’re in a sprint, software delivery isn’t linear. We needed to be able to handle unplanned things during sprints, especially for complex problems. There were moments when estimates turned to be more work than we thought, or we found that additional code needed to be refactored. These are reasons why we created discovery and delivery tracks. It was about reassessing whether sprint goals and tasks are still achievable.”
The app was now live and every week, the product team reviewed performance and customer data. Apart from using this data to discuss topics regarding sprint planning, user adoption, and service costs and benefits to the business — they had several hypotheses that required validation, and that meant reviewing data to get answers to:
- “Are we building the right features?”
- “Are we focused on the right problems to be solved?”
- “Are we delivering value to our customers and stakeholders?”
When they encountered more complex challenges, and answering the before mentioned required contributions from the entire business — a technique called “value based decision making” came into play.
At their sprint planning meetings, they use value-based decision matrices to evaluate priorities. The practice is designed to educate the product team and stakeholders on potential goals in order to attain consensus, because the reality, according to Kristina — was there was always more work than the team had time to accomplish.
During sprint planning, the team would organize and review sprint goals and backlog tasks through the matrix categories. With the matrix they strive to determine what they can accomplish within a given two-week sprint that can actually deliver value.
Also — if during discovery or delivery they stumbled upon situations regarding features they didn’t foresee, they had to accommodate them and revisit the same goals and priorities. In these moments they ask:
- “How much do we know about this capability we want to deliver?”
- “Does this capability align with our company mission and core values?”
- “How many customers is this going to impact?”
- “How confident are we to deliver this capability based on how valuable we believe it is to our customers?”
With Sustainably, there was always new challenges, and Kristina admits that sometimes things became more challenging before they got better. One of them in particular, was in regard to onboarding charities.
When she joined the company, she initially thought one of key areas of focus was to review how to get customers on the app and donate to their favorite charities. What she didn’t expect however, was that she would need to investigate the other side of the equation — and determine how to vet and onboard the right kinds of charities into the platform. Nevertheless, Kristina and the entire company gladly rose to the occasion.
Before customers could sign-up and donate, they need to select a charity — but how would the customer or Sustainably know for sure that the charity is real? Sustainably had to guarantee that donations are going to verified and trusted organizations. They also had to prevent money laundering.
“How do we make sure these charities are legitimate?” Was the big question Kristina revealed as she reflects on this experience.
“We wanted to know that we’re dealing with a verified charity, and the donations were going to a verified bank account. There is also a collection of assets that we wanted to ensure were displayed appropriately on the app. In retrospect there were many items to be done especially when it came to learning about aspects of how charities are setup and ensuring they are onboarded efficiently.”
The question about creating an effective “self-service” onboarding process for charities was quite the learning experience. In the midst of all the ambiguity, they approached it with excitement and brainstormed several ideas; And whenever they got to the moments where it was difficult to discover the right solutions — she remembers that it was about trusting the discovery and design process and maintaining a positive mindset.
To continue delivering sustainable results, Kristina believes it’s important to find reasons to value the journey, even during the challenging times. She compares the journey to the Myth of Sisyphus — the Greek story of a man who was punished by the Greek god of the underworld, Hades by making him push a boulder to the top of a hill, only to have the boulder roll back down and begin anew, for eternity.
According to Camus, after Sisyphus endured his punishment over time, he realized that by acknowledging the reality of his situation, he was able to change his perspective and find value in his experience in constructive ways. Kristina explains:
“The moral of the story is you’ve got to enjoy the process just as much as the outcome. That really resonates with me because building software today is not something that has an end. It’s an ongoing, living product that you’re managing. It’s about being able to enjoy the actual process that you’re going through.”
When engaged in software development there are experiences that are not always enjoyable, so the point of the story is to learn to be kind to yourself. Remember to keep moving forward with building, testing, learning, iterating — and find valuable lessons in everything along the way.
There is evidence that organizations can succeed in collecting and donating spare change to causes. Just ask the folks at the Panda Cares foundation. According to news sources, Panda Cares is funded through digital and physical donation boxes located in Panda Express restaurants mostly in the United States and Asia.
The restaurants fundraise in store, asking customers if they’d like to round up or give loose change. The money raised is then placed into causes they support, ranging from youth programs, scholarships, to hospitals.
Although Panda Cares is a success, they have a network of restaurants that support the foundation. Sustainably on the other hand, was building their company from good-hearted people, community organizations and businesses willing to engage in Open Banking with their platform.
When I sat down to talk with Kristina about Sustainably, I wanted to learn about how a startup builds a socially responsible company. “In your opinion, how did the company cultivate a sense of ownership among it’s people and make the delivery for products like this possible?” I ask.
“We kept coming back to what our business is,” She replied. “Embed sustainable good… being able to put Sustainably into communities and everyday life, and make it easy and frictionless. Loral as CEO and Eishel as CPO both have a strong sense of purpose and they strived to ensure the strategy always focused on that vision.”
“Everything we did was about building a community of philanthropists and building towards that big impact from a lot of small donations and feeding back as much good as we can to underserved communities.”
Whether the goal is to end poverty, improve healthcare, build more sustainable housing, or provide access to affordable energy, Sustainably discovered a novel way for consumers and businesses to address these challenges and actually do good.
When Kristina first joined the company, she didn’t expect being the product owner would be an all-encompassing role, but she persisted and ended up doing more than just organizing delivery initiatives. She became a part of a movement that took action against indifference and advanced social philanthropy for the better — and to witness the response to their work was in itself a great reward.
“At Sustainably, we observed an increasing number of socially responsible individuals and businesses, striving to build their awareness of sustainable development goals (SDGs) and recognizing the potential for generating a positive impact on communities,” She says.
Despite their remarkable technology and receiving critical acclaim from various organizations, they were unable to attract adequate investment and a strong enough customer base before they could mature into a full-scale business. Sustainably closed it’s doors in 2022.
While there are understandable reasons for why the startup could be considered a failure — based on our conversation, my sincere feeling is Sustainably as an experiment was a success:
“More and more people were stepping up and being accountable for their impact on the world and the people around them. Even recognizing the impact of climate change had companies searching for more ways to go green and build sustainable product models; And Sustainably demonstrated exactly how to do it.”
Contradictions aside, Sustainably pioneered a purposeful kind of philanthropy by providing automated ways to give back, every time you spend. They invented fintech products designed to give people the power to fight against apathy, care about causes in tangible ways, and make a positive impact whilst living their everyday lives.
As a small startup they delivered software which will inspire businesses, communities and charitable giving for years to come; And Kristina feels that for Sustainably — this is a legacy to be proud of.