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If you want to go fast go alone. If you want to go far go with others.

 

Let height differences be no impediment to finding the right co-founder.

Let height differences be no impediment to finding the right co-founder.

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the different experience between founding Vibewire in 2000 and StartSomeGood ten years later. There were some pretty amazing technological and social shifts during that time which I want to explore in a separate post. What I want to talk about today is, I think, the single biggest difference for me experientially between founding Vibewire and StartSomeGood and that is that with StartSomeGood I have a co-founder.

While I had some truly amazing collaborators over the eight years I led Vibewire, I didn’t have a single person right from the start who was as committed, as on the line, as I was. Having Alex as my constant collaborator at StartSomeGood has been an extraordinary contrast. Even in the midst of our most stressful moments, and they’ve been many, having someone else that you can be completely open and raw with, who is as invested and committed to finding a way forward as I am, changes everything.

Practically, of course, having a co-founder means you can do more from day one, allowing each of you to focus on different critical areas. Having two heads instead of one leads to more and better ideas. But most important, I think, is the way having a co-founder alleviates some of the stresses of startups by making those stresses shared, allowing each of us to express it and get it out rather than bottling it up, and the encouragement and support that comes from this.

One of the keys to sustainability with a cofounder, and with a romantic partner as well for that matter, is compatibility in your freak-outs. One of you needs to be strong when the other is weak. If one person’s freak out triggers the other to freak out it’s just an emo mess. But it just seems that when I’m having a hard day and questioning everything Alex is strong and when he’s struggling I feel able to be practical and optimistic enough for the two of us, and so we continue.

Judged solely in terms of the skills and experience we bring to the table we are not perfect co-founders. Neither of us is technical enough; our skills and preferences overlap more than is optimal. We have too really push ourselves to pick up and stay on-top of things neither of us is naturally inclined to do and, bless him, Alex has stepped up to more of that than me and kept the good ship StartSomeGood moving forward with his leadership and commitment, such as during the recent site re-build. But what matters most this skill-set match is our attitude match; it’s what makes it possible for us to work through the ups-and-downs of a startup together, even as we’ve never lived in the same place.

I’m working near as hard as I ever have at the moment but there’s a lightness and satisfaction to it, a sense of progress and possibility and pride in our achievements. This is not simply from having a great co-founder but a great team, a group of people who share our vision and commitment to making it happen, who bring great energy and innovative thinking to their roles, who I trust to get the job done without supervision or micro-management.

One thing I’m certain about: I’ll never launch a venture without a co-founder again. The difference it makes to your enjoyment, sustainability and ultimately your chances of success are just too great to set out on the epic journey which a startup represents without one.

I posted a more personal, reflective announcement about the new version of StartSomeGood.com here last week but for those of you know don’t subscribe to the StartSomeGood weekly email (and you really should if that’s the case, see bottom-right of the homepage) I wanted to also share with you the email we sent to the 10,000 members of the site on Friday:

The new StartSomeGood

Hi everyone,

In place of our usual newsletter we wanted to send you a personal email this week to let you know about some exciting changes happening at StartSomeGood and reflect on where we are.

Most importantly and obviously we have just unveiled the new version of our site!

The new site is a big step forward for us and we hope you like it as much as we do. The major changes include a lighter, brighter and friendlier design, with a simplified navigation which gives greater prominence to success stories and information to help you succeed at crowdfunding. On the back-end there’s an upgraded project dashboard to help you launch and manage your campaigns and we’re adding alternatives to Paypal for donors (already available to US ventures, coming soon for everyone else).

But it’s not all about technology. We remain committed to a hands-on and partnership-driven approach which provides you with the advice and support you need to succeed.

So if you have an idea for a project which can improve the future of your community, why not start todayRegister on our site and a member of our team will be in touch to help you design a campaign which will succeed.

Over the past two years, with your support, we have built a vibrant community of changemakers at StartSomeGood. Together, we have successfully funded 125 world-changing projects in 23 countries. We have supported social entrepreneurs as young as 16 and as established as Ashoka Fellows. We have helped launched projects as diverse as open-source mapping in Nepal to Sock Monkeys who fight cancer in the US, from social enterprise cafés in Cambodia to supporting young families in Australia and inspiring youth volunteering in 22 cities across America.

