Finding “How Can We Make This Work” People

You come to me with ideas
You say they’re just pieces, so I’m puzzled
– Eminem (Dr Dre – I Need a Doctor)

People usually respond in one of 2 ways to hearing about a new idea. Either they say “how can this work” or they say “this can’t work because of X”. One reaction opens a dialog and the other shuts it down. Some people don’t understand that the idea itself doesn’t matter, it’s just a jumping off point for a conversation. When the conversation is shut down and you end up having to defend the basic validity of having an idea – it really kills the mood.

It’s just an idea for god’s sakes!

Ideas aren’t inherently bad or good, they are jumping off points for thinking. Who can say which of a barrage of ideas was the one that led to a radical solution to a tough problem? Nobody. It’s just too fluid to judge. The conversation around the idea is what is important and is vital to expanding how we think through problems and the interact with the world around us.

This simple reaction has become a simple test when meeting and hiring new people and it has proved remarkably adapt at predicting how well we’ll get along.

Finding “How Can We Make This Work” People

Rejection is my yardstick of success

I get rejected a lot. Not only do I get rejected a lot, but I get rejected in a lot of different ways, too. I get rejected with unanswered “cold call” emails, and by politely worded “not interested” responses and everything in between.  I get a constant stream of rejection and when it’s not making me depressed, I savor it as much as the success.  Getting told no tells me that I’m pushing for more than I deserve and its a good yardstick for measuring just how far I’m pushing the envelope.

I want to be clear though that rejection and failure aren’t the same thing.  In his last blog post, Andy Ellwood talks about the benefits of failing spectacularly as a way of overcoming one’s fear of failure in general and becoming a better entrepreneur.  Not purposely failing, but doing something you half expect to fail with the confidence and purpose of something who thinks they will succeed.  Rejection is a very similar concept but where rejection is generally a private occurrence, failure tends to be an embarrassing public event.  Instead of publicly realizing you are wrong, rejection are a series of small failures that test your personal resolve to continue and teaches you what works and what doesn’t.  If a big named entrepreneur or other VIP doesn’t respond to my emails its not a failure, its a learning opportunity.  What did I do differently with those that did respond? It also indicates that I’m pushing the boundaries of what I’m able to accomplish.  Chris Dixon summed it up really well in a recent blog post when he said “if you aren’t rejected on a daily basis you aren’t trying hard enough.”

The rejection comes in many forms.  First there is the blatant rejection, the emails that read “I’m not interested” or some other polite variety of this statement.  These slide right off my back, since the vast majority of these responses come from smaller potential customers, never from potential mentors.   There is also the not so blatant “my schedule is really busy for the next few weeks, how about you follow-up with me then” which tells me they are clearly not interested, but luckily for them I’m a persistent little guy and I mark the date on my calendar for a follow-up.  Then there are the ones that never respond.  The worst though, are the ones that respond to setup a meeting but then either continually push it back or don’t show up.

For all the rejection, there is a ton of success.  To me, networking is both a quality game and a quantity game.  Remind anyone of dating?  You never know where a relationship will lead, so I try to maximize my volume of meetings with the best people possible. The more rejection I receive, the more fantastic connections I’ve likely made.  In other words it all goes back to Edison and his amazing lightbulb. Over one thousand failed experiments, each in its own way revealed a little more of the puzzle that, when finally complete, changed the world.  As Edison said, genius is indeed “10% inspiration and 90% perspiration.”

Rejection is my yardstick of success

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 Networking Dance

Networking is a key part of our growth strategy. It allows us to get third party validation for our concept, get free professional services, refine our elevator pitch, find talent and build a reputation within the technology startup scene.

We’ve taken a two step approach to achieve our goals. The first step I call the “brute force” method: we met with everyone and anyone that would meet with us and then singled out the stars to keep close relationships with. We found these individuals at networking meetups and through existing relationships. On average we probably met with about five individuals per week for a one-on-one. These meetings launched us quickly into the startup scene and got us familiar with the Boulder coffee shop landscape (where a ton of startup networking goes down in this city).

This week our tactic shifted to what we call the “selective service” method. It was clear we had to change course; some meetings offer us value way beyond the brief time we spend with them, and the others waste our time and drain our energy. We’ve largely accomplished the goal of introducing ourselves to the community and now it’s time to focus on only those people who give us great advice and push our product to the next level.

