The Happy Startup

“When people ask me what my exit strategy is these days, my response is: ’Death’.”

I came across Laurence McCahill’s Introducing the Happy Startup Canvas post on Medium a few weeks ago, just before a  week of tacos al pastor and beach walks, which is my way of explaining why I haven’t written in a while. I was in Tulum, Mexico, which I highly recommend.

Okay, so back to McCahill and his Happiness Canvas.

This wasn’t  one of those blog posts I skimmed, enjoyed, shared and forgot about a few days later. I’ve thought about it regularly since, thought that’s not because of the canvas itself. A girl can only take so many one-page business plans, even a girl with three different kinds of one-page business plans taped to her office walls.

No, it was really more the reasons behind the creation of this particular canvas that got me. The author’s Happiness Canvas and Happy Startup School both support the idea that there’s more to entrepreneurship than money and exit strategies. Some people start businesses not because the end goal is a luxurious lifestyle after a route full of deal-making, VC pitching and late nights.

Startup founders should be creating companies so that they can live according to their own rules, not someone else’s – especially investors or shareholders, McCahill says.


When I decided to begin pursuing this idea around vintage and upcycled furniture, a few people asked about my exit strategy.  I had just begun doing research around my enter strategy (discovery). The exit strategy question implies there’s no point in building something without a potential dollar amount and buyer in mind.

Others suggested that I speak with venture capitalists they know about how to go about raising money from the beginning. But what if I want to bootstrap? What if one of the things that thrilled me and worried me and excited me about becoming an entrepreneur — a primary reason for thinking it at all — was that it might lead to a more free, energized, purposeful life?

There was that other thing too: All of those lists online about the traits that successful entrepreneurs share. Much of the content around that topic suggested that entrepreneurs must be aggressive, confident workaholics who always place the business first. This idea kept me from thinking it could be a reality for me.

The Happy Startup School‘s team wants to nurture a new breed of entrepreneurs who put people first and happiness above profits. It’s a refreshing idea.

Sure, I want to start something that continously improves and grows and generates revenue. But I want so much more. I want:

  • To solve real problems / do something that matters
  • To do something that makes a positive impact on the environment + promotes smart consumerism
  • To love how I spend my time every day, even if not every minute
  • To prove that being a great partner, daughter, mom, sister and friend can and should always come first, even for a busy entrepreneur
  • To  be proud of the work I’m doing, and set an example for others
  • To make time after work for other things I enjoy like painting, cooking, hiking and reading (novels)

And now, I leave you with song. It’s been in my head as long and as frequently as the post.


You Don’t Have to Be a Coder to Attend a Hackathon (I Promise)

LadyHacks Philadelphia

You’ve heard it before: It takes all kinds. But insecurity and the fear of the unknown end up trumping curiosity anyway, and another hackathon passes. It happened to me many times.

Last year’s inaugural LadyHacks was the first hackathon I ever attended, which I’m not particulary proud to say. My  vision of hackathons was a bunch of programmers (dudes) in a big room banging out code long into the night and presenting their work at the end. That was it. Why would I attend if there would most certainly be better coders and better designers on my team? What could I contribute in that atmosphere?

The Philly tech community offers so many opportunities to get out, meet other people and learn by doing. Despite years of experience as a non-coder on development teams, I couldn’t see past that single vision and leave my insecurities behind. That is, until Tristin Hightower encouraged me to just f-ing do it.

And so I attended LadyHacks last spring.

It was an awesome experience. I learned about an awesome organization (Girls Rock Philly), met a ton of new friends and gained confidence in myself and my skills. As it turned out, there were better designers and programmers on my team, but we all brought something a little bit different and that’s what made it work. I don’t even remember everything  I did as the product manager/content gal on the team — I know there was some design-related work, like picking fonts and colors — but I remember leading the discussion around the organization’s target customer and mission. I think that helped. But who really cares anyway? I did something new and had a great time.

