Dropping my gaze

I’m an Aquarian. This means that I not only see into the future, I spend a good part of my day there. For as far back into my childhood as I can remember I have daydreamed ahead – minutes, days, months, years. I think this tendency is part of the reason that I can visualize things so clearly – years and years of practice mean that I can clearly triangulate anything from conversations, scenarios, drawings I want to do, rooms and lobbies I need to design, to the basic logic and flow of an IT system. But it also means that I have a tendency to struggle with the details. I can already see it so clearly, actually having to go through the steps of creating it can be frustrating.

Over the years I’ve had to teach myself to pull back and learn how to anchor myself in the present. I recently went through a coaching process to help me deal with the issues that I am facing while starting this new business. Yaron, my coach, often said to me that it’s great to have such vision, to see out so far to the horizon, but it’s important to sometimes drop my gaze a bit so I can concentrate on the steps I am making and still need to make.

Guroom is by far the most ambitious project that I have undertaken. I had the idea 3 years ago and have been working on it actively for almost a year. As we approach Beta, I worry how the project will be received. Will the internet just give a big collective “meh, just another design site?”. And again, it just helps to drop my gaze to the road and focus on the steps I am taking.

Another thing that helps me (and I know this is ironic considering the name of this blog), is to mentally move away from the word “startup”. It’s a word that brings with it a metric ton of pressure. So for now I’m dropping my gaze and focusing on building a successful internet business. That, I can handle.

On business plans…

Within the scope of my work and activities I get to see a lot of business plan presentations that are aimed at investors. I love seeing these presentations – being exposed to the constant innovation around me is inspiring. The problem? While the ideas are usually exciting and technologically innovative, the vast majority of the presentations are terrible – bad grammar, spelling mistakes, font sizes all over the place, horrible graphics…

So I thought I’d provide some basic guidelines for anyone writing their own business plan presentation:

  1. Create an outline: There are tons of websites out there showing you the type of topics you should cover. The above image is actually my own outline slide (I pretty much followed Sequoia Capital’s outline). Once you have created an outline, it’s easier to fill in the blanks.
  2. KISS: Keep it short and simple (I prefer “keep it simple, stupid” :-)). Once you have written your content go back take out everything that is not absolutely necessary. Leave in the highlights – the core information. If you are presenting in person, even better! Take out almost everything, leaving only short bullets that serve as cues for you to verbally fill in the blanks. If necessary use cue cards. THEN go back again and take out more. Then again. Repeat. Rinse. Repeat.
  3. Don’t get all funky with those flashy transitions and animations. Sometimes a fade in and fade out is nice. Nothing more. Stay away from the wipe, the twirl, the swirl, and may heaven forgive you, the checkerboard effect.
  4. Use clean graphics, preferably photographs. No animated clip art or bean men. Please.
  5. Language, people! If you aren’t a native speaker, get someone whose first language is English to review your presentation. No matter how you good think English it be. Even you, the one who spent 9 years in the US as a kid. Or you, the one who grew up watching English TV shows. Especially you. Unless English is your native tongue you’re going to make written mistakes.  I have a close relative-by-marriage who spent years in the UK, has absolutely brilliant English, has had academic articles published all over the world, and she still gets all her work edited. Accept it, embrace it, get help.
  6. Formatting: Headings should be positioned in the same position on each slide, same font, same size. Same with body text.
  7. Don’t use big fonts: It looks horrible. I’m not saying using size 12 text, but anywhere between 16-22 is good. Max 24.

So that’s the basics.

Of course you can always get your work edited and formatted by me or another professional. It may cost a bit, but it’s well worth the price, no?

A status report

Having clever friends is just a lovely, lovely thing. My close friend Tracy (who also used to be my manager) rewrote my email to the designers.

I scoured more sites and sent the email to 8 designers. 2 replied, asking for more info. That’s already way better stats than before. I spoke to both via phone, and one of them wants in. So, you know, YAY! It’s still not enough though, and I’m looking for more designers…

The Indian company that is developing my site, Karmick Soluions, is ridiculous. In like, a GOOD way. These guys are just rockstars. We’re across the world from each other, communicating via Skype, and despite a lot of unforeseen technical issues, they are tireless and bullheaded and I have to say, I like that a lot.

Also, every couple of weeks I’m all “sorry guys, I’m home with a sick kid” or “it’s school holidays AGAIN” and I’ll be offline for a few days, coming online for a couple of hours at a time at night or at 6am. And they just carry on working.

