Tag Archives: founder

The fluctuating social lives of startup founders

Chucking everything you know to become an entrepreneur is anywhere from exhilarating to depressing depending on the moment—and it fluctuates quite a bit.  Today I’m going to talk about one of the hardest parts: friends and family.

 

In The Before Time…

I’m a reasonably social person who enjoys a lot of activities.  Before I became an entrepreneur I would attend probably two big events per month, and I’d dance and climb with friends multiple days a week.  I threw jam sessions once every month-or-so.  I had weekly low-key engagements with a couple friends on the nights I wasn’t out playing.  My family are all far away, but I would visit for a week or two every year and spend quality time with them.

Before my cofounder and I decided to create something together, I was on a self-imposed sabbatical.  I had quit my previous job and decided to be funemployed for a while.  I took a month or two to get things done around the house and relax, then set off on travel adventures for the summer. In the fall I took online courses, attended a great conference, made things, worked on skills, and thought about what I wanted to do next.

During all this time off I also socialized like crazy.  I hung out with friends during the day, at night, on the weekends.  We went on adventures, we stayed in, we talked, we played.

I never said no.  My friends got used to me being around and available.

How to Shave a Cat

Why yes, of course I’ll help you shave your cat!

…And Suddenly, Startup Foundership

When I agreed to become a startup founder, and the only full-time employee, I had trouble convincing my friends that I couldn’t do things anymore.  Technically, I was available at any time, but I still had a lot of work to do, a lot of stuff to learn, a lot of things to plan, and just a ton on my mind.  Every interruption necessitates extra time to get back into the previous context before you can proceed.  When I visited family I found I had to explain daily that “I have to work every day” means “I have to work every day.”

 I was becoming overwhelmed, but I didn’t want my friends and family to feel betrayed by my sudden change in availability.

 

Social Time Management

Being me, I created a method to ramp up my unavailability that allowed me to provide reasons my friends would accept, or at least understand.

I started to come up with arbitrary but helpful rules for when to say no, with very reasonable starting points.  Just say no:

  • If I already had a social engagement planned for that day, at any time;
  • If they didn’t give me more than half a day’s notice;
  • If I already had a social engagement planned with that person during that week;
  • If I already had 5 social engagements planned for that week.

And I prioritized mitigating circumstances when I could multitask my social events:

  • If it included exercise;
  • If it included errands;
  • If it included a meal and no extra time;
  • Occasionally, if it encouraged me to pursue a hobby, for which time had been dramatically reduced.

Over time, and depending on the stage of my startup, I continued to decrease my availability until I had only the minimum social obligations to keep me sane.

 

Aside: The 24-hour No-Work Dictate

I originally thought I would have to stop throwing my monthly jam sessions.  The event itself was pretty optional for me, though several of my friends really loved it.  But over time I found that it was absolutely necessary to my sanity, because it was the only way I could make myself stick to taking an entire day off every month.

For all you startup founders, I highly recommend finding a way to convince yourself to take one 24-hour period completely off from work each month.  There are a lot of tips and tricks for avoiding burnout.  Very few startup founders are able to take proper weekends.  We get so used to doing at least some work every single day.  Many of us have flexibility to schedule fun/social stuff whenever we want, so we take it for granted that we need to stuff work into all the nooks and crannies in our schedule.  We overwhelm ourselves with the intense focus, with the context switching when we’re not focused, with the guilt when we’re having a good time not working, and in many other ways.

Make sure you take a long, uninterrupted break from work at regular intervals to refresh.

 

The Hardest Stages

From a few weeks before the Alpha release, through the Beta release, to a few weeks after the public release, I withdrew from all but the bare minimum of social obligations.  That’s more than 6 months when most of my friends didn’t see me, many close friends barely saw me, and some close friends only saw me because they made fabulous offers to cowork or co-errand.  (You guys rock!!)