This year, I’ll be getting up during the lightening talks while everyone eats to encourage women to participate in the upcoming Lean Startup Machine. I’m a little freaked out. I’m a talker, but not much of a “speaker.” But again, I’ll face a fear, get to know the unknown and won’t regret it.

The image is from a Flying Kite Media article about last year’s event. If you want to learn more before going, give it a read: Philly’s First Ladyhacks Lures Women into the Hackathon Movement.


UX Challenge: Three New Needfinding Strategies to Try Now

“Self-consciousness is the enemy of interestingness.” – Malcolm Gladwell

While taking a UC San Diego Human-Computer Interaction class on Coursera, I’m trying to get as much as possible out the class by giving myself assignments related to my own projects. Otherwise, I can imagine myself sitting here at home in this horrible weather and plowing through the whole course in a day.

My favorite section of the class so far was Needfinding Strategies where professor Scott Klemmer goes beyond the cutomer interview to cover less traditional approaches. (Well, I’m not sure they are less traditional. Let’s just say new to me.) Here are the three I’m going to be trying to apply to my FoundLocal idea over the next couple of weeks:

1. Apprenticeship - As part of my research around the FoundLocal idea, I’ve been meeting sellers of antique and vintage furniture where they work. One of my favorite interviews – and settings – was with the owner of an amazing store called Royal Port Antiques in Salem, New Jersey. The building is remarkable. The style and price point and overall approach the Cookes’ are taking to selling vintage items is spot on.

They said they’d be happy to help however they can, so I’m going to head back down there soon to find out whether they would allow me to spend some time helping them out with their website, inventory management or anything else. The idea is that a conversation, however informative it seems, isn’t as powerful as the experience of working alongside the potential user. If the owners politely decline to my unusual request, I’ll totally get it. But I won’t know until I ask.

2. Diary Studies – Mechanical Turk worked well when we used it to find people who matched the simple criteria of “low- to middle-income drivers” category. It hasn’t work so well this time around. I’d like to try the Diary Studies approach in a very specific, potentially scalable way: I want to get a large group of qualified people to answer one question via video recording. My plan is to use Facebook and Craig’s List to recruit people, but I’m not quite sure how it will be set up. More on that later.

3. Experience Sampling – NPR aired a fascinating story on social scientist Matt Killingsworth’s strategy for eventually identifying The Secret to Happiness. Crazy, right? I love it. Killingsworth’s work is the best example of experience sampling I’ve encountered. He uses his Happy App to ping people throughout the day and ask them questions like: How do you feel right now? Do you have to do what you’re doing? Do you want to do what you’re doing? Yes or no. To what extent are you being productive? What time did you go to sleep last night? When did you finish eating your most recent meal today?

More than 35,000 people have participated. The only way I can dream of doing this for FoundLocal at the moment is to do the more typical 30-second interview at an antique store or flea market. The idea makes me feel pretty damn anxious, but hey, self-consciousness is the enemy to interestingness, right?


This Isn’t a Story about Winning: How Lean Startup Machine Changed My Life

Lean Startup Machine

They said it many times: “This experience changed my life.”

As inspiring as the stories were, I sat in the crowd at the Ultimate Lean Startup Machine wondering whether a bulleted point in a speaker email somewhere had requested they use that line. I also wondered whether the only lives truly changed were those of the winners. Man, I should have gotten in that line to pitch.

I hoped that the answers to both questions would be obvious “no’s” by the end — and it was. My life did change: not in the “after coming in first place, we all quit our day jobs to work on thie idea and made a ton of money without ever needing funding by a VC and now I’m hear to tell you about it” way. But change, nonetheless.

The Lean Startup Machine did many things: It forced me out of my comfort zone. It made me a better product manager. It introduced me to a really awesome, diverse group of actual and aspiring entrepreneurs. It exposed me to new tools for customer development and testing, and provided the opportunity to actually use them.