The HTML mockups are looking great. I can see the light at the end of the tunnel. But like I emailed someone today, it may well be an oncoming train.

There are days when my husband leaves with the girls and I sit down to work at 8am in my PJs and I pretty much stand up again at 15:45 to change and fetch them. It makes me feel…unprofessional. Like, not a real startup venture. A bit of a fraud. And then I started reading Jessica Livingston’s “Founders at Work”, and it reminded me that there is no set formula for a successful startup. Paul Graham coded in a towel. If he could code in a towel, I can wear PJs.

So I put my head down and do what Her Royal Majesty commanded of her people and what we see in almost every design blog home tour within the past 5 years: Keep Calm and Carry On. (and I’m still seriously tempted to get the poster myself).

Frustration

Ok. So I’ve hit a small bump.

For my site to really work I need both online merchants and designers. A lot of merchants are excited and  interested. Several have signed on with the project. Designers….less so. I’ve gotten a few designers, but far less than I thought I would. Clearly I’m communicating better with the merchants than with the designers, probably due to all my years of marketing writing for IT companies – I obviously speak a certain language. So what do I do? I need to rethink the issue. Why aren’t more designers biting in what is clearly an amazing opportunity? What am I not communicating properly?

On crowdsourcing and outsourcing

 

 

 

A couple of months ago I heard Lior Zoref talk about Crowd Wisdom at the Open U’s Entrepreneur’s club. Lior, who was VP Marketing for consumer & online services at Microsoft and now has his own consulting business, has focused his academic research on crowdsourcing. The subject was Lior’s fulfillment of his dream to talk at TED, which came true on the 29th of February, 2012.  The man brought a live bull onto the TED stage, and his talk was a massive success.

Besides being one of the most engaging and amusing speakers I’ve heard at the forum, his words rang true with me. As I listened I considered the past few months and realised that I’ve been using crowd wisdom as research for my project.

When I first starting working on the venture seriously, I started talking with as many people as I could: consultants, investors, other entreprenuers, lawyers. Anyone and everyone. I was surprised to find how remarkably generous so many people are with their knowledge. To illustrate: a few months ago someone recommended that I meet with an accountant from a certain firm.When I arrived there I realised the meeting was with the VP of the startup dept of a truly massive firm, along with another accountant and an assistant. We were clearly not a match at this point – I knew it the moment I arrived and they realised soon after I started talking. But the VP very graciously spent an hour with me giving advice – how to set up the venture, what kind of accountant to look for, tax issues in the US, tax issues in Israel. The cynical amongst us will surely say that I represent potential business in the future. If that’s the truth, I think it’s only a tiny part of his motivation. I believe most of it came down to him just being a really nice guy wanting to help a girl out. And I’ve got tons of examples just like that.

At first, it was confusing, especially after I spoke to about 10 people. Everyone said something different. But like Lior says, when you’re crowdsourcing you need to talk to many more than that, and I have. And after a while, after you’ve spoken to 30, 40, 50 people, read 30, 40, 50 blogs and articles, you start to see three to four common threads running through it all – kind of like main pathways you can take. Things become clear, and you can start to navigate the paths according to your needs.

For example, I learnt the main pathway to an Israeli startup is this:

  • 3 – 4 founders, which include coders
  • Usually young men, occassionally you’ll see young women (very few mothers)
  • The product is very often an app, a device, or software that can be patented
  • They sit in one of their grandmothers’ apartments in Ramat Gan (the Israeli version of a garage) for a couple of months coding furiously away to get out a beta/prototype

This is the most common model, and the kind that most often gets funding.

So where does that leave me? I’m in my late thirties, married with two young girls, for whom I am the primary caretaker. I don’t time for cofounders besides my husband. I don’t have time for endless meetings. I can’t code, and I can’t afford an Israeli development company.

Luckily, like I said, there are alternative pathways that come into focus. For one thing, there was the possibility of outsourcing abroad. I’ve been using Elance for over a year to outsource small projects, so I knew it was a good place to start. I did some research and found out how people have launched startups using Elance.

There are startups founded by 1-2 people, and I researched the different ways the founders did it.

So here’s where we are:

We (my husband and I) are using our own capital to fund development of the first version of the site in India, for a fraction of what it would have cost to get it developed here. There are drawbacks, and I would have liked to leverage Israeli brainpower, but getting it developed in India makes the project possible.

