SoJo has taken an iterative approach; where we plan to release multiple versions of our site, have our users co-create the site and along the way deliver a product that meets the needs of our users and supports them in their journey of creating social ventures.
We released a closed Beta in July. Although we are very proud of this first step, it is now time to move onto our second version site and open it up to the public. The open Beta will have different functionality, more content and an improved user interface.
Having virtually no technical, web development or design experience prior to SoJo, I felt it'd be best to consult experts in the field and leverage their experience to make a more informed decision. Over the past few weeks I've been speaking with developers, designers and marketers - all with experience creating websites and established track records of delivering amazing work. Every conversation was stimulating, the average chat lasting about 2-2.5 hours - with ideas and possibilities getting tossed around. It was overwhelming at the same time, as all of these conversations went down very different paths.
Some said to focus on the technical development of the site and organization of information from the back-end. Some said to focus on the design and user experience on the front-end. Some said to shape the content and navigation to fit a brand. Even on the technical side, I was presented with 4 distinct options of how to proceed.
The bucket is full. My head hurts from all the confusion and attempting to reconcile the conflicting advice. The fact that there are so many ways to approach implementing SoJo's vision is encouraging, as it demonstrates that nothing like SoJo already exists and its going to take some serious innovation to come up with a good solution. On the other hand, I do wish the dots lined up more clearly together.
Making decisions are often the most difficult parts of the journey. Once you know which direction you're headed, executing can sometime be as simple as creating a checklist of items and tackling them one-by-one. Picking the direction is the challenge.
I only have a few days to make a decision and pick the best course of action on implementing v2 of the site. With less than 2 months and minimal financial resources, I only have one shot at this decision and must stand by it until the open Beta launch.
Judgment and hunch go hand-in-hand when making a decision like this. There is no definitive consensus from experts on what is even possible given our timeframe and financial resources. There is no such a thing as a perfect decision, and perhaps I need to alleviate the pressure I self-imposed on making the "perfect decision," make a choice that feels right given the available information, take a risk and go with it...
Redefinition: Definitions impose a frame on the world, shaping communities, social and political structures, our relationships, and ourselves. We rely on them, yet we struggle to break free of their limits. Forces all around us are shifting our definitions, and changing our realities — sometimes violently.
A changing definition can be the most powerful force on Earth.
A re-definition can change the world.
Redefinition was the theme of Friday's TEDxToronto Conference.
It was an intense day which included 10 live TED talks as well as a collection of pre-recorded TED videos and scheduled 'conversation breaks.' With over 700 participants, it was a day filled with tons of energy, ideas and curiosity.
Each talk was given in the context of the work that each speaker is engaged in, including health care, food, nanotechnology, film, political engagement, human rights or advocacy. I am conditioned to automatically frame all new insights and learnings in SoJo's context and was pleased to extract some common themes that were relevant to SoJo and the challenges we are addressing:
Redefining the way we look at failure; humanizing technology; connecting the heart and the mind; organizing information; finding harmony in chaos and order; redefining ourselves and our connections with others, to name a few.
SoJo's primary modus operandi is to redefine the online learning experience and the way information is accessed online. Although we do not intend on building a sophisticated technology to do so, we do strive to change the way information online is organized and accessed by its readers, and creating a user experience that is conducive to learning and development.
I was inspired by the tenacity and aspirations of all the speakers to forge new pathways and redefine models and definitions in their respective industries. I was equally encouraged (and validated) to hear them working to redefine similar issues as SoJo.
Videos can be viewed at tedxtoronto.com
September 20, 2010 is when I wrote SocialJournal's first blog post
Today is September 20, 2011 and I'm thrilled to be writing our 53rd blog post and proud to say that SoJo is going strong! This blog was setup immediately upon purchasing the domain to document this project's story as it unfolded in real-time. SoJo's first 100 hours
started with great momentum, however unfortunately it died and our story only started to come to life 6 months later --
What a year it has been!
The idea of SocialJournal was conceived a year ago, but it is really in the last 5 months did SoJo become more than an idea. The idea of this Platform was born out of my personal experiences and academic research on the topic of youth social entrepreneurship. It's fair to say that a year ago I never imagined doing this full-time
nor could I fathom the ambitious vision
we are now in the process of realising. That being said, there is nothing I'd rather be doing and (thankfully) not once in the past year have I doubted the potential that lies in SoJo's vision.
The Platform is not public, yet we started to build a brand with press coverage
, search hits
, social media
traffic, loads of positive feedback and positive energy
. We struggled to find an appropriate name
.This first year was design and brainstorm intensive. From creating our logo
and promotional video
, to designing the architecture
of the Platform and countless whiteboard sessions. My facilitation skills were put to the test, trying to bring competing interests together to one harmonious vision
. That too, navigating through geographic communication barriers
with major institutions were formed. I pitched SoJo at Yale
and shared the idea at many conferences
. Our founding team grew overnight
and it is now much smaller
and more start-up friendly. The business plan
and business model
are starting to come together as is the framework
that is supporting SoJo.
