The Perfect Storm: Why start a weather business?

Guest blog post by Joel Gratz, founder of the ColoradoPowderForecast and DontGetZapped

There is absolutely no substitute for being passionate about something and acting on that passion. This isn’t a cliché. It’s just the only way to really be happy.

When it’s going to snow, I have the energy of someone who just took a few too many shots of “5 Hour Energy”. This was true as a 6 year old wanting to play in the snow, as a 12 year old wanting a day off of school, and as a 25 year old looking for a midweek powder day at Vail.

Weather, particularly snow, is my passion. I went to school for meteorology. I’ll talk your ear off about the clouds. This is what gets me jazzed up.

How do you turn a life-long passion into a sustainable business?  With lots of energy, luck, and a bit of technology.

In 2006, I finished my joint Masters in Meteorology and MBA.  I started working for ICAT Managers, a hurricane and earthquake insurance company in Boulder. The location, pay and hours were great.  The people were kind too, in short, it was a good job. There was just one problem: I spent 95% of my time on data and analysis and only 5% of meteorology.  I thought that my passion could wait, as my life otherwise was perfectly fine and comfortable. Snow, skiing, and weather could still be my hobby even if it wasn’t my job.

But in late 2007, the perfect storm began to take shape. A few of my skiing friends asked me for forecasts so they could plan their snowy adventures for the week. At first I responded to these requests individually, but realized this was time consuming and inefficient. So I started an email list and began a weekly email to ~50 of my friends to let them know where and when to find the best snow. I wrote my emails with a touch of quirky humor and included a few graphics. The word spread.

During the 2008-2009 ski season, the email list grew to 500 people, which pathetically enough, was still just a group of contacts in Gmail.

At the beginning of the 2009-2010 ski season, I broke into the 21st century and set up a blog to replace the email list and ColoradoPowderForecast was born. By late December, tens of thousands of people were visiting the site, and I finally opened my eyes to the perfect storm swirling around me:

  • Energy: I love working hard to forecast snow and help people enjoy it.
  • Luck: A few well-connected people found my site and passed it on to many more.
  • Technology: $0 spent on marketing and $3/month in web hosting was all it took to get 30,000 people to follow my forecasts.

With some good press in the books by new years, I knew that I had stumbled upon a way to make a living by following my passion. On January 21st, 2010, I left my full-time job to spend time meeting people in the ski industry and to begin transitioning my hobby into a real business.

Things are still in transition, but there’s not a day that goes by that I question my decision to follow the one thing that really gets me fired up: Snow. Luckily for me, there are about 12 million people in the U.S. that are also passionate about snow as skiers and snowboarders.  No, this isn’t a massive market. But by following my passion and helping these 12 million people to follow theirs, I should be able to make this business work out. And all it took to get started was $3/month, a bunch of snow flakes, some luck, and a bit of technology.

Now let’s go La Nina – bring on the powder!

The Perfect Storm: Why start a weather business?

How we plan to scale up our artist base

This past week, Chad and I implemented the ability to purchase premium greetings on our site. The site’s basic monetization engine and minimum viable product is finally complete.  We’re ready to test our assumption that consumers are willing to pay for artist created greetings. We need artists to post and promote content, so we’re ramping up our artist recruitment process. This isn’t new for us since we’ve been recruiting artists for our alpha testing since day 1. We largely understand our value proposition and the basics of our pitch. Now we need to do more of it, better.

Starting this week my design hours will start to decrease and my hours of artist recruitment will increase. At this point we’ve been relying on good ol’ fashioned networking to find artists.  That won’t suffice now, its time to branch out and see if we can convince people who have no social obligation to hear us speak. We expect a lot of rejection, but we think that is a good thing. It will help us hone our message and fix issues with our product. Here is our strategy to deliver a good pitch to artists and continually improve it.

1 – Focus on the 2 benefits that our site brings to the artist (Money and Publicity)
2 – Track each and every potential artist in a recruiting dashboard, keep notes about the features they like and request.
3 – Never give up. Return to artists that rejected us when we’ve added features they wanted or overcame their concerns.
4 – Give them a one-page pitch document they can look at while we’re talking.
5 – Put a big smile on our faces and enjoy the ride even if we get rejected.

After we’ve proven that the basic assumption works, it will be time to scale the process by adding a “refer an artist” feature to the system and finding a charismatic artist manager to help recruit talent.

A lot of you have gone through this process before, any advice for us?

How we plan to scale up our artist base

The 7 rap rhymes that every entrepreneur should know.