How did I find the development company? From about 30 proposals on Elance I narrowed it down and interviewed about 20…slowly eliminating companies until I decided on the company that had the right combination of experience, knowledge, and the ability to communicate effectively with someone on the other side of the world.

If all goes according to plan, the site will launch mid-July. At this point we are looking for both mentoring as well as seed money to finance marketing efforts. Once we’ve got nice traffic numbers, we hope to get bigger funding so we can increase the scope of the site and move forward towards my vision.

We found our path. While we sometimes need to take an unplanned detour or climb over a few rocks in the road, it seems to be the right one for us at this point.

Dear readers,

I grew up in a polite culture. God help us if we didn’t say “please” or “thank you”. After a playdate we said “thank for you having me”. We called our friends’ parents “Mr” and “Mrs” and our teachers “Ma’am” and “Sir”.

Then, at age 20, I moved here. Over the past 18 years I’ve learned not to take offence at the abruptness and to-the-pointness, and to a large extent, adopt it myself. I guess I’ve been stockholmed to some degree.  I no longer blink an eye at the one line email, very popular in IT – a non-punctuated non-sentence that reads:

what is project status

In fact, I often write them myself. Maybe not quite so short and I put in a “Hi”, but straight-up and to the point. What more needs to be said, right? The Israeli standpoint regarding manners and politeness is that they are unnecessary and false. That they serve no real purpose – if anything, they serve a negative purpose by hiding people’s real intentions and feelings.

And then came this venture.

Most of the factors in the project are non-Israeli – Americans, Brits, and Indians. It’s easy for me to revert to my old politeness. I generally like being pleasant and polite (I know most of my good friends will laugh, but they get me in raw form :-)), and it comes naturally to me. But what I forgot to expect is the bonus of manners and etiquette in the responses that I receive.  There are the yes emails from potential partners that say:

“Hi Lisa,

Thanks for contacting us! We think your project sounds really unique and exciting and we definitely want to work together. It may require some IT integration on our part, but we’d be willing to do it.

How can we get the ball rolling?

Looking forward to hearing from you,

Jane Doe
Affiliate Program Manager”

And then there are the maybe responses:

“Dear Lisa,

Thanks for showing an interest in our company. Your project sounds really interesting and we’d be interested in hearing more. What would be required on our part? What are the reporting implications? Can we organize an online meeting?

Regards,

John Doe,
Partner Manager”

And then…the no emails.

“Dear Lisa,

We think your project sounds really interesting. We have discussed it within our organization and unfortunately it is not a possibility at this time.

Thank you for contacting us and feel free to contact me once your site is live to reconsider the option of working together. Good luck with your project!

Best regards,

George Smith
Partner Program Manager”

There are no falsities or hidden intentions in these emails, they are all straightforward and to the point. But the politeness, the niceties make me feel that even when I get no for an answer, my email has been genuinely considered and that I am worth them taking the time to a. respond, and b. say “hi”, “thanks” and “regards”. Is this true? Was my email really taken seriously? Does it matter? Because the answer to my proposal, whether yes, no, or maybe, was loud and clear.

Maybe it’s the excitement of the beginning stretch. Maybe because I have gotten so many positive responses and the pieces of the puzzle are starting to slot into place. But it reminds me of what it feels like when people are just…nice, pleasant. I think it’s a quality that has gotten a bad name in our society for all the wrong reasons, and I think it’s a pity.

Best regards,

Lisa :-)

One foot in front of the other

For about 20 years, I have never been without a job or looking for a job. Even as a freelancer I have always worked on long term contracts, never less than a year. So here I am. My latest freelancing contract is ending this week, and I have decided not to actively seek work for the next month or two so that I can focus on getting my venture up and running. I still have some design work coming in but I am not actively seeking more at the moment.

True to my fickle mercurial Aquarian nature I thrive on both change AND stability. I need a solid career base so that I can go off and do my (million) thing(s) in my spare time. Now I have, in an impressive feat of metaphorical acrobatics, reached down and pulled the rug from under my own two feet. I am terrified. My stomach is in knots. About 10 times a day I feel panic grip my throat and the urge to cry. And then I use my hard-earned, honed-to-the-bone skills known as repression and denial, and shove it all into a little box labeled “for therapy when I have time in 20 years”, put my head down, and carry on.

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