Category Archives: Uncategorized

No One Has Any Clue What They Are Doing

dog no idea cart

I recently asked a friend who just finished his first year as an associate at a big VC firm what was the biggest thing he learned in his first year.

His answer:  “No one has any clue what they are doing.”

“What??”  I said to him.  “How is that possible?  You guys are printing money. Don’t you have some type of magic formula?”

“You’d be surprised,” he responded.  “Almost all the decisions are just kind of based on gut.”

When you’re on the outside looking in, it always seems like the people on the inside know what they are doing. They seem smart and confident and generally on top of their shit.  But when you’re on the inside, you know the truth:  Everyone is clueless.  Those who try to tell you otherwise are suffering from delusions of grandeur.

I’ll give you an example of what I mean.  Last month, the tech media fell in love with a new startup touting them as the ‘next big thing’. Everyone from TechCrunch to NPR was writing about them as their user base grew from zero to millions overnight.

I was lucky enough to get an insider’s look at this hypergrowth, as their CEO and I are on the same founders’ email distribution list. While the CEO may have appeared cool as a cucumber to the public, in front of his peers, in the “circle of trust” that is our founders-only email list, he was scrambling like mad, asking a million questions a minute and seeking advice from anyone willing to offer help.

I’m sharing this with you not because he is a fraud that needs to be exposed, but rather because he is the norm.

The emperor has no clothes.  He never does.  Even the great CEOS — Mark Zuckerberg, Tony Hsieh, Elon Musk — as cool as they may appear on the outside,  I guarantee they’re just as scared and insecure as the other seven billion people with whom they share this planet.

And of course, this doesn’t just apply to tech founders and VCs.  It applies to everyone in the freaking universe.  (except for maybe this guy)

The moral of the story here is that if you ever think to yourself, I’m not smart enough or I’m not brave enough, or I’m not fill-in-the-blank-enough to do X, you are wrong.  No one doing X is any smarter or braver than you are.  The only thing that makes them different is that they have learned to get comfortable being uncomfortable.

Tagged ,

I’m Donating $2500 to Fight Climate Change and I Will Pay You to Join Me

Climate March NYC

400,000 people march on Sept 21, 2014 to force action on climate change

Yesterday, 400,000 people marched in New York City to demand U.N. action on Climate Change.   According to Time Magazine:
“The showing was the largest climate protest in history and largest social demonstration of the past decade.”
All I can say is WOW!!  If this wasn’t THE wake up call, I’m not sure we are ever going to wake up.
In the spirit of yesterday’s Climate March, I’m pledging to donate up to $2500 to Climate Cycle, a K-12 climate change education non-profit based in Chicago.
If you’re wondering what you can do to help, here’s what you can do right now.
VOTE.  WITH.  YOUR.  WALLET.
Tell the fossil fuel industry that you’re breaking up with them, and then drop them like a bad habit.   In fact, I’ll even give you $30 to do it.
It’s actually a lot easier than you think.
A few months back, I came across an incredible startup called Arcadia Power that gives people the opportunity to switch their electric bills from dirty fossil fuels to 100% clean renewables with just a few clicks.  It’s like Geico.  Except 15 minutes doesn’t save you 15%.  It saves Miami.
I was so inspired by what they are doing, I decided to become an advisor (disclosure, I have a tiny amount of equity in the company) and shortly thereafter I made the switch to 100% clean energy myself.  In the first month alone, I planted the equivalent of seven trees and prevented twenty-eight gallons of gasoline from going into our atmosphere.  Awesome, right?
I’m sharing this with you all today because knowledge = power.  Like the cab companies fighting Uber right now, the energy companies have had monopolies in this space for a very long time.  They’d like you to believe they’re still the only show in town.  While that used to be true a few years ago, it’s not true anymore.
You have a choice.   If you want to make the switch to clean energy, use the promo code below and you’ll get $30 off your first Arcadia Power electric bill.  
For every person that signs up in the next 30 days using the promo code, I will make a matching $30 donation to Climate Cycle, up to $2500.
Win-Win :)
Here’s the code.  Please feel free to share it with friends.  And thanks for being part of the solution.
Tagged , ,

Michael Brown, Ferguson and the Problem We’re All Ignorning

Michael Brown Housing discrimination

As we near the 30-day mark from when Michael Brown was killed in Ferguson, MO, I’m glad that our country has taken the opportunity to bring issues of racial profiling and the militarization of our police force into the national spotlight. But as we begin to examine our country’s race issues under a microscope, I hope we don’t just look at the issues on the surface – the ones that are acute and obvious and make for good television ratings.  Examining these issues is a necessary start but it’s not the finish line.

What I mean by that is that we have a tendency in this country to distort our priorities based on the squeakiest wheel rather than focusing on the insidious problems that pose the greatest threat. Pink ribbons, for instance, drive sales and marketing budgets. As a result, we spend seven times as much on cancer research as we do on obesity even though obesity and it’s partner-in-crime, type 2 diabetes, is what will eventually bankrupt our healthcare system. Fear mongering is another example. Peddling fear leads to votes come election time. As a result, we’ve spent trillions of dollars over the past fourteen years fighting terrorism. Yet, we refuse to spend any money fighting climate change, when in fact, the slow but steady creep of climate change poses a far greater threat to our existing way of life.

My fear with the Michael Brown tragedy is that we’re heading down this same pathway on the issue of race. Racial profiling is certainly an important issue but it’s not THE issue we should all be focusing on. It’s a secondary issue that doesn’t go nearly deep enough. Rather, if we want to truly honor Michael Brown’s life we must start a deeper national dialogue, not on racial profiling, but about why racial profiling exists.

[Disclaimer: This blog post has nothing to do with startups nor delicious, delicious burritos. But I think the issues we’re facing right now as a nation are too important not to write about.  So, if you’ve never given a thought as to why racial profiling exists, I hope this blog post can serve as a starting point.]

Kobe Bryant, Stars and Bars, and the Black Guy on the El.

