December 6th, 2008 · Posted by Susan Mernit · No Comments
When I showed Lisa what I’d written about People’s Software and the new thing, she said this:
I like the idea behind WhozAround. It’s a product I want and one I would personally use. However, we found that creating it made us overly dependent on people who didn’t have their skin in the game the way Susan and I did. We’re not personally coders, but we needed coders to make the product and company work.
There are many, many tech startups that aren’t code-focused and play to the strengths that Susan and I bring to the table: building and developing online communities. Most of the underlying technology of such sites is not rocket-science; many of them are based on software that is literally free for anyone to download.
The success of those sites, based on relatively simple and sometimes free software is proof that ideas matter in online community but execution matters much, much more.
From a personal perspective, Susan and I found ourselves in a business where we could not get up in the morning and improve what users got to play with by our own actions. It wasn’t fun. It was also a signal that we weren’t in the right business: we needed to be in a business where we could use what we knew how to do better than anyone in a direct, hands-on way day in and day out.
December 6th, 2008 · Posted by Susan Mernit · 2 Comments
So why haven’t we posted at People’s Software for the last couple months? What happened to that product we were working on? When is it going to be out, already?
If you have been one of the people asking these questions, believe me, you weren’t alone. As we ended our summer with an alpha, we pushed hard to get to a beta, but when we hit the beta we decided, Naaah, as cool as WhozAround? was , it wasn’t the thing for which we wanted to endure two years or more of unflagging, relentless effort, especially since we were reaching the conclusion that the product itself didn’t superbly play to our strengths.
To put it another way, it was a good idea we wanted to execute in 12 weeks that instead took us 5 months. By the time we had our beta, we were questioning whether the pace of development–and the fact we weren’t engineers–was going to make it a very hard slog to enough users to make it stick.
So this is the story of what went down. And where we’re headed now. It’s a story about having the guts to call it quits on the first idea, then make a hard left turn to the second idea. But it was tough.
Here’s the story of what we’re doing and what we learned.
The short version
A) You can’t do a 12 week product in 12 weeks if you’re not a coder and you don’t outsource the whole thing
B) Speed isn’t always your friend, but if you can’t iterate, you’re not doing it right.
C) It’s not only the idea, the business plan, the customer value and the execution, it’s whether you love it enough to make it your everything for at least 2 action packed years.
D) Having lots of experience doesn’t make up for A, B & C.
So, we’re not moving WhozAround? out of beta right now. We’re not listening to the VCs we met with before the crash who told us to get some customers and come back. Instead, we’re putting this on ice and focusing on building and launching another idea that we think there’s a huge need for, and that we’re confident we can do better than almost anyone else. The new startup will be live in Q1 under a different name, and with a new company.
However, my People’s Software co-founder, Lisa Williams, continues as a principal of the new company, along with a third co-founder who brings great diversity to the project, my sister Nancy Mernit Soriano, who has been the editor in chief of Hearst’s popular magazine Country Living for the past ten years (and who is now going to work on this, and some related projects, with me.)
October 12th, 2008 · Posted by Lisa Williams · 3 Comments
So I was at BlogHer Boston on Saturday, and I ran into a gal at Spring Partners — they’re a software company with a novel web-bookmarking tool, and they were showing off their private beta. She’d been to the session at BlogHer San Francisco where my cofounder Susan Mernit and I — as well as TechStars‘ own Andrew Hyde (hey, Andrew!!) — talked about entrepreneurship.
“You know, I look at your blog like, every day, and I’m waiting, waiting for your thing to come out — I went to that session in July and you ladies seemed so cool, and you seemed like you knew what you were doing…”
“Seemed like you knew what you were talking about?!” Oh, child, YOU WOUND ME! You wound me, I tell you. It’s like that time when my seven year old said to me, “Oh, it’s a carrot. Have I ever eaten a carrot, Mommy?” Damn. First it’s the not getting the kids to eat vegetables, now it’s the not-knowing-what-I’m-doing-with-my-startup. A girl just can’t get a break, I tell you.
But let me answer the question head on: Do I know what I’m doing?
But I keep doing it anyway. In fact, I’m gonna go further. I’m gonna argue that knowing that you don’t know what you’re doing — and being able to keep going anyway — is not only an entrepreneurial skill, it is THE core entrepreneurial skill.
Yup. People often say that you’ll learn a lot doing a startup, and it’s true: because you have to. Because when you start? You’re stupid. Dumb as a rock. In so many areas it’s hard to count them all. Whatever opinion you had of yourself going in, get ready for a rapid decline in that stock before it starts climbing again. You’re going to have so, so, so many opportunities to do things badly, make mistakes, and try to recover from them, that it’s going to feel like you’re playing every position on the first game of the first day of tee-ball season.
And then you’re gonna get up and play some more.
Brad Feld and David Cohen said on the first night of TechStars that we ought to get used to feeling uncomfortable. I have one corollary to that: get comfortable feeling stupid.
