Startups

Intrapreneurship

I used to be averse to 9-5 jobs.  Who in their right mind would want to call it a day at 5 or 6 pm, and enjoy the rest of their night? People are weird sometimes.

I gravitated to startup culture for its blatant- if slightly overplayed- cheekiness. Work whenever you want! Don’t you dare wear a suit! Take a specially designed American Apparel tee instead.  Even when I didn’t mind donning pencil skirts and heels – and actually, kind of wanted to – something in me admired the irreverence of startup culture.

Underlying everything was my belief that startup people loved their jobs more than corporate ‘sellouts’ did. Startup employees had passion and personal stake that kept them working into the wee hours. While definitely true for some people, particularly founders, the obsessive workaholic drive isn’t a good fit for everyone. It eventually took its toll on me when I found myself unable to think amid side conversations 3 feet to my right, flying ping pong balls inches to my left, and no clear boundaries or stopping points in sight.

Since ‘selling out’ and joining a larger company, I’ve discovered that innovation can still happen in highly controlled environments. In fact, Tim Brown of IDEO says constraints, when set appropriately, drive innovation. Ideas develop based on the strict parameters provided (needs, resources, time, size, impact etc).  They range from simple process tweaks to larger strategic initiatives. Sometimes they exist more as improvements than complete recreations, but it’s still innovation.  Was not the iPhone a mere ‘smart’ improvement from the generic cell phone?

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The Tribe: A monthly gathering of girls who discuss ideas, cultural topics, and our many side projects.

Entrepreneurship takes many forms. I used to think it didn’t count unless you worked at a startup, or bootstrapped your company out of a garage. Many of my friends are involved with side projects. My best friend has a popular fashion blog, another friend designs 3D bracelets. There’s Melissa who writes a vegetarian food blog after hours, and a stellar sister duo creating modern-day versions of global dolls. None of them are dropping out of college or quitting their jobs. Silicon Valley’s ‘fuck it all, wear your hoodie, strike it rich’ narrative is just a tale, not a template for day-to-day entrepreneurship.

The spirit to create lives in all of us, but the conditions (and constraints) needed to thrive vary from person to person.  For now, I’m happy innovating from within.

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Writing + An Announcement

“If you aren’t journaling what you’re seeing and doing so in a thoughtful way, you’re running yourself based on year or more old information, never cleaning off your blind spots. Just because you have funding doesn’t mean you put your head down.”

This was written as a word of advice to entrepreneurs on how to manage companies. However, I modified it for general life purposes because, entrepreneur or not, we are each our own company. We shouldn’t run our individual motors on year-old information. Similarly, cash flow in our bank account is no excuse to rest on our laurels.

On that note, I’ve been rather happy these past two weeks eating ice cream, watching movies, and on occasion, drafting lyrical tweets and emails. Somehow I think that’s enough to call myself a WRITER.

It got me thinking about why we write and situations that warrant burning the midnight oil,  – – or in writer-speak, ‘writing by candlelight’. (which I have never actually done)

I’ll share here, candidly, what often really drives me to write:

1. FEAR: Buried in my conscience is a deep fear that the day I stop writing is the day I deteriorate back to simple googoogaga speak.  Short S-V-O sentences. “Go here.” “Feed me.” “I want.” Flashback to the day of my 3rd grade writing assessment when I could barely construct an introductory paragraph with a ‘hook’, a 3-paragraph body with 5 supporting details and a zinger conclusion, resulting in a barely passing grade and making me despise writing, thus dashing all hopes of becoming a writer.

Engrained fearfully in my memory, this drives me. Like the gym rats who drag themselves to the gym for fear of gaining weight, my fear of being stripped of all ability to express is often just as extreme. So, I write.

More sensibly, I view writing as a way to clear off the mental counter, to make abstractions concrete in an otherwise tangled, dusty mind.  When the clutter piles up, what results is clusterfuck in the brain.

So, I write.

2. GUILT – I call myself a writer on Google + and Quora.  So, I better damn write.

3. THERAPY – My theory: writing mixes the disconnected new facts we pick up everyday with the existing knowledge we already have, creating new hunches.  It provides the self-reflection to sift between hunches by understanding my innate bias, allowing me to pick out the best ones to follow.

4. VANITY – Finally, there is a self-serving aspect to it. Life can be awesome and I want others to know it. I like telling others about my life. Not sure when it kicked in but it was probably around the time in college I started taking pictures of myself with food. Though I am less inclined to do that now, I still believe that certain milestones are worth sharing and for that reason, I write these posts with an element of personal candor.