I guess I should start by giving you my background.  I grew up in a city in California with like three black people. Kobe Bryant was one of them. Dennis Rodman was another. And for a brief period, Karl Malone was the third. I didn’t see racism growing up. All I saw were white people. For most of my childhood, I never gave racism much thought.

This changed for the first time when I went to college. I went to school in Atlanta. While the city of Atlanta did not appear outwardly racist, I remember taking my first road trip outside the city and stopping at a gas station filled with confederate flags souvenirs. I thought to myself “what the fuck? They really must not like black people at this gas station.” Shockingly to me, the next gas station was exactly the same. And the next one after that was the same. Holy shitballs. They were all the same.

And that’s when I came to realize that gas stations in the south are not for black people.

The next year, I remember taking another road trip with some of my Phi Delt fraternity buddies. We went to Vanderbilt University in Nashville, which also had a Phi Delt chapter. We knocked on the door to see if we could come hang out for a bit. They were totally cool and told us to come in. That is until they realized that a few of our members were black. Then they told us we couldn’t come in.

And that’s when I came to realize that the South is not for black people.

After graduating college, I moved up to Washington, DC to start law school. During the 2004 presidential election, I volunteered with a bunch of other law students to go to West Philadelphia and serve as poll watchers to make sure that black voters were not being intimidated out of voting. I’d heard of these types of shenanigans happening in the south, but I had a hard time believing anything like this could happen in West Philadelphia. Sure enough, about two-thirds through an otherwise uneventful election day, we encountered a group of white dudes driving up to polling stations in a black suburban with out-of-state plates trying to intimidate black people out of voting.

And that’s when I came to realize that the North is not for black people either.

Fast forward to 2014, I was on the El in Chicago. The train was super crowded and this black dude with neck tattoos and a bunch of papers in his hand gets on next to me. He starts asking everyone for ten cents, twenty cents or fifty cents to make some copies of the fliers. No one responds. In fact most people in the vicinity put their head down to avoid eye contact with him. I started talking to him and asked him what was going on. It turns out his uncle was murdered the week before and he was putting up fliers with the picture of the suspect on every El train in the city. He had come in by bus from a neighboring state with no money and had been sleeping on the El train at the end of each night. He hadn’t showered in two or three days but was determined to catch his uncle’s killer even if he had to spend the next week sleeping on the train, away from his wife and four month-old-twins. Exasperated by peoples’ utter lack of compassion, he starts telling me how no one was helping him because he’s black. I thought about it for a second, and then sadly, I concurred and told him he was right.

And that’s when I came to realize that the Midwest is not for black people either.

So if the South is not for black people, and the North is not for black people, and the Midwest is not for black people, where is the place for black people?

The ghetto. The ghetto is for black people.

Over the last fifteen years, I’ve come to realize the same thing black people realize at a very young age – that America has a racism problem. It’s not a Southern problem. It’s not a Northern problem. It’s not a Midwestern problem. It’s an everywhere problem.

Now, as ugly as all these experiences were, none of them made me nearly as sad as what I would learn just a few months ago when I clicked a link on my Facebook feed.

Donald Sterling, Bomani Jones and America’s History of Housing Discrimination

In the midst of the seemingly buffoonish Donald Sterling-Clippers saga this past April, I stumbled upon a video of ESPN analyst Bomani Jones speaking out about how housing discrimination was the real evil in the whole Donald Sterling scandal. “Housing discrimination?” I thought to myself. “What is that?” What I would learn was eye-opening and disturbing.

Housing discrimination is the insidious evil that has plagued our country since the end of the civil war. Through housing discrimination we have systematically created an America for white people and a separate America for black people. Housing discrimination is the root cause of the ghettoization of black America.  It has robbed generations of African Americans from trillions of dollars of accumulated wealth and has placed an entire race in an endless cycle of violence and generational poverty.

If you’re not familiar with the issue, here are the spark notes.

(1) Housing discrimination started with bigotry: In the post-civil war era, white people saw whites as a superior race and blacks as an inferior race.  If you were black in post-civil war America, white people didn’t want you living in their neighborhoods for fear that you would rape their daughters and bring sin upon their race.

(2) State sponsored discrimination: In order to keep you out of their neighborhoods, federal, state and local governments worked in collusion with banks, mortgage lenders, appraisers and real estate agents to enact racist laws and business practices to prevent you and your family from living amongst white people.  For instance until 1917, fifteen states had laws on the books denying black people from living in white zoned neighborhoods.  From 1917-1948 nineteen states allowed real estate developers to place restrictive covenants into their deeds forbidding white property owners from selling to blacks.  It wasn’t until 1968 (103 years after the end of the Civil War) that the federal government finally made it illegal to outwardly discriminate against black people in the housing industry.

(3) Terrorism: During this period, if you somehow managed to navigate around the laws and restrictive covenants forbidding you from living in a white neighborhood, white supremacist neighborhood associations created for the sole purpose of keeping blacks out, would instigate a mob to swarm around your house and terrorize you and your family with violence until you agreed to sign away the deed to your house and move back to the neighborhood where you belonged.  That’s what happened in the northern states.  If you were a black family trying to exercise your constitutional rights in the South, there was a good chance you would just be lynched.

(4) Ghettoization:   Forbidden from living anywhere else, you were forced into segregated ghettos.  The creation of the ghetto was 100% intentional.  It was the result of state sponsored housing discrimination and outright terrorism.   The goal was to keep you where they belonged.

(5) Systematic theft:  To add insult to injury, even if you had the means to own a home in the ghetto, you were denied access by the federal government to mortgage loans offered to white people.  This practice was known as redlining.  Without access to capital your only option for owning a home was to buy an overpriced property through a predatory practice known as contract buying, where the title to a property would not be transferred to you, the buyer, until all contract payments had been made.  If you missed a single payment, you forfeited the house and all prior payments. The owner of the house would then kick you and your family to the street and sell it again to another unsuspecting black family

(6) Generational poverty:  Faced with nearly insurmountable hurdles to homeownership, you, along with most other black families ended up renting instead of owning, all the while paying exorbitant rents to slumlords who allowed their properties to become dilapidated because knew you had no other options. While white Americans began to accumulate wealth and pass this wealth on to their children through homes purchased using subsidized capital from the U.S. Government, you and other African Americans were intentionally impoverished and systematically denied the ability to pass on generational wealth.

