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The pomodoro kitchen timer after which the technique is named.

The pomodoro kitchen timer after which the technique is named.

Since March I’ve been working from home full-time, with frequent trips to the city for meetings and events (it’s only 8 minutes on the train away). There’s a lot I like about this, especially being close to Bodhi and Kate and having a nice blend in my days: I’m able to play with B in the yard for ten minutes, or take him for a walk, have lunch with the family and make sure I’m here to put B to bed. But I miss the energy of having other entrepreneurs around me getting stuff done. The rapid-fire conversations, the sense of comradery and support, the greater ease in achieving focus when others around you are also focusing.

So I decided to start inviting some entrepreneurs I know to come and work with me at home every few weeks. We’ve done it twice and so far it’s been great so I thought I’d share the model here.

Here’s the email I sent:

Hello friends,

You’re getting this email because I think you’re great and I want to invite you to something new and different which I’m kinda excited about.

You’ve probably heard of Jelly, a day when people come together to co-work, often at people’s houses. Well I want to do that, basically, but with a twist I’ll get to in a bit.

Since Bodhi’s birth I’ve mostly been working from home and since we had to move out of our subsidised StartSomeGood office in the city a couple of weeks ago I’ve been working from here basically full-time. This has lots of advantages but I miss having awesome people around me and the focused and creative energy produced when everyone is getting shit done.

So I want to invite you over to work with Kate (who is also working on a new business) and I periodically. We’re thinking every second Thursday if there’s interest.

Everyone getting this email is a) an entrepreneur and b) someone I’d be happy to have in my house. So it’s a select group! You’re all people I want to learn from and collaborate with.

Our house is very easy to get to being only two blocks away from Waverton station, which is eight minutes from Wynyard Station. We have a lovely open and light-filled back living room/kitchen where we can work and a back patio and yard with a fantastic view down the harbour and to the blue mountains in the distance where we can also work weather-permitting.

Thursday Bodhi is at daycare, so it’s a day Kate and I both aim to get a lot of work done and is a good day to have people around between 9ish and 3ish.

So, to the twist.

You may have heard of a productively method called Pomodoro. For those that haven’t it’s very simple. It basically divides up your day into a series of “pomodori’s” or 25 minute sprints, where you pick one thing and finish it. Then you take a five minute break. Than another 25 minute sprint where you finish something. Every four of these you take a longer break.

I want to run the day strictly along these lines, with time at the start and end and a longish lunch break for general catching up and conversation, but with four pomodori sprints on either side.

So this isn’t just for people who like working in social settings, it’s for people who like working in social settings while getting heaps of stuff done.

I’m excited to try this and I think it’d be work best in a group to hold me accountable and to task. Doing it together will make it more effective and more fun. We’ll play a bit of music, enjoy the sunshine and crank out work alongside each other. I guess we’d call it Pomodoro Jelly, which sounds like a very weird culinary experience but might just work as an awesome working experience.

Speaking of culinary experiences during the third small break we can order thai food which will arrive in perfect time for the long lunch break.

Here’s how the day breaks down:

9am – arrive, general catching-up, drinking coffee, etc. Please arrive by at least 930am so there’s time for hellos before we get our pomodoro on.

1000 – 1st pomodoro

1025 – break

1030 – 2nd pomodoro

1055 – break

1100 – 3rd pomodoro

1125 – break – order food

1130 – 4th pomodoro

1155 long break for lunch.

1pm – 5th pomodoro

125 – break

130 – 6th pomodoro

155 – break

2 – 7th pomodoro

225 – break

230 – 8th pomodoro

255 – finish, move to Botanica (great local café across from the station) for coffee, chats and debrief.

We think the right number of people would be no more than 8 including us, so there are a maximum six spots available for visitors. I’d ask that if you do RSVP with me you be genuinely committed to coming, as we’ll be saying no to other people. But I know the unforeseen happens (regularly!) so if you are unable to make it that’s fine just let me know asap so I can offer it to another. If more people want to come than can fit I’ll keep a waitlist.

I hope you’ll be part of this experiment with me.

Cheers!

Tom

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So far we’ve done this twice and it has been fantastic! The hardest thing is actually committing to the breaks. And then sticking to only 5 minutes for the break, because everyone is so nice and so interesting. But when everyone is focused and working the energy is very productive, and the chance to catch up with awesome people and quickly share ideas and news is very cool.

I’m open to extending this invitation to a few new people in Sydney so if you’re working on an entrepreneurial initiative and you want to be added to the list please drop me a line and let me know. If I don’t know you already tell me more about what you’re up to. And if you’re doing important work but feeling isolated think about organising something like this in your house or a friend’s house. If you decide to run with it let me know how you go!

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Last week will be a historic moment for StartSomeGood, one way or another. One chapter has ended and a new one is beginning, pregnant with possibility, fraught with danger.

Alex is leaving, has left, StartSomeGood.

Only recently I wrote about how much I valued having a co-founder with StartSomeGood but no, to my enormous sadness, found myself writing a blog post last week to say goodbye and good luck to that same co-founder. Alex is currently based in Stockholm, Sweden and wants to get more involved in something on the ground there. He’s also burnt out from being the only full-timer working on StartSomeGood for the past three years and from the juggling of too many responsibilities during this time. He’s been amazing to work with to this point and I’m going to miss him, but life must go on.

We are now midway through a transitional period with new leaders joining the team and existing team members stepping up to replace Alex. I introduced a couple of those key people in last week’s post. Brendan Rigby, who raised money for his initiative WhyDev last year, joined our Venture Support team in June and is stepping up to become Director of this team.

We also have, for the first time, a Chief Technical Officer, one with incredible experience both technically and entrepreneurially. Renata van Diest spent 9 years as a senior engineer at Microsoft before moving to London to get her MBA from London School of Economics. She will continue to be based in London and will start with us in a couple of weeks. We’re incredible lucky to have her and it’s very validating and encouraging for her to recognise the potential we have and be prepared to dive in and help us realise that potential.

While Alex leave is a personal sadness to me because he’s a friend and a really enjoyed working with him, it is also a significant business challenge.

We are still a small bootstrapped start-up, fuelled by the passion, commitment and optimism of our team. Alex has always been incredible at motivating our team, making new people on every level feel included an respected and keeping everyone focused on serving changemakers. The worst-case scenario for something like this is that it drains the motivation and optimism of the team, that we slow down, that we start letting more and more things fall through the cracks in terms of implementation.

But as with any challenge it is also an opportunity, for us as an organisation and for the entrepreneurs joining our team. Without Alex leaving we wouldn’t have gone looking for new co-founders, and wouldn’t have found and connected with Renata. We wouldn’t have recruited Brendan with an eye to promoting him to Director, and he wouldn’t be busy proving us right by doing an incredible job.

I want to be clear, Alex isn’t leaving because he’s given up on the business. If we were going to give up the time to do so might have been a year ago, after almost two years of hard work and no real growth. But since relaunching the site in March this year we’ve been moving strongly in the right direction, and with several great new features and partnerships to roll out over the coming months we’re as confident as we’ve ever been.

Here’s what that growth looks like in terms of funds pledged:

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And here’s the growth in the number of individual pledges:

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So the business opportunity is incredibly strong and we’re working hard to become the world’s favourite platform for crowdfunding social impact.

Alex leaving is also a chance to re-thinking our priorities in terms of our team and the positions we create.
Alex had three main roles, overseeing development of the site, managing the Venture Success team and handling much of our operations. (No wonder he burnt out! This was clearly a mistake and too much). So we’ve been recruiting replacements for each role. Our focus on bringing in new leadership and capacity has resulted in leaders for our tech and Venture Support.

So now I’m looking for a business partner to oversee our operations.

I am, as many of you know, not the most detail-oriented person in the world. I am good at getting things going, great at articulating a vision and getting people excited about it, a strong networker, partnership-builder and entrepreneurial leader. But to really succeed I’ve always needed a partner who brings greater experience, focus and understand to the operational side of whatever we’re working on.

That’s who I’m looking for now.

I’m looking for someone who loves to dive into the details and work out the most effective way of doing something. Who is smart, entrepreneurial and driven, able to figure out what they need to know and learn everything about it, and who has the communications skills to then explain it. Someone who is looking to create a positive impact with their life and is excited about the potential of social enterprise and crowdfunding to change the world. They will manage our accountants and lawyers, staying up-to-date with the legal implications of our business model and managing risk and compliance. They will oversee HR and develop and manage business relationships with vendors. They will refine and redesign our processes as necessary to allow us to operate in a more efficient and impactful way as we grow. They will need to be comfortable with the inherent risk and rapid evolution of a startup.

This isn’t a full-time role. We are open to differing levels of commitment however based around your other commitments, starting with as little as 8 hours/week. This would be equivalent to what Alex was previously able to give it amongst his other roles. StartSomeGood has core team members in Sydney, Melbourne, London, California and Washington DC. There’s some advantage in you being in one of those places (especially Sydney, where I am and where we maintain an office) but for the right person it’s not a deal breaker.

For the right person this could be a co-founder-type role. We want someone who will be a true partner and co-owner in the business as we navigate our way towards sustainability and epic impact. Note that this is primarily a sweat equity position.

If this sounds like someone you know please send them to this post. If this sounds like you please get in touch: tom(at)startsomegood.com.

And as always: onwards and upwards!

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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.

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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.

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