When you're going through a stressful time, people often say talking about what you're going through will make you feel better. My mom often encourages me to talk through my issues to avoid stress from bottling up. Stress serves no-one any good, and in fact the negative energy impairs rational judgment and productivity.
Below are three examples of intense conversations that were had over the past 10 days:
My case interview last weekend was a great example of the value gained by 'letting it all out'. Not only did sharing all my challenges made me feel a bit better, the feedback I received simultaneously allowed me draw valuable insights and make realizations. Before that session everything was fuzzy and I wasn't able to articulate the source of my frustrations. Letting it out allowed me to make sense of those fuzzy dots floating around in my head; and this enhanced clarity has since allowed me to better navigate through this turbulent time.
The day before yesterday I had dinner with a group of friends, among them a person who I consult often for advice. It is rare that we meet, so towards the end of the evening I took the opportunity of asking him how I should navigate one of my challenges around funding. I was pushed into a corner with really tough questions at 10pm at night; it was an intense conversation to say the least. In spite of the discomfort that was experienced at the time, I left that conversation in a better headspace. I did not receive all of the answers I was looking for, but he gave me a tangible suggestion on what my next step should be. One that I'm already acting on.
Yesterday as part of a mandatory check-in for the incubator that SoJo works out of, I was required to give an update on our current status. These check-ins are used to set goals, and act as accountability mechanisms to share updates on progress towards achieving those goals. They are also an opportunity for my peers (other entrepreneurs) and management to weigh in and provide advice. I was asked to talk about my challenges. Sharing your problems is not easy. Over vulnerability is the pain that comes with re-opening the wounds and reminding yourself of everything on your plate. At the table were 4 members of the management team who also act as advisors to all of the entrepreneurs in this incubator and only one other entrepreneur. I started the meeting excited, hoping for some breakthrough answers. Objectively speaking, I got very little tangible and concrete value out of that meeting. I did not walk away with a single thing that I can act on. I became more frustrated over the course of the meeting, and its clear to everyone that saw me shortly after that I was upset. I shut down my computer shortly after and went home early. It has been an exhausting couple of weeks and after pouring it all out on the table (for the third time in one week), the last thing I wanted to hear is keep fighting the good fight
(which is the best feedback I received). It felt like salt got rubbed into those wounds that I've been trying so hard avoid blood from gushing out (pardon the graphic analogy).
Out of the three examples from above, I did not start either of the first two conversations with expectations. I did have a great deal of expectations from yesterday's meeting (given the nature of the meeting) and judging from my emotional barometer: I was disappointed. Lesson learned:
- You can't expect anyone to give you a silver bullet answer to your problems. Best is to enter every conversation without any expectations.
- Letting it all out doesn't always make you feel better. Use your discretion and open those wounds as far as you want to.
With strategic planning
, managing growth
, a burnout
, and a mega research grant
application, September has been an incredibly busy month to say the least. I've been working on high-focus activities and do not have the capacity to bring on new things to my plate.
I was recently introduced to the notion mental switching costs. According to the American Psychological Association: understanding the hidden costs of multitasking may help people to choose strategies that boost their efficiency - above all, by avoiding multitasking, especially with complex tasks.
The research goes on to further state: even brief mental blocks created by shifting between tasks can cost as much as 40 percent of someone's productive time.
When time is a premium, it is important to make the time you do have as productive as possible. Moving forward, I will only have more to juggle and manage. I already spend about 10-12 hours/day at the office. Extending my day is not the solution, especially when my goal is to shorten my work day.
Being the Chief Catalyst of SoJo, I'm often approach by people to collaborate on projects, provide advice, revise documents, and meet information. Before I would feel guilty pushing off such requests, as I do want to help everyone in a timely manner, and pay forward all the time I received from equally busy people. I've now learned to take control over my schedule and time with increased confidence. Here is an excerpt of an email sent to someone earlier this month in the thick of a stressful time: Dear x,I'm excited to explore more and make this a reality!
I don't have the mental capacity right now to give this the thought it needs and provide feedback. Please give me a few weeks and I'll get back to you on this.
Its been beyond crazy and I will come back up to surface soon.
Thanks for your understanding!
Reading it over, I feel like it could have been written more gracefully; however the point comes across clearly. I acknowledged the message, stated my interest, but was honest