Innovation proves crucial to local business successes.
As a 1992 University of Michigan political science graduate, Robert Wolfe’s singular goal was to be good at Trivial Pursuit. While he may have mastered that one, he also went on to found two Michigan-based, internationally known businesses — Moosejaw and CrowdRise.
Moosejaw is one of the world’s largest outdoor gear multi-channel retailers. Its more than 166,000 fans on Facebook could fill every seat in U-M’s Big House — and still have an overflow crowd of 50,000.
In June 2010, Robert and his brother Jeffrey Wolfe, along with actor/activist Edward Norton and film producer Shauna Robertson, founded Michigan-based CrowdRise with their vision to make fundraising and volunteering fun.
“CrowdRise all ties together with the Moosejaw experience,” Robert said. “We came out of Moosejaw and fell into the crowd-funding space with the notion that we could bring the fun spirit of Moosejaw to online fundraising by building a platform for anyone to raise funds for causes they care about.”
CrowdRise campaigns have raised $250 million to date and should raise more than $200 million in 2015 alone. At this rate, the crowd-funding platform, growing so quickly they need to find their fifth location in five years, is on track to far exceed the $1 billion milestone of crowd-funded donations by its 10th birthday.
To put this in perspective, in the not-too-distant future, CrowdRise will give away more funds per year than the W. K. Kellogg Foundation, which is currently ranked as the largest foundation in Michigan, based on total annual giving data from the Cleveland-based Foundation Center.
CrowdRise is a for-profit company with early investors that included the founder of Amazon.com, a co-founder of Twitter, a former CEO of Google and Lightbank, whose investors include former Detroiters Brad Keywell and Eric Lefkofsky. The $23 million Series A round included two of America’s most well-regarded early stage funds, Union Square Ventures and Spark Capital.
CrowdRise co-founders Norton and Robertson instantly saw the potential of the company.
“I’ve been working with Robert and Jeffrey on CrowdRise pretty much every day since the summer of 2009,” Norton said. “They are among the very best partners I’ve had in any endeavor I’ve ever been involved in.
The sincerity of their determination to make a positive impact on other people and on the world is matched only by their work ethic. They’re close to the hardest working people I’ve ever met.
“If we could get Jeffrey to get off Splenda and break Robert of the habit of dwelling on whether his curly hair looks great, they might literally become perfect working machines,” he joked.
“I don’t think any of us anticipated the scale of what CrowdRise has grown into, but the incredible feedback we get has a lot to do with the spirit of giving and of fun that these guys infuse into everything.”
Robert says that the CrowdRise headcount has grown substantially from 17 to 76 over the last 13 months. “We have our headquarters in Royal Oak today,” he said, “and will always have our base in the greater Detroit area.” Moosejaw’s headquarters is in Madison Heights.
The company makes money by taking a small cut of the funds raised through its online platform. While traditional charities often spend 20 percent on costs related to fundraising, CrowdRise seeks to cut the costs down to 3 percent, while improving the ways charities communicate the impact of their work.
The “crowd” consists mostly of small donors contributing an average check of $50 to support specific causes. Campaigns could range from a friend’s marathon race to a group offering humanitarian aid in Nepal.
“A thousand fundraisers get launched daily and hundreds of thousands have already been created and funded,” Jeffrey said. “We are right now in the middle of expanding into five different countries.”
Major organizations already on the platform include UNICEF, the American Red Cross and Stand Up To Cancer.
Many local community organizations, like the Berkley-based kosher food pantry Yad Ezra, have built fundraising campaigns on CrowdRise — as have the Detroit-based Coalition on Temporary Shelter (COTS) and the Art Van Charity Challenge. Phillip Wm. Fisher, founder of Mission Throttle, created the RiseDetroit Challenge on CrowdRise to spur local philanthropy in Detroit.
“Jeffrey and Robert’s unwavering tenacity and creativity, while never taking focus off their mission to give back to the community, is truly an inspiration,” Fisher said. “Robert and his team were instrumental in helping Mission Throttle explore progressive ways to engage people in philanthropy and expose community impact organizations to different fundraising methods through the RiseDetroit Challenge,” which raised nearly $700,000 for local causes in less than a month.
World Reach, Local Roots
The Moosejaw and CrowdRise brands can be seen globally — whether it’s a Moosejaw customer raving about the company on a trek through Peru’s Machu Picchu or a CrowdRise campaign that raised $44,000 to preserve and protect the biodiversity of one of Chile’s most unique coastal ecosystems.
The team takes particular pride in the way they can help local people and causes. A fundraiser to support the Downtown Detroit Partnership in honor of the late Rachel Jacobs, who died in last month’s Amtrak crash in Philadelphia, has already received significant support from more than 200 supporters.
It’s a cause that hits close to home as it will benefit projects in the city of Detroit, not far from where Rachel Jacobs and Robert Wolfe’s wife, Amanda, were childhood friends. The mission of the fund is to support the Detroit region in a way that leaves a lasting legacy for Rachel Jacobs.
The Wolfe brothers’ mother, Sandi Wolfe of West Bloomfield, works on human resource responsibilities for CrowdRise and oversees all the paperwork and HR filings for the rapidly growing workforce.
“All of my children were instilled with a great work and moral ethic from their father, the late Jerry Wolfe, who had the reputation as the best tax accountant in town. He was an exceptional father, and a friend and mentor to many in the community.”
Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder first met Jerry Wolfe at Coopers & Lybrand in Detroit in the 1980s.
“He became a key mentor to me as I began my career” Snyder told the JN. “Jerry embodied the exceptional spirit of excellence, compassion and helpfulness in his thoughts and actions. He changed the course of my life, as he did for many others.
“It fills me with pride to see the Wolfe family carrying on Jerry’s wonderful attributes. They are a terrific family. CrowdRise and Moosejaw are two of Michigan’s most successful upstarts over the last two decades. Jeffrey and Robert, and their siblings, embody the brilliant business savvy and ethical spirit that make me proud, especially as I reflect on the impact their father had on my life.”
Behind the crazy fun of this Detroit success story, you’ll see founders that prioritize family and hard work and, yes, modesty, in a startup world that often gravitates to hype, quick exits and prestige.
Robert jokingly said, “The lucky part about working with family is that we can be as fun and mean to each other as we’d like while we’re at the office.” They don’t let the pingpong games distract them from the larger vision and opportunity.
Jeffrey, described by Robert as the smarter brother, remarked on the lessons of their father. “Jerry excelled in many areas and was always there for his family,” he said. An early memory includes his father attending his kindergarten play. “It was his honesty, humor and healthy perspective on life that won over hearts.”
When Jerry was diagnosed with cancer, Jeffrey returned from his highly selective Wall Street training program to be closer to his family in Detroit. Jeffrey quickly found a calling in the rapidly growing world of Moosejaw. He currently resides in San Diego and returns to Detroit often.
Moosejaw’s slogan, “Love the Madness,” and CrowdRises’s slogan, “If you don’t give back no one will like you,” reflects the humor of these successful made-in-Detroit brands.
Alan S. Schwartz, vice chairman of Honigman Miller Schwartz and Cohn, has known Robert and Jeffrey since they were boys. He said they have always exhibited an independence of thinking exemplified first in Moosejaw and now again in CrowdRise. He describes them as “two of the kindest, most honorable people one could ever meet in the business world” and that they have the best sibling business relationship he’s ever seen.
David Jaffe has known Robert since they were 5 and they became friendly attending Camp Seagull in Charlevoix. Jaffe co-founded Moosejaw with Robert when they opened the first location in Keego Harbor.
“Robert has a way of doing things in a way that empowers employees to run through walls for him,” Jaffe said. “While he travels often for work, he feels strongly about being in Michigan and growing his business out of Michigan.”
Although Jaffe left Moosejaw after a few years, he and Robert remain best friends.
Jaffe said that everyone in the Wolfe family, including sisters Julie Wolfe (Moosejaw) and Robin Wolfe (CrowdRise), desire to excel in everything they do.
“What’s really cool,” Jaffe said, “is that CrowdRise was the pioneer in the category of crowd-sourcing in the charity world just as Moosejaw created many industry innovations around e-commerce. They developed an unconventional brand — in a really good way — enabling them to connect with their audiences in a non-corporate, non-stodgy-yet-quirky way that reflects the personalities of the founders.”
Former Detroit businessman Murray Pitt also knew Robert and Jeffrey since the early days of Moosejaw. Pitt describes them as great entrepreneurs.
“They were always the industrious, committed, focused kids who would out-work anyone else,” he said. “I’m not surprised at all to see their current success and could always envision them reaching whatever goals they set for themselves.”
Merrill Lynch Managing Director Dana Locniskar, based in Bloomfield Hills, was a friend of Jerry Wolfe.
“Jeffrey interned with me during high school and college; after college, he was accepted by Merrill Lynch as one of 10 hires in the Junior Executive Training Program,” he said. “We still talk about once a week. He embodies both his father’s brilliance and his mother’s passion. I’d love to say that his success is a surprise, but it was evident early on that he was destined for great things.”
Wellspring Capital Partners Managing Partner Joshua Cascade knew Robert since their childhood in Detroit.
“In business, you often find highly intelligent people with great ideas or passionate people who get things done,” he said. “But it is very rare to find a person like Robert Wolfe, who has both the vision and passion to create something truly great.”
Honigman partner Joshua Opperer has known Robert for over two decades. Over those years, Opperer has been an admirer, a friend and a legal counsel to the businesses.
“Robert and Jeffrey are inventors,” he said. “They take old ideas and re-imagine them. In some ways, Moosejaw is a retailer like any other. But people come to Moosejaw — the stores or the website — because they want to be part of the Moosejaw experience. The irreverent humor, the youthful energy, the total experience all can be traced back to Robert and Jeffrey’s influence.
“They did the same thing at CrowdRise,” Opperer said. “They took an old idea, giving to charity, and a somewhat newer idea, giving through the Internet, and then they created something new, efficient and exciting. CrowdRise, like Moosejaw, is about something bigger than the service it provides — people want to be part of the CrowdRise experience.
“It’s not just customers and clients who want to be part of the Robert and Jeffrey experience,” Opperer said. “Their employees stay and prosper in their association, as do the friends that they have been close to since childhood.
“Closest to them are their family, their children (Robert coaches teams like he attacks business!) and their sisters. They approach business and life with a contagious optimism and boundless energy that makes the world better.”
By: Adam Finkel, Special to the Jewish News