DataDay Design is interviewing CEOs and Founders of start-ups and early-stage companies to talk about entrepreneurship, learn how these businesses are navigating the COVID-19 pandemic, and understand how they’re rethinking growth strategy in 2020. This interview is with Justin Ayars, Founder of Equality Rewards, and EqualityMD. Equality Rewards is empowering consumers to discover LGBTQ-friendly brands. Their latest focus is on a Chrome plug-in which suggests how LGBTQ-inclusive a company is based on synthesized data. EqualityMD is Justin’s latest project, which we’ll do a deeper dive into in 2021.
You can read more of our interviews with America’s brightest entrepreneurs here.
How did Equality Rewards get started?
Equality Rewards wasn’t always the company that it is today. While taking part in Richmond’s Lighthouse Labs accelerator, the business pivoted from a consumer-focused app to a data-driven, consumer insights web extension. Making a major pivot like this is highly unusual during an accelerator, says Justin Ayars, their Founder.
Justin started as an attorney. When a mentor encouraged him to take his creative spirit and merge it with the logical frameworks of law. He turned to entrepreneurship. After starting a successful coffee company in Williamsburg, Justin opened a restaurant and nightclub in Richmond. Not long after the move to Richmond, he helped start Richmond’s LGBTQ Chamber of Commerce.
For six years Justin ran Q Media, a platform for people to share their journeys and promote equality through storytelling. This non-partisan digital media company brought together a range of diverse perspectives. It also gave companies an opportunity to engage with those consumers in a new way.
As companies became more exposed to the LGBTQ market, they began asking for metrics on consumer purchasing behaviors. Justin realized that there wasn’t much data out there other than community surveys so he started Equality Rewards to highlight LGBTQ-friendly brands.
What inspired you to launch a product for LGBTQ-friendly brands?
The LGBTQ+ community’s economic decisions and leverage aren’t given proper credit. People delegate talking about the LGBTQ community to June every year and then move on to other things:
“Let’s look at a self-identifying person not as someone on a pride parade float once a year and then go back to them 364 days later, but as a living, breathing, human being with wants, needs, and desires of their own. They are actual consumers and a market businesses would like to target”
The LGBTQ community is extremely cross-sectional and provides a $1 trillion niche market. Focusing on this one community and recognizing that it’s not monolithic allows companies to connect with a lot of different market segments.
One of Justin’s main motivations has been to get companies to move beyond “rainbow-washing” and contrived attempts to attract the LGBTQ community. His goal is to get them to engage with the community authentically. Members of the community want to vote with their wallets for values they believe in. Increasingly, a number of companies also want to understand and be a part of the LGBTQ communities’ stories.
Why did you pivot to focusing on the Chrome extension? How does it work?
“Surveys don’t justify marketing spending based on opinions that are collected once a year. Companies change and peoples’ preferences change frequently.”
The information yet to be collected are the consumer choices individuals that self-identify as queer actually make – not just who they say they’re going to buy from. In reality people that value inclusivity may buy the cheaper option, regardless of which brand is more inclusive. Equality Rewards makes it easier for both individuals and companies to better understand LGBTQ consumer behavior and engage with more inclusive brands.
The web extension allows users to see LGBTQ-friendly brands and those that aren’t. The plug-in synthesizes data from the human rights campaign, and the national LGBTQ Chamber of Commerce to give companies a green, yellow, or red inclusivity rating. Equality Rewards’ prototype is already live but the company is planning to roll out a new version before the holiday shopping season as they make additional UX improvements.
One thing that sets Equality Rewards apart is that they recognize having access to users’ data is a privilege. The company plans to reward users for granting access to their data, something which Justin is confident will be an emerging trend in the years to come. Recognizing and rewarding that data is acting in this way also allows Equality Rewards to develop stronger trust with their users.
How has COVID-19 impacted Equality Rewards?
While COVID didn’t hurt Equality Rewards in the sense of losing customers as the economy took a hit, the uncertainty that came with the first few months of COVID did keep some investors from writing checks. Because of coronavirus, consumers will be doing more shopping online than they would in typical years. This has presented a huge opportunity for Equality Rewards to capture more data than ever before going into the holiday shopping season.
How do you think about Equality Rewards’ brand?
“Equality Rewards is focused on coalescing a broader community and understanding the LGBTQ network better in order to empower the community.”
The company needs to listen to what their consumers want in order to create the most effective product and brand possible, says Justin.
“From a brand perspective it’s really all about trust”
Equality Rewards is being very deliberate about how they listen, and their bringing in people from many different backgrounds to ensure they’re getting a full picture of their user base. Justin says he is constantly learning as a result of this process and looks forward to Equality Rewards’ continued product improvement, and community empowerment.
Is there anything else you’d like to share about your journey in entrepreneurship or Equality Rewards?
Justin attributes the company’s success so far to his 10 years of professionally engaging with and being a part of the LGBTQ community through speaking tours and other engagements.
“I had been building this company for ten years without even knowing it”
The hope is that Equality Rewards’ extension will encourage consumers to buy from more inclusive companies, and over time push companies to be more inclusive so they don’t lose market share.
Finally, Justin believes the most important thing you can do as a founder is to listen to your potential users. If you listen all the time you can continue to iterate and improve your product to give it the features that they want.
A Note About EqualityMD
In the last few months, Equality Rewards has pivoted some of its resources towards a new idea: EqualityMD. EqualityMD is a mobile LGBTQ telehealth platform that connects members of the LGBTQ community with medical professionals and resources relevant to their needs. It will launch in America’s 4 most populous states (CA, FL, TX & NY) by the end of the year and go national in the next year.
This major pivot was decided on in the last two months. Equality Rewards is indefinitely on pause.
Justin’s team interviewed over 1000 users and community members, all of whom said that healthcare was top of mind. After an intensive study of data, user interviews, and evaluating the ever-changing market forces, they believe this pivot is not only good for business, but it has the potential to save lives.
“Entrepreneurs have to move at the speed of life, have a pulse on the needs of the communities they are serving as well as the market in general, all while learning how to dance on quicksand like Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers. We believe we can do a lot of good for a lot of people across the country with our new product and can’t wait to launch it!”
Stay tuned for DataDay’s 2021 update on EqualityMD.
To read more of our interviews with America’s brightest entrepreneurs, click here.