Perhaps the most tangible accomplishment was launching our first prototype
which forced all of us to hustle
. The close Beta is being tested
by 200 interested users. Although I continue to receive criticism
for soft launching SoJo either too early or too late, I stand by our decisions and progress made thus far. Sure, the site could have been implemented differently, but if there is anything I learned in the last year - it would be that there is no perfect way of achieving your vision and to not expect a perfect straight path of getting there.
I initially thought technology
was going to be this project's major challenge, it is now clear that people always have been, and will continue to be SoJo's greatest challenge.
I struggled with remaining focused
), switching back and forth between building the product and building the infrastructure to support the product
. At times I felt like a gerbil on a wheel, where I was burning a lot of energy, but not necessarily moving forward... I accept that this was part of the learning process.
The emotional rollercoaster
that I faced as the founder and leader of this project is one all of SoJo's user's can identify with.
Doubt (in my abilities), fear, confusion, frustration, and disappointment all went hand-in-hand with pride, joy, excitement, happiness and optimism. Managing expectations will remain my personal ongoing challenge.
On a similar note, I don't think that I have been good enough about celebrating the small wins with our team and myself. That will change moving forward, because we have a lot to be proud of and must have our victory dances
In the next 12 months you should expect to see a lot, namely an interactive and engaging website that supports you in your journey of creating your social venture
. Can't give you more details, as the past year has taught me that our plans will change and we must be adept enough to adapt.
A big thank you to all of our supporters and readers! This is my first blog and it has been wildly successful.
Today marks the first anniversary of SoJo's blog, and it is our readers than motivate me to write. I surely hope you stick around for the ride. I am committed to blogging twice as much as last year, so keep reading about our story and don't be shy to drop us a line with your questions or comments. I hope that SoJo continues to inspire, motivate and support you in your personal journey of making social change happen.
As an entrepreneur, it is said that you are always selling. Selling your vision to the team and prospective partners, selling your product to your users, selling your value proposition to paying customers, and the list goes on. Investing in relationships has been my substitute for "selling" up until now, because for me, engaging in a meaningful conversation feels more natural and less forced than a sell.
In many situations, building a relationship is not an option and you are only given a few minutes to pitch (aka sell) yourself and your idea. My high school debating experience taught me that delivery is just as (if not more) important than the content of your presentation itself. PowerPoint presentations seems to go hand-in-hand with pitches. I've had serious qualms with PowerPoint. In all of my previous work and academic environments, I've seen PowerPoint presentations as un-engaging, boring and detractive.
In the business world however everyone likes PowerPoint presentations and having one is an absolute must. Over the past few weeks I've rekindled my relationship with PowerPoint and started to embrace it as a tool that is necessary to effectively convey my message.
I'm trying hard to get SoJo into a digital media incubator for young entrepreneurs. The selection process consists of a series of pitches Earlier today was our first pitch. Surely enough at the actual pitch my PowerPoint doesn't even open because the video froze the file. Good thing I'm not dependent on PowerPoint and was able to deliver an engaging presentation without slides.
Pitching is an art. You need to know your audience and speak in a language that they understand. Time is not on your side either. Since SoJo has such a grand vision, my approach has been to sell my audience on our vision and tell a story to shape it. It can be easy to get caught up in the implementation details, however they are not the most interesting parts of my story... and Q&A exists for a reason.
My goal is have my pitches sound make me sound like a storyteller and not a saleswomen, and with practice
I hope to get there. Please share your thoughts on how you make your pitches sound natural.
"I don't know the key to success, but the key to failure is trying to please everybody."
~ Bill Cosby
SoJo is for our users and we are excited to have them co-create the Platform in a way that serves their needs. For this reason we opened our Beta test to anyone who is interested and are equally excited for the diversity of feedback that the testers will share with us.
We have sent out 6 rounds of Beta invites and the feedback has started to trickle in. Feedback is literally all over the map. There is tons of positive feedback and generally users like where the site is going. Content is still incomplete and we've received some pretty harsh feedback pointing at all of our shortcomings.
In technology we are encouraged to release prototypes early into the market to get validated feedback before the product officially launches. Using these principles, we launched a less-than-complete closed Beta site.
Keeping user loyalty online is difficult. If someone signs up for the Beta test and has a disappointing experience on our site, the cost to convince them to come back is perhaps higher than what it would be if they were invited a month later when the site was closer to our realized vision. These are constant struggles and tradeoffs need to be made.
