The following story originally appeared in the spring 2018 issue of the W&M Alumni Magazine. - Ed.
It’s the hum of continuous chatter among close friends at a 21st birthday party or the click of silverware at a monthly potluck. It’s the laughter overheard at a bridal shower, the long-delayed hiking trip or tee time with college roommates — all moments that can get lost between the daily grind of work and daily responsibilities.
Shawn Boyer ’94, founder and CEO of goHappy, says these are the kinds of experiences that matter in life. He has created the goHappy app to help people be more intentional about getting together with their inner circle of family and friends.
“We wanted this to be a facilitator for people to spend face-to-face time,” Boyer says. “In essence, goHappy is a way to help people get together in real life more easily so they can build better relationships and live a happier life.”
Launched in 2017, the company based in Richmond, Virginia, is the entrepreneur’s latest start-up business. His first venture, Snagajob, started with a simple idea of creating a platform for hourly job seekers and grew to 50 million users under his leadership.
A happy life
Boyer came up with the idea for goHappy after examining his own hectic life.
“At the end of 2004 and into 2005, I felt like my life was out of whack,” says Boyer, who is married and a father of three. “I worked all of the time. I needed more balance in my life so I started being more intentional about setting goals in my personal life.”
Boyer came up with different parts of his life that he wanted to focus on. One of those included making a greater effort to gather with family and friends.
“I was sending friends invites through Outlook and that felt sterile,” Boyer said. “Why am I sending Outlook invites to my friends? I felt like there should be a better, more interactive tool to help people do that, and that became the impetus for goHappy.”
The company currently has 50,000 subscribers from more than 100 countries. Most are using the app for close-knit gatherings with an audience much more personal than a Facebook friends list. It takes the place of the group text message, where the purpose of the text often gets lost in off-topic responses as swiftly as it arrives on our cell phone screens. Invites can be sent to people via text message or email and users don’t have to download the app to use the service.
“One of the big differences in the products we’re building at goHappy is that we are not trying to be the destination. So many apps are focused on making sure users are always using their product,” says Nick Jester, vice president of product management at goHappy. “We want to facilitate face-to-face connections, so the goal of our products is to get people together in real life as easily and efficiently as possible.”
In many friend and family circles there are different social levels. While there is usually an organizer in the group who thrives on planning the next hangout, complete with seat assignments and decorations, there are others who feel indifferent about getting together at all and some in that same group who are agreeable only if swayed. Boyer and his team have tailored goHappy to appeal to all three types of users.
“We want to spur people to go out and do things that they love doing with people they love doing things with,” Boyer says. “We want them to go ski happy, go wine touring happy, go band practice happy — we want them to go out and do whatever it is that makes them happy.”
As a teenager Boyer knew he wanted to start a business, but was not sure what type. He was able to get a snapshot of the day-to-day life of business owners by watching his parents, who opened a jewelry store in his sophomore year in high school. His father, a pastor, relocated the family from Oklahoma to Williamsburg to follow his dream of owning a business — and that is where Boyer first got a glimpse into life as an entrepreneur.
“I got to see what the buying side was like because my parents would take me to a conference where they would purchase all sorts of merchandise,” Boyer says. “I also had to price items, which helped me develop an understanding of what the markups needed to be on merchandise.”
Boyer worked at the family store every summer and winter break while attending Lafayette High School and during his four years at William & Mary. During the summer he would often visit campus and throw footballs with William & Mary’s football team. This familiarity with the campus coupled with being impressed with the high academic standards drew him to the university. Boyer, who played receiver on the football team, majored in business administration and attended William & Mary on a scholarship.
“I think more than anything what I learned at William & Mary is how to think analytically and to then be able to communicate your position on something, somewhat articulately,” Boyer says. “I think that general knowledge and training was more helpful than any specific thing I learned about being an entrepreneur.”
Write it down
After graduating from William & Mary, Boyer earned a law degree from Washington & Lee University. His first full-time job out of law school was as a commercial real estate attorney in Washington, D.C. But after two years, he knew he didn’t want to practice law for the rest of his life. His realization came in 1997 when the internet was a playground of opportunity.
“I began writing down every idea I had — whether it was web-based or not,” Boyer says. “When I would see things that should be better than what they were, I would write them down and just start to think through different ways that I could solve that particular problem.”
Boyer’s girlfriend at the time was looking for a summer internship. In an attempt to help, Boyer looked online and saw little-to-no internship postings. Shortly after, his father said that he had a hard time finding hourly employees for the family’s jewelry business.
“I started doing research and I found a lot of sites that focused on salary-level positions instead of part-time/hourly jobs,” Boyer says. “It just seemed like a big void to me.”
Boyer started calling fast food companies and retail managers to ask them how they found new employees. Most put signs up in their windows or asked current employees for referrals. The general assumption was that employers thought hourly employees weren’t searching online for jobs. Boyer believed they were wrong.
“I just kept doing the research,” Boyer says. “I didn’t know how to code. I had never started anything before and I didn’t know what I didn’t know. There was also the thought that I don’t know what I’m doing and there is probably someone out there doing the same thing — if they’re not, there is probably a reason why.”
Boyer and his dad started Snagajob in 2000. Initially Boyer says it was hard to convince people that the company had value because of the perception of the internet. One of his talking points to potential employers was that 70 percent of Americans were online at the time. There were countless unpaid invoices those first four years, but Boyer never created a plan B in his mind.
“There are certainly times where you have the thought ‘is this going to work’ move itself from the back of your mind more to the front,” Boyer says. “I had the mindset that if I let my mind go there, then I would give myself an out. But ultimately, I wanted it to work out so I didn’t have a backup plan.”
Boyer stepped down as CEO of Snagajob in 2013 to become chairman of the company’s board of directors. He left Snagajob in 2015 to fully immerse himself into goHappy. At the time of his departure, Boyer’s idea of creating an hourly job listing website had grown into more than 50 million users and 300 employees.
The goHappy office is in a converted warehouse in the trendy Shockoe Slip section of Richmond. A wooden swing attached by two thick ropes hangs in the middle of the modern office. It’s a perfect symbol of the creative, fresh and young feel of the company. Sticky notes cover the walls as constant reminders of the mission of goHappy. One of them reads: Quality relationships equal a happy life.