And so, yeah, I thought, “Wow, I feel stupid that our product isn’t out of alpha,” but you know? It only stung for about six seconds. Because by now? Feeling stupid? Yeah, whatever. What’s for lunch?
I have to tell you, life is better once you’re not hung up on being smart anymore. I’m betting you make better software, too.
Oh, and SpringPartners peeps — you’re local (to me, here in Boston) and local is beautiful, so when are we getting together for coffee? I’ll buy.
October 8th, 2008 · Posted by Susan Mernit · 1 Comment
Advice from legendary investor Ron Conway about being a little boat in a big downturn:
“Raising capital will be much more difficult now.
You should lower your “burn rate” to raise at least 3-6 months or more of funding via cost reductions, even if it means staff reductions and reduced marketing and G&A expenses. This is the equivalent to “raising an internal round” through cost reductions to buy you more time until you need to raise money again; hopefully when fund raising is more feasible. Letting go of staff is hard and often gut wrenching. A re-evaluation of timelines and re-focus on milestones with the eye of doing more with less will allow you to live many more days, and the name of the game in this environment in some respects is survival–survival until conditions change.”
Susan sez: Since we haven’t gone after funding yet, this is great advice. And if we were newly funded, it would be even better.
September 23rd, 2008 · Posted by Susan Mernit · No Comments
Want to grow the intellectual capital and the revenue in a college town like Boulder, CO? Put some tech companies in, add TechStars and the 10+ companies who come in every summer (half or more of whom stay in town) and then celebrate the start-up culture plus vegan mountain biking goodness that is Boulder.
Oh wait a minute, you don’t have ernough tech talent for those companies? Why not fix that, too?
In that spirit, many of Boulder’s start-ups and early stage companies are banding together to host what feels like the opposite of Start-Up Weekend–a week long recruiting fair thst brings uber geeks to the peaks so these companies can have more bodies to program their stuff.
According to the just lanched Boulder Colorado Job fair, twenty of the local start-ups will fly in 100 lucky developers, all expenses paid, and then recruit them for local gigs. (Hope this works better than guys in Alaska importing brides back in the day.) Even better, some of the Boulder start-up cool kids will answer questions and be ambassadors.
So like if you need to know where to LARP, or why CU doesn’t graduate enough CS students will skills to satisfy the Boulder mini-boomlet, these folks are the ones to ask.
Susan sez: Please don’t ask me if I want to live in Boulder. I am in love with North Berkeley right now and s/he is very possessive.
September 18th, 2008 · Posted by Susan Mernit · 1 Comment
Miz Williams is the subject of a story in the Boston Globe–all about her importance as the founder of H2oTown, her adventures in Boulder, and her ability to balance work and life. Cool piece, even cooler co-founder.
September 18th, 2008 · Posted by Susan Mernit · No Comments
So, where’s PSCO? Right now we’re working on three things: adding more features to the FB version of WhozAround? so we can move it from alpha to beta; scoping out what the work on doing a get out the vote application based on some of the WhozAround? principals would take, and figuring out viral distribution strategies and articulating value propositions so when we go to beta we have not just a nice to have, but a really useful tool–and we can articulate it to people that way.
It is hard work. And it takes longer than I want it to. And I am not that patient. (Yes, it’s frustrating.)
Back when we started talking about the problems we wanted to solve (that woulf be May 08), we had some ideas about groups and local and community that we backed away from, thinking they’d put us too directly into competition with areas of Yahoo and Google. Now, in September 08, I look back at that and laugh–I think we have come up with a good problem set to solve, and a good solution, but executing on our ideas is way more difficult that doing that first set of things would have been.
In some ways, I feel like I picked something to build that I wish I could program myself–but I can’t–in other ways, I feel like this fall is an exercise in patience–we will get there, and we’ll see where the next set of releases will take us, but it’s slower than I would like, and that’s just how it is.
Meanwhile, we have some very cool stuff we are working on….and I just can’t wait to release it (that frustration thing again.)
September 18th, 2008 · Posted by Lisa Williams · No Comments
[Hello, Globe readers. Thanks for visiting!] WhozAround is like Twitter for your calendar — it’s a fast, simple free way to make getting together easier. You don’t have to join YASNS (Yet Another Social Network Site) to get it, because it plugs into Facebook and Twitter to make what you’ve already got more fun and useful for you.
As we keep working, it’s our goal to make something for you that’s less like a calendar — which, let’s face it, is never up to date anyway — and make something that’s more like turn-by-turn GPS for your day that’s there wherever and whenever you want it — on the web, on your phone, in your inbox.
Eventually you’ll be able to get your own personal People’s Software Company calendar gnomes working away for you on your phone, in your inbox, your iCal, your Friendfeed…but today I’m going to show you WhozAround for Facebook. If you have a Facebook account, you can see our modest alpha version at apps.facebook.com/whozaround.
September 9th, 2008 · Posted by Lisa Williams · No Comments
Susan and I are in NYC to do a bunch of meetings, but at the moment, I have the easy job: just watching Susan address a group of students at the Columbia School of Journalism about innovation, entrepreneurship, and media. Sree Sreenivasan is our excellent host. Later today we’ll be at CUNY.