On that note (and since I can’t think of a better segue), I have an announcement to make:

This week, I start work at ZeroCater, a San Francisco-based startup dedicated to connecting companies with the best food in town. I’m their first account manager in New York City, so I’ll be helping them set up shop there.

After a few months of dabbling in the freelance life, I’m ready for this. While I felt liberated by my open schedule and enlivened by the opportunities, I was often plagued with uncertainty. Uncertainty with where random projects were leading me, how much would be in my bank account, how much longer I could afford to stay in the city on a shoestring budget. It was, I believe, the closest I’ve gotten to ‘real life’. I had to make choices and live the consequences, with nary an alternative to fall back on. It was trying and terrifying. But a lesson learned. Rarely does anything come in an easy 9-5 package unless we constrain ourselves to that bubble. I learned to more readily deal with the gray because Choice A and Choice B weren’t available. It was a necessary time for reflection.

I have no idea what this new position will bring. I can only guess that it will be wildly different, challenging, and tasty. Ultimately, I’m just excited to learn more about 3 of my favorite things: startup culture, food, and the workings of delivery/transportation/logistics in the never-ending gluttony of New York City. My two main goals are:

1. to begin each day with specific goals in mind, and

2. to be openly communicative with my co-workers.

Tomorrow, I fly out to San Francisco for 3 weeks of training, and will be back in New York mid-February to get the office started.

Before I turn the page and scribble on, I cast my shadow out into the air. Out with the old, in with the new.  Cheers!

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“On a good day, I’m caught up by something larger than myself, held in the light by some celestial movement. For a brief charged time I may be irradiated, able to cast a shadow version of something I only imagine. The shadow will never be the bright true self that I know exists, but it will be as precise as I can make it, as real, as sharp, as beautiful. I will cast this shadow into the air, where it may never be seen, or where it may be seen at a great distance, and only by one person, someone I will never know. The point is to cast the shadow out into the air.”

Roxana Robinson, on writing


Day 29: Coast to Coast

A few hours separate one coast – and one world – from another. This morning, I braved gutsy hurricane-like winds in San Francisco, now I’m warmly tucked in to my Brooklyn nook. Air travel, akin to time travel, will never cease to amaze.

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So there I sat at 4:30 am PST, my thoughts dripping steadily like the rain drops coalescing on the airplane window. My SFO – – > JFK flight was delayed. We had been stuck on the runway for nearly 2 hours before the pilot was forced to head back to the gate to refuel and wait the storm out. Storm gusts blew at more than 15 knots per hour. (know what that means? neither do I)

For 72 hours before, I took in San Francisco like a vagrant. I stayed at a humble artist’s hotel with morbidly beautiful paintings adorning the wall (my first two room options consisted of one: a crying geisha, two: a stripper staring me down). I finally settled on a more calming bedroom backdrop reminiscent of a Japanese ‘Starry Night’.IMG_1489

Night time brought walking escapades through the city, often with nary an idea of where I was going. Thankfully there were friends who led the way through various neighborhoods. Interesting to observe their tendencies. Just like some New Yorkers shudder at the mention of certain neighborhoods (ahem Williamsburg), San Franciscans have similar reactions to particular areas (Marina?) Ultimately, each neighborhood has a distinct character and way of life that makes San Francisco what it is. In addition to downtown, there are neighboring suburbs: Palo Alto, San Jose, Cupertino, Oakland, Marin County etc. which collectively comprise the Bay Area, a whole other world to itself.

I jotted mental notes comparing San Francisco to New York. Each is arguably the ‘golden’ city on its own coast so, of course, I was evaluating the potential of each as a future home.

The main differences I noticed:

Residential: San Francisco, while urban, is markedly more residential. You’ll see long stretches of houses and apartments even in the thick of downtown. In Manhattan, aside from maybe the Upper East and West, that’s unseen. And even in neighborhoods like those, Manhattan retains an utterly cosmopolitan environment.

Style: San Franciscans are more casual. Admittedly, I spent all of my time at startups (one in downtown, and another in Palo Alto) but even around the more corporate Financial District I sensed a greater level of openness and earthiness. New York, while scrappy in ways, is all business with its swank and suits.

Health: San Franciscans veer natural. They are close to the outdoors with hiking paths, access to mountains and actual room to breathe. Living in New York, meanwhile, might take a year off your life. Physically and mentally, you drive yourself sick between riding the subways, battling anxiety and other neurotic souls, while being lured into oil-dripping street Halal food. But…it’s New York.

