Posts tagged “startups

On Failure

Yesterday, I was dismissed from a great job at a great company with great potential. Six months ago, I was dismissed from a great job at a great company with great potential. Two times in a row, I’ve been rejected, dismissed as “not a good fit” which in some ways is saying, “not good enough”.  Startup pace is quick, if not brutal. So today, here I am, back at what seems to be Square One, trailing behind the offshoots of engines that will jet off to greatness without me. By most standards, I’ve failed. But by at least one standard, I am encouraged. Defeat presents an opportunity to grow. Richard Nixon, a man who weathered a lot of turmoil, said that learning to survive a defeat is when you develop character. Scoff all you want about Nixon being the last person to know a thing about character, but he’s got a point.

“Ultimately what matters most is resilience–the ability to quickly rebound from failures, indeed to see failure as a stepping stone to success.” 

– Arianna Huffington

That’s not to undermine the shame and embarrassment I feel. Being let go sucks. Being let go twice doubly sucks. When you think about it too much, you go crazy, believing your life is just pedaling against the current: one step forward, two steps back. You descend into all sorts of belittling comments and emotions. Heart-wrenching pain that leads to tears, sobbing, louder sobbing, and mind-blowing cries because heck – – rejection hurts.

But amid all the pain, there is a voice – small, quiet yet certain – that knows this is all necessary. After all, what is good without bad? Happiness without sadness? And success without failure?

The windows in my living room overlook the corner of a busy intersection humming with people rushing to their destination. It’s a perfect encapsulation of New York City. I usually scarf my breakfast in plain view of Kate Moss, whose Rag and Bone ad is plastered on the building across the street. Her frozen smile stares at my 99-cent Cinnamon oatmeal sprinkled with too much brown sugar. Her perfectly symmetrical face simultaneously captivates and infuriates me. I imagine her passing gentle judgment, with my asymmetrically cut strawberries, crumpled shirts, and pants squeezing too tight. “Nothing tastes better than skinny. Get it together, Lynne. Don’t fuck up today.” Perfection can be motivational.

Today, I looked out, expecting her gaze. Instead, I saw an assortment of black flyers advertising a weekend party. One of them had already been scribbled on. How quickly perfection had been replaced! I was reminded of the Augusteum in Rome, once the center of the empire only now to be a collapsed monument waiting for a reconstruction that will never happen.

My ego is bruised but has learned its lesson. Ruin is the road to transformation. Life is chaotic, bringing changes that nobody can anticipate. So, don’t take it all too seriously. Fall, but get back up. A job is a job, and life moves on. Like a fish out of water flopping about, I’ll find another place to swim.

“The Augusteum warns me to not get attached to any obsolete ideas about who I am, what I represent, whom I belong to, or what function I may once have intended to serve. Yesterday I might have been a glorious monument to somebody, true enough–but tomorrow I could be a fireworks depository. Even in the Eternal City, says the silent Augusteum, one must always be prepared for riotous and endless waves of transformation.”

– Elizabeth Gilbert, Eat Pray Love

To the next wave.


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 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.


Why I Do What I Do

Forget website values; these are people values. 

On the first day of Venture for America‘s summer boot camp, we asked fellows to stand and speak for one minute on why they do what they do. This was before any proper introduction to staff or knowledge of what would take place during the 5 weeks of boot camp. Nonetheless, all 40 fellows boldly took a stab at their version of ‘why’.

Their responses were personal but mostly variations on a theme.  A large majority said they like to build. They’re here because they want their career to align with their values. Because they have been given opportunities and want to create opportunities for others.

This reflective exercise forced me to ponder my own answer. Instinctively, I do what I do because I am fascinated with startups and the people in that space. This notion of creating and building something from the ground up is deceivingly glamorous. Startup people are scrappy, creative, and could care less about cubicle politics. They’re going to change the world, and that’s pretty cool.

However, this incentive focuses strictly on the end product. It’s easy to forget that startup life in the here and now is tiring. While it’s good to keep the goal in mind, enjoying the process is equally, if not more, important. As Howard Roark in The Fountainhead said, “in order to get things done, you must love the doing, not the secondary consequences.” I first gravitated to Venture for America because I was excited by those consequences, the prospect of what Venture for America could and would become. I saw that it could be made into a force for good, an alternate option for college graduates who wanted to create something new, a powerful movement that would redefine success as more than just large paychecks and high status.

I do what I do because I know that my hard work today will enable the future I imagine. That future is a place where talent is channeled to worthwhile endeavors. But that’s not enough. The weight of the future only holds sway for however much of the present you can avoid.  In reality, I will only do what I do consistently if I love what I am doing NOW. There are so many obstacles that get in the way. If your primary motivation is some goal in the future, you won’t have the stamina to get over the present bumps. For me, these challenges involve setting a system where no system exists, working through application errors, responding to angry emails, troubleshooting technical mishaps, showing up at job fairs, talking to career services, and crafting VFA’s narrative – I must learn to love it all.

Thinking about the end goal keeps the motor running under stressful circumstances. But if you’re  going to be a person of consistent action, learning to love the process as much as the end goal is critical. You climb the mountain to see what awaits at the top, but also to embrace the challenge of getting there.

That is why I do what I do.


A New Job

Life is a book and tomorrow marks a new chapter. I’m starting a new job with Venture for America as their Recruiting and Social Media Associate, and I couldn’t be more excited.

rockin’ our awesome American Apparel Venture for America fitted tees!

I’m excited because the direct mission of Venture for America is simple:  recruit the best and brightest college grads to work for two years at emerging start-ups in lower-cost cities.  Commendable, right? But what ultimately draws me to the organization is its multiple layers of potential impact.

1. Companies in less-recognized communities who otherwise lack the resources for securing top talent, now receive exactly that. (The first class of VFA fellows is pretty impressive.)

2. Communities that fellows are based in benefit from an economic boost with the influx of talent.

3. Fellows become mobilized as entrepreneurs, learning how to create business opportunities for themselves and others. Ultimately they have the potential to launch their own companies and create jobs.

4. As a nation, we reap the benefits of a revitalized economy, more jobs, and a redefined version of success.

At its core, Venture for America is out to create jobs, and rightly so. I’ve said before- youth unemployment is the issue of our generation.  It’s a cause I get incredibly riled about. 54% of Americans between the ages of 18-24 are unemployed. A sense of dissatisfaction plagues our youth, mainly because we suffer from lack of ownership in what we do. Unless our country’s employment prospects are drastically improved, America will no longer be the passport to the good life.  People will flock to places that actually have jobs, like Asia.

We need to secure America’s enterprising talent NOW. My job with Venture for America will involve identifying those individuals and engaging with them via digital media.  More broadly, I am out to convince our nation’s best that small but high-potential companies can be viable post-graduate options, if not the best.

It’s crazy to think that just a few months ago I moved to New York City with high hopes, a few contacts, and a tepid bank account. I wasn’t sure what I was looking for. But thank goodness for instinct. It led me to this opportunity, this chance to work for a company whose mission resounds so strongly with my beliefs. VFA founder Andrew Yang touches on the mission in his well-written post about restoring the culture of achievement.  I am honored to join him and the rest of the VFA team, all of whom boast an impressive record of achievement and belief in the mission.

We will create 100,000 jobs (or more) by 2025. A lofty target, but I am up for the challenge.

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A special thank you and shout-out to my friend Sarah Kaiser-Cross who was the first person to tell me about VFA, all the way from Turkey!