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Steven Mornelli of Waggle: “Prevention First, Intervention Second”

Prevention First, Intervention Second: In the preponderance of cases, economic euthanasia could be prevented by responsible pet parents who plan for the inevitable catastrophe. We’d like to see more leaders help educate pet owners about the need for prevention first and intervention second. This can be done by encouraging pet parents to obtain insurance and/or […]

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Prevention First, Intervention Second: In the preponderance of cases, economic euthanasia could be prevented by responsible pet parents who plan for the inevitable catastrophe. We’d like to see more leaders help educate pet owners about the need for prevention first and intervention second. This can be done by encouraging pet parents to obtain insurance and/or to create “rainy day” funds to prepare for future unforeseen veterinary needs. We’d also like to see pet insurance offered at very affordable rates.


As part of my series about “individuals and organizations making an important social impact”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Steven Mornelli.

Waggle’s Founder and CEO, Steven Mornelli, has led international teams in diverse fields, including data science, engineering, and institutional research. His experience leading advanced behavioral-based analytics as a Partner for the Big Data firm Teradata, brings critical insight on social and business network dynamics to our crowdfunding platform. Previously, Steve was a SVP at Sanford C. Bernstein (New York) and Brown Brothers Harriman (London) in the fields of macroeconomic and quantitative research.


Thank you so much for doing this with us! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?

I took a very circuitous path that I would never have guessed would end up in the veterinary space — and running a foundation. By way of training, I was an engineer and worked in the early part of my career on naval submarines. It would have been more “glamorous” to say I worked on torpedoes, but, alas, I was the infamous guy who designed the device that held down hot dogs — yes, literally, hot dogs! — during battle. A few years later, after engineering various machines that ranged from satellites to medical devices, the technology bubble burst, so it was a good time to get an MBA, which I did at the University of Michigan. At the time, Wall Street was seeking graduates who understood both economics and technology, as the need for “quants” was accelerating. So, I jumped in and went to NYC — and only a few years before the financial crisis.

It was not long after this time that it dawned on me that I was not having any impact on the world around me. I didn’t want to look back on my life and have nothing meaningful to show for it. I’m sure that many of your readers have already or will experience this same feeling at some point in their lives. One thing I also knew for sure: There was no way I wanted to work for a big company. I wanted to build something from scratch in my own way.

The emergence of the major crowdfunding platforms was something I had been watching closely — not only for the way in which they were impacting philanthropy, but also, with some trepidation and scrutiny, the manner by which they were moving funds — in some cases, billions of dollars each year. Where exactly was this money going and, could donors be truly assured their hard-earned dollars were actually going to the intended place?

An idea struck me that I could help change the face of crowdfunding and do it in an area that means a lot to me: Animals!

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company or organization?

The day that we partnered with Country and Western megastar Miranda Lambert, whose foundation is MuttNation, was, for me, a validation of our work on behalf of so many beloved animals. This is an amazing organization that does so much for so many people and their pets, that I can’t help but be humbled and inspired to get to work each day.

Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?

The expression “enough knowledge can be dangerous” often comes to mind when I reflect on the day that I brought our website down. There was some content on the site that I believe needed a little polishing. Rather than wait for the software team, I figured I retained just enough coding “expertise” to make the edits myself. And, why not, as a startup, isn’t each of us expected to wear multiple hats? With just a few keystrokes, the site scrambled and went blank! To this day, the team has no idea the source of a half-day’s lost traffic. The lesson learned is that it’s always best to delegate.

Can you describe how you or your organization is making a significant social impact?

Over a half-million pets in the US are put down annually for lack of financial resources for veterinary care. This is a heartbreaking reality known as “economic euthanasia” and it’s simply unacceptable. When experiencing financial stress, the care-vs-financial-resources equation shifts, tipping the balance. A family has to make a wrenching, emotional decision based on economics, and grief and guilt often accompany this anguished choice. Professionals in the field refer to this as economic euthanasia. The greater heartbreak is that many of these pets might have a bright future with treatment — a second chance, a lifeline to live out their natural lives. Economic euthanasia of pets is on the rise nationally, especially in income-challenged communities.

The Waggle Foundation (waggle.org) creates social impact by letting people know about this scourge and is helping to put an end to it, by following the popular precept “it takes a village.” Through our platform and our work with celebrities, individual donors, foundations, corporate sponsors, and veterinarians, as well as with rescues and shelters, across the US and Canada, we create campaigns that “multiply” philanthropic dollars to save far more pets’ lives.

One hundred per cent of donations to Waggle pass directly to the veterinary providers, thereby ensuring safety and security — and above all, transparency — for everyone involved. We authenticate every hospital and require invoices before disbursing payment. So, unlike the big-name crowdfunding platforms that you may recognize, Waggle is giving back to the veterinary community, vet techs, doctors, and local rescues, to solve the root cause. No other major crowdfunding platform is truly dedicated to solving this problem and we are doing so with transparency and trust.

Can you tell us a story about a particular individual who was impacted or helped by your cause?

My favorite story that exemplifies how we are making a systemic change is about a dog named Kousa, referred to by her owner as the “24-hour dog,” because she was soon to be put down. This was a case where, like so many of the people who come to Waggle, the pet owner simply found herself in a situation that she never would have anticipated. She never thought she would have to ask others for help, either because she had her own financial means or could turn to family. However, following a really bad series of events, there was simply no other choice to save her beloved dog. After Kousa’s campaign was fully funded and she received the life-saving care needed, her owner told me, “To be able to have people come together that don’t even know you and support you, it gives you hope.”