While we are proud of these successes there’s so much further we want to go. Our goal is to launch 1,000 new social initiatives over the next two years, transforming millions of lives around the world.

We would love your project, your idea, your community, to be part of that. Without you, we’re just a boring old website. With you, we can be an epic force for good in the world.

So don’t wait any longer. If you have the drive and the passion to make a difference we want to help.

Together, let’s start some good!

Sincerely,

Tom and Alex

Co-founders, StartSomeGood

PS. Read about the details of the new site and all the great activities we’re doing to celebrate, including a riddle hidden in the website and daily twitter chats this week on our blog.

PPS. Speaking about getting started you may be inspired by the first episode of our new podcast series Starting Good, featuring Charles Best, founder of DonorsChoose. Check it out.

Choosing the worst runner

Runner - The Happy Rower on flickr
You are running coach, the analogy goes, and you have to choose between two runners. One of them has textbook form, smooth and efficient in his stride. The other is a mess, straying out of his lanes, arms and legs flailing unattractively. Despite this they are neck-and-neck at the end of the race. Who would you want to coach?

You would choose the worst runner, the guy with terrible form but who somehow managed to stay in the race despite this, because your coaching has the possibility to make the greater impact. You can’t do much with the guy with perfect form; he’s just not fast enough. But the sloppy guy, with refinement and coaching, might just be able to be really fast. In sporting parlance his ceiling is higher.

I feel like that’s where we are at with StartSomeGood right now, as we stand on the brink of unveiling the new version of our site to the world.

It’s been two years since the first version went live and, simply put, we have done almost everything wrong.

We built the first version of the website with only conceptual feedback from our target market – we didn’t show them the actual site until it was live. We didn’t talk enough about what we were doing while we were building it, and so failed to prime the community for our launch. We didn’t even have a LaunchRock page up to collect emails, so we started with zero on day 1. We put far too much time and effort into coaching efforts which didn’t sufficiently move the needle. We recruited the wrong people and compensated them in an unstrategic fashion, giving away more entity than we should have to people no longer with us.

We failed to test or monitor a lot of what was happening on our site. We were so tech-resource constrained I think it was too depressing to constantly focus  what couldn’t, in the short-term, be fixed. We just worked harder and harder to connect with and serve entrepreneurs, but these efforts couldn’t all be scaled and didn’t overcome all the shortfallings of the site itself. This lack of attention to metrics and testing meant we didn’t have as much data or insight as we should have when we became (slightly) less constrained in our tech resourcing and were able to invest in this new site.

So many mistakes.

But we’re still here. Along the way we listened, we learned. And now we are ready to show you some of those learnings embodied in this next iteration of our platform.

We interact constantly with our community, social entrepreneurs and community benefit organisations looking to raise funds in a new way. We’ve been intimately involved in over 300 campaigns now, and have seen what has and hasn’t worked. We’ve been knocked back by organisations we wanted to work with and have always asked why. We recruited an amazing advisory committee LINK who have helped stretch and inspire our thinking, as have a wide range of informal advisers and friends.

I can’t claim that we’re doing it all perfect now because we’re not. We’re busy and over-stretched and making compromises. The new version hasn’t had enough testing or rounds of user-feedback, but it’s had infinitely more than the first version. We would have done more but our updated UI/look-and-feel was done probono by Source Creative, who were lovely and generous and did a great job but didn’t have capacity for ongoing testing and additional rounds of tweaks, which was fair enough. It’s often better to put something out there and learn from how people actually use it anyway.

Raising a small amount of family-and-friends investment has allowed us to get this new version shipped and we’re committed to being much more focused on testing and analytics than we were with the first version.

There are a number of key improvements I’m excited to show you:
•    We’ve simplified our navigation and lightened the feeling of the site, giving it a cleaner and more modern look
•    We’ve put more emphasis on success stories and user-interactions, highlighting the people-powered nature of the site.
•    We’ve added alternatives to paypal, initially just for US ventures but coming soon for everyone else.
•    We’ve upgraded the venture dashboard, to help you launch and manage campaigns and;
•    We’ve improved the how to info and resources on the site to educate people about how to succeed at crowdfunding.