The end results of housing discrimination have been disastrous for this country.  Think about this: where you live affects everything in your life.  It affects your safety, the schools you attend, the role models you see in your neighborhood, your chances of incarceration, and ultimately your opportunities for work.   All these factors compound on each other creating a feedback loop that is near impossible to escape. By choosing to institutionalize our racism through local, state and federal housing laws, we have chosen to create two different Americas — one where the American dream exists and one where it doesn’t. And what’s really fucked up, is that most of us are okay with that.

Michael Brown, Accountability and Changing the National Dialogue.

There’s no denying that we’re failing as a country when it comes to the issue of race. At the very least, it’s time to look in the mirror and start asking ourselves why.

In the case of Michael Brown, it’s easy to single out the police as the bad guys. It’s easy to call them racist and place all the blame on them. But singling out the police is a cop out (no pun intended). In doing so, we attempt to absolve ourselves of any blame. We try to limit the scope of our country’s race problems to a few rotten apple police officers, when the reality is it’s not just a few apples that are rotten – it’s the entire system. At the epicenter of this system is housing discrimination. And whether through commission or omission, we’ve all helped to create it.

When we don’t speak out about racism, we are the problem.   When we accept as normal and never think twice about the fact that white people and black people don’t live in the same neighborhoods, we are the problem. And when we see Frankenstein kill another black teen, and then blame Frankenstein but fail to acknowledge our very role in creating the monster, we are very much the problem.

Change starts with taking responsibility for the system we created. As long as we choose to continue segregating our cities, robbing our black youth of quality educations, and impoverishing 10% of our population — we’re going to continue fostering an environment for high urban murder rates, racial profiling and the killing of unarmed black teens.

If we really want to see change in this country, we must stop looking at the surface for answers and hoping one will magically appear. We’ve seen this narrative enough times to know that it doesn’t change. Scapegoating the police is not going to solve our problems. Eventually, we’re going to need to look a lot deeper both into our history and within ourselves and come to grips that we are all part of the problem. And until that day happens, we can safely conclude that America is not for black people.

Further Reading 

If you’re interested in further reading about the issue of housing discrimination, here are three pieces of various lengths that heavily influenced my thinking.

10 min – Bomani Jones Nails the Part of the Controversy Everyone Has Ignored  (Eye-opening.  At least it was for me)

1 hour –  The Case for Reparations by Ta-Nihisi Coates  (this essay is the single most powerful piece of writing I’ve read in years)

1 week – The Arc of Justice by Kevin Boyle  (Excellent book about housing discrimination in 1920s Detroit. Reads like a novel)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Magic Happens When We Stop Being Bystanders

98% of the time we stand by idly and watch life go by.  When we see a tragedy or injustice on the news, we say “what a shame” and then we flip the channel and proceed to do NOTHING about it, as we expect someone else will step up and help.  There’s an actual psychological  term for this.  It’s called bystander apathy.

This  phenomenon refers to cases in which individuals do not offer any means of help to a victim when other people are present. The probability of help is inversely related to the number of bystanders. In other words, the greater the number of bystanders, the less likely it is that any one of them will help. 

But a year ago, when a bomb exploded at the finish line of the Boston Marathon this nation made a collective decision that we were not going to be bystanders.   Ariana Vargas was one of these people. Ariana had attended Boston College for undergrad and when the bomb hit, word spread quickly that one of her BC classmates Patrick Downes and his new wife Jessica had each lost a leg in the explosion. Over the course of their lifetimes, their  injuries would cost them nearly $1million.  Whispers were going around between BC alumni asking what they could do to help but no one was sure what to do or who should step up.  Without hesitating, Ariana who hadn’t stayed in touch with Patrick since graduating, started a GiveForward page. Word spread quickly and within a few weeks,  tens of thousands of people from around the country had contributed close to $900,000 and left thousands of comments on Patrick and Jessica’s GiveForward page letting them know that they were loved and that they weren’t alone.  It was magical, the kind of experience that makes you realize that we live in a world filled with wonderful people.

patrick and jessica Boston Marathon

Today, with the help of thousands around the world, Patrick and Jessica are on their way to recovery and will be able to live without the stress and burden of medical debt for the rest of their lives.

If Ariana had decided to be a bystander that day, none of this would have happened.

While this is a remarkable story in itself, the most amazing part about this story is that Ariana’s act of courage didn’t stop with Patrick and Jessica.  A couple weeks ago, Jeff Martin, a Michigan State fan living in Virginia read a story by Joe Rexrode in the Detroit Free Press about the friendship between Michigan State star basketball player, Adreian Payne and 8-year-old Lacey Holsworth who was fighting cancer.  Jeff didn’t know Lacey or Adreian personally but when he read in the article that the family was raising money for Lacey’s medical bills, Jeff decided he wasn’t going to be a bystander.

So he started a GiveForward page for Lacey with a modest goal of $2000 and low expectations.

A few days after Jeff started the fundraiser, I had stumbled across his page. The story was beautiful and it hit me right in the heart. I emailed Jeff and asked him what motivated him to start a page for a family he didn’t know.  And here’s the amazing part — he told me that a year ago he had donated to a fundraiser on GiveForward for a couple named Pat and Jess who had been injured in the Boston Marathon.  Seeing people across the country come together for Pat and Jess inspired Jeff, and so he decided there was nothing stopping him from doing the same thing for someone else.

Ariana’s act of courage had a ripple effect.

