Pray.com, an interfaith mobile app that helps religious leaders keep in touch with their congregants, will grow its team after receiving $2 million in seed funding. The round was led by Science Inc., a startup studio whose portfolio also includes Dollar Shave Club and DogVacay, with participation from Greylock Partners and Spark Capital.
Founded last year by Steve Gatena, Michael Lynn, Ryan Beck and Matthew Potter, Pray.com’s app lets faith leaders send calls for prayer and inspirational content to their communities. It also has tools for group chats and charitable donations. The team is currently taking part in the Laudato Si’ Fellowship in Rome. The startup accelerator program is being advised by Cardinal Peter Turkson and was inspired by Pope Francis’ encyclical, which called on all people to care for the planet by solving ecological and environmental issues together.
CEO Gatena was inspired to create Pray.com after coping with a series of losses, including serious injuries that ended his career in the Air Force and the death of his friend and mentor, the helicopter pilot Alan Purwin.
Churches and other faith organizations currently use a wide array of channels to keep in touch with their communities, like text messages, prayer hotlines, YouTube streams and social media accounts. A major challenge for many organizations is managing group communications, because many launch multiple support groups or ministries. Pray.com’s app gives them a tailor-made platform tool. Its three core features are community prayer, small group chats and faith-leader broadcasts. During its beta stage, Pray.com tested with more than 100 communities of different sizes.[gallery columns="5" ids="1509682,1509684,1509681,1509683,1509685"]
“The nuances of Pray.com, even in our beta stage, work differently from anything that has been built for the faith community and in many cases, our goal is to engage people online so we can help them to engage more offline,” says Gatena.
Peter Pham, co-founder of Science Inc., says one of the attractions of Pray.com is that many faith leaders are already very savvy about social media — using YouTube or podcasts to broadcast their sermons, for example, or running accounts on Facebook, Instagram, Twitter and Snapchat. But he saw that there was no central mobile platform specifically for religious organizations, the way LinkedIn is for work or Nextdoor is for neighborhoods.
“Steve is one of those rare CEOs who has that vision and drive to change the world,” Pham says. “Given the amount of chaos in the world right now, I think Pray.com is something everyone needs right now.” To be clear, it’s not about any specific faith, just like YouTube isn’t about any specific genre. It’s a platform for people to connect with their faith leader and be more connected to them and their fellow congregants.
Serving faith-based communities and raising venture capital, however, might seem like dissonant ideas for some people.
“We understand the confusion,” Gatena says. “We believe that serving the faith community is serving the global community. Like His Holiness Pope Francis has expressed in Laudato Si’, we believe we can do great things for the world by using capitalism and business as a vehicle for good.”
He adds that he bootstrapped the app at first, before finding the other members of Pray.com’s team, who all had full-time jobs. They continued bootstrapping until they realized “the only way we could achieve a remarkable global outcome for the people we were serving was if we raised funding, hired a world-class team and built the best technology in our sector.”
Gatena talked to Science Inc. co-founder Mike Jones, who helped him understand how fundraising works. Once Pray.com reaches enough scale to monetize, it hopes to do so by offering faith organizations paid services. Gatena says the startup will spend its time in the Laudato Si’ Fellowship looking for “a profitable business model that aligns with our vision, mission, and values.”