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I spent most of my time in the more touristy parts of San Francisco: Union Square, Ferry Building, Financial District. Next time, I’m intensely interested in understanding the people, values, and pace of the city. This visit was far too short to get at the city’s real essence. But from the few people I did encounter (including the good samaritan who paid my MUNI fare because I didn’t know you needed exact change) –  I’d say it was quite nice.

Other highlights:

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– seeing my childhood best pal and longest friend to date, Diana

– eavesdropping on “big ideas” at Ground Up Cafe, a shared space for employees in the AOL building (which houses several startups and Stanford’s startup incubator)

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– touring the ZeroCater office and shadowing their account managers for a very accurately depicted “day in the life”

– eating cioppino and sea dabs for the first time at a homey family-owned Italian restaurant in North Beach

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– exploring the bar scene. Local Edition (located in the Hearst building; the displays of old San Francisco Chronicle editions with typewriters make this a news nerd’s heaven) and Bourbon & Branch (prohibition-style bar with great whiskey & gin cocktails; there’s an old-school library too)

– being a tourist and eating overpriced hamburgers and martinis while overlooking Union Square. Totally worth it.

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“Look at all those fish swimming in a fish bowl down there.”

Thanks for a great time, San Francisco. I hope I get to spend more time with you one day.


Day 14: The Future

If you’re reading this from a cubicle, you probably won’t be in 2 years. If you’re reading from a laptop, you likely won’t be doing that either. Space and the tools we use in the space will be drastically transformed in the coming years. I’m not a psychic; this is strictly based on data, trends, and yes, a little bit of New York bias.

Living in New York is a bit like living in a time lapse. At the risk of sounding like an elitist urbanite, the rest of the country (San Francisco and Boston notwithstanding) trails in comparison. This is not meant to be condescending; it is simply a basic truth about metropolitan cities in general. With the sheer number of people (a large proportion being investors, technophiles, and creatives) progress is bound to unfold at a much more rapid pace.

One of the best places to witness the future is at co-working spaces. A co-working space is a shared work space for anyone who needs a place to plop down, get connected, and work outside of the basic constructs of a “normal” office space. Initially, co-working space was used by mostly freelancers as a way to escape the humdrum of working from home. Now, people from a variety of backgrounds flock to co-working spaces (developers, artists, independent consultants, even accountants and lawyers).

Last year when I was completely new to the tech scene, I visited New Work City, largely known as one of the first co-working spaces in New York. I personally believe it should be every New York newbie’s crash course into the tech world. I was immediately enlivened by the quiet energy buzzing inside. It was much better than a coffee shop, mostly because a.) no one was hogging the outlet, b.) no one near you was in an intense gossip sesh as you attempt to do work, and c.) coffee was FREE.  Outlets, productivity, and free caffeine yield generally good vibes. Who wouldn’t want that? As a freelancer, I would often go to coffee shops, not because I needed another 3 cups of coffee, but simply because I wanted a positive workflow that was conducive to getting things done. Most of all, I wanted an environment that reminded me I was not the only one. Connection. Something not unlike the college library buzzing with activity at 3 am during final exam week because you’re all in the same over-caffeinated, underprepared, cramming (aka screwed) state. Imagine that everyday, just with more chic chairs and desks, and more “sophisticated” problems to stress about. That’s a co-working space.

The number of co-working spaces in New York has doubled each year since 2006. In that same period of time, New York City has exploded as a tech hub. Vivek Wadhwa recently said, “In 2006, I wouldn’t have put New York anywhere on the map of leading tech hubs. Now it is literally number 2.” According to Tony Bacigalupo, founder of New Work City, there is a direct correlation between the growth of co-working and the explosion of New York City’s startup ecosystem. The reason? Co-working spaces facilitate transitions between jobs. In today’s ever-changing economy, a co-working space becomes quite necessary when you’re transitioning from a full-time gig to work at a startup or as an independent. This trend will only grow as industries continue to be disrupted. This is generation flux after all, and that’s not just a catchy phrase. The flux is real. Chaotic disruption is rampant, not just with the Facebook, Twitter, and Googles, but across industries. You see the writing on the wall in New York, as more and more people quit their corporate jobs and become their own boss by creating pockets within pockets among niche industries.