As it turns out, I  wasn’t the only one touched by Lacey and Adreian’s story.  Within a week, the whole world would know the story of their friendship.  The story was picked up everywhere from CNN to the Today Show to Good Morning America and Jeff’s GiveForward page quickly hit $25,000 then $50,000, and then $75,000. For two weeks we all clicked on the adorable pictures and videos of Lacey and Adreian.  We cheered every time Adreian dunked and the TV camera panned over to Lacey cheering during the Mich St. games in Madison Square Garden.   It didn’t matter what college you normally rooted for.  For a brief moment in time, it felt like the whole world had become Michigan St fans.

Lacey Holsworth and Adreian Payne

And then like that, Michigan St lost to UCONN in the Elite Eight and a few days later  Lacey was gone.  Cancer took her life on April  9th.

That morning I got an email from a co-worker at 6 AM with subject line “Sad News.  Lacey passed Away.” An hour later, I got a text from my mom with the same bad news.  I read the article on CNN and couldn’t help but cry.  As quickly as she had entered our lives, she was taken from us.

But in the short two weeks that Lacey was part of our lives, in this weird way, I felt like I knew her.  We all felt that way. She managed to touch our hearts so profoundly and teach the entire world about courage, love and the true meaning of friendship.

I am thankful that Lacey  entered my life for a brief moment.  And I’m equally thankful for Jeff for having the courage to start the GiveForward page. He didn’t know Lacey’s family and he  had no idea what would happen once he started the page. They could have reacted horribly or been offended by his gesture.  He took a risk that he would fall flat on his face, but he did it anyway, because on that day, he decided he wasn’t going to be a bystander.

Because he had the courage to take that risk, the world was better for it.

And I think that is awesome.  So, today on the anniversary of the Boston marathon bombing, I encourage everyone for this one day to stop being a bystander. Let’s honor those who lost their lives by pledging to live ours to the fullest.

Yes, it can be scary to live life out on the limb and put ourselves into a position of uncertainty where we might face rejection or failure.  But if we can train ourselves to live a little further out on that limb, even if it’s just for one day every year, we’ll start to see that life on the limb is where all the magic happens.  All the highs and lows of life, all the moments that make life worth living, they all happen when we stop being bystanders.

On April 15th, 2014 I’m choosing to live out on the limb.  For the next 24 hours, I hope you do too.

 

 

Tagged , , , , ,

You Don’t Have A Crowdfunding Problem. You Have a Purpose Problem

Image

image from image from I Try, I Try, I Try

Last week I was speaking at a conference on a panel about crowdfunding.  During Q&A one of the audience members asked the following:

We have a crowdfunding problem.  The volunteers at our non-profit don’t fully understand the mission of our organization and it’s hard for them to feel passionate about what we do.  When we ask them to start crowdfunding campaigns on our behalf, they have trouble raising money.  What tips can you give us to help them have more successful campaigns?

This organization didn’t have a crowdfunding problem.  It had a purpose problem.  Organizations that don’t have a clear understanding of why they exist are going to find it impossible to share their stories effectively.  So before you start recruiting engineers, pitching angels, or asking volunteers to crowdfund for you, figure out the reason you wake up every morning pumped to come into work.  That’s your organization’s story.  Once you’ve figured this out, step two is to go to work and live that story everyday.

StoryLiving (not storytelling) is the kernel that will eventually sprout into your brand, which Tomasz Tunguz wisely points out is becoming increasingly critical to startups as barriers to entry drop and technology becomes commoditized.

At the end of the day, Crowdfunding is never going to be a magic bullet.  It is simply a communications tool to distribute and amplify your story.  If your story is no bueno, all crowdfunding is going to do is amplify how your no buenoness.  If you’re having trouble recruiting top talent, attracting angels or VCs, or crowdfunding your startup, look deeper than your recruiting process, your pitch deck or the crowdfunding platform you’re using.   Once you figure out your organization’s purpose, your story becomes clear and the rest begins to take care of itself.

 

Tagged , ,

5 Things I Wish I Had Known When We Launched

Image

Pathful CEO Campbell McDonald presenting at TechStars Chicago Demo Day 2013

Yesterday I attended the TechStars Chicago Demo Day and was blown away by the presentations.  If I had any money at all, I probably would have invested in 3 or 4 of the companies on the spot.  (PathfulFindIt, and SimpleRelevance particularly resonated with me).

As several of the TechStars companies are just now launching, it made me think back to August 2008 when we first launched GiveForward.  To be perfectly honest, even today five years after launching we still don’t have a clue how to run a company.  But back in 2008 we really, really, really had no clue.

So to all the TechStars Chicago companies who are just launching and wondering what the heck you’re supposed to be doing now that demo day is over, here are some of the things I wish I had known when we first launched.

(1)  Focus Is Everything.  Startups rarely die for a lack of ideas.  But they often die for a lack of focus.  Try to find the one thing you are really good at and then set out to do it better than anyone else in the world.  For us at GiveForward, this was customer service.

(2) Your Idea Is Poop. When we launched, we were dead certain we were going to be a crowdfunding platform for everything.  Turned out, no one wanted a crowdfunding platform for everything.  What our customers told us they wanted was a crowdfunding platform for medical expenses.  It took us a year to find product-market fit, and truthfully, it was really hard for us to give up on our original idea because it was our baby and giving up on it felt like failing.  But being flexible and willing to adapt was key to staying in the game long enough to catch our lucky break (getting into Excelerate Labs in 2010). Long story short – don’t get stuck on your original idea. Chances are it’s not going to be the one that makes you money.

(3) Do The Things That Don’t Scale.  As two non-technical, first-time founders with zero real world job experience, we focused our energy on the few things we were actually good at. One of the skills we had was simply being nice to people. This turned into an emphasis on customer service and tons of interaction with our customers.  At first, the goal was simply to inject a tiny bit of humanity into each interaction.  But these frequent interactions with our customers led to an ongoing dialogue.  We were unintentionally doing tons of customer development and learning about what our customers actually wanted. Eventually, after about a year of talking to our customers we discovered that we needed to pivot away from general crowdfunding and move towards medical crowdfunding.  At the end of the day, the pivot that transformed our business was really just luck – no more than a positive externality from doing the things that don’t scale.

