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The Accidental Entrepreneur

Mike Spear

The Accidental Entrepreneur

A little story about how I got from where I started, to where I am today. Social entrepreneurship? I'm as shocked as anybody...

If you’d told the teenage version of myself that I’d grow up to be an entrepreneur, I would’ve laughed. At the time, I was interested in sports, school, acting, and trying in vain to figure out what dating was all about. Business and corporate culture was the furthest thing from my mind. In all honesty, the idea of going into business was something of an anathema.

I remember clearly how hard my dad worked, and how little he seemed to enjoy it. He worked incredibly long hours. He mostly seemed to work with and for people he didn’t like all that much, and for all that struggle, our family never seemed to get very far ahead financially. We were upper-middle class to be sure, but finances were clearly a strain, and (as I later learned) our family was always living a little beyond our actual means. I hated the idea of having a 9-5, and resolved to be master of my own schedule. Further, I resolved to derive purpose and satisfaction from my work.

At the time, I was most passionate about theater, film, and storytelling, which led me to start my career as a freelance filmmaker, learning every part of the craft en-route to becoming a director. One thing that always separated me from my industry colleagues was that as much as I loved the mechanics of on-set work, editing, writing, and producing, it was never enough for me. While everyone else delighted in the craft itself, I was always most concerned with the stories we were telling. I felt trapped by the vapid themes of the commercials, shorts, and reality shows I cut my teeth on, and longed for a higher quality of production that my inexperience and lack of networking prowess precluded access to. In search of greater meaning, I went towards documentary production, and journalism.

On the set of In the Morning, a short film about honor killings.

But journalism wasn’t fulfilling either! Documentaries had not become as commercially viable as they are today, and I found the grind of daily news as unfulfilling as the reality TV work I’d worked so hard to transcend. Lots to unpack there I’m sure - Unfortunately, David Foster Wallace is never around when you need him. To make matters worse, I found the flexibility of freelancing to be a bit of a trap as well - when your next gig is uncertain, you have the tendency to take every job that comes your way, resulting in overwork. Time to search out the ripcord once again.

By sheer luck, and a wonderfully supportive network of friends and family, I discovered a little startup in San Diego called StayClassy (which later became Fed up with journalism, I’d ditched most of my belongings, and took a one-way flight to Las Vegas to play in the World Series of Poker with my uncles. My grand plan at the time was to play poker through the summer and then travel around the world, writing a book about all the people in various cultures I’d played with. (It’s not quite as crazy as it sounds - I was well schooled and had already been playing profitably in card rooms for years. More on that in a future episode.)

When I decided to leave journalism, I applied to a variety of different jobs, seemingly to no avail, including a Craigslist ad StayClassy posted for an unpaid event production internship. The morning I landed in Vegas, I received an email from StayClassy’s “Events Mastermind,” inviting me to interview. The following morning I received an invitation from The Guardian in Washington DC to do the same. I decided the universe didn’t want me as a rounder for the rest of my life, and after flying back and forth between San Diego and DC, I took the Classy gig, and the rest is history. I never even followed up with The Guardian. In my mind, the die was cast, and I never even thought of looking back.

People often asked me how I found the courage (or stupidity) to take an unpaid internship over a producing role at The Guardian, but for me, the answer was simple - it was a calculated risk, and from an Expected Value perspective it was the only choice that really made any sense. I was 29, had a master’s degree, zero dependents, and the choice really boiled down to taking a great job in an industry I’d tried already and didn’t love, vs. trying my hand at something new, with direct social impact, and the opportunity to basically build something from scratch. Cheesy as it might sound, I felt strongly that I wanted to create something newsworthy, rather than report on things that other people were doing.

Classy Crew with Will Ferrell in 2014
Classy Crew with Will Ferrell in 2014

My 10-year career at Classy was life-changing. I helped build a tiny startup from a rag-tag crew of 6 naive disruptors to a thriving company of more than 200, with thousands of customers, and more than $3BN raised for social causes. I learned all about nonprofits, social impact, entrepreneurship, sales, marketing, and product development, and my network expanded exponentially. I left a bit older, a bit wiser, a bit grayer, and a completely different kind of professional than when I’d arrived. I’d fallen in love with the impact sector and with social entrepreneurship.

Classy Awards 2014

Leaving Classy was one of the toughest choices I’ve ever had to make. I loved my colleagues, our clients, and the work we were doing, but I felt that from a personal and professional growth perspective, it’s what I needed to do. Plus, I missed the joy of starting something from scratch, and I missed being hands-on in the impact work. I really had no idea what I wanted to do, other than use the knowledge, experience, and community I’d gained to further social impact.

I traveled, I reconnected with who I was without Classy, and who I wanted to be moving forward. (Shocker - this took a while.) In the end, I launched a consulting practice called and a podcast called Cause & Purpose. Consulting let me get hands-on again, helping social impact organizations grow, and podcasting allowed me to learn, grow, expand my network further, and get back in touch with my love for journalistic storytelling.

Emerging from the pandemic, I spent time really grappling with how I wanted to focus my time, the types of people I wanted to surround myself with, and the types of projects I wanted to take on. I found myself deeply missing the urgency, hard work, community, creativity and opportunities impact that I found with life at an early-stage startup. I got in tune with things about the social impact sector that frustrated me, and what opportunities I saw for real disruption. One thing led to another, and Altruous was born.

Altruous is an impact discovery, evaluation, and management platform aimed at helping funders make better decisions in their philanthropy. Philanthropy as a whole remains stuck in the past, with a persistent fixation on overhead, lack of innovation (or funding for innovative new programs), and this self-congratulatory culture that rewards philanthropists regardless of whether or not they’re actually driving impact. Reliable information remains scarce and difficult to parse, and perverse incentives are everywhere.

Cause & Purpose Episode 30: Mike & Eric talk about philanthropy, impact, and Altruous.

So, we’re out to change all that! Through Altruous, funders will be able to discover and learn about high-impact programs in the cause areas and regions of the world they care most about. They’ll be able to manage impact portfolios, and make investment decisions in real time. They’ll get frequent updates about the impact their investments are having, with a focus on contextualized programmatic milestones, rather than vanity metric-laden annual reports. We’re still very early on in the Altruous journey, but we’re off to a great start so far. I hope you’ll follow our progress as we grow, and bring this disruptive new platform to market.

On a personal level, it’s hard to communicate how amazing it's been reconnecting with folks in my network, and meeting amazing new leaders as I’ve gotten deeper and deeper into the launch of Altruous. I think Altruous has the potential to drive real disruption in the impact sector, and drive badly-needed resources to the highest-impact and most innovative programs around, with the best chances of solving the important social challenges facing our global community today. Most of all, it just feels great to be back on the entrepreneurial journey.  Whatever happens next, it’s not going to be boring. I hope you’ll follow our progress as we grow!