So where are we as a business? I truly believe we stand on the brink of great things.

Despite our abundant shortcomings we have built a vibrant community of entrepreneurs and changemakers. We have 10,000 subscribers to our newsletter, 10,000 followers on Twitter and 30,000 followers on Tumblr. We have successfully funded over 130 projects in 22 countries, and this is just the beginning.

We have a fantastic, talented, passionate team spread Australia, the US, England and Sweden. Everyone is involved because they believe in our mission and are driven to scale our impact and help changemakers around the globe. You can meet our newest colleagues here.

We have just announced a number of exciting partnerships, including with ING Direct who have committed significant funds to social entrepreneurs running campaigns on our site, and with the Global Food Startup Challenge, for which we are the global crowdfunding partner.

In terms of our financials we have started slow but all sites of our sort do. Crowdfunding is boom or bust. Once you pick up pace it tends to accelerate, but the vast majority of sites never even reach the point we are at, remaining extremely limited in terms of scope or traction.

I can understand the skepticism some feel about whether there is enough room for StartSomeGood in an extremely competitive crowdfunding market but I know we provide a unique service and truly believe we are the best home for most social entrepreneurs looking to raise money from their communities. The creative crowdfunding platform are simply not built with nonprofits and causes in mind. Our success rate (comparable with the creative crowdfunding sites), incredible partners and growing traction are strong positive indicators for this belief.

So if you’ve been holding off on getting your idea out there and launching a campaign for any reason I hope you’ll reconsider and give our site a try. If you launch before April 2 you’ll be in the running for the ‘Like-Off’ we are running, with a bonus $200 grant to the project with the most likes during a 24 hour period starting at midnight April 3 Greenwich Mean Time.

Please check out the new site and let me know what you think.

Onwards and upwards!

Image by The Happy Rower made available on a Creative Commons license via Flickr.

Teaching our kids what matters

Oscar statues -  ebbandflowphotography on flickr

So yesterday was the Oscars and Twitter was near-ruined for the day. So many tweets telling you no more than what you would be seeing happen on TV if you had chosen to watch it, perhaps with the addition of sparkling commentary such as “love her hair.” Urgh. So much vapidity.
But what’s really caught my eye as been several tweets along these lines: “I’m watch the Oscars with my kids and the actresses are too skinny. I wish they could be good role-models for my daughters.”

Here’s the thing though:  They don’t need to be role-models for your daughters at all.

To some extent that’s up to you. You already know the actresses are too thin. That’s unlikely to have suddenly changed since last year. You know that it’s a world (the world of Hollywood and the red carpet, not of all filmmaking of course) which is obsessed with a very specific definition of beauty, of which thinness is a central tenant. And you should surely realise that by making a big deal about it, getting excited, having a night in with your daughters and ooing and ahhing over the red carpet you are communicating to them that this is what really matters. That this red carpet celebrity is the highest order of achievement in our society. That being young and beautiful (and, yes, thin) is a critical component in making it in life.

I don’t mean to get all judgey here. We all have our vices and our distractions. I love sport and will no-doubt end up transferring a sense of disproportionate importance over it to my son, but at least sport has an active component of doing, of running around and being part of a team, even if the sportspeople you see on TV are not good role-models in other ways.

But celebrity culture is a cancer, distracting us from things that really matter by making us care about lives barely glimpsed or understood. Not the art produced by these stars, but the aura of stardom itself. The phenomenon of people being “famous for being famous”, of reality TV devoid of real skills (not competitions like Masterchef but voyeuristic exercises like Jersey Shore or Big Brother) and magazines devoted to the practice of harassment and embellishment, practices you implicitly endorse when you purchase Hello or OK! Or any other celebrity gossip magazines. And most concerningly it manifests in the increasing number of children who, growing up, aspire simply to be “famous.” Not to achieve anything in particular, not even to be rich, which might imply success in a specific industry such as music or films, but, simply, look-at-me, know-my-name fame as an end in itself. And because kids aren’t idiots they understand that there’s a strong correlation between fame and looks.