I love listening to rap and hip-hop. The beats are great and the lyrics, while crude, often speak to the entrepreneurial “make something of yourself” story line that I admire. Clearly this isn’t true about all rap artists, and I actually have a problem with a lot of newer mainstream work, but this is certainly true about my old favorites like the Notorious B.I.G and 2Pac.  Yesterday was the anniversary of 2Pac’s death, so it seems like a good time to pull out some insights from a few of my favorite rap lyrics.

1. Mo money, mo problems (Notorious B.I.G.) – The idea that money equals success is very ingrained in the American psyche. Biggie understood, and spoke often, about the differences he felt between his impoverished upbringing and more recent wealth. It is clear that issues of loneliness, trust of others and freedom of movement were among the downsides of having money.  He is not saying greed isn’t good, but he is cautioning about allowing success to change the person that you are and that got you that success in the first place. Listen to this line

2. I don’t mean to sound sleazy, but tease me, I don’t want it if it’s that easy (2Pac) – For many of us, the feeling of accomplishment comes from stretching ourselves. This is as true when doing an alpine ascent as it is when building a business. Being an entrepreneur, or hustler in rap parlance, means that nothing is handed to to you on a silver platter. It does take hard work, risk and resilience to succeed but that is what makes the ultimate success so sweet. Listen to this line

3. Now I can let these dream killers kill my self esteem-or use my arrogance as steam to power my dreams (Kanye West) – There is nothing that puts me in overdrive like someone telling me that I can’t do something. Knowing your strengths, weaknesses, and being confident enough to take the big swings when it feels right is important. Listen to this line

4. No man alive has ever witnessed struggles I survived (2pac) – This one has special meaning to me. Whenever I hear this line, I think of my grandparents who both survived Auschwitz. If they can make it through that hell, rebuild their lives and raise two successful children, what everyday obstacles can’t I get through? The thought of my grandfather’s smiling face is quite literally the image I concentrate on when I’m trying to overcome large obstacles like a mountain peak or calm down before an important presentation. Listen to this line

5. Will Smith don’t got to cuss in his raps to sell records – well I do, so f*** him and f*** you too (Eminem) – It sounds crude, but it has a good point. Every brand has its own target market. It’s better to be true to your core fans and personality than try to be everything to everybody. Listen to this line

6. Don’t speak to fools, they scorn the wisdom of your words (NAS) – I include this lyric because I actually think NAS is wrong. The fact is that smart people are the ones who are listening. Even “fools” have valuable information to share; you just need to listen hard enough.

7. Stay far from timid, only make moves when your heart’s in it, and live the phrase “the sky’s the limit” (Notorious B.I.G) – How many people never take a risk to achieve their dreams? The best entrepreneurs, like the best poker players, understand when to put all the chips on the table. Listen to this line

The rappers that I’ve mentioned above are entrepreneurs and their stories of overcoming adversity, believing in themselves and taking big swings are lessons many of us can learn from.  While they grew up under different conditions, the concepts, the motivations, and the passions are the same. Do you have any favorite lines?  Use the comment box to share them with us.

The 7 rap rhymes that every entrepreneur should know.

How #boulderfire changed my perspective on twitter

For those of you who aren’t familiar with the world of Twitter yet, using a hashtag (#) before a word is a way of creating a topic in Twitter. By putting a topic like #boulderfire into a tweet, you are actively joining the conversation. Twitter users can filter on that word and see every tweet about that topic.

I initially joined Twitter because that’s what all the cool entrepreneurs in town were doing. Most people I met were die-hard “tweeters.” While I saw its usefulness, Twitter was never a necessity for me. However, that changed on Labor Day when a forest fire started in the hills above Boulder. By checking Twitter, I was able to identify the source of the smoke above my house. As the fire spread, my close-knit community literally came alive on Twitter, with everyone joining in the conversation using the tag #boulderfire. People tweeted important information about evacuation orders and offered assistance with food, housing, and legal advice for those already displaced. One person even tweeted the contents of the police scanner so people were up to date. There is no other communication medium that can enable this sort of community support network.

Even the emergency management system relied on Twitter. When the reverse 911 system—which is intended to alert residents to evacuate their homes—failed, the police department requested that people use Twitter to alert those in the affected areas! Seriously, Twitter just saved some lives. I hope an app I’m involved with will one day do that.

These last few days, I’ve thought a lot about the firefighters risking their lives and the adversity our community is facing. And perhaps it seems strange, but the last few days have also opened my eyes to the true value of Twitter. Twitter isn’t just for self-proclaimed internet marketing experts and Justin Bieber fans, Twitter can literally help a community organize, communicate, and respond effectively and rapidly to a natural disaster. Normal citizens can provide invaluable information, resources, and support to those in need (or to those who are just plain curious). We, as a community, wouldn’t be able to do that as quickly or as easily without Twitter.

How #boulderfire changed my perspective on twitter