(4) Define Your Core Values, Mission, Vision Early On.  Write them down. And then LIVE them.  It took us two years to write down our core values.  It took us three years to write down our mission and vision. I wish, wish, wish we had done this sooner.  Your values, mission and vision drive your culture, your recruiting and your retention. They give everyone in the company an understanding of not what you do but why you do it. They give people purpose. Once people find purpose, they have passion.

Passionate team members = the greatest competitive advantage known to man.

Here is a blog post written yesterday by our newest team member Mike Danko about why he’s leaving his current job to join our team at GiveForward.   He says it much more eloquently than I ever I could.

If you are interested in learning more about why I feel so strongly about culture and values, check out this blog post.

Also, the folks at MOZ and Zappos probably do this better than anyone else in the world.  Check out both their sites and I recommend reading Tony Hsieh’s Delivering Happiness if you haven’t already read it.

Image

If you’re in Vegas, and want to get an inside look at Zappos culture, take a free tour of Zappos’ Downtown Project. The tour goes right through Tony Hsieh’s actual apartment.

(5) Lastly, When Times Are Good, Don’t Give Yourself Too Much Credit.  When Times Are Bad, Don’t Give Yourself Too Much Blame.  This one might be the most important lesson of them all (at least for your mental health).  As a founder, it’s easy to get down on yourself  if things aren’t going gangbusters out of the gate but the truth of the matter is that so much of what we consider success is really based on luck and good timing.   Many people in the startup world like to pretend that the equation for success is simply smarts + hard work.  Well, that’s a huge load of bullshit.  As Ryan Graves, head of global operations at Uber, mentioned yesterday at Demo Day, “hustle is trendy”.  Of course smarts and hustle are a prerequisite for success but no one becomes successful without the help of others.  What many of us forget  is that the real equation for success is smarts + hard work + a good amount of LUCK.  Our first mentor and board member, Tim Krauskoph shared this wisdom with us in 2010 two years after we launched.  Once we realized how much luck plays into success, it felt like a huge wave of relief washed over us.  It made both me and Desiree more humble and more self confident at the same time because we no longer judged ourselves through a distorted view of reality where the success or failure of our company all hinged on our every decision.   If you learn this lesson early on, it will probably save you a lot of heartburn down the road.

Tagged , ,

Culture + Hiring: A Positive Feedback Loop of Buenoness

If you want to build a company that is going to endure for decades, start with culture and people.  Without these things nothing else matters

If you want to build a company that is going to endure for decades, start with culture and people. Without these things nothing else matters

 

For the remainder of 2013 I am dedicating the majority of my time at GiveForward to focus on just two things: culture and hiring.  In my view, culture and people are two of the most critical elements to a successful company, and often the elements that get overlooked when you are in be on fire mode and trying to go million miles an hour.  My goal over the next eight months is to slow down to go faster.

Culture Does Not = Ping Pong

I hear all the time these batshit crazy ideas as to what culture means. It drives me nuts. So let’s start with an anti-definition.  Culture is NOT ping pong.  It’s not about nerf guns. It’s not about having beers in the fridge. And god forbid if you’ve ever had employer tell you their company has a “work hard, play hard”  culture, they are a total asshat and haven’t the foggiest idea what culture actually means. I suggest you run away from this company.  And run away fast.

explore-consulting-cubicle-of-toys

Nerf guns ≠ culture

So What Is Culture And Why Is It Important?

Culture is just a fancy word for giving people something to believe in.  It means clearly articulating what you stand for as a company (your purpose and your values) and then creating the infrastructure that empowers your team to believe in the same ideas.

One of the things I’ve come to realize in the five years since we launched GiveForward is that the key to building a strong culture is dependent upon understanding that people are attracted to ideas, not to things.  No one cares about what you do.  They care about why you do it. (H/T Simon Sinek). What’s under the hood?  What is your purpose? At your very core, what drives you to get up every morning and go to work?

The tangible result of giving people something to believe in ist that it creates the strongest and most enduring competitive advantage that’s ever existed: passion.  

Passion is the force that drives the world forward.  And once you have a tribe of passionate people all working for the same purpose , there is no limit to what your company can do.  Once you can articulate with clarity what your company’s purpose is, you’re well on your way to building a strong culture.

But having a clearly defined purpose is not enough.  It’s equally important to have clearly defined values.  Your values serve as the framework through which you and your team make decisions.  They inform your policies and procedures and make it easy for you to choose the right path when faced with difficult decisions.  The end result is strong organizational health and a team that all moves forward at a very fast pace because analysis paralysis no longer exists.

Here’s an example of what I mean.  At GiveForward, getting into the press is incredibly important to our business.  It creates brand awareness and helps us generate new customers.  The best way for us to get into the press is to share the stories of the people raising money on our site.  The challenge is that some of the stories are sensitive and people don’t always want to be in the spotlight.  In other words, what’s good for GiveForward isn’t always good for our customers.

So what do we do?  We rely on our values to lead us down the right path.

Our #1 value at GiveForward is compassion. This is how we treat our customers, our co-workers, our vendors and everyone we interact with. The policies we create must be in line with this value.  In this particular case, the policy we’ve created mandates that we will not push a story in the media unless we are certain that the customer whose story we are sharing will benefit more than we do.  GiveForward can benefit, but we cannot be the primary beneficiary.

Our rule is:  customer first; GiveForward second. Always.

Because of our value of compassion, creating a customer-first policy was a no-brainer.

Hiring

The second item I am focusing on is hiring.  Hiring is one of the most visible externalities of culture.  If your culture sucks, it’s easy to tell.  You’ll have a high turnover rate and it will be impossibly difficult to attract great people who want to work at your company.  If you’re culture is great, you’ll have people lined up out the door trying to get in.