We love success stories, of course. Not every animal gets totally funded, but as one of our board members — a veterinarian — notes, “A little bit of something, is a lot better than a whole lot of nothing.” So, if we can — along with our corporate partners who often match contributions, dollar-for-dollar — at least put a dent in a veterinary bill, we have won. This is particularly important for low-income families and people like Kousa’s pet guardian, who had never dreamed she’d be in such a position.

We provide a safety net, and our donors, regardless of whether their contribution is a dollar or a thousand dollars, are all heroes. Real champions helping a furry friend in need, and assuaging the anguish and anxiety a family feels, when they face even the possibility of having to let a pet go.

Are there three things the community/society/politicians can do to help you address the root of the problem you are trying to solve?

I’m glad you asked, yes:

  1. Best Practices in Crowdfunding: Help our society leverage the raw power and potential of crowdfunding in a way that brings safety, security, and transparency. Unfortunately, in the last dozen or so years, as crowdfunding on the internet has proliferated, it has become increasingly difficult for the average donor to be assured that his/her donation is going directly toward the intended goal. Moreover, donors want the assurance that 100% of their contribution is being used for that purpose. We’d ask that our leaders and general public embrace “best practices,” by working only with organizations like Waggle, that embrace total transparency and can authenticate that payments are going to the intended cause. And, one thing we do: We provide updates on each pet’s situation, after a campaign closes, and those updates go to all the donors who contributed to that campaign.
  2. Prevention First, Intervention Second: In the preponderance of cases, economic euthanasia could be prevented by responsible pet parents who plan for the inevitable catastrophe. We’d like to see more leaders help educate pet owners about the need for prevention first and intervention second. This can be done by encouraging pet parents to obtain insurance and/or to create “rainy day” funds to prepare for future unforeseen veterinary needs. We’d also like to see pet insurance offered at very affordable rates.
  3. Informing the Public About Economic Euthanasia: When we started Waggle, believe it or not, this wasn’t even a term we know about! I’m sure that for most of your readers, it’s not, either. Sadly, the impact of the loss of a pet on those who are the least economically stable, can be even more dramatic. Further, the toll that this has on the veterinary community has led to the profession’s having the highest suicide rate in the US. Only by shedding light on the prevalence of economic euthanasia can we begin to solve the root cause. Help us spread the word.

How do you define “Leadership”? Can you explain what you mean or give an example?

Stand by your principles day in and day out, no matter what circumstances are thrown your way. Treat people for whom you work and those who work for you with the same level of respect. Recognize that each of us is a flawed human in our way and we are all simply trying to make sense of our world. Have a sense of humility — and of humor, too! — along the way. Try to make a difference and work at something you love. Do all of those things the best you can.

What are your “5 things I wish someone told me when I first started” and why. Please share a story or example for each.

  1. Technology will take a lot longer to build. In creating the Waggle technology platform, it took us much longer than I would have imagined to reach a really robust state. I thought I had a pretty good handle on software and working with development teams, based on my prior experiences. But I learned that it’s much different when it’s your own thing versus being the outside consultant.
  2. The general user of your software can break anything and find every flaw. This is both a good thing and a bad thing. You soon learn what is working and what is not working for your clients, but the learning curve is steep and expensive. In our case, pet owners are very often already in a state of distress, so the pain of a software bug exacerbates their anxiousness.
  3. Don’t build a business model dependent on selling to the veterinary hospitals. We learned early, and in a hard way, that veterinary providers are simply too overwhelmed already with meaningful work to engage in one more product or solution. Fortunately, Waggle was able to quickly pivot to our primary audiences, individuals who need our help most: pet owners and animal welfare organizations. Doing so allowed to us help the most people and pets and still provide a great value to veterinarians.
  4. Marketing is a far more difficult endeavor than you might think. Coming out of STEM field, I had always thought that marketing could be reduced to data, and when analyzed, the right decision could be made to optimize ROI. Not so. Everything is for more opaque and comingled. Causation is harder to discern. I soon learned that getting things right takes a lot of trial and error and, in the end, there is no golden ticket, no one-size-fits-all.
  5. Knowing whose advice to take is the hardest part. I had been warned in my entrepreneurial studies that this is a known phenomenon. Only after you find yourself making the toughest decisions and decisions that must be made with the greatest chance of success, does this really hit home.

You are a person of enormous influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂

While not a new idea, I’d love to see a real third political party that’s in the middle get traction. By definition, most of us are in the middle part of the bell curve, but, sadly, we are all being swung by the tails of the two dominant political parties. If someone with enough funding could make this happen and pull in the centrists, maybe we could find a way forward together. Let’s hope.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

Here’s one of my favorites, that I turn to now and then when I get stuck:

“The secret of getting ahead is getting started. The secret of getting started is breaking your complex overwhelming tasks into small manageable tasks, and then starting on the first one.” — Mark Twain

Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would like to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we tag them. 🙂

Paul Graham, the co-founder of Y-Combinator. His work and published advice were influential at the inception of Waggle and his wisdom has been a source of guidance ever since. It was his support of Watsi that inspired me to build our nonprofit with the knowledge that it could be successfully done.

How can our readers follow you on social media?

I can be found at https://www.linkedin.com/in/mornelli/

Waggle:

https://www.instagram.com/waggleforpets/
https://www.facebook.com/waggleforpets

This was very meaningful, thank you so much. We wish you only continued success on your great work!

Thank you for this opportunity to share our work at Waggle.org.

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