The future is about self-reliance, and this is another reason why New York paves the way. New Yorkers are famous (or infamous?) for being self-reliant. Tonight at a joint Mashable -BMW iVentures event, Albert Wenger of Union Square Ventures likened the age we’re living in now to the period of time when we shifted from an agrarian economy to the industrial age. The possibilities of where we could be post-digital are..who knows. Figuring out how to properly monetize workspace is one issue. Will it take on a sharing model similar to our homes (AirBNB) and cars (Zipcar)? What about the jobs crisis? The jobs of those whose industries are dismantled?

Looks like the future is already here.

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*Many of the insights from this post originate from a talk given by Tony Bacigalupo, co-working evangelist, from a Brooklyn Venture Community meetup on November 14. You can download his presentation at nwc.co/bkv-preso. I also highly recommend his blog, Happy Monsters.

*Also, if you’re interested in finding a co-working space in New York, here is a super handy guide compiled by Charles Bonello, a member of the NY Tech community, that includes details on every co-working space in the city.  He also shares some interesting stats: “There is currently about 600,000 square feet of co-working space available, which is equivalent to 400 Starbucks, the entire 11 story building that houses Lord & Taylor’s flagship store in NYC and the Port Authority/NYC’s lease at the World Trade Center.” Wow!


Day 8: MOWAndering

What am I actually doing? People ask me that a lot. I don’t have a straight answer. I am making no money, am essentially “jobless”, and have no particular path. One could say I am a freelancer, though that’s really just a euphemism for being unemployed since I float between various projects at minimal (sometimes zero) pay. Furthermore, I’ve skipped the few money-making opportunities I have to focus on fledgling ventures that may tank.

Logic questions my decisions, but I’m stubborn. I fill my time with projects that have little traction because a.) they challenge me, and b.) I learn from the visionaries behind them. There is a time and place for everything. Money and security are safe but my current priorities are personal growth, experience, and relationships. The wise wanderer holds off and restrains. My ultimate goal is to get on a rocket ship; until then, I wander.

I’m working with a team called MOWA. MOWA is a mobile photo-sharing game that partners with up-and-coming fashion brands and rewards socially-savvy media users with unique prizes. We aim to create a network of fashionable trendsetters to help brands advertise in this fast-growing mobile photo-sharing and gaming space. The app is currently pre-beta, but you can check us out at www.mowa.me and get on the subscriber list in the meantime. We are looking to test the Beta version of the app with 100 trendy, fashion-forward 20somethings so if you meet that criteria, leave a comment. (You get free stuff!) 

I’m charged with user acquisition and media outreach which puts me smack in marketing/PR. Coming from journalism, this could be considered complete sell-out status. But here’s the thing (and a significant reason why I skipped work yesterday to join the MOWA founders): I enjoy it. Our communication approach is open and real and based on building real relationships by providing interesting content to the next stylistic generation. It’s not gimmicky. We’re connecting people to brands they love. All marketing jokes aside, that cuts straight to the reason why humans exist – to connect.

So, what am I doing again? I’m experimenting, figuring out what works and what doesn’t. I’m dirt poor, unreasonably idealistic, and hungry. But I figure as long as I am constantly evaluating where I am and feeling satisfied (even with a lack of answers), no one can question my actions. Not even myself.


Day 7: Failure

At an interview with a startup incubator today, our team was asked,

“One year from now, you’ve failed. What are the reason(s)?”

I was a little taken aback, mainly by how the question was framed. There were no conditions; the statement was definite, as if failure was inevitable. They say something like 75% of startups fail . That percentage may or may not be accurate, but that’s not what’s important. What’s important is why failure occurs. Because like our interviewer today implied, failure is inevitable.

Failure takes on various forms, whether it be a major disaster or a minor hiccup. It’s part of the process, though. At best, failure is market research, resulting in critical pivots which can then lead to success. At worst, its something you never bounce back from, resulting in bankruptcy. Whatever form it takes, it’s helpful to think about what could, or what will happen, if you allow it to. The best way to combat failure is through thoughtful identification of potential root causes and then taking necessary preventative measures. Even then, you will likely still fail.

I came home freezing from a long day in Philadelphia, but the cold trek was worth it for this question alone.


New Journalism

I’ve visited three incredible startups in the first 48 hours since being back in New York. Some initial takeaways:

LearnVest – their first live event at the Metropolitan Pavilion on Tuesday night brought hundreds of women to learn about finances and how to live our “richest” lives.  Founder Alexa von Tobel founded the NY-based company after realizing that there was a basic disconnect among young career women on how to manage their money. She kicked off the evening with her 7 Money Mantras, which was followed by two breakout sessions from experts in dining, fashion, investing, and entrepreneurship. The evening was chalk full of helpful tips on how to save money and invest now so we can be prepared for curve balls that may derail financial stability in the future. It was extremely informative in a fun way, which is difficult to pull off for a heavy subject matter like finance.