On Day 1, SoJo cannot be everything to everyone. It will take time for us to realize our vision, however our current challenge is selling others on the vision that they cannot see right now. Managing expectations has been tough, and we cannot get discouraged if we don't meet all of our users' expectations in our early days.
So although the negative feedback was greatly appreciated, has been noted and placed in the queue to be implemented in due time -- we are learning to not take it as a personal attack, but rather extract the constructive bits and use that to improve SoJo.
I stand by our decision to release a less-than-perfect Beta, however we are deliberately keeping it closed to manage external expectations and avoid damaging SoJo's brand. It is my hope that our Beta testers are understanding to our current stage and are equally tolerant to wait for the changes and iterations to come online in due time.
A sincere thanks to everyone who has taken the time to sign up and share feedback. We do appreciate the effort and request your patience as we incorporate your feedback.
If you are interested in testing the site, please sign up here
SoJo plans to operate as a true social enterprise: where we rely on market forces and revenue generation to sustain our operating costs in the pursuit of self-sufficiency. Although we have a fairly robust business model, it will take time for it to begin generating revenue from our future customers.
Don’t worry - SoJo will never charge its users to use the Platform.
In fact, according to the Startup Genome Report, technology startups on average take 12 months to develop and validate their product and that revenue come in after their first year of operation. It takes on average 3 years for a tech startup to be profitable and therefore rely on Angel or Venture Capital funds to cover their costs in their first few years. SoJo will not qualify for these traditional forms of funding because we cannot show the growth and projected return that is required. We do have social return and Social Capital places a value on social return. Given the limited Social Capital, this is not a viable option for us in our early development stage.
Since investment capital has been ruled out, one-time grants appear to be a great way to get startup funds. There are numerous Government grants are open to for-profit startups for research, development and general start up funding. These grants work on pre-determined funding cycles, have tedious application processes and can take up to14 months to receive the money if successful. The application process alone can be deterrent for us to even consider applying, because of the time required to submit a decent application and the subsequent approval time. Perhaps a disproportionate sample, but of the firms I know who have received Government Grants, all of them have been backed by other sources of funding and have dedicated staff resources to complete those applications. We’re busy building our platform and don’t have the time to fill out an application.
Without getting too technical, SoJo will address a market failure (as we are supplying a demand that the market does not currently provide) and thus can look into philanthropic dollars. Given the recent “social enterprise” movement, there is increasing availability of funds for social enterprise ventures. I become disengaged however when social enterprises are recognized as “non-profit” organizations (as this further perpetuates the cycle of dependency that exists in the nonprofit sector), and thus a social enterprise must be incorporated as a nonprofit to be eligible for the majority of this funding.
So what to do? Based on this analysis (and months of collecting this information), it seems like a hybrid model is the most ideal for SoJo. Since Canadian laws and most sources of funding have not yet recognized the unique position social ventures (or social enterprises) such as SoJo find themselves, we need to adapt our approach to meet existing models.
From a funding perspective, it seems logical for us to operate a non-profit and for-profit arm. Easier said than done! I’m daunted by the legalities involved in making this happen and want to evaluate my options to see if this is really the best route to pursue. After significant searching online I am unable to find the information that is needed to understand (from a legal perspective) how this works.
When it comes to start-up funding, I feel like I’m going in circles. This post was not intended to be rant, but rather explain the situation SoJo finds itself in. Creating a new model and approach to seeing social change happen is not straight forward. We’re still debating over the most ideal legal structure and its long term implications on our organization.
Through my personal struggles and confusion of building SoJo I am constantly reminded about why our Platform needs to exist. I know I’m not the only person asking these questions, and am committed to supporting those in similar situations to help them find some clarity.
For the longest time I thought business plans were quite un-necessary. In the entrepreneurial world, there are countless articles that talk about the uselessness of business plans and that "real" entrepreneurs don't really need one. My first "plan" was created on 11 slides...
Next week there is a grant application due. I believe SoJo has a pretty good shot at being considered for this grant, as we meet all of the criteria, and we have to start looking for external funding to take the venture to the next level.
I've known about this application for a few weeks now, but never thought the business plan would take so long, so I never bothered to look into it until now. Earlier today I proceeded to download the template provided on the grant-maker's website. The template is 47 pages. Although all sections don't apply to us, actual plans normally exceed their templates, as text can exceed the allotted space. Not feeling like working through a 47 page template, I emailed an advisor to get a second opinion. He thought a 50 page business plan is absurd, but assured me that it will take about a week to complete this business plan.
This email was my much-needed kick in the behind. For the past 3 hours, I was successful in hammering out the Problem, Solution, Product Execution, Marketing and Business Model sections. It's a start, but sadly still a long way to go. While in the flow of writing it felt like I was driving at 200km/hour speeding through the words. But when I took a step back, I actually felt like I was strolling at the speed of a turtle!