Toward the end of this time I was receiving pleas every week from friends I hadn’t seen in months.  When will you go dancing again?  Please come to my game night!  I know you want to go climbing!  When’s your next jam session?  Why haven’t you gotten back to me?  I’m visiting your town tomorrow night only!  Are you going to that party?  I haven’t seen you in ages, what gives?

Every week I had to apologize to at least one person and assure them it wasn’t personal and I would emerge from my voluntary isolation…in a few months.

Phone

“Hi, you’ve reached Megan. I’m not available right now, but if you leave a message I’ll try to get back to you in 3-5 months.”

Moving forward

I’ve only recently emerged from this, only to spend most of my non-work time looking for a new place and packing.  My move is imminent, though, and unpacking is a delight for me, so I expect to start reclaiming my life in a couple weeks.  I’m already slowly and tentatively increasing my social availability, but I’m a little worried about offending or bumming out the friends I can’t get around to in the first month or two.  My near term social schedule is likely to be based on who pings loudest, most recently, or most frequently, combined with which logistics are most convenient for me.  I want to see everyone!!  I don’t yet have the time and energy to make that happen, but eventually I will.  I’m really looking forward to it!

But I’m also a little apprehensive.  I’m not sure how many of my friends really understand why I’ve disappeared, and I suspect some never will.  It is a choice.  I did prioritize my work over my friends for a while.  But it wasn’t personal.  I just really had to try this startup thing, and I really think my startup can help a lot of people.  I think the vast majority of them understand that on some level, and I’m very grateful for their understanding and support.  (Seriously, you guys rock!!)

There are more things….

There are more things in my to-do list, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy.

 

This was my thought as I reached midday today.  Yesterday’s accomplishments are about a page long, and today’s are rapidly approaching a similar length.  But as we’re prepping for the LAUNCH competition (at the Santa Monica pier next Thursday!), prepping for loads of Erli Bird users to come on board, and getting the initial release lined up for about a month from now, we add at least 3/4 of a page of items daily.  I’m really just treading water.  The full list is soooo loooong.

 

Such is the life of a startup founder.

The best kinds of feedback

As we ramp up the number of invitations, we’re getting more and more feedback from customers.  I’ve been very happy with it!

 

Bug reports

As you expect with an Alpha release, a lot of it is “This piece isn’t working quite right in this case”.  My Alpha users have been fantastic about the level of detail they put into their bug reports.  Most of the time I can immediately write up a ticket, assign it, and let them know we’re on it.  It’s great!  I really lucked out.  But really, in the Alpha phase, I’d settle for any quality of bug reports.  And even if we already have the bug filed, it helps me adjust the relative priority levels to suit the customers’ needs.

 

Questions

The questions are usually “How do I….?” or “What is this piece for?”  I do love those!  I know users usually feel a bit sheepish when they ask these questions, but they are invaluable for designing a user experience that works for a wide variety of customers.  We’ve made some well-informed guesses about what our users will want to do with the service, but we can’t predict every desired workflow.  If the user can’t immediately see how to accomplish a task, we need to change something.  If they don’t understand why some piece exists, we need to change something.  In terms of long-term usability and growth, these are the most important feedback we can get!

 

Positive comments

I didn’t expect to receive positive comments so early.  We’re only in Alpha!  And I have sooooo many tickets in the system right now.  But it’s really nice to hear that people find it reasonably intuitive, or that a feature they didn’t understand at first is really cool and useful, or they are pumped about some other aspect.  It’s particularly nice for me because my entire job is focused on “What’s not working?  What’s missing?  How can we make this better?”  It’s nice to step back and see that we’ve done something other people can appreciate already, even if it’s not completely ready for prime time yet!

 

I am so grateful for my Alpha users right now!

 

Oh I suppose this is the part where I’m supposed to promote my service.  I’m still not used to that!

If you or someone you know might be interested in a service to automate time tracking and invoicing, please check out AdaptRM.  If it looks interesting, you can request an invite!  Beta will be coming out in early October, and we’ll be opening the floodgates to a lot more users at that time.

