Polly gives as she lives

Polly Gowers

Polly Gowers - Credit: NA

Some people spot opportunities way before the rest of us. Polly Gowers spotted how to use internet retailing for good way back in the early 2000s, while most of us were still unaware that we could actually buy stuff online. Such has been her success that she was awarded an OBE in 2012 for her services to philanthropy.

Life has moved on a lot since then. And so has Polly’s business. Her original product, Everyclick, has evolved into “Give as you Live” a revolutionary new way to give to good causes painlessly at a time when charitable donations are dropping. So far her innovation has raised more than £4 million for charity.

www.giveasyoulive.com is essentially a clever piece of software invented by the Everyclick technical team that, once uploaded onto your computer, sits in the background and is only activated when you buy something on-line from participating retailers (and there are lots, from John Lewis and Debenhams to internet-only retailers such as ASOS), at which time it sends a message to the retailer to donate a percentage of their profits from the cost of your purchase to the charity of your choice. It currently has over 35,000 users.

For retailers, and retail-related sectors this is an opportunity to appeal to shoppers in a different way. Some of us seek the lowest possible price when shopping, an increasing number want to know that the retailers they purchase from are socially responsible. Think about food sourcing: In pretty much every supermarket these days there are lovely photographs of Farmer Giles and Daisy the Cow, along with a short spiel about Daisy’s very happy life before being our Sunday roast. Who wants to eat a cow that’s had a miserable life, even if it’s cheaper?

After interviewing Polly I downloaded Give as you Live and now every time I buy on-line, the retailer makes the donation. It satisfies me that Amazon, which reportedly has an interesting attitude towards paying tax, donated 1.5% of the cost of my purchases to the Salvation Army (my particular charity of choice, but you can give to your local primary school or even dogs home if you want to – every registered charity can benefit from this). It might be pennies on my transaction, but if we all did it, think of the cumulative effect.

Polly is hugely excited at the potential for Give as you Live. “The Everyclick model showed us that people like the idea of raising money for charity without having to put their hands in their pocket, and why wouldn’t they? Give as you Live is also a big opportunity for retailers to set themselves apart from their competitors.”

Polly’s entrepreneurial skills have been recognised nationally. As well as being awarded an OBE for her services she now sits on Vince Cable’s Entrepreneur’s Forum.

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Such a successful business career is not what was expected of Polly, who grew up in the Cotswolds riding horses. Offered a place to do medicine at university, she turned it down after securing a place on the British young riders team. Her parents were not impressed at her decision, so to fund her ambitions she set up a livery business that at its largest had 60 horses and ten staff at stables in Buckinghamshire. She even commuted to Ireland to ride. Always single-minded, Polly’s focus was exclusively on riding. “I had pointers, eventers, everything and didn’t consider that clipping horses at 1am was not acceptable. I loved it, won awards and sold horses that went to the Olympics which was all very exciting.”

But after some friends had fatal accidents while eventing, she began to rethink her career and lifestyle. In 1999 she gave it all up to work in sales for a web design company. “I knew about sales, I’d been doing it for years with the horses,” she explains. “In 1999 the internet was new, no-one knew a lot and I was quite computer literate from running my business.”

With plenty of experience in running her own company, it didn’t take Polly long to think she could do better than the web design company, so she launched Everyclick to sell websites, but more importantly to make websites work properly for the client. “We had a number of London clients, including Mars where we did search engine optimisation,” she explains.

The more Polly learned about the Internet, the more she became aware of how much money people were paid in commission for making things happen on the web. “My fellow director, Julia Felton, was also a volunteer fundraiser for Save the Children so I suggested we might use this knowledge to make money for charity rather than her running cake stalls.”

They wrote a business plan and raised £250,000 from friends and family. It wasn’t enough, so she paid a visit to her local, friendly bank manager Di Pitts, (then at HSBC, now running Handelsbanken’s Cheltenham branch), who made a further £250,000 available. The biggest shareholder now is Geoff Squire, a Gloucester man, philanthropist and hugely successful businessman who has created two billion-dollar businesses, including Oracle. Geoff brought in another Brit, Steve Garnett, chairman EMEA of Salesforce.com. “They are in the business because of what it does but also because they understand how to run a business,” explains Polly.

The money paid for the building of a search engine, charity authentication and marketing although she admits that trying to compete on half a million pounds with Google was ambitious, but it worked. “The Everyclick model showed us that people like the idea of raising money for charity without having to put their hands in their pocket and we became the fourth biggest search engine in the UK after Google, Yahoo and MSN before it was Bing.”

Give as you Live (which has just received two Smarta100 awards which celebrate resourceful UK small businesses), came about because Polly saw the opportunity for charities to raise more money by systemising charitable donations via clever software and appealing to the corporate social responsibility commitments of individual retailers.

“One of our technical team’s biggest challenges is making sure that whatever piece of equipment customers use to buy online, from their office desktop to their smartphone or ipad, has the Give as you Live software working in the background.”

Everyclick and Give as you Live employ 20 people at its Evesham offices, and a small team in China (a legacy of a company acquired two years ago who now undertake data management for the business).

“Our two senior software technicians worked together for 25 years elsewhere before coming to work with us,” says Polly. “Another two worked together previously before joining. Between them all they’ve got 12 children and are here because they prefer it to London and consider the Cotswolds a better place to live. We also have young recruits from Evesham who came to us for their first jobs and are working their way up the company.”

Her technologists may work in the Cotswolds, but Polly spends a lot of time in London talking to people. “We have a lot of data and we work with the retailers to encourage their shoppers to use our system. 35,000 shoppers is proof of concept, what I now want is 3.5 million shoppers.”

The millions will come through clever partnerships and Polly’s plan for 2014 is to build those relationships, and even expand into the USA in future years. “We can help retailers look good and importantly do better business. Through our research we know where and why shoppers’ shop. We can also provide any retailers with a complete ‘plug and play’ sales promotion based around charity. Our technology is amazing, but only if it does what the business needs.”

With all these achievements, Polly doesn’t regret abandoning a career in medicine. “I discovered that I am an inventor. From building up the equine business to successfully establishing and running Everyclick, while doing up seven houses along the way,” (she’s currently renovating the company’s old Moreton-in-Marsh premises, turning it back into a home). “I like creating things, but more than anything else I can now see the end game for this business and what it can do for integrating charity and business.

“The way we give has to fundamentally change. Society needs help and people want to give, but sometimes charities are not asking in the right way. We all live our lives on our mobile phones and tablets. I am very close to many charities and their way of communicating and asking has not moved fast enough. We can broker a three-way relationship that can deliver cash to charities, and it’s cash which is already in the system, all we are doing is taking money spent on marketing and turning it into a donation. So it means that everyone wins here and that’s what the world needs.”

“My business lets everyone be a philanthropist on a daily basis. There is no guilt and it’s part of their lives.”