Most importantly, the experience motivated me to start doing the hard work necessary to find out whether I was onto anything with my startup idea.

Before the Lean Startup Machine in December, I’d been paralyzed by the fear that my idea might not be any good. I’d read the Lean Startup books, implemented the process  on products at work, but couldn’t seem to muster enough motivation or confidence to put my own ideas and assumptions to the test. I couldn’t muster enough confidence to share my idea that Friday night, as so many others had. If I gave my pitch and not one person raised a hand to vote for it… Well, that would have sucked.

What I didn’t quite realize until attending the LSM was that proving my riskiest assumptions wrong would mark the beginning, not the end. Reading the books should have taught me that (and did, in theory) but reading is nothing compared to the education that comes with spending  Friday through Sunday nights doing.

And it wasn’t just my own team’s experience that made an impact, of course, it was observing all the others.

One team with what seemed like a brilliant idea on Friday night fell apart on Saturday, defeated after proving the problem being solved wasn’t much of a problem at all. Seeing that happen was disappointing. Others struggled through several iterations and pivots, ending up with a totally different product idea and customer segment worth exploring. Seeing that happen was energizing.

We didn’t win. We weren’t able to collect a dime that weekend or learn fast enough or pivot toward something awesome. We wouldn’t become those people standing at the front of the room at another LSM talking about how after several pivots, we struck gold and left our jobs. In a way, we’d failed at failing. It was still an empowering, life-changing experience.

Since returning from San Francisco, I’ve pushed full speed ahead in my discovery efforts. After getting out of the office to interview people face to face, I learned my original customer would never be an early adopter. I pivoted toward a different customer segment, and started getting some really good insight. I learned that their biggest pains aren’t exactly what I thought — and learned about challenges that I hadn’t considered.

I’ve tried several of the tools we used during the weekend, and continue learning from the mentors and organizers. One of my teammates and I go back and forth regularly, bouncing ideas off each other, talking about what’s worked and hasn’t. Knowing that he will ask about my progress motivates me to keep moving. His dedication to learning and getting things done inspires me.

So here’s the thing: after the Lean Startup Machine, I stopped just thinking and worrying about giving the startup thing a shot and started doing something about it. I want so many others to have a similar experience, to embrace failure and learning, and realize that you can validate your ideas without writing a line of code or talking to a VC.

And so I’ve volunteered to organize the Lean Startup Machine Philly this spring. (That is, if we can unlock it.) I’m also working with LSM and GirlDevelopIt on a Women Only Lean Startup session before the main event. My hope is to give other women the knowledge, tools and experience needed to stop sitting on ideas and start the learning process.

The amazing ladies of GirlDevelopIt will be in touch soon with more info. In the meantime, let’s UNLOCK PHILLY so we can bring LSM back to Philly this spring!

Oh, and now that I’m an LSM organizer, I can tell you that my assumption was indeed wrong: There are no canned speaker emails with a bulleted point about using the phrase “life changing.”


Blurred Lines*: UX Designer and Product Manager

Partners: UX and PM
This is a Laughing Elephant card.

Last week this thing happened that’s had my mind working overtime.

As part of some product discovery I’m doing around remote usability testing, I’ve been talking to UX designers about their processes and pains. My goal has been to learn more about how they and their organizations approach usability testing.

One of those conversations was with a UX designer at a fast-growing startup here in Philly. I immediately thought of him, because we’d had a good chat a while ago. This time we talked about his desire to do more usability testing, and the challenges of time and communicating the impact or results of those tests. Communication and timing were key. We talked about how to get the right people to test features at the right time in the product cycle, and getting real value out of that work.

As I said, my goal was to learn more about the common pain points associated with usability testing. But there was this other thing –realization — happening at the same time.

During the interview, it started to occur to me that many parts of this UX designer’s role were similar to that of a product manager. He talked about translating findings into features on the product plan, and keeping others abreast of the whats and whys.  