So if you don’t want your daughters to embrace red-carpet walking super-skinny female actresses as their role-mode then maybe skip the pre-Oscars show. Watch the ceremony, which is at least about artistic output, but skip the bit that is purely and simply about how people look and what they’re wearing. Because your daughters deserve to know that success is about what you produce and the meaning you create, not just your waistline and hair. Our fame-obsessed society will push their values at them no matter what you do, but it’s you inviting it into your living room and communicating to your children that this is what matters.

And if this all seems a bit over-the-top for a light-hearted bit of family evening entertainment, that’s fair enough. I know you work hard and you deserve to switch off a bit and enjoy a spectacle with your family. I totally get that. But accept that it’s not about role-models. Don’t blame the stars, they’re just doing what they’ve got to do to succeed in a system we all contribute to. Find great role-models for your daughters in other places, in changemakers, entrepreneurs, scientists or athletes.

/end rant.

Photo by ebbandflowphotography made available on a creative commons license on flickr.

The agony of entrepreneurship

In November 2011 Ilya Zhitomirskiy, only 26 and one of the co-founders of Diaspora, the “open-source Facebook” which received notoriety after raising over $200,000 on Kickstarter (at that stage the most successful project on the crowdfunding platform) killed himself. His mother still believes that if he didn’t start the project he would be alive today.

On January 11 this year Aaron Schwartz, a celebrated and much-loved hacker and activist took his own life. He was also 26. I never met Aaron but several friends were very close to him. One was his partner. Reading the tributes that poured in it was impossible not to be deeply saddened that someone so young, so talented and with so much to contribute had given up like this. The loss not only to his friends and family but to all of us is immense.

And just two weeks ago I read about the passing of Jody Sherman, co-founder and CEO of Ecomom. I didn’t know Jody either but he was also admired by people I admire. The initial reports avoided specifying a cause of death but he too had committed suicide.

As Jason Calicanus asked  over the weekend, should we talk about this?

Yes, we should.

Entrepreneurship is a really hard road, filled with rejection, misunderstanding and self-doubt. You pour yourself into a project only to see the world disparage or, worst, ignore it. You must deal with people telling you to get a real job, with the stresses of poverty and uncertainty, with the constant possibility, indeed the likelihood, of total failure. But your job is to project constant positivity, to always be selling your vision and product, to inspire people to join you on this mad mission.

You probably work long and unhealthy hours. You might struggle to find time for exercise, or to socialise, or to take time out to be alone and reflection.

In other words it can be a very unhealthy pursuit, not only physically but emotionally.

During the eight years I led Vibewire I had many dark days, days when I was so exhausted I was reduced to tears, days when I couldn’t see how we would continue. But then I’d go to a meeting with the Vibewire team or a potential funder or a media interview and I’d have to summon all my positivity and energy and pitch our programs and vision of the future, convince them all that there was a pathway to the future we sought.

After I left Vibewire in March 2008 my successor as CEO had an emotional breakdown just a few months later, crushed by the complexity of our projects and the constant workload and stresses involved in bringing in the funds required to keep them alive.

So how did I survive for the eight years before that? First of all, I didn’t entirely. By the time I departed I was utterly burnt out, and for the year prior to that I was just barely nursing myself through, on many days just focusing on the day before me and what I needed to do to get to the next one, like a prisoner in jail, desperately pushing myself to get what needed to be done, done to get the organisation to the point where I could walk away. Once I did it took me months to feel like I could be productive again.

I pushed myself through thanks to incredibly supportive parents, sibling and partner and a group of friends outside the world of social entrepreneurship, who cared about me rather than Vibewire, who valued me as a person, not just an entrepreneur. I would go out with them to parties in the forests which wrap around Sydney at least monthly and stomp my frustrations and stresses into the dirt dance floor until there was just the freedom and joy of movement and dancing and friendship, and my heart filled up with love, community and connection to nature. Being part of this creative, DIY community kept me balanced, with dancing allowing me to be in my body, not my head, and the friendships I formed giving me an identity outside of Vibewire, outside of entrepreneurship.

I don’t know what drove each of these innovators to take their own life. For Aaron an over-zealous prosecution and the threat of jail was clearly a unique and significant factor. All of them struggled with mental health issues at different times. But I do know that as entrepreneurs we are all prone to driving ourselves to breaking point and that one of the hardest but most important things we must learn is how to be personally sustainable, how to take care of ourselves, in the midst of stress and uncertainty and repeated failure.