At the risk of stating the obvious, the reason hiring right is so critically important to your business is because the company with the best people wins.  ALWAYS*

*unless (a) you manage to screw it up through shitty office politics; or (b) you’re the Los Angeles Lakers, in which case refer back to point (a).

We’ve been lucky enough to recruit some incredible talent to our team over the last few years, so I thought it might be helpful to share a few guidelines we try to follow in hiring.

(1) Hire For Values First

This is the most important rule.  It doesn’t matter how great someone looks on paper, if they don’t share your company values, they’re either going to quit or you’re going to have to fire them.  This happened to us three times in 2012. And it stung.  We had never had anyone quit on us before and had never really had to fire anyone either so when this happened multiple times within a short period, it shook us. It made us look in the mirror and what we realized is we were not making culture fit our #1 priority in our hiring process.  We changed this, and now values are our #1 priority in hiring.

(2) Hire Entrepreneurs

When I was a kid, my soccer coach often used to say “good idea, poor execution” whenever we’d botch a set play or free kick.  The same thing can be said for most startups.  Startups are great at coming up with ideas, but inexperienced and fairly crappy when it comes to managing people.  The result is stressed out employees and unfinished products that never ship.

So how do you solve for this?  Well, I try to take the part we’re not good at (managing people) out of the equation.  For me, this means hiring entrepreneurs because you don’t have to manage entrepreneurs.  They are naturally self-starters who want to solve problems. You can bring them in and then get the hell out of their way.  Tell them what the goal is and then let them take the ball and run with it.  My advice is to find as many of entrepreneurs as you can and recruit them to your company.  These are the people that end up making you look good.

(3) Hire People Who Are Smarter Than You.

Your ultimate objective should be to become the dumbest person in the company.  If/when you can pull that off.  Game over.  You’e just won the game.

As a general rule of thumb, I always look to hire people who can do my job at least five times better than I can.  The beauty of hiring smart people is that smart people want to work with other smart people. So bringing one smart person often leads to attracting another.  The caveat here is don’t just hire smart people. Hire the smartest people you can find who also believe in what you are doing.

I Need Your Help. 

I wrote this blog post in part because I wanted to share these ideas and in part because I wanted to to publicly state these intentions and ask that you all hold me accountable.

I’m hoping that over the next eight months culture and hiring will go hand in hand.  As we continue to improve and refine our culture at GiveForward, we’ll continue to attract great people to our company.  And as we bring in more great people, they will bring with them new ideas that continually improve the culture.  Hopefully, this creates a positive feedback loop of buenoness.

The tricky part for me is always staying focused.  And that’s where you all can help.  If you see me around town over the next eight months, please ask me what we are doing to work on our culture and how our hiring is coming along.  This will keep me accountable for what I need to do.  Gracias

Culture + Hiring FTW!

GiveForward is Hiring an Art Director

UPDATE:  THIS POSITION HAS BEEN FILLED AND WE ARE NO LONGER ACCEPTING APPLICATIONS.  THANK YOU ALL FOR SHARING THIS POST.  TWO LUCKY WINNERS WILL BE RECEIVING BURRITOS AND CA$H MONEY SHORTLY. 
GiveForward is hiring an art director. (Bueno!)  And we’re giving away $1500 or free burritos for a year to anyone who refers us the person we hire (Super-Bueno!)   Please share this job description with the person who inspires you the most in the world.  That’s who we want on our team.
To apply yourself email ethan [at] GiveForward [dot] com.
Dear Mr. or Ms. Potential Art Director:
 
If you are reading this blog post, in all likelihood one of our good friends forwarded it to you, which means they think that on a scale of one to awesome you rank somewhere between bacon and sex. Hooray for you! 
 
In recognition of said awesomeness, I propose we kick off our burgeoning  Internet relationship with a celebratory Virtual High Five.  Great!! Now that we’ve got all the awkwardness of Internet salutations out of the way, let’s get down to brass tacks.
 
We (GiveForward) are putting together an all-star team of inspiringly smart and creative individuals hell-bent on changing the world.  As part of this team, we’re looking for a world-class art director.  
 
As the art director, your mission can be summed up in three words.  

Create Unexpected Joy is our mantra at GiveForward It is everything we believe in. It is the reason we exist as a company. It is the reason we rise out of bed each morning. It is the reason we feel fulfilled every night.
Put your mantra on the wall so you are forced to think about it every day.

We thrive on creating unexpected joy for people.  That and wolf clocks.

The problem is we do a pretty mediocre job at conveying this mantra to the millions of people that visit our site and come in contact with our brand every month.  Instead of seeing joy, people see this.  
Frankly, it’s uninspiring.  We know we can do better.  And that’s where you come in.
 
We need a brilliant (yes, brilliant) art director to help us tell our story to the world through visual art. We are looking for someone who can make the concept of CREATE UNEXPECTED JOY come to life the instant people see it.  In short, we are looking for a visionary who can help us transform our brand from bland to breathtaking.  
Is this you?

II.  The Nitty Gritty 
El Director de Art will be responsible for working with our creative director to establish and create all visual elements of the GiveForward brand. We need someone who has experience creating strong brand concepts from the ground up, and the technical chops both to do the design themselves, and/or oversee execution teams.  Specifically you will:

  • Work with the creative director to establish all visual elements of the encompassing GiveForward story, making sure every brand touchpoint clearly demonstrates who we are and what we believe
  • Work with our chief of product to set the design standard for all things Product starting with the GiveForward.com homepage and moving down and across from there.
  • Create, maintain, apply and monitor the official brand styleguide
  • Design all marketing collateral for the moment (certainly visual, not necessarily coding): GiveForward website top-down | Create Unexpected Joy website top-down | impactful microsites, landing pages, or large-format advertisements |  informational brochures or PDFs | display ads for paid search | visual/industrial design for physical objects (booths, kiosks, etc) | app design
  • Eventually lead a design team of full-time staff, interns, and/or direct outside agency work
 
 
Requirements
  • First and foremost, you share our core values.  These are muy importante!
  • You have the desire to build something meaningful that will last for decades
  • At your core, you consider yourself a great storyteller
  • You share in the belief that WEIRD = GOOD
  • You loathe mediocrity   
 
Bonus Points if:
  • You surprise us by showing up to your interview in a tuxedo or figure out how some other clever way to make us laugh.
 