And now the full disclosure: I’d interviewed a while back for a product manager positon at this startup. My conversation with him was one of my favorites, and at the time, he was a UX guy working part-time in a product management role. They never ended up hiring a PM. I did see recently, however, that they’re hiring a second UX designer. When we talked briefly about that at the end of the conversation, I mentioned my plan to take some upcoming GirlDevelopIt classes, and he encouraged me to get into UX.

But that’s not exactly how I’ve been thinking about it.

The plan hasn’t been to prepare for a career change; it’s been to become a better PM and team member. I’ve done the same with front-end development, marketing, Lean Startup techniques and soon data/SQL. I like to really focus on one thing at a time, then put it into practice.

The conversation left me more eager than ever to learn what it means to be a great UX designer. It also left me with a mix of anxiety and confusion around the difference between great UX designers and great product managers. In other words, what does it mean if usability testing, customer development and data-driven decisions are a core part of both a UX designer and a product manager’s job?

I believe it could mean a great partnership.

We both are driven by the problem(s) people experience — we want to learn everything we can about them and solve them. Communication is HUGELY important for a good product manager, as is the ability to inspire your team and keep eyes on the prize. You worry about every piece of the product, while trusting your team members to do what they do really well. You have to be both a leader and team player. Is that all as crucial for a UX designer? Should a great UX designer be expected to do all of what a product manager does?

I’m not the only one thinking about this. Two particularly well-written blog posts made the rounds last week, kicking my brain into high gear:

  1. So You Want to Manage a Product?” about the rising popularity in the role and what it actually requires; and
  2. Product Manager and UX Designer: Whats the Difference?,” a post by Martin Treder, CEO of UXPin, about whether the two roles will soon become one.

The UXPin post featured a super simplified explanation of each role, exploring the similarities more than the differences. One of the things I love about Treder’s writing is that he does a great job of encouraging intelligent conversation — and he participates in that conversation. It’s rare to find a comments section worth reading. He says that one of the product manager’s responsibilities is to “make sure the product goes in the right direction,” and the UX designer’s role is to “study users.” But how does one sincerely ensure the product goes in the right direction without being someone who studies and talks to the user? Product managers should be involved in the process, not just there to accept the handoff and turn research into user stories. A PM who accepts that as enough  doesn’t care enough and surely doesn’t really understand what it’s like to be the user or customer.

In the other post that circulated, Rohini Vibha said this about product management:

After three years of PMing at a big company and a startup, I’ve realized that those passions I stated during my first product management interview — deeply understanding other humans, removing pain from people’s lives, writing, field-research, finding patterns and trends in data, designing for humans — were exactly what my interviewers were looking for, because that’s what it takes to be a successful PM.

That and more. Communicating the vision, validating or invalidating assumptions through experimentation, prioritizing, writing user stories (with input from the team), removing impediments so that engineers and designers can do what they need to do, knowing if and when to pivot, managing budget and expectations, knowing the competition, and communicating well with everyone from engineers to sales and marketing should all be part of a product manager’s work.

If a UX designer is burdened with all of these responsibilities, how will she/he have the time necessary to focus on design — and decide on the best strategies at any given time to test or design any given feature? If a product manager is responsible for turning customer interviews into high-fidelity prototypes, will she have the time to facilitate cross-functional teamwork, make tough calls and explain why, and ensure that goals are reached and budgets not exceeded?

In my perfect world, the UX designer and product manager work as partners to identify problems and guide the team toward the appropriate solutions. By working together, they can do more interviewing, more usability testing, higher quality research and increase collaboration throughout the organization.

Assuming PMs and UX Designers should always be the same — and that there should be one person who wants to take on the responsibilities of both roles, excels at them, and really follow through — assumes they are not both difficult roles requiring many different activities, all of which are important. 

