It was 11 p.m. on July 14 when McKeever Conwell got the e-mail: NoBadGift.com was accepted into the NewME Accelerator, founded last year specifically for minority-owned startups.
Two days later, on Monday, Conwell, 26, and his compatriots, Michael Washington and Sam Henry, both 25, accepted and were officially headed to San Francisco as one of seven startups in NewME’s summer/fall 2012 class.
So how’d they get there?
“Our getting in was a lot of networking,” says Conwell. “I met with the founder Angela Benton twice in the last three months.”
That apparently made a difference, because after the first time NoBadGift.com team applied to the NewME Accelerator, Conwell says, they were told they didn’t get in because “our name sucked.”
While Conwell and company spent their free time at Morgan State University coding websites, building a startup company wasn’t something the three of them embarked on immediately after college. In fact, by age 22, Conwell was a college dropout with a house and a security clearance, working full-time in software development for a federal government agency and pulling in the kind of paper that college students today agonize over paying back in small increments to loan collectors.
Despite having the perks of a cushy government job, Conwell wasn’t satisfied. After five years, Conwell joined Washington and Henry at NoBadGift.com in summer 2010. (The original idea for the site was Washington’s.)
“These are two of my best friends,” says Conwell. “Everything we do goes to a vote. There’s not an argument, no discussion—we move forward.”
The concept of NoBadGift.com is one your sweater-knitting grandmother would do well to embrace. It’s like a Kickstarter for your Christmas lists.
Users assemble lists of items they’d like, and then share their “wish lists” with friends and family. People may contribute any dollar amount they’d like to particular items, and the money transfers over to users via PayPal. The business thus far has been bootstrapped by the co-founders, each of them working late nights at their homes. (Conwell lives in Owings Mills, Washington in Greenbelt, and Henry actually lives in New Jersey.)
Although for a time, NoBadGift.com floundered, with few users and not much publicity, even after a site redesign in October 2011.
“We were kind of down on the idea, and had no real direction,” Conwell says. But in November 2011, he began networking with others in Baltimore’s tech community. Shortly thereafter Conwell attended one of Ron Schmelzer’s TechBreakfasts, where he met Jason Hardebeck of the Greater Baltimore Technology Council.
“He’s now one of our advisers,” says Conwell. “That was the spark—maybe we have something.”
Since then, NoBadGift.com has steadily gained momentum, with roughly 250 registered users to date.
In April, the three co-founders were accepted into the first class of Accelerate Baltimore, which provided them incubator space in the Emerging Technology Center and $25,000. On Wednesday, NoBadGift.com will present itself along with the other Accelerate Baltimore startups at Demo Day.
An app the team released in mid-June allows users to share their wish lists through Facebook. In recent weeks, Conwell, Washington and Henry have submitted an iPhone app that will enable NoBadGift.com users to add items to their lists by walking around stores and scanning products — an Android app is another three weeks in the making. In another couple weeks, people will be able to ship items directly from NoBadGift.com. And soon, Conwell will be out in San Francisco full-time, living with the founders of the other six companies accepted into the latest class of the NewME Accelerator.
“It’s not fun [running a startup],” says Conwell. “But it’s so much more fulfilling. I had a good job, but I just thought about NoBadGift all the time.”