Attitude and Approach
I don't think that a Business Plan can be created like an essay when you're in school with the arrogance of thinking it can be written in one night. Instead of feeling accomplished with the 2000 words of well written business plan content, I'm daunted and overwhelmed by the all of the blank sections that lie ahead and the unanswered question marks.
I'm not worried. If I'm committed to SoJo, then I'm committed to writing this business plan. Although its real-life application, beyond the grant application, is still questionable in my mind - it IS a great exercise to write out all the thoughts that have been in my head and will impose discipline as well.
The reason why I dislike business plans is because they are highly static and I honestly believe efforts should be focused on DOING rather than planning and saying what you will do. That being said, using this as an exercise to articulate different components of our venture, while not being limited exclusively to what is written will undoubtedly serve me well.
Wish me luck!
SoJo's first video has been a work in progress for quite some time. We storyboarded the concept back in June (see earlier post)
and it has been in production and post-production ever since! The team member who initially committed to producing the video, through trial and error, discovered that she was unable to produce a video to the quality that was expected. Finally, our designer Bill picked up the pieces to make this final product.
Once a video is viewed in its entirety, changes and deviations off the initial vision are inevitable. The challenge with working virtually is that each minor change needs to be made via email. There is lag time in between each email. With multiple iterations back and forth and many people involved, you can imagine how demanding it was to make changes. At one instance, the lack of clear communication caused two people to work on the same task at the same time, which resulted in unnecessary duplication of efforts. In other instances, broken communication loops resulted in no-one taking ownership over specific tasks and the video getting shunned to the back-burner.
After several iterations we had a video that we were pleased with, however it was created in a format unrecognizable on YouTube and many video players. After various consultations, downloading dozens of trial versions of software to convert this video, we were finally successful. Now that this amazing video is complete, it is our hope that it goes viral and inspires our future users: those with bold and innovative ideas to visit the platform and take action. Some valuable lessons we learned getting here include: Looks can be deceiving:
The learning curve of making an animated video is steep. Although videos may look simple, teaching yourself how to make one is not so straightforward and requires an incredible amount of patience and attention to minute details. Plan every detail to the T:
Even with a storyboard, post-production took much longer than anticipated. Don't underestimate the importance of creating a detailed storyboard and the amount of time post-production will actually take. Persistence is key:
This 90second video felt like the never-ending project that dragged on. With multiple edits, technical challenges, duplicate copies and probably over 100 emails in total between all people involved. Without persistence, this project would have been on the chopping block multiple times and we wouldn't be able to share this amazing video with you! A Project lead is imperative:
This video did not have a clear owner, and as result no-one took accountability to ensure the project got complete. Over the course of this project, 6 individuals were actively involved in getting the video prepared. Everyone worked on individual tasks, however someone was needed to bring the entire project together and hold all other team members accountable for their individual parts.
Similar to most of the working world that is conditioned to work on the same cycle as the school year, Labour Day acted like a mental reset for SoJo. I knew that efforts were going to ramp up once summer was over and that the organization needed to change direction.
Our team literally grew overnight. Although the team needed to grow based on the work that needed to be completed, in hindsight I realize that our growth was unsustainable and came at the price of overall productivity of the project.
Everyone joined our team because they were passionate about our revolutionary vision. I am not questioning the contributions that everyone made to the team, because everyone did add value to SoJo and I do sincerely appreciate their efforts. That being said, it was a handful to manage all of the relationships of our team members.
I realized that there was a problem when most of my day was spent instructing, managing and following-up with the team members and their tasks. At one point, I had over 10 direct reports (which is ridiculous) and as much as I enjoyed speaking with everyone, it was not doing SoJo any good to have 2 people work on the same thing. Navigating through ambiguity is not easy, and I realize that I was too quick to delegate responsibility, especially since most team members needed direction and hand-holding.
Although everyone had good intentions and cared about SoJo, for some people it just was not a good fit based on what they were able to contribute and SoJo's expectations. Acknowledging that misfit despite great intentions was the hardest part.
I was speaking with a friend about some SoJo people-challenges and he explained that when a project normally starts up it is easy to bring anyone on the team who shows enthusiasm, because help is desperately needed, however it is only with time that we become more selective and look for a good fit on a more holistic basis. It also takes time to identify your team members' strengths and weaknesses and place them in the organization accordingly.
We now have a much smaller team, and the workload will only increase. The summer has given everyone a chance to find their groove and carve out a role within the organization where they are confident they can best contribute. Staffing a team is more of an art than a science and it takes time and multiple attempts to find the right people. I've learned a lot through this process and now am more aware of what a good fit for SoJo is.