Giving a meaningful gift is only a click away, thanks to one Austin entrepreneur
by Caroline Page
Photographs by Warren Chang
Kathy Terry welcomes a challenge, but the P. Terry’s Burger Stand and Taco Ranch co-founder was in uncharted waters when she set out to create an app that would change the way we all think about giving. While Terry and her husband, Patrick, are beloved for keeping Austinites happy with great burgers and tacos, you may not know that they are also committed philanthropists. They are active nonprofit board members and have even hosted international families as part of HeartGift’s congenital heart surgery program.
With her latest endeavor, inLieu, Terry combines her experience in both the business and nonprofit world to create a way for charitable giving to be not only easy but social and fun.
Out for a run a few years ago, Terry remembered that she had not purchased a hostess gift for that night’s Christmas party. She was short on time but knew that the last thing her friend needed was another candle or bottle of wine; she also knew that a much more meaningful gift, like a donation to The SAFE Alliance, would be appreciated, since the two friends first met as fellow board members of that organization. But worry set in as Terry wondered how she could let the party hostess know, on the day of, that she had made the donation in her honor. Would her friend think she had simply shown up empty-handed? Frustrated and in a pinch, Terry resorted to grabbing a scented candle she had at home.
Several years passed after that scented-candle-debacle but Terry could not stop thinking about her idea. In fact, Terry says she was “honestly blown away” that a simple way to make a donation in lieu of purchasing a gift for someone and have them notified immediately did not already exist. She initially reached out with her idea for an app to the organization Girls Who Code. “I thought it would be so awesome if [the students] could build it,” she says. “Here I am thinking this is something you could do on a weeklong camp.” As Terry soon came to realize, she was in deeper than she’d planned. Her naiveté in the ways of technology would serve her well; the fact that she had no idea what obstacles and sleepless nights would lie ahead likely kept her dream alive.
In March 2017 Terry kept the idea moving forward by experimenting. She made donations, through traditional channels, in honor of her friends and then waited to see if and how long it would take the donations to be acknowledged. “Every time I made the donation, I felt good … it was a way of saying, ‘I love you and support you. I know this cause is important to you.”
Terry knew that if the app also had a social aspect it would be even more powerful, like the “Venmo for donating,” she says. Having no idea how to build an app, Terry started calling friends who might be able to connect her to someone who did. Just like Terry, everyone she spoke with also assumed that something like inLieu already existed. “There was nothing out there with a social feed; there was no way of carrying someone along with me on the donation process.” One introduction led to another, and, as she describes it, the right people kept showing up at the exact right time. With each connection, she was able to get a little closer to the best tech experts to help give birth to her idea.
My challenge is really more about shifting behavior. I want to make it easy for everyone to turn material gifts into donations.
“If I didn’t have the experience of working with nonprofits, chairing development boards, and trying to raise money, I wouldn’t have even known how to do this,” Terry says. “That’s probably why I stuck to my vision — I just knew it could work.”
After utilizing a focus group to test the inLieu prototype, Terry fleshed out the basics of the app by choosing color palettes and button types and hand-drawing the design for the three features her ideal app would encompass: the ability to give a gift, to make a direct donation, and to create an event. The next steps were more technical in nature, so she put together a request for proposal, sent it out to local businesses, and waited for a response. When she got the RFPs back, she remembers thinking to herself, “I can’t do this anymore. The app development is just too expensive.” Self-funding the project meant that Terry was “kind of bootstrapping everything together.” Finally she found a developer who could build an iOS and Android version of the app at a reasonable cost. “He saved the day!”
At the same time she was keeping inLieu moving forward, the Terrys happened to be opening their latest restaurant concept, Taco Ranch. “I’d be in the commissary kitchen trying to make tortillas, covered in flour,” she says, “then I’d run to a meeting to try and figure out the design of the buttons for the app.”
With the developer in action, Terry’s next step was to create a nonprofit in order to accept donations. Unlike many online donation sites, inLieu charges a flat $1 transaction fee, instead of a percentage of the donation. As more people use the app, she hopes to decrease that amount.
“People have a strong emotional connection and are conditioned to giving material gifts,” Terry says, “and I get that. So my challenge is really more about shifting behavior. I want to make it easy for everyone to turn material gifts into donations.” She’s ready, she says, for inLieu to “become a verb” and for all of us to get used to living in a community where everybody is giving.
In March of this year, the app launched with two of its three features, the third one being added only a month later. Since then, inLieu users have donated more than $50,000 to more than 350 nonprofits (users are able to donate to any verified 501(c)(3). Terry said the response has been positive but not as “crazy” as she wanted. “We’re doing what we set out to do,” she says. “Now we have to scale it. My goal now is for enough people to use it so inLieu can sustain itself.”
Terry remains steadfast to her mission of igniting change through giving. And to think, it all started with a scented candle.