A few links for the students:
What is People’s Software Company? PSCo is Susan’s startup, which makes lightweight social scheduling tools. Ditch your calendar and get turn-by-turn GPS for your life. ;News Challenge Garage; is a site where you can find out about the Knight 21st Century News Challenge. The News Challenge gives out $5M each year to innovative projects that bridge journalism and technology. The Garage is a place where you can submit your project and get mentoring.
Susan Mernit. Susan is a former Yahoo!, Netscape/AOL VP and has roots in the online media world. You can read her blog at susanmernit.com. You can find her on Twitter at twitter.com/susanmernit.
When people ask me what TechStars was like, I’ve got a line — because I’ve always got one. I say, “It was like sticking my head in an active washing machine — again, and again, and again.”
So as long as the drive from Boulder to Boston was, I was glad for it. (Okay, I could have lost the last 500 of those 1,982 miles). I was glad because creativity isn’t an industrial process; making software isn’t an industrial process; teambuilding isn’t an industrial process; growing a community isn’t an industrial process.
My lesson about all of these is that you can go fast — but you can’t go fast with all of them all of the time. At a recent coffee with a friend, I said that trying to rush teambuilding was a bit like watering a plant three times as much while yelling “Go FASTER!!”
I sat in my car, going point to point from Boulder to North Platte, Nebraska; from North Platte to Davenport, Iowa; from Davenport, Iowa, to Erie, PA; from Erie at last to Watertown, MA, the Boston suburb where I live with my husband and two kids.
And I’m proud to say I didn’t have a single idea the whole time.
Well, okay, I’m fronting a little. A lot. It bothers me to have an empty head like that. It’s not normal — it just feels, well, wrong. It feels wrong even though I know it is normal — because it’s part of the normal process of Making Stuff.
I am an irrepressible Maker of Stuff. I left my old (beloved) job at Yankee Group, where I ran a division of analysts who wrote, talked, and studied the enterprise software market to slow down when I had my two sons.
About five days later, of course, I was bored (yes, you can love your children and be bored. Don’t look at me like that). I had…projects. Hobbies! Yes, let’s call them hobbies…until two of them turned into startups (okay, that look, I deserve it).
The think about the process of Making Stuff is that it’s not a nice even ramp where you start out with an idea and progress smoothly towards your goal in a state where you’ve spent ten percent of the time you’ve got and you’re ten percent complete.
Instead, I find that there are three phases of the cycle, and it’s a wheel I turn over any number of times while I’m engaged in a given project. They are:
Invention is the most magical period of the cycle — it’s when I have so many ideas I can’t write them down fast enough. It’s the part where some fundamental insight strikes me, and then the fun part is rolling that out, elaborating it, seeing where it could go and what it could do. Production is figuring out HOW to get those ideas into reality. In its own way, it’s just as creative as invention, because ideas don’t generally come with a neat how-to laying out simple, easy to follow steps. Often the quality of an idea is determined not by its beauty or scope but because it comes with an entry point — something simple but effective to do to get started, and an iterative strategy for inventing what the next steps are when it’s not clear, exactly, where to go. And then there’s the doing; ah, the blissful doing. (Except when it’s your turn to shave the yak).
Then, at some point, the progress slows. I put more effort in, and less comes out — or the whole process suffers some sort of unforseen crash and it’s not clear how (or sometimes if) I can get it started again. Then comes the part I like least: Rest.
I hate resting. I’m allergic to it. I think it literally makes me itchy. I’m not proud of that. It’s just that I want to keep going, and the real world, unlike the creative process, is a smooth linear machine — one hour later is one hour that’s gone. From the outside, it just looks like you’re slacking off, or that you’re a complete flake. But that’s the way it is — it would be nice to have new things appear as regularly as widgets drop off an assembly line — but that’s just not how it works.
I’m always the most impatient with the rest cycle, but in my experience it takes as long as it takes. It worried me a little bit when I arrived in Boston with my head still feeling like a goldfish bowl without any residents, but looking back on it, I shouldn’t have been surprised. In general, the longer or more intensive a production phase is, the deeper the rest cycle is.
My advice for Makers of Stuff reading this is as follows: Use your Rest Cycle to clean up your mess. Yeah, you know, those parking tickets you let pile up, those un-returned (and perhaps not listened to) voice mails, those connections you let slide. Do your laundry. Slay the recycling monster. Yes, you really should visit the dentist once a year, now’s a great time to make all those appointments. Take a look in your wallet. Oops, did you forget to renew your drivers’ license? Ummmmm….maybe time to do it is now, ‘mkay? A little friends and family maintenance is probably in order, too.
So now, my house is clean, I’ve had my cholesterol checked (very good, thank you for all the healthy food, Boulder) my children have school clothes, I’ve actually unpacked.
Hey…wait a minute…I have an idea! Okay, gotta go — talk to you later! (Don’t take it personally if I don’t get back right away, ‘k? See you around Twitter!)