Over the course of his 20-year career, Derik Lolli ’98 has designed children’s toys, website interfaces, and most recently, Benefit Mobile, a fundraising app that contributes a fraction of the purchase toward a cause of the user’s choosing.
Lolli, who studied art while at Hillsdale, said he has always enjoyed design. He also taught himself how to use design programs — a skill that he said allowed him to turn his passion for design into an employable skill set.
“I had a background in design and illustration, and at that time, the internet was just starting to take off,” Lolli said. “Our computer lab was very small, and the only thing we would ever do to troubleshoot the computers was just to turn them off and reboot them. I was into design and was very fortunate that Photoshop was just starting to take off.”
Before he became a web designer, Lolli designed toys for a year at Ohio Art Company, the same company that created the Etch A Sketch. For the next 15 years, he worked for several design firms, working with clients — including Adobe, Apple, Pearson, and Sony — on website design. This ranged from improving customer service interfaces to improving mobile designs for apps.
“I absolutely loved design once I started getting into it on the computer and designing websites and started to learn a little bit of code,” Lolli said. “I utilized a lot of my illustration abilities to craft unique experiences on the web.”
One such project was an iPad app about renowned guitarist Jimi Hendrix that included a catalog of his music and facts about his life, complete with a geolocation feature that indicates whether the user was near a location significant to Jimi Hendrix.
It has been five years since Lolli left the world of web and mobile design to start Benefit Mobile, although he said he never imagined that he would start his own company.
“It was exciting work, and I never thought that I would abandon all that and start my own thing, unless it was the kind of thing that would keep me up at night and really inspire me,” Lolli said.
The idea behind Benefit Mobile originated from a fundraiser at his son’s school. The fundraiser successfully raised money for the school, but was difficult for school administrators and painful for the parents, Lolli said.
“With my background in mobile design, I recognized you could put this whole business on a phone and make it considerably easier for everyone involved and raise a lot of money for organizations working to make the community a better place,” he said. “Also, I could see that this is where a lot of the mobile payment technology was going.”
The Benefit Mobile app works similar to the Starbucks app in that users are rewarded for using the mobile payment. Benefit Mobile partners with 180 national retailers, including Amazon, Target, and Wal-Mart, among many other restaurants and retailers. When users make purchases through the app from participating retailers, the retailer donates a fraction of the purchase — anywhere from 2 to 20 percent — to a cause of the user’s choosing. Lolli said the donation can go toward a school or nonprofit organization, or the user can get cash back for their own personal expenses.
This gives organizations an easier way to raise funds, and allows people to donate to a cause without having to spend additional money. On the flipside, Lolli said participating retailers benefit from more patronage as they shop to support a cause.
“Many retailers are tired of the interchange that they’re charged by credit card companies,” Lolli said. “When customers use a tool like ours, it’s considerably cheaper for those retailers.”
In addition to supporting organizations like schools or nonprofits, Lolli said the app can be used for personal expenses.
“We have a lot of college kids or their parents that can use it to support their own personal life expense,” Lolli said. “Many students will use this kind of thing for some extra cash that they can earn back every month.”
Lolli said the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation used the app to raise funds for its walk in Chicago, and Camp Kesem, a camp for children whose parents have cancer, has used the app to allow more children to attend camp.
Renee Mulder, a Benefit Mobile user, said the app’s convenience gives users benefits beyond the ability to contribute to a charitable cause.
“It is faster for me to use my phone when purchasing at my go-to store, Target, rather than digging around my purse for my wallet,” said Renee Mulder, a Benefit Mobile user. “And I can support a local organization I care about which makes it that much better.”
Lolli said helping the community through his company has been rewarding despite the challenges of combating fraudulent use of the app.
“This can be fraud from sophisticated people out of Russia, or it could just as easily be some guy in his garage,” Lolli said. “It’s very common that there are thousands of stolen credit cards they’ve gotten that they try to use those cards to buy gift cards, and they’re stealing from schools and nonprofits in the process.”
For Benefit Mobile, successful fundraisers for schools and organizations mean a successful business. Maintaining a high volume of users allows the business, which has grown to nine employees, to continue offering fundraising opportunities, while also providing users with an easy way to contribute to a cause they care about.
Amy Boucher, who used the app to raise funds for her child’s co-op preschool, said the customer service representatives were very helpful and friendly when some users had difficulty tracking the incoming funds.
“I really appreciate the simple way of fundraising for our school combined with the convenience,” Boucher said. I can still swing by the grocery store if I happen to leave my wallet in the diaper bag or my other coat pocket.”
Lolli said even small purchases are like drops in a bucket, so even small purchases can compound into a significant contribution — an approach that allows organizations to connect with younger generations.
“Millennials aren’t necessarily the ones writing the big checks to support causes,” Lolli said. “This is a very easy way for young people to contribute to these things in the context of their own shopping. We wanted to provide a new technology, a new way for many of these organizations to engage with millennials, and I think that’s what we’ve accomplished.”