Johnathan Mayo, a Richmond, VA native and a product of its Henrico County public-school system, is no stranger to entrepreneurship. He started his first landscaping business at 12 years of age. He made his own flyers and would go around his neighborhood cutting grass and doing other yard work. Later after graduating from the Virginia Military Institute (VMI), with a degree in mechanical engineering, he went on to work for the Ethyl Corporation and then Bell Atlantic, which later became Verizon. However, the entrepreneurial bug was still present. Mayo recalls, “I wanted to get more business classes. As a mechanical engineer I didn’t get to study business. I went back to VCU (Virginia Commonwealth University) and got an MBA and a Masters degree in Sport Leadership. I then started my first business, Avail while working at Verizon.” Avail, which was founded with his long-time business partner Lester Johnson, is a foundation management and cause marketing company.
As a self-described serial entrepreneur, Mayo has always been interested with coming up with new ideas and finding ways to implement them. This drive to do more led to him starting his second business. The idea developed after the Michael Brown incident and Mayo’s frustration with society’s reactive stance on issues. “A situation happens and people get upset, as the news cycle changes people go back to their regular routine, which is understandable as people are busy. But I thought about what I could do to get people to support their local community organizations. The initial concept was to host events at restaurants where not- for- profits would come in and talk about the work that they do and get people to sign up to volunteer, to get people engaged.” Mayo, who is also part owner of Mama J’s restaurant , had first knowledge of the opportunity restaurants had to engage and interact with people in a unique way on a regular basis. After talking with his business partner Lester Johnson, who also co-owns Mama J’s restaurant, the idea took a pivot and Serving Up Change was born.
Serving Up Change is a web-based donation management tool where organizations and individuals can see what type of causes restaurants support and submit their sponsorship or donation requests via the platform. A restaurant can use the platform to keep track of requests and easily create reports for submission for auditing and tax purposes. Serving Up Change is also an alternative to traditional spirit nights where people dine at restaurants and the restaurant donates a portion of the proceeds of the night to a pre-selected local cause or organization. Serving Up Change developed a virtual spirit night where instead of having to physically go to the restaurant, the organization can create an online campaign and supporters from far and near, can go online and purchase a gift card from the restaurant and the restaurant donates a percentage to the charity. Consumers are then free to use the gift card whenever they please, which is convenient for supporters and helps raise more money. It’s a win-win for everyone involved.
Despite the different endeavors he’s pursued and the various sectors he’s been in, the one thing that has remained consistent is Mayo’s goal of developing businesses that make a positive impact on the community. He credits his mother with creating this mindset. Having been raised by his mother, since the age of 5, Mayo witnessed firsthand how hard his mother worked and how she served others in her role as a middle school teacher and at her church. “Her spirit of giving back was just what she did. The giving part [that I have] comes from being around her, seeing her sacrifice and raising my sister and I alone, she engrained that in us.” Now, Mayo’s mother is not only one of his biggest fans but also one of his greatest sources of motivation.
Motivation is what has allowed Mayo to maintain his drive and persevere despite challenges. “One thing that makes me know I can do it [be an entrepreneur] is my experience at VMI. At VMI you go through the process of being called a rat and being treated like the lowest form of life for almost the entire first year. And I played football while I was there. It was intense. So those were long days and in the end I was able to succeed in that environment. So, a lot of times I think back to those days and think if I can make it through that, I can make it through this.” Additionally, Mayo is a husband and father to two girls; they are motivation enough for him to get up and succeed every day. “Being there to support my wife and being an example to my girls the way my mother was to me is important. Especially now with two girls who I jokingly call baby CEO and baby CFO- I want to leave a legacy for them.”
Mayo is quick to acknowledge that his road to success has not always been without its obstacles. “With Avail, we never had any investors or anything. We were able to secure one loan, so for the most part we bootstrapped the business. Finances have been the most difficult thing and operating on a tight budget to get started. I went to school for mechanical engineering, so I’ve learned in the school of hard knocks, I just went out and did it versus other people who have started businesses based on experience they had. So, part of it was not particularly having the expertise when I first started.” Despite these hurdles, Mayo’s work has been quite rewarding. For example, the Soul Bowl, an event he created to raise money for charity has been going strong for the past 11 years and raised over $200,000 for local organizations. He has recently started licensing out the brand to other people so that they can bring it to their cities for their use.
When considering what he’d tell other entrepreneurs, Mayo keeps it simple- “Do it, it’s lots of fun! There’s nothing like being in an entrepreneur and working in a startup environment and having the opportunity to be creative and create things that weren’t there before.” Mayo also stresses the importance of doing something you’re passionate about. “People hear it said a lot, but it’s said a lot because it’s true. Figure out what you would do for free and figure out how to turn it into a business. There’ll be situations where the money may not be there and the only thing that can keep you going is the passion for what you’re doing. To say you want to start a business just to start a business is not enough; it has to be about the why, why you’re doing and not just about starting a business.”
Mayo also stresses the importance of building the appropriate team and having a game plan. “As an entrepreneur, we feel like we can’t do it financially. I wish I would’ve figured out how to hire people full-time on the team, the business (Avail) would’ve grown faster. You can’t expect 100% from people who are part-time.” As for a game plan, Mayo believes it’s imperative. “Figure out your game plan. Say you put money aside and live a modest lifestyle, keep expenses to a minimum and only spend what you need to survive. This way you give yourself enough time to make money and be able to support yourself. If that means moving home with your parents or getting a roommate do it. So find that thing you’re passionate about and create an exit strategy so you can focus on your business full time.”
There are great things on the horizon for Serving Up Change, which was recently invited to be a part of Start Up Virginia and will be have office space in the 1717 Innovation Center located in Downton Richmond. With Mayo’s determination and work-ethic, we know that he will successfully impact his community in a positive way, whilst providing others with the tools necessary to attain their financial goals and leave a lasting legacy- all while putting Richmond, VA on the map. Mayo is quickly becoming a game changer and innovator in his field, and shows no signs of stopping!
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