Paul Kwiatkowski: Global Entrepreneurship from Houston

Paul Kwiatkowski, GroupRaise co-founder“Starting up a new software product is a global game,” said Paul Kwiatkowski, CS alumnus and co-founder of GroupRaise. “I’m in Houston nine months out of the year and the rest of the time I’m traveling.” Since starting his company, Kwiatkowski has lived in U.S. cities like Honolulu and Dallas as well as spending months abroad in Santiago, Chile and Berlin, Germany.

He said, “New York and San Francisco startups are lucky that people already come to those locations for conferences, but those startups also have to fly out and meet their customers where they are doing business.” The four co-founders launched GroupRaise in Houston, where the culture and community already supported both a booming restaurant industry and a lot of fundraising activity.

“GroupRaise is the most delicious way to change the world,” said Kwiatkowski. “We help organizers – moms, campfire girls, cancer survivors — book fundraisers at local restaurants that want to give back to the community.”

Kwaitkowski’s leap into entrepreneurship sprang from a seemingly unrelated series of work and college experiences. He met one of his future partners, Devin Baptiste, on a playground when they were five years old; they formed a friendship that lasted across both years and miles.

His family moved to Saudi Arabia, then back to Houston and Kwiatkowski began college in the Seattle area, then transferred to Rice for the computer science program. After his first year at Rice, Kwiatkowski realized he was not as engaged with the subject matter as his peers and considered dropping CS for a Sociology major. He said, “Then I took COMP 410 with Dr. Wong and that’s where I figured out what I really wanted to do: architect and write software that impacts people.”

When he realized that he needed to actually see people using the code he was working on, his perspective on career tracks changed significantly. He said, “In COMP 410, when I got to meet the customers using the product we were building, I got the visceral feedback that I had been missing. I could see the program and see what it was doing for our customer.”

Regaining his momentum, Kwiatkowski then headed to Japan for a semester abroad. “That was actually a mistake,” he said. “I’d just figured out what I wanted to do and I found myself losing some of that enthusiasm.

“I loved Japan, though, and hitchhiked across the country in my last month. While I was hitchhiking, my Rice friends were interviewing for their summer internships but I had no wifi, no way to jump in from Japan.”

Back in Houston with no technical internships lined up, Kwiatkowski returned to an industry where he had experience, accepting a job as a restaurant manager. He said, “One day I got a call while I was on break between the lunch and dinner rush. ‘Do you know how to computer?’ asked my good buddy Devin, whom I hadn’t seen since high school. So I said, ‘Yes, I know how to computer. What can I do for you?’”

The two met for breakfast, caught up on missed years, and then Baptiste mentioned the business idea that he and Kevin Valdez –both finance majors at the University of St. Thomas– had been cultivating. Baptiste asked for Kwiatkowski’s thoughts regarding the advantages of using an outside shop to develop the software versus taking on a technical person as a co-founder. “I pointed out the personal bond that comes from being a co-founder,” said Kwiatkowski. “Then Devin asked if I knew anyone who could do the full stack.”

He thought about what he’d learned at Rice. “I knew I could learn quickly. I already knew a couple of languages, and I’d done some web stuff a few years back. That earlier web success gave me a false sense of confidence.”

Kwiatkowski said not knowing how much he didn’t know also spurred him to become that full stack developer Baptiste needed. “Again, I credit COMP 410,” he said. “There’s no textbook. You get a blank text editor and a customer and Dr. Wong says, ‘Go! Build what they need!’ Once again, I would learn what I needed to learn.”

GroupRaise founders meet in person in Hawaii

GroupRaise founders first in person meeting, in Hawaii

For Kwiatkowski, the timing was almost perfect. Between transferring into Rice and his study abroad disruption, he was in his fifth year of college, knew he wanted to blend his aptitude for coding and his passion for impacting people directly, and had already been investigating startups. In addition to Kwiatkowski’s knack for programming, he also brought restaurant experience to the team.

“Restaurants have to deal with waves of customers through the week,” he explained. “There are always slow days when you lose money, but you hope to make it up on the really busy days. Restaurant managers look for ways to fill tables during the slow times since they have to be open anyway.”

GroupRaise founders participate in Tech Wildcatters demo day

GroupRaise founders at Tech Wildcatters Demo Day

Fundraising at restaurants is not a new concept, but the GroupRaise approach smooths out a lot of issues for both fund-raisers and restaurant managers. He said, “The concept was to create a website where the fund-raising coordinator can pick a restaurant, a date, and estimate how many people would eat there. The restaurant agrees in advance to give back a percentage of the sales for that event.”

GroupRaise helps restaurants even out their traffic during slow times by offering up those windows to fund-raising groups, turning the under-used resource into an opportunity for social impact.  But even as their success grew, the co-founders realized their system would only generate enough cash flow to cover costs and make substantial contributions to charity if done at scale.

GroupRaise founders in Berlin

GroupRaise founders arrive in Berlin to participate in a startup accelerator.

“It doesn’t work if we don’t do it everywhere,” explained Kwiatkowski. “One or two restaurants — that’s just not enough to make it worthwhile for the fundraising groups.” So the co-founders spent their first three years hammering out the booking experience and getting more restaurants on board.

They also continued refining ways to maximize their resources. They participated in three different global startup accelerators (in Dallas, Berlin, and Santiago) and Kwiatkowski ran the Houston Lean Startup Circle for two years, learning and teaching rapid product iteration and customer validation.

GroupRaise returns to Berlin

Three years later, GroupRaise returns to Berlin to expand their business.

After focusing on chains for several years, the co-founders felt they had reached a saturation point and needed to seriously rethink their growth strategy. Kwiatkowski drew on his restaurant experience and how out individual restaurant owners can make decisions quickly. “So we decided to directly email 20,000 mom-and-pop restaurants,” he said.

The response from individual restaurants was at first encouraging, then overwhelming. The company quickly grew from five to 15 people, including customer success employees and software developers.

GroupRaise team in Santiago, 2017

Kwiatkowski, second from right, with the GroupRaise team working in Santiago, Chile.

“Now we know we were on the right track and that is where we are now,” Kwiatkowski said. “We’ve already donated hundreds of thousands of dollars to charities through GroupRaise.”

And he is still convinced that starting up a software product is a global game. In the last six months, he has been developing their product while working in Houston, Austin, and Santiago.