Narratively – this is a new storytelling platform focused on long-form articles, bringing a level of depth and originality rarely seen in today’s 24-hours news cycle. They are currently based in New York but have plans to expand to additional cities in the future. Contributors have written for the Times, The New Yorker, and other respected publications. The catch? Just one story is published a day. But what Narratively lacks in quantity and distractions (each story demands its own page with zero advertising) , they more than make up for with substance. With substance comes raw and sometimes painstaking detail requiring patience and time to digest; in a nation of news skimmers, is this sustainable? I believe so. A model like Narratively’s will cater to a growing audience that increasingly craves depth and authenticity.

Behance – its goal is to connect creative talent to great opportunities by showcasing their portfolios. The premise is that the more exposure an artist gets, the more (and thereby, better) opportunities he/she will receive. The idea was born back in 2003 and now, almost 10 years later, boasts over 80 million visits a month. Aside from displaying some really awesome art, the site gives artists a way to actually make a livelihood out of their talents.  Schools and companies scour the platform for top talent. Check out all their success stories.

These are three awesome platforms with three distinct but simple purposes. LearnVest educates, Narratively tells stories, and Behance connects talent with opportunities. What happens when we merge the three? As a journalist, I’ve been thinking about how all of this can be applied to journalism.

Journalism is undergoing a seismic shift. Its original purpose was to inform and educate responsible citizens of a democracy.  This is still true but how many people actually turn to the newspaper to read up on the latest City Council action or House legislation?  As technology has changed, the stories have also changed.  We are a generation that finds little connection between journalism and democracy.  This is not criticism, but an irreconcilable truth we must simply live with. For most people under 40, information does not come through traditional means.  Aggregators like Google News use algorithms for choosing what stories matter, so gradually our cultural narrative arises socially from what we collectively follow and not from what newspapers decide to run.

Information is no longer the valuable commodity. The real value comes in networks and communities, our connections. Journalists still need to provide information by seeking the truth, but it is not the primary value-add.  What really matters is what the journalist does with the information and the varying responses to it. Engagement, inspiration, and activation are the goals.

This is a map of our emerging journalism ecosystem, courtesy of the Journalism That Matters blog. What this shows is that news is no longer single-sourced. It’s not a reporter dispensing information through a video stand-up. Multiple voices have their say now: social media, blogs, expert citizens. Talk all you want but it’s useless to spend time trying to discredit one another; a source with a logo is no more authoritative than a person typing at the computer. The savvy journalist spends time pulling all these various voices together, building a niche audience’s trust by providing credible information pulled from various sources, then facilitating a conversation.

Businesses have been successful with this. Look at American Express Publishing. They aren’t a news organization; they’re a credit card company. But AmEx has been effectively branding itself through content like Travel & Leisure, Food & Wine, and partnerships with Foursquare. They are successful at 4 things:

informing through helpful articles in niche subjects,

engaging through social media,

inspiring through compelling stories, and

activating by ultimately getting readers to act on what they’re reading (in their case, booking travels through American Express’s travel rewards program and boosting their brand equity/bottom line).

Today’s journalists need to be doing the same. Our product is our individual brand and the knowledge we dispense. We need to sell it by leading conversations in a way that builds loyalty. There are lessons to be learned from startups, because we are essentially our own startup. Like LearnVest, we must continue to inform. Like Narratively, we must find compelling stories to engage and inspire our audience to care. Lastly (and this is probably the most important), like Behance, we must activate latent social networks and interest groups by connecting them to opportunities that help them reach their goals. This will lead to an enriching experience for all: one where journalists do not simply inform, but engage, inspire and most importantly, activate the population to meet its full potential.

However abstract all of this sounds, it’s going to manifest into a more concrete model very soon. Journalism is called to serve another purpose other than report and inform. It’s much bigger than that. I believe that whoever can crack the storytelling code will be onto one of the next big things (second to the cure for cancer and life on other planets, of course). Effective storytelling can awaken latent social networks to come together and tackle issues with a collective learning-through-experience mindset.  How we choose to communicate these emerging narratives and through what forms is an exciting possibility just waiting to be unveiled.