The need for this shift was brought into stark reality this week after I met with two world class entrepreneurs. One is an existing mentor and another is one we hope to continue meeting with. The most important thing they do for us is call us out on issues and help us to intelligently think through how to solve them. At this point with our product, it’s important that we surround ourselves with people who can give actionable feedback and have been through the product refinement process. Here are some observations we have on the top three characteristics of a world class advisor:

1. They are straightforward. A critical comment doesn’t hurt us, it helps us. We want to know what is wrong so we don’t get burned. Great advisors know this and won’t avoid their core thoughts just to prop up your ego.
2. They’ve been there and done that. While I have the utmost respect for the GE executives I’ve worked for and with, a good mentor for us needs to be an entrepreneur. They need to have experience launching a startup from scratch and doing the minutia work themselves. The problems of startups and big companies are not the same.
3. They are smarter than you. This doesn’t just mean they have more experience, it literally means you feel humbled in their presence and amazed at the depth of their critical thinking skills. If you go home at night and lay awake thinking about how they came to some conclusion, this is a good indicator that you have the right person on board.

At the end of the day, we’ll continue to meet with people whether we’re looking for advice or they are looking for ours, but our tactic is definitely changing. We’ll let you know how it turns out. Hopefully you’ll see it in a much improved product.

The Networking Dance

Identifying & Acquiring Test Users

We’re following the lean startup approach. Its premise is that you don’t know what your customers want at the beginning, so give test users a minimal solution and learn from them. In the past few weeks we have pushed out a minimum viable product with just one simple feature, emailing a text greeting to a friend. Now we’re listening to our initial users and adding requested features like attaching photos, videos, music and being able to edit the font type of the greetings. Our few users are awesome but we didn’t get them by accident, we identified who we wanted and tried to recruit the right ones. Here is what we looked for and why:

1 – Willingness to give honest and frequent feedback: This was a non-negotiable and we were clear upfront that we wanted them to help us improve and shape the final product.
2 – Mix of users from our target and non-target markets: We’re trying to test if we properly identified our target market.
3 – Capacity to find additional users – As the alpha period progresses we will need to steadily add new test users to keep the suggestions fresh.
4 – Be part of the entertainment/creative community – Our biggest long term hurdle will be attracting talented vendors because we believe that acquiring customers will be natural and less expensive if we have intriguing items. Recruiting creative talent seems to require finesse and experience, so we’re reaching out to talent now in order to hone our skills. So far this has been going really well for us and we’re looking forward to making some of these relationships public soon.

Finding users isn’t difficult but finding and convincing the right users to be committed test users is. Right now we’re still looking for talented writers, poets and artists. If you know any let us know and as we add new features, like music nudges, we’ll begin reaching out to all of you for recommendations on great people to recruit.

Identifying & Acquiring Test Users

If you had one shot, would you capture it?

Look, if you had one shot, or one opportunity
To seize everything you ever wanted-One moment
Would you capture it or just let it slip?

…The soul’s escaping, through this hole that it’s gaping
This world is mine for the taking

-Emimem “Lose Yourself”

About a year ago Chad and I were sitting on a beach in Panama.  I was there for a retail bank acquisition and Chad had come for a long weekend to explore Panama.  It had been another 100 hour work week and I was exhausted.

To forget about work, we decided on a weekend surfing trip to a remote island called Isla Cebaco with my Panamanian friends.  We spoke about how we’d both realized that we did not want to be executives at GE and that we had always wanted to be entrepreneurs.  We had climbed the ladder and saw clearly where we’d end up.  The people who had the jobs we’d inherit were not living a life we’d enjoy.  To be happy we’d need more freedom see our ideas for a better world come to fruition.  Life needs to be an adventure, filled with the passion and excitement of chasing your dreams.  Is there any better way to live?

A lot of people have that realization, acting on it is a lot tougher.  In the moment of clarity that only a remote tropical beach offers, we saw our life in a different light.  We realized that we had an opportunity.  With no girlfriends, mortgages, children or debt we had little downside if we failed.  With our pedigrees, the GE jobs would always be there.  We started to plan the Split Our Tab business model with the hopes of having it up and running before leaving our jobs.  In the ensuing months we were both offered promotions.  We knew that if we took them, we wouldn’t be able to leave easily and our dream might become a low priority.

Would we let the opportunity slip?  Hell no!  We turned down the new positions and left GE 2 weeks later in late February.  About 4 weeks after that we realized that Split Our Tab wasn’t a good model and pivoted to which we’re super excited about.

Last night, an old friend of mine said “what you guys are doing is so awesome” to which I responded “let’s see if we’re successful first” and Chad immediately commented “no, it’s awesome anyway, we’re living the life we always wanted and having fun”  I couldn’t agree more.

If you had one shot, would you capture it?