Tag Archive: startups

Fighting History

One of my major regrets is that I didn’t start a business in 2002. To be more accurate, I did start a business. I had an idea, built a prototype, went to SCORE mentor meetings, met with a great lawyer and filed paperwork. My site was getting visitors, I was getting emails from those visitors, and initial feedback was outstanding. My family, instead of being supportive, expressed concerns. Worry. Doubt. I felt their doubts creep into my head and take root. I got scared. Maybe they were right. What was I doing? I unwound all the work I’d done and put my head back down to blend in with the crowd.

I never forgot what my lawyer said when I called him to dissolve the corporation:

“If you spent as much time working on your business as you spend worrying, you’d already have revenue.”

I was young. I was far less mature than I am now. And I don’t blame my family; I blame my own reaction to what they said. I didn’t want it badly enough. I didn’t know what I wanted.

For the next 12 years, I wished I’d started the company.

This week was tough because it echoed history. I shared some good news and got back anxiety. Worry. I know it wasn’t intentional; in fact, my family has been incredibly supportive of my efforts this time around. But nonetheless, I spent the end of the week replaying my worries, reminding myself why this time would be different. Fighting my own shadows. It’s not a feeling I’m used to anymore, and not one I enjoy.

I didn’t give in. I’m different than I was. I’ve defeated far worse than some unformed doubts, and I know that the regret of never trying is more powerful than fear.

But I could use a spa. And chocolate. Possibly some flower petals and essential oils.

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San Francisco in the Prehistoric Age

I found this ancient essay I wrote for Derek Powazek’s site about visiting San Francisco in 2001, just after the recession devastated the city’s economy. I’d spent a summer there five years earlier, so I wandered around for the weekend noting contrasts and taking notes.

SF Stories (my post is the long one at the top)
http://sfstories.com/post/general/index.010.shtml

I find I can’t conjure that depth of feeling for the ways L.A. has changed in the past decade. It’s different, and I could write about it, but not with so much melodrama.

Endangered Species: Concentration and Solitude

Other than ridicule, great thinkers and discoverers of the past had something else in common: lots of time to themselves to think and experiment.

Our amplification-loop world is making solitude a rare commodity and concentration a rare ability. We’ve gained exponential connectivity with others but should be aware of what we’re losing.

We can get a lot more information a lot faster. But what are we doing with it? The next great breakthroughs are waiting while we browse Facebook.

Do you remember how it felt to sit and read for hours, uninterrupted?

Concentration Rehab

I’m not sure how to rediscover concentration amid the noise, but I’m trying. Here are some ideas I’m testing:

1.    Schedule at least one day a month for solitude.
2.    Just breathe and think for a little while each day — even 15 minutes helps.
3.    Take a walk outside, alone.
4.    Read for five hours straight in a paper book, where a “Go to Facebook” option doesn’t exist.

A Blue-Sky Dilemma

Solitude as a team also should be more highly valued when an idea is off-the-map and likely to be rejected by status-quo decision makers. In all sorts of environments, ranging from large companies to Startup Weekend, I’ve seen truly interesting ideas eliminated early in collaborative processes because they fell outside of normal bounds.

Those are often the most promising ideas.

Crowds rarely make breakthroughs. They’re good at enforcing the status quo, and (if organized well) at generating incremental improvements. They also eventually popularize breakthroughs, but only after a sufficient number of early adopters look sufficiently cool enough to make them jealous.

I’m not saying that early validation of high-level ideas with customers is bad. If you’re considering an idea that’s not truly novel, it’s a great thing to do. But vetting blue-sky ideas by committee or with customers is, I suspect, counterproductive in early days. The really great ideas are too impractical, too unlikely, too risky or anti-status quo to make it out of committee, unless you work at Google X.

Solitude Before Sharing?

For blue-sky ideas, a possible approach might be: Build solitude (or a small, trusted team that respects it), work hard, try new things, succeed  at a small scale, and then share.

It’s not as fun in the moment. Focusing intensely on a tough problem with no guarantee of a breakthrough often is not fun. It requires saying no to many things, giving up some trappings of respectability, and generally being perceived as odd. But it brings the possibility of doing something truly great, instead of just pretty good.

If people are telling you you’re crazy, you may have a truly terrible idea, or you may be on the right track. It’s difficult to parse that feedback, but it’s not always a stop-sign. The biggest stop-sign is feedback along the lines of, “Yeah, it’s okay. Go ahead.”

The Startup Weekend Roller Coaster

One thing I promised myself when my journeys began was to do things that scared me.

This weekend I did something that scared me. I jumped into Startup Weekend Social Impact Edition with no plan and no idea what to expect, and emerged amid a solid team working well together around a good idea.

Friday night, I pitched an idea that I came up with on the spot. I wasn’t planning to pitch anything at all, but thought it would be a good experience to try it. My idea wasn’t selected, so I joined a team and prepared to work all weekend toward our goal and have a great time.

By Saturday afternoon, our project was in disarray. Disarray. Our initial market research — the part where we actually left the building and talked to people — indicated our product might not resonate with people. We knew we should pivot. But we didn’t agree on which direction.

I felt myself curling up inside and imagined spending all weekend just arguing about the product, without actually making a product. I didn’t know which direction we should go, I just wanted to spend the weekend making something. So I put my head down and kept coding. At worst, I figured, I’d make an app prototype that we could tweak when we settled on an idea.

Two of our team members left. I felt bleak. It was late afternoon, and we didn’t have much to show for it. And then suddenly (I’m not really sure what happened here), it turned around. We decided on an idea, which was close to our team lead’s original idea, and just went with it. No one seemed initially overjoyed, but from that moment we were okay and things started clicking.

We spoke with mentors. We iterated. We shared ideas and split up tasks and generally worked productively and well together. It was fun. I’m not sure what changed. It’s like the pit of despair opened up and there was a path and we decided to get up and walk down it to somewhere.

We worked productively until 11 p.m. Saturday and then disbanded for sleep or social life, reconvening on Sunday. We created and refined our pitch deck and finished web and app prototypes. Finally, we presented our pitch and demo to a panel. Our service seemed to strike some right notes, and we received constructive and thoughtful feedback.

On the whole, I think our presentation was a success and our proposal was viable — nearly unthinkable on Saturday afternoon. I’m not sure what will come next. But this was a valuable experience, and I’d do it again.

Here is our web prototype and our app prototype code.

Key takeaways: It is so vitally important to seek customer and market validation early. Negative market feedback is a great opportunity to adapt and learn. Sticking with a team instead of an idea is a great idea.