One of the sweet spots for this partnership, as I see it, is in customer development and experimentation. Product strategy should be based on knowledge, not assumptions. In/validating hypotheses is fun work, but it’s not a breeze. When working together, I can see it working something like this:

  • The PM is responsible for collecting and organizing feature ideas (from customers, users, internally, etc.), and prioritizing them based on potential business value or impact.
  • The PM and UX designer can work together, along with others, to decide on the most important actionable metric (perhaps just the one metric that matters) and ensure that the tools are in place to track and analyze that metric.
  • The UX designer and product manager work together to design experiments that test assumptions behind ideas, whether through interviews, a feature fake, paper prototyping, another kind of test, or a combo.  The UX designer leads any actual sketching and the PM communicates results/status internally.

While all of this is happening, they are still working together to define features ready to be built.

The PM ensures the team has everything needed to work on validated ideas. The UX Designer should really own the flows, which is a big job, and one that combines art and science in a way. In my mind, teaming with a product manager will free up more time to think creatively.

It’s also pretty awesome to have a partner that comes from a slightly different background but is just as passionate about respresenting the user above all else. What do you think?

*This is not a reference to that song. It was just a very good way to describe it ;-).


Monday Tunes: Courtney Barnett, History Eraser

The Double EP: A Sea of Split Peas, Courtney Barnett’s 2013 release, has been on heavy rotation. I don’t watch music videos much anymore, but this one for History Eraser is quite entertaining. Listen to the whole album if you haven’t already.


Once a Reporter, Always an Interviewer

customer interviewing imageI found a copy of Central Faces on a shelf at my parents’ house not too long ago. Ah, yes, it was the fifth grade: the year our awkward school photos were accompanied by a short bio featuring adjectives that describe our personalities, interests and career goals.

According to my 10-year-old self, I would become a news reporter after college. I guess it was just the first thing I could come up with at the time. A decade later, I was majoring in English with a concentration in journalism.  I was into it. I started writing columns and music reviews for UD’s student-run newspaper, and eventually managed its arts and entertainment section.

After graduation, I moved to a suburb of Allentown (yes, that’s a thing) to work with digital content in Rodale’s Sports Group Interactive department, specifically for Backpacker and Bicycling magazines. At some point the combination of a need for both health benefits or grittier work (or both) led me back to Jersey to a small (but fastest growing, according to Inc.!) string of newspapers covering everything from high school drug policies to land preservation to small-town politics. I freelanced on the side, eventually getting enough work to eventually be able to quit my fulltime reporting job.

Product management was not a career I planned. I’d never even heard of it.

I moved into the role from a content management position while working at a media and branding company, mostly because my boss felt I was the only one who could communicate well with the developers. I understood the value in prioritization and trusting the developers. It seemed totally reasonable that the business side could not possibly give deadlines to developers without understanding the technology or even knowing exactly what was needed. Being a product owner wasn’t easy, but I loved it. I loved working with developers and designers. I loved creating and learning.

Still, I often felt I’d sold out in a way. The plan was to be a journalist, and I’d worked really hard to improve those skills. Could I really give that up as a career?

It wasn’t until the last couple of years, after digging deeper into what it means to be a great product manager and learning more about Lean Startup techniques, that I realized the leap hadn’t hadn’t been that far.

Interviewing people was my favorite thing about being in journalism — the thing I missed most. But it’s not easy. Just as someone doing customer interviews to validate or invalidate a product or feature, a good journalist encourages good conversation without talking too much. That aspect of it is incredibly difficult for me when the subject matter or the interviewee is particularly interesting.

I’m chatty.

I love meeting awesome people.

If I’m into it, I really, really have to remind myself to shut the hell up and not say too much. 

The moments in a conversation where I’m inspired by or learn something new from the other person in it – man, those moments make all of the frustrating moments worth it. I felt that way as a journalist, and I feel that way now as a product manager.

I didn’t sell out or give up on journalism some years ago. I just discovered and grew into a role allowing me to do many of the things I loved so much about it and more. I’m sure 10-year-old me would approve.