What we need from you:
Send to ethan [at] GiveForward [dot] com 
  • Your current portfolio
  • 2 paragraphs about why you are the best person in the world for this job 
  • 1 paragraph about the last time you created unexpected joy for someone
  • A list of your 5 favorite things
  • Your resume (we look at resumes but place much more weight on cover letters)
 
 
III.  The Obligatory (Yet Hopefully Interest Piquing) “About Us” Section.
  • We’ve helped 25,000+ families raise more than $35,000,000 for life saving medical treatments
  • The book Hug Your Customers is our bible.  Seth Godin’s Linchpin is a close second. 
  • We have a Net Promoter Score of 83. Our users think we are pretty awesome
  • We love team members who are compassionate, authentic, self-starters that can laugh at themselves and occasionally tell a good joke.
  • We feel like we are the the luckiest people on earth because we get paid to do a job we would totally do for free.
  • If you can’t tell by now, we’re a bit weird.  We hope you are too. 
 
IV. The Goodbye
 
Okay, so granted there is a fair amount of goofiness in this job description.  Clearly, we don’t take ourselves too seriously.  That said, we do want to stress that we take our work very seriously, and we can promise you that we are on the verge of something very, very big here. With the right team on board, GiveForward is going to take off very soon and it’s going to be a magical journey that will change millions of lives for people all around the world.  But don’t take our word for it.  In the last year over 80 publications like the NY Times, Fast Company and CNN wrote about us and we won just about every fancy schmancy industry award possible including the Moxie Award for best consumer startup in Chicago, The Chicago Innovation Award for Best Newcomer Startup, the Empact 100 Award for the top 100 startups in the nation, the INC 30 under 30 Award, and we even won the Edison Gold Award for Best Social Innovation in the country (other Edison winners included Apple, IBM, Seth Godin, TED, and SpaceX). 
 
If there is one thing we are sure about, it’s that exciting times lie ahead.  We hope you’ll be part of the journey. 
 
Sincerely,
The GiveForward Team
 
 

I Am Moving Back to Chicago

This spring I will be moving back to Chicago after spending the last year  in my home state of California.  It’s exciting to get back to Chicago and I wanted to share a little bit about the decision to come back.

IMG_1090

Why I left Chicago in the First Place

When I was growing up in Southern California, my friend Jason used to call me the Family Guy because whenever he asked if I wanted to go out I was always busy doing something with my family. For me, family is and always has been priority numero uno. So when my uncle passed away a few years back and my grandma Elsie was living by herself in Massachusetts, we decided it was time for her to move back to California where she had had lived for the previous 30 years of her life.  After months of trying to convince a 93-year-old woman to move across country, she finally said, “Ethan, I’ll move back when you move back.”  I said, “Sold!”  And that was that.  We moved back to California towards the end of 2011 and I have spent the last year and change living in the state where I spent the first 18 years of my life.

My time in California has been wonderful and I am very grateful for it.  Living closer to my family, I was able to do things I hadn’t done in years.  I visited my sister on her birthday for the first time in a decade.  I was able to surprise my best friend Ned for his 30th birthday and later attend his engagement party.  I even got to celebrate Hannukah this year with my family for the first time since probably high school. Most importantly, I got to visit my Grandma Elsie 15-20 times in the past year and was even able to make this biography about her.  She’s in hospice now and we’re not sure how much longer she’ll be with us, so I’m insanely grateful for the time I’ve been able to spend with her and the rest of my family.  It’s truly been a gift.

As Much as I love being close to my family and friends, I’ve decided it’s more important for me right now to be back in Chicago.   

First and foremost, I’ve come to the conclusion that my decision to live in California was hurting my business partner, Desiree.  During my time away, we went from a six person team to a 20+ person company. While this growth is exciting and mucho, mucho awesome, in this same period, we had our merchant account fire us as customers, we moved offices twice, we had an employee go AWOL for a week, and we had to lay off folks that felt like family.  None of these things are fun.  All of them are difficult and stressful and emotionally taxing.  My being out of the office has meant that Desiree has had to shoulder way more of the crud that partners are supposed to share together.  And that just sucks.  I don’t want to make her do that anymore.

Second, it dawned on me recently that there is a big distinction between managing and leading.  My being in California hasn’t necessarily hurt us from a revenue standpoint (we tripled our revenue in 2012), but it is starting to hurt us from a leadership standpoint.  As we begin to scale our company and develop a culture and identity, founders need to be leaders, not managers.   And while I’ve found that managing from afar is difficult yet doable.  Leading from afar is nearly impossible.

Third, I have been blessed with an opportunity at GiveForward to work with an incredibly passionate and inspiring team of people doing something we believe is going to change the world.  Opportunities like this don’t often come around twice in a lifetime, so I don’t want to take this one for granted.  I’ve heard stories from so many entrepreneurs who after getting lucky with their first venture, spent the rest of their lives trying to recreate that magic only to find that the stars never aligned again in just the right way.  When you have something that you truly believe can make a dent in the universe, and you’ve been lucky enough to catch all the right breaks along the way, you need to grab on tight with both hands, go after it with all your heart and remove any hurdles that can hold you back from achieving what you know is possible.

Lastly, it’s always about family.  Most people are lucky if they have one, loving and supportive family.  I am lucky enough to have two.  I get to work at a company where co-workers genuinely care about each other and feel more like family than cubicle mates. So while saying goodbye to my California family is really hard to do, it’s a lot easier knowing that when I return to Chicago, my GiveForward family will be there to welcome me back.





The Six Stages of the Startup Lifecycle

As far as I can tell there are six stages to a startup lifecycle.  What is super-convenient for this blog post is the fact that all somehow end in the same three letters: I-R-E.