One of the hardest things about entrepreneurship is that you can become your venture in the eyes of many people. People would often say in introducing me “Tom is Vibewire” and I would cringe, knowing that wasn’t what we were going for at all, that it was in many ways a sign of failure to build the broad base of leadership we needed to be successful but also that it was such a narrowing of me as a person. And it’s also true that in entrepreneurship, unless you are truly gifted or lucky or more likely both, you’ll have as many bad days as good ones, as many set-backs as successes.

As Jess Lee, founder and CEO of Polyvore pointed out in a great recent blog post titled “Why are startup founders always unhappy?” even a successful growth pattern is wiggly, and as entrepreneurs tend to live mostly in the moment and also be very ambitious it’s easy to get depressed during a down phase even if you’ve experienced extraordinary success over the preceding period of time. And if you are your organisation, when the organisation is struggling you feel a failure personally.

Jess puts it this way:

Humans are terrible at understanding absolute values. We are best at understanding acceleration and deceleration, or rate of change. You are happiest when your growth is accelerating. When growth slows down, you start to become less happy. When you’re not growing, you are in unhappy territory.

This is why it’s so important to have a life outside your startup, to have an emotional floor that doesn’t undulate with your company’s fortunes.
I am not trying to generalise the experiences of Ilya, Aaron and Jody. Each was unique. But I have been finding myself thinking about these issues repeatedly over the past few weeks as tragedy followed tragedy, about my own struggles and what it takes to survive as entrepreneurs and changemakers. Ultimately it comes down to balance, however you find that, to relationships, and community and love.

So please be good to yourself everyone, and give yourself what you need to be sustainable and happy and whole.

XXL

XXL - mag3737 on flickr

When I was in Melbourne late last year I experienced a life milestone, and not of the good kind. Short on clothes due to my dedication to travelling with a single bag I popped into the factory outlets on Spencer St and bought a t-shirt. An XXL t-shirt. The first time I’ve had to buy clothes at that size. Yikes.

Clearly I’ve gained a bunch of weight since leaving San Francisco in April. I don’t even know how much, I don’t use a scale, but it’s obviously too much. I feel unhealthy, I don’t look so great, my new doctor told me off and my damned clothes don’t fit any more. The impact isn’t just on my appearance. I think physical health is critical to mental and emotional health, especially when going through busy and stressful times. In the absence of healthy energy fueled by exercise and good eating I’ve been pumping my body full of stimulants to sustain my workload. My coffee habit has escalated out of control, I’m easily up to 4 or 5 a day, and my sugar consumption is unsustainable.

Things need to change.

How did I get here? I’ve actually gone through a series of swings with my weight over the past five years. There’s a correlation with moving – I had significant weight gains when I first arrived in Washington DC in 2008 and in San Francisco in 2010 and now again last year with my return to Sydney.

I need to be pretty constantly active to maintain a healthy weight (true for most of us) and the only way I ever manage this is through the creation of routines (also true for most of us). Moving throws out my routines, especially the one that takes the most effort to preserve: being active. Bunkering down on my laptop, going drinks with old and new friends, trying out new restaurants; all these things I do in abundance when I get to a new place. But exercise? Not so much it seems.

So that’s going to change. My bike finally arrived from the US recently after more than 6 months in transit and I can’t wait to get back on it. I’m a commuter-rather than touring cyclist, I ride to-and-from places, so combined with the fact I’m back in the office 2-3 days a week (I’ve been working from home since Bodhi was born) I’ve got a good chance to build exercise back into my life regularly. I also want to get back into tennis which I was playing regularly in SF and DC.

I’m not just going to rely on my own motivation however, I plan to take advantage of some new tools to get back on-track. Building routines is really hard for me and structure and accountability is critical.

I’ve just begun using Sessions, a San Francisco-based startup co-founded by Aussie entrepreneurs Nick Crocker and Ben Hartney which provides virtual personal trainers. So advice and encouragement and help establishing and sticking to a routine just like an in-person trainer but none of the shouting, which I’m not so into, and at a cost I can afford (well, it’s free at the moment, as I’m a beta tester of the service, but beyond that it will be a fraction of the cost of a personal trainer).