What does a startup CTO do during Alpha release?

Until a couple months before the Alpha release, on most days I picked 2-4 from a platter of about 8 largish tasks that could further my project significantly.  I had the luxury of picking the types of tasks I wanted to focus on that day.

 

Shortly before Alpha release, and through the Alpha, I have not had that luxury!  About 3/4 of my time is spent on requisite QA, project management, and communications (with my contractors, with my partner, and with my Alpha customers).  The rest is spent on whatever is the most urgent need: HR, finances, additional bugfixes, competition research, marketing items, etc.  At this point, time schedules me.  It’s all reactive.

 

During the Beta, I expect this to be almost the same, but with more time spent communicating with customers (because there will be more customers!  Yay!).  Fortunately, I can share some of the load with our Community Manager during that time.

 

I’m not sure what my focus will be after MVP.  I expect it will be reactive for a couple months, and then I will have time to get more proactive again.

 

This is a really interesting experience!  I love how varied it is, even if some days are a little overwhelming.

Least favorite hats

My second least favorite hat to wear as a startup cofounder? Nag.

I’m constantly having to ping and re-ping people about this, that, and the other thing.  I find myself expending a fair amount of creativity coming up with “reasons” to ping.  A tiny piece of new information or an inconsequential question that’s tangentially related to the thing I’m actually pinging about.  It would technically be more honest to just say one of the following:

  • Dude, I think you forgot the thing.  Please don’t forget the thing!
  • I know the thing seems small to you, but to me it’s critical for {planning, marketing, customer support, etc}.  We needs our precious now!
  • You keep saying you’ll have this thing ready for me “tomorrow” or “soon”, but you are clearly the worst at estimates.  Just give me an accurate estimate and I’ll let you be until that date rolls around.
  • Please stop avoiding me and just finish the thing!!  I’ll get off your back when it’s done.  Pinky swear.

Yes, that would be more honest.  But not only does coming up with tiny excuses for the nudge make me feel less dismal, it makes the people I’m talking to feel less dismal.  And that makes both of us more likely to muddle through and lead a cooperative existence.  Which in many cases leads to less need to nag.

My least favorite hat is still CFO.  As soon as that starts to take up more than a couple hours a week I’m hiring someone to do it for me.  It’s not difficult.  I just get incredibly impatient and tense that I’m not getting anything done.  Which I am.  But I feel like I’m not.  It’s weird.  Totally worth paying someone else to take those feelings off my hands.

A few good reads

Startup and career

Thrive15: training, mentoring, and more for aspiring entrepreneurs

Some solid interview advice from a friend of mine

An old but interesting article on password strength models, focused on the zxcvbn metric

 

Data analytics and visualization

PourOver: a JavaScript library from the New York Times focused on fast filtering and sorting of large collections

Visualizing Health: a scientifically vetted style guide for communicating health data

NewsVis: a directory of news visualizations

Scientific Dataa new open-access, online-only journal for descriptions of scientifically valuable datasets

Visualizing MBTA data, a very in-depth look with some solid visuals

Startup founder daily life

hats_cropped_small

I’m good at wearing hats.

For the curious, here’s a glimpse of the types of things I work on daily as a tech-oriented startup founder:

  • requesting information/providing feedback/doing QA/writing documentation for 1-3 consultants, or my business partner
  • poking at 1-2 HR or legal tasks (not my favorite things, so if I didn’t poke at them nigh-daily they’d never get done)
  • 2-5 most important UI tasks
  • 1-4 most important backend/infrastructure tasks
  • poking at 1-3 marketing/branding tasks
  • the IP technology (if there’s time…this is the least interruptible work)
  • updating and reprioritizing tasks
  • wondering how many millions of things I’m forgetting
  • making and drinking lots of tea

Other hats are generally less frequent, such as Executive and Accountant.  I do not consistently wear all these hats daily; some days I set out to focus on 2 of them and only one other interrupts.  Those days are very satisfying!  Until I realize I’ve fallen behind with something.