10 Things I Learned Through Starting Prosper

After three months of working on Prosper, I've learned more than I ever imagined. Rather than scribble my reflections in a book like I normally would, I thought I'd take some time to write a blog post.

This is for anyone who'd like to start something to make a difference. This is for anyone with an idea and a passion. This is for the creative people out there who aren't sure how to turn their ideas into reality and are willing to risk comfort and safety for a chance to be a part of something beautiful.

This is for you. I hope this can help you on your journey somehow.


Prosper began as an experiment. In a few hours I launched a website that was designed to test a single question:

What if there was an online community of skilled digital workers who could design and build online solutions to refugee crisis problems?

I wrote some content, built a form and published the site in a few online communities. The feedback I received was humbling:

I've been waiting my entire life to find a place where I can contribute my skills towards something meaningful. When I saw your post, I realized 'This is it...'

Many of the people who submitted their details were talented professionals from families who at one point in their journey were refugees.

Receiving form submissions from designers and developers across the globe fueled my passion to see this concept come to life. The more I witnessed about the suffering across Europe, the stronger the fire burned within me.

I kept iterating: building something, sharing it with the world and measuring the feedback.

Through a series of iterative experiments, we grew from a team of one to a team of ninety. We moved from a concept to a reality. Our journey has been anything but easy, but it has taught me a lot about using design and technology to make a difference in the lives of those who need it most.

I've tried to condense my learnings into 10 lessons, but I could probably write several books about what I've learned.

1. Discover real human needs

In any given crisis there are thousands upon thousands of different problems that need to be solved. Some problems are easily seen on the surface of organizations working on the ground, other problems are deeply felt by the broader community but rarely expressed.

Discovering real human needs does several things:

  • It gives you a clear and simple language to communicate what you're doing and why
  • It allows you to structure your efforts around your ability to meet that need
  • It provides an opportunity to learn through experimentation rather than estimation

If you don't know how to discover real human needs, check out The Field Guide to Human-Centered Design.

2. Measure what you can, trust your gut

While it is important to use objective measurements as a gauge for success, it is also crucial to trust your subconscious mind and to rely on a deep knowledge of who you are and why you're doing what you're doing.

3. Focus, articulate, and refine

There are so many problems that can be solved. The most important task of the day is figuring out which is the best problem to solve right now. Focusing on one task at a time is crucial.

Trying to solve too many problems at once results in many half-solved problems (which in themselves create more problems). Don't try and do too much.

It's better to do one thing well than many things poorly.

(I am the biggest culprit of this lesson, and thus I am writing it here clearly to try and retrain my brain!)

Once you've found an explicit focus, it's important to clearly articulate what it is that you're doing and why. Reflecting upon that focus allows you to refine it further—making it even more clear and concise than it was before.

4. Start small

Rather than trying to solve the biggest most pressing problem in front of you, it's often best to solve a smaller problem that effects a smaller group of people. If you can reduce the number of people you're targeting to a very specific set, it's much easier to understand their needs and to create a solution that actually works.

If you're thinking of creating something for 'everyone' you might have a lot of difficult creating anything at all...

5. Other people are amazing—listen to them

If you do a good job at articulating what you're doing and why, you're likely to attract other people who share similar values and motivations. Those people are awesome. Listen to them and support them. Build relationships with those people and help them accomplish their goals. Serve them as you would serve a guest. Articulate what needs you have and how you can both meet your needs through working together.

6. Build partnerships

If you've got an idea to solve a problem and if you're sure that real people need the problem solved, chances are there are other people in the exact same situation as you.

The internet makes it really easy to connect with those people. If you can articulate your concept and make it public on the web—do so and do it quickly. Don't worry too much about every single detail. Get something up and use it as a conversation tool.

Reach out to communities across the web who might be working to solve the same problem. Find people that are trying to solve that problem and ask if they want to partner up.

We're better together. Working alone is really hard. If you can team up with smart and passionate people with different skill sets it's much easier to get things done.

Step aside from your ego. Don't get attached to what you're calling the thing, just realize that solving the problem and doing a good job of it is the key.

Building partnerships is hard and it takes time, but the fruits are worth it.

7. Hold your concept lightly

Change is everywhere. Be passionate but don't rest your identity in your idea. The idea is likely to change. If it doesn't change, it probably is driven more by passion than the desire to help people. Sometimes passion and self-belief can get in the way of making a positive difference.

If you hold onto a concept of yours too tightly it can be hard to see clearly. It is not you, nor does it reflect how great you are. If your identity rests in the concept, than you might want to reconsider what you're doing and who you are. You're more than an idea and acknowledging that will help you do better work.

8. Do what you do well—ask others to do what they do well...

If you're a designer, design. If you're a developer, develop. Find problems that you need solved and find people who are good at solving them. Ask them to solve the problem. Support them well and provide feedback. Ask for feedback in return.

Be open and humble about what you're doing and always do your best. Improve where you can and be honest when you mess up.

9. Ask others for what you need

People are nice and want to help. If you never ask them they can't help you. If you ask them there are only two outcomes:

  1. They say 'no' (you move on)
  2. They say 'yes' (you celebrate and thank them)

It's really easy not to be afraid of asking people things that you need. Start small and ask people for things. Be clear about what you need and why you need it. Hold yourself lightly and thank them kindly in either circumstance.

10. Know yourself

This one is the most important of all and also the most difficult. Sometimes part of knowing yourself is asking for advice from people who know you. It's not always easy to see clearly from inside. Sometimes its better to ask people to see from outside. Seeking advice and insight from others is paramount, but ultimately rest on an acceptance of self-knowledge and self-worth.

Knowing yourself is closely linked with being honest to yourself. If you are honest with yourself you're likely to disappoint yourself. That's okay. You're not perfect. No one is.

Being gracious to yourself when you disappoint will help you do better next time. It will also help you learn from your mistakes.

Knowing your strengths and weaknesses will help you grow and will help you accomplish what you set out to achieve. Being confidently you will help others around you be themselves. It may even draw parts of themselves to the surface that they didn't know were there.

Accepting that you're doing what you're doing to meet a personal need is key. Nobody is fully altruistic, and understanding what motivates you will help you keep on track.


Learning is one of the most important parts of my life. I am so blessed to be in a place in my journey that I can reflect upon what I've learned, and that I can take risks in the hopes of making a difference in the lives of people who need it most.

Helping refugees prosper in Europe is a mission that is deeply important to me and I am so glad to have a community of passionate professionals working alongside me on this mission. It's been a difficult yet fruitful journey, and I am so looking forward to the chapters ahead.

The lyrics of Enjoy The Ride are ringing in my ears:

With the moonlight to guide you
Feel the joy of being alive
The day that you stop running
Is the day that you arrive

And the night that you got locked in
Was the time to decide
Stop chasing shadows, just enjoy the ride

John Ellison

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