STAGE 1:  DESIRE

If there is one thing that all great founders share, it’s that they have an insanely strong desire to solve problems and make a dent in the universe.

People like Jeff Bezos (Amazon) or Muhammad Yunus (Grameen Bank) started their companies because they ran up against problems that ate at them day in and day out, consuming their every thought until they had no choice but to quit their job, put everything else aside and solve these problems.

Don’t start a company  because you watched the Social Network and you think it would be cool to be the next Zuckerberg. If you start a company with the goal of becoming rich and famous, I can tell you two things:  (1) you are likely going to fail; and (2) you are a giant turd sandwich.  In all fairness, there is nothing wrong with wanting to get rich, but if your main motivation is accumulating wealth, there are many  less circuitous paths toward this end.

Challenge:  Next time you give your elevator pitch, spend  the first 15 seconds explaining the problem before you start pitching them on the solution.  If the person is not moved by the significance of the problem, chances are you’ve created a solution for a problem that doesn’t really exist.

Image stolen from the mucho-awesome Happy Startup School

STAGE 2:  INQUIRE

Once you’ve discovered a problem you are passionate about fixing, it is up to you to inquire and learn as much as possible from people who have been in your shoes. Go to meetups, listen to speakers at StartupGrind, volunteer at events like Startup Weekend or Lean Startup Machine.  Get engaged with the local startup community.  During this period, share your idea with everyone you meet (don’t worry about them stealing your idea) and seek out a mentor or two who is willing to coach you along this journey. No one succeeds without receiving help from others. Smart founders make use of the resources around them.

Challenge:  Find the email address of a successful entrepreneur you admire and email her.  Start a dialog by asking a succinct, one sentence question that she can answer in one minute or less.

STAGE 3:  BE ON FIRE

As my dino friend @FAKEGRIMLOCK says:

YOU MUST BURN

EVERYONE THINK WAY TO STARTUP IS TALENT + IDEA + MONEY.

EVERYONE WRONG.

STARTUP NOT ABOUT MAKE THING, SELL THING. STARTUP ABOUT CHANGE WORLD.

WORLD IS COLD. YOU MUST LIGHT WORLD ON FIRE.

YOUR FIRE.

YOU. MUST. BURN.

If you expect to change the world, you need to be on fire.  Passion is the fuel that feeds this fire.  Your startup is your baby.  And like a real baby, it WILL consume every waking minute of your day.  If you are not obsessed with your startup 16 hours a day, 7 days a week, your fire is not burning bright enough.

The flip side of being on fire is that everything else in your life takes a backseat to your startup.  There is simply no physical or emotional energy left over for anything else.  In the first few years of your startup, you end up sacrificing relationships with friends and people you love.   You stop exercising.  You have no regular paycheck so you start eating junk food because it’s all you can afford.  The idea of a normal dating life goes completely out the window.  Basically, the well-rounded, interesting person you once were ceases to exist. For better or worse, the new you is a stressed out, unhealthy, emotionally unstable robot with a single track mind to change the world.

Challenge:  For the next 30 days, don’t call or hang out with your friends or family, and spend no more than $10 per day on food, transportation, and entertainment.   This is what life will be like for the first twelve to twenty-four months of your startup.

BE ONFIRE

STAGE 4:  HIRE

The company with the smartest people  wins.

At a certain point, you will have found product-market fit (hooray!) and  it will be time to scale your company.  From here on out, everything comes down to execution execution execution.  Execution starts with finding the best talent.

The common refrain when it comes to hiriing is that smart founders always hire people that are smarter and more capable than themselves. As someone who is admittedly not very smart, I absolutely, 1000% agree with this statement.  But recruiting smart people is not enough. It’s equally important to recruit people who think differently than you do and who are going to challenge your ideas.  This raises the bar for the whole company and pushes everyone in the company  to achieve at a higher level.

Challenge: Before hiring anyone, ask yourself, do I believe this person can take X responsibility off my plate and do it ten times better than I could do it myself?  If the answer is no, they are not the right person for the job.

STAGE 5:  INSPIRE

Once you have great people on your team that you trust completely, you stop shouldering as much of the day-to-day work and your main role shifts to inspiring your team to produce at a level beyond what they thought was possible.

To use a sports analogy, your goal is to move from player to coach.  More specifically, you need to become Phil Jackson.  Jackson won 11 NBA championship rings as the coach of the Bulls and the Lakers.   Of course his championship teams started with an incredibly strong core of talent (Jordan, Pippen, Shaq, Kobe), but they didn’t win on talent alone.  And they certainly didn’t win because Phil was calling all the shots from a tactical standpoint (Jackson was notorious for not calling timeouts when his team was going through a rough patch, but instead trusting his players to figure it out).  Rather, the secret to Jackson’s 11 championships was able to get the most out of his players.  He knew how to get inside his players heads.  He inspired them and empowered  them to be the best players that they could be.

Challenge:  Are you more Phil Jackson or more Michael Jordan?  Do you trust people to take the big shots or do you feel the need to take all the shots in order for your team to win?  If you still feel the need to take all the shots, you may have hired the wrong people.

STAGE 6:  GET ACQUIRED

When you’re raising capital, one of the common questions you get from VCs is “who is going to acquire you?”  The answer everyone gives is “Google, Facebook, (maybe AOL if this was 1996).”  The real answer, of course, is “who the f*ck knows?”

Getting acquired is partly outside of your control and focusing on it too much at the early stage may be putting the cart before the horse.  The best piece of advice I’ve ever received from someone who has sold their company is: build a company that solves a real problem, delights your customers, and has a strong P&L.  If you do these things someone will want to purchase you.

circle of life

The alternate route is stage 6B: the Acqui-hire. At this stage, your Startup dies and your engineers go back into the startup ecosystem to be reincarnated as a killer photo-sharing app.

Tagged
Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 301 other followers

%d bloggers like this: