Can I Do More Than I Am Currently? A Reflection on BlogHer Entrepreneurs '12
[Editor's Note: This email-turned-post that I received today is affecting me more than I thought possible. I have been in the conference and event business for almost a dozen years and only on a few occasions have I been moved the way this note moved me. -Lori Luna]
I was a high school senior, not even graduated, when I first crossed into Silicon Valley. I left school each day, changed clothes in my car and assumed the post of secretary just inside the double-doors of an essentially one-room start-up. Behind me, a number of innovative “firsts” and nearly-firsts were taking shape. The first integrated software package (spreadsheet, database and word processor, all functionally interconnected) was being developed and marketed, the first page layout program for the PC platform was being tweaked and packaged for sale, a word processor written for the NeXT machine was being re-engineered for the Macintosh.
Outside the walls of this particular start-up, a Hell of a lot was going on. The inception and early evolution of the Macintosh, PostScript, object-oriented programming, Ethernet, the mouse, the Graphical User Interface...Silicon Valley in the 80s was the teeming Brazilian rainforest of colorful ideas and brilliant 2.0s.
At 17-years-old, I wasn’t hatching as a person, I was hatching as a worker, a professional. This was my postnatal duckling period where I would naturally imprint on whatever was in front of me. Big ideas were in front of me and, as a teenager, I waddled along behind, assuming that everyone had big ideas; that, when the idea came, you relentlessly pursued it.
I wasn’t a founder or a CEO, though. I was a secretary, a Director of Operations, a Manager of Direct Sales, sometimes a tall and loud booth bunny at trade shows. Therefore, when I walked into the Citrix building for Day 1 of the BlogHer Entrepreneurs Conference, I was nervous right down to my cells. I could feel even my mitochondria tensing.
My ideas don’t make me nervous. I love those, and I am used to living around them. Ideas came, just as I was taught that they would, in my 20s and 30s. What made me nervous (to the point of seeking a prescription for Beta Blockers prior to the conference) is this: how do I figure out how to do what I don’t know how to do? Am I even capable of doing any more than I am currently? How many times will I actually get up and dust off after stumbles? Will there be anyone who appears out of nowhere, unexpectedly, to help?
Because, at times, I truly don’t know what I am supposed to be doing.
These are the painfully heavy worries of a founder. You have to lead up the mountain and turn around and call out assurances to the people following—when the wind is whipping and it’s cold, when everything feels heavy and impossible, when provisions are running low, and you can’t see the summit or the pass you are looking for. At times, it sucks.
So what did I find at the conference? A fully-functioning ecosystem which became more vibrant and complex with each arriving participant. Many different roads taken, many different ideas, many different stages of success. Within a short time, I was gathering acorns and stringing pearls of wisdom. Over the course of the conference, I was also guided by pure instinct, noticing the people I was hearing most clearly. Perhaps they are the people who I suspect would get me, or my ideas, the best. Maybe they are touching on the very things I know I am missing. It felt good to act on instinct and not question it too much. The wonderful part of going to a big conference, circulating inside of a rich and bustling ecosystem, is there is likely someone for everyone.
Brad Feld: You need to be obsessed with your ideas, be confident, be presumptive about the outcome, there are so many things you can do without money, show up in places (as in put yourself out there), don’t hold onto your idea too tightly (a big rookie mistake), build relationships with the most relevant people, have a co-founder with whom you can celebrate and commiserate. A-level people attract A-level people; B-level people attract Cs, because they are afraid to hire As. (Brad also wore quite a loud shirt, which made me more comfortable with my own.)
Keith Teare: Before you write a pitch deck, you need to have fallen in love with something. Write emails that grab the reader, lean into your own story when you tell it, be completely present, know your marketplace.
Wendy Lea: the essence of the product is an extension of you; you, the founder, the idea-haver, are an important part of the story. “Get people to glom onto you, do things for you...” Forget about control, it’s an illusion.
Alicia Morga, Shelley Taniguchi-Sabol, Cindy Padnos (At times, I was writing too fast to see who was talking.): I am not always looking for something in return for help. An email that says, “Here’s the impact your time and help had on me...” is a big “give back” for many people.
Know the role of the person you are talking to (educator, advisor, connector?), understand what you want from them and in what role they can really help you. “How do you say no? No. What’s the hang up around no?” The fear never goes away. It’s about your courage muscle, and building that.
Nelly Yusupova: If you do sales well, you will survive. Have your pitch so well rehearsed that when you’re talking it’s natural, you’re relaxed, you can then listen.
Teneshia Jackson Warner: When did I first start selling? I have been selling my whole life! Asking for more playtime is sales. Get out of your own way and think boldly. Rehearse in front of a mirror. “If I am the only woman in a room, or the only person of color, I don’t even notice, because I need and deserve to be there. I am supposed to be there.”
Alicia Navarro (our mentor... so the advice drilled down and got a lot more specific): I don’t know what to do when I get to your web site, you need to define sample users, define their journey on the site, create a user experience for each “persona.” Think about a subscription, a membership fee, merchandizing. Figure out average lifetime value of a customer, so that you can determine how much to spend on marketing. Emulate companies that you like. You’re really weak on marketing. Don’t be a perfectionist!...achieve the minimum viable product, put it out there and get feedback. Tweak. Find someone who will work for a stake in the company -- find a smart student who will work for free. You have a strong brand and strong vision, you’re creating a universe of characters. Have the confidence that you can do this. People will ascribe the value to you that you yourself think you’re worth. Let me know if I can help.
Let me know if I can help. The mitochondria relaxed significantly. She was perceptive, blunt,witty and encouraging. What more could we have asked?
There were spontaneous, impromptu talks, too. I sat on the floor of a hallway with Joanne Lang and talked about how to capture and track feedback with Zendesk, how to build a company with very little capital, by inviting talented, stay-at-home moms back into the workforce in a clever way. Her Yorkshire accent, her considerable pluck, her technical savvy all made me feel like cheering for her at the end of our chat. Keep going Joanne! I am right behind you! I also sat in a command center room, just off the main conference room, with Stacy Morrison. The purses and coats of BlogHer staff were strewn all over, there were half-filled trays of food on the folding tables, yet after a few minutes, to me, it felt like we were in the coziest of inns, curled on comfortable overstuffed chairs. We talked about our mothers, animated movies and the various ways in which decisive women are seen. What an unexpected pleasure.
And at the end of the conference, during the closing keynotes, Deborah Jackson stood up in front of a giant, dizzying 20-foot flow-chart of resources at the fingertips of her incubator. She said [essentially], Women can do this. Men aren’t the only ones with resources and networks. Let’s raise some of these barns!
The mitochondria felt raring to go...
The founder of SkimLinks spoke with clear gratitude for a mentor who had helped her. She, in turn, helped theStoryElves. We, in turn, certainly hope to help whenever the opportunity presents itself. You begin to see a sort of family tree that branches and bifurcates, as people -- new people -- willingly and energetically take up the work of connecting and paying forward.
People starting out do need help. They can’t raise barns on their own. My aunt, Heidi Roizen, told me a story about a woman who came up to her at the conclusion of a recent speech in Abu Dhabi. Through a veil, this young woman told Heidi that her talk had meant a lot to her, that she would think about everything she said. These relationships and supports can cross oceans and span significant cultural divides. They can change outcomes and status quos.
This conference was the result of three founders pushing through their own steep, lonely, low oxygen moments to achieve a large goal: cultivate an entrepreneur’s ecosystem with all of the right niches filled and ready for business. A diverse set of tentative, tender shoots will then be stronger, more nourished and more protected from the elements. And so we are.
Zoe Roizen Soane