Designing a schedule with my personal trainer Glennis and then having to report back to her really helps with my sense of accountability. The encouragement doesn’t hurt either. But the other element is tracking, ie. knowing what I’ve actually done. This is especially relevant if my primary exercise is going to be cycling and walking rather than gym-based routines. There’s a variety of apps which track movement. Two I’ve used in the past are Runkeeper and Google Tracks. I’m also trying out Strava which was created specifically for cycling and tracks personal bests along various routes. The feedback loops created by these tracking apps is pretty powerful for a relatively-competitive person like me, allowing me to constantly pursuit personal best distances and times. Runkeeper can be synced to my Sessions account so my trainer can see what I’ve been up to so that’s probably the one I’ll use most.

And sharing all this publically will also help with my motivation and accountability – feel free to ask how I’m going.

So, the rough plan:
-regular rides, with a longer ride approximately weekly
-a morning walk near daily (I’m up early with the baby anyway so might as well take advantage of these newly-discovered hours in my day)
-a weekly game of tennis (if you’re in Sydney and enjoy tennis get in touch, I’ll need playing partners)
-daily stretching and strengthening exercises for my back, and maybe getting back into Pilates

And I’m going to eat better, because that’s the other part of the equation that I’ve been particularly slack on these past few months (your pies are good Australia).

This isn’t about vanity; it’s about how I feel and what I’m capable of doing. And it’s about being physically sustainable in the long run, so I have the strength and energy to do the things I love as I get older, hiking and camping and long-distance cycles, backpacking and playing cricket and being able to keep up with Bodhi for as long as I can. I keep thinking about how when he’s 18 I’ll be 51.On behalf of my future self I have to take this stuff a little more seriously now. Not just my weight but my overall health, and especially my weak back, which can only be successfully managed through constant maintenance.

So this is something I need to do for the present and the future, and in keeping with wellness being one of my themes for 2013 . I’ll let you know how I go.

Photo by mag3737 made available on a creative commons license via flickr.

Themes for 2013

Not quite the last sunset of 2012, but almost!

Not quite the last sunset of 2012, but almost!

We recently had our first holiday with Bodhi, ten days over in Western Australia catching up with my extended tribe over there and spending some quality time with Bodhi’s grandparents and aunt.

I had meant to write this while on vacation but found this impossible. I got half an hour on my laptop the day after we arrived and never got it out again. Holidaying with a baby is a different sort of holiday, more hectic and immersive, and you never really have time to fully relax or check out. Or write. At least I didn’t this trip, but I didn’t mind because it was so much fun to do stuff with Bodhi and to introduce him to so many family members.

And so it is that I find myself finally composing this now, long after I should be sleeping, a week after new years.

While I didn’t write it down I did manage to do something thinking on the trip, and some brainstorming with K, about our aspirations for the year ahead. I remember the same period a year ago, the slight anxiety about all the faced us: moving countries, becoming parents, our lives changed forever. A year on things feel more settled. Parenthood is endlessly challenging but infinitely rewarding, there’s isn’t an international move on the horizon, I’m not looking for work.

This sense of greater stability has allowed me to re-focus on some of the other things I care about, and the lifestyle K and I want to build in the longer-term.

I’m really into the rule of three at the moment. Three goals for the day, three themes for the week, three foci for the month. So in reflecting on the year ahead I decided to focus on three concepts for the year.

Wellness – restoring myself to a state of greater fitness and better health. Learn more about food and develop better eating habits. Support K in her food goals for the year.

Commitment – Getting more attuned to the needs of my family. Taking good care of the garden and learning to do things in a more organic way. Sticking with routines required for better health and productivity. Being more consistent with my writing.

Balance – Give my best self to all areas of my life. Be focused, productive and strategic at StartSomeGood and Make Believe. Be there for my family. Take better care of myself.

I’ve got a very good feeling about 2013. I feel like I’m on the cusp of a real time of change and evolution, but with my feet firmly on the ground, embedded in community and purpose.

Happy new year everyone!

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