Matt Flannery is full of ideas. He has written them down for years, and now has a list that he adds to every day. He calls it his form of poetry, his channel for releasing creativity.
Not all of these ideas are viable, of course. Flannery has tried several of them. A DVD vending machine before Redbox came out. An online clothing rental business. Some kind of talking robot. This was all after he interned at the CIA, worked as a programmer for TiVo, and attempted to find some other way to use his Stanford philosophy degree.
Eventually, Flannery found something he could put every ounce of energy into and truly love. He started Kiva, which is now the most prominent microfinancing organization in the world. It was based on his passion for ideas, business, and bridging the income gap between those in the western world who can afford Starbucks and the millions who live without drinking water on less than $2 a day in developing nations.
Kiva allows people or businesses from any country to lend relatively small amounts of money (the average loan size is about $400) to aspiring entrepreneurs via a web platform. Borrowers and lenders keep in touch throughout the repayment process and beyond. Microfinance organizations, called field partners, screen the loan requests and disburse the loans and manage the repayments.
"It sustains me emotionally and spiritually as well," he said. "[Startups] work best when they are interesting and potentially lucrative, have the staying power and are cared about. One of the hardest things to do when you start a startup is to keep going and get people to come with you."
It started with Flannery and his wife at the time, Jessica Jackley, who is no longer working directly with the organization. Her dream was to work in Africa, and both were interested in international development. The two volunteered for a friend's microfinance institution in Africa for several months. In the process, Flannery had the idea for Kiva specifically, and the two took the plunge. They didn't know much about microfinancing, but studied crowdfunding campaigns like Global Giving and otherwise taught themselves how the business worked. They started with one town in Uganda.
"To not know enough is really helpful, you know," Flannery said. "Not knowing is a great advantage sometimes. If I knew how MFIs really worked and what microfinance was really like I probably would have never done this."
Since 2005, Kiva has had more than 1 million lenders raising more than $500 million in loans. Borrowers, who live in 73 different countries around the world, have a 99 percent payback rate. Kiva has more than 200 field partners, or microfinance institutions that the loans go through, and 450 volunteers who help maintain the site and work with borrowers and lenders. Kiva's U.S. program is also expanding rapidly. Credit unions and other small institutions can give loans to small businesses throughout the country.
Flannery said it took three years for him to realize Kiva was an influential player in the microfinance and crowdsourcing market. He still believed it was just a hobby until then. Now lending organizations such as Zidisha, Watsi, and crowdfunding and microfinancing software platforms, like Mambu, have popped up around the world.
The microfinance space is still small, and Flannery likes it that way. He can learn from others and progress his ideas with the help of the community. His desire to be a part of everything—to contribute, grow, and understand—has never waned.
The most lessons he has learned, however, have been through the borrowers. Flannery traveled every month for several years, meeting lenders and borrowers and watching communities be impacted by these small loans. His favorite location has always been East Africa, as it was the place where the seed for Kiva was planted. Flannery has since cut back on the international travel to focus on Kiva's U.S. program., and take a break from life on the road, but he still remains in contact with many borrowers all over the world.
"When people go from feeling excluded to feeling more included in the global community, that's what I live for," he said.
Now, though, there are borrowers down the street from him in the Mission District in San Francisco, where he has lived for 15 years. He can see the impact. One of his closest friends is a street poet who was a borrower. She now emcees at Kiva events and writes poetry for the site occasionally. Building these types of relationships keeps him sustained—it's why his list of business ideas is growing so long. He is doing exactly what he loves, and he doesn't feel the need to try anything else.
"I do this for every person I get to interact with," Flannery said. "I know [the borrowers] are being helped emotionally and financially, and giving loans and financing people is just basic common sense. It works."
In his own words...
What is your biggest piece of advice for aspiring entrepreneurs, especially with nonprofits?
"They're all cliches, but they're true. Do what you authentically love doing just for the sake of it. And also, know the customer. Go to the field, go and work in it close to the customer. Just sitting in business school classes with a business plan is not based on actual experience."
How do you unplug?
"Meditating. It's a way to force yourself to slow down your mind, watch your thoughts, get content out of your brain."
What do you like to cook?
"I do a lot of cooking, Right now, Southern food. Slow cooking, like collard greens and brussel sprouts."
What kind of music do you like?
"Post-ironic rap, post-ironic rock, like indie rock thats consider themselves really idealistic not jaded, just positive music."
Lyndsey Gilpin has nothing to disclose. She doesn't hold investments in the technology companies she covers.
Lyndsey Gilpin is a former Staff Writer for TechRepublic, covering sustainability and entrepreneurship. She's co-author of the book Follow the Geeks.