Lessons from Kaylee Williams’ intern-to-president path with VolunteerLocal

© Anna Jones Photography

When Kaylee Williams first began working at VolunteerLocal as an intern in 2012, the Des Moines startup had 30 clients. Now, she’s the newly named president of the company, which helps clients like the Marine Corps Marathon and Bonnaroo Music and Arts Festival manage their volunteers.

More than ever, Williams is invested in VolunteerLocal’s mission of “happy volunteering.” But over the past five years, she’s also learned how to sell its product and manage a growing team.

“In a lot of ways, my job is to serve them,” Williams says. “It’s funny because you think that when you’re the president of the company that everybody works for you. But no, I work for everybody. I work for my board, I work for my employees and I work for my company. You find that the higher up you get, the more people you serve.”

This interview has been edited for conciseness.

Clay & Milk: You were recently promoted to president of VolunteerLocal. Tell us about your experience with the company and your new role.

KW: I first started as an intern and worked about 10 hours a week doing customer discovery and some sales, if I could manage it. …

I became our community builder in 2013 when (founder) Brian (Hemesath) offered me a full-time job after the internship was over. So I bought a cat, I bought a car, I got my first lofted apartment in downtown Des Moines, I moved here, and I loved it. Being a community builder was terrific because I got to actually talk to a lot of our clients and bring them together under this brand of “happy volunteering.”

I was the community builder for two years before Brian sat me down and asked if I would like to run the company. At that time, we decided the best title for me would be the Director of Business Development. My job was to grow the company as efficiently and as quickly as I could, and I operated in that role for the last two or three years. Then in January we made it official that I’ll be taking over as president of the company. It feels like the right thing. I’m now a shareholder of the company, and it’s never been more fun.

C&M: What are some lessons or skills you’ve learned that have helped step into your new role?

KW: I spent the last 12 months working with Mike Colwell at (SquareOne DSM) directly in preparation for this role. We always knew I would take over as president of VolunteerLocal, it was just a matter of when I felt comfortable and prepared to take that on. With Mike I focused on cash flow, financial forecasting and identifying the verticals that we serve best so I could create a marketing plan to actually get in front of them in an effective way. …

The next thing would be selling, learning to sell the product. In my opinion, selling is sexy and I’m on a one-woman mission to make selling sexy again. Selling is relationship building. If you know how to build a relationship, if you know how to make a friend, if you know how to solve somebody’s problem and you’re confident in that solution, you can sell. Learning how to sell VolunteerLocal was key to me being able to take over in a leadership role.

The third thing I’ve learned is employee and board management. I have a board at VolutneerLocal, and we do monthly updates, quarterly meetings, and a year-end review where I buy everyone dinner and talk about how our year went. Managing the board has been a skill I’ve gotten to flex a little bit over the last year. Then there’s managing employees. Last year I fired my first employee. It was a very difficult experience for both of us, but one that taught me a lot and humbled me in many ways. I’ve also made a couple of key hires that have frankly been invaluable to the success that we’ve seen this year as well as my sanity.

C&M: What keeps you motivated to pursue this work?

KW: At the core of what motivates me is that I believe in our product. There’s this ethos around the startup community where you build your product then you scale and you exit. I think for a lot of people that motivates them just fine, and I’m motivated by that as well. I want to grow VolunteerLocal to be big, but I think, more importantly, you have to believe in your product. VolunteerLocal solves a very real problem, and we solve it in a way that makes everybody happy — the volunteers, the coordinators, the race directors, and the people who invest in these events to make them successful.

I’ve heard enough feedback from our customers to know that it’s not just me that feels that way. It’s everybody. If you look at our retention rate you can see that our customers are happy. We don’t use contracts at VolunteerLocal. (Clients) renew on merit, and we have an 86 percent renewal rate year-over-year. I believe in the product and that’s what keeps me going because it’s changing the world in its own little way.

C&M: What did you see or experience in other communities you lived in that you brought back to Des Moines?

KW: The funny thing is that in all the cities that I’ve lived and visited, the things that I loved the most about them were the very things that reminded me of Des Moines. I think what I love about being in Des Moines is the civic pride. When I lived in North Carolina, the Tech Triangle was awesome. The networking I was able to do, just the sheer number of startups was incredible. But it didn’t have the same sort of feeling of everybody rooting for the underdog that Des Moines has. The things I liked in those other communities were the things that reminded me of Des Moines and that’s why I came back here.

C&M: What has been an unexpected source of inspiration for your work?

KW: I’m a coach and a board member for Girls on the Run here in Iowa. It’s amazing what a group of 20 13-year-olds can do in terms of inspiration. I originally wanted to volunteer with them because running is so important to my mental health. It’s important to my sense of balance. As you can imagine with running a startup, it’s my life. It’s my whole world. So when I go running I can unplug and just run out the anxiety and the fear and just break a sweat. I realized growing up that running was so important to my sense of self and my emotional inner strength.

I found Girls on the Run and I wanted to be a coach to help other young women learn that running and exercise can be a terrific coping mechanism for the stresses in your life that you can’t control. I went to inspire them but what really happened was they inspired me. They’re funny, they’re creative, they’re curious, they’re optimistic, they’re bright-eyed about the world, and they see problems and jump right away to solutions.

C&M: What advice would you have for other entrepreneurs?

KW: I’ve learned a lot of lessons along the way. I’ve made a lot of mistakes. I would say first and foremost, learn to tell your story. When Brian first took me under his wing, he brought me along on these meetings where he would pitch VolunteerLocal, and he would always tell the same story of how the company got started. Every time he would tell it in the same way and he would always get laughs at the same point. What he had done was internalized a way in which to tell the story of VolunteerLocal to earn affection from his audience. …

Second, learn to sell your product. Selling is not a one-size-fits-all skill. You have to learn to sell your product by learning to speak the language that your customers speak. I had to learn what it meant to be a volunteer coordinator, and in 2015, I actually served as the volunteer coordinator for the Hy-Vee Road Races at the Drake Relays. I thought, “You know what? I’m going to drink my own Kool-Aid, and I’m going to use VolunteerLocal to manage 500 volunteers for this event.” And it was an experience, let me tell you. It was really hard. VolunteerLocal helped a lot, but I was also able to see the shortcomings of our product by actually using it in this way. What it taught me more than anything else though was how to speak the language of our volunteer coordinators, and when they tell me they’ve had a problem with check-in, I get it. I learned how to speak their language and it made me better at selling.

Finally, my personal mantra, be persistent and be polite. Persistence pays off and it’s okay if it takes a long time to get in front of the customer you want. Be persistent. I managed to get on the phone with the director of mergers and acquisitions at the Active Network by calling their support line again and again and again and asking to speak with the person in charge of high-level enterprise partnerships and technology solutions that are complementary to Active. Finally I get an email from this guy at Active and he says “Kaylee, I had about nine people tell me that you’re trying to reach me. Let’s schedule a call.” I was polite and I was very persistent.

Maybe I would add to that: be brave. Don’t be afraid. Go up and shake someone’s hand. We’re all human and we’re all trying to make the world a better place.

About Kaylee Williams

Age: 26
Location: Des Moines, Iowa
Twitter handle: @kayleecat

Megan Bannister is a freelance writer based in Des Moines and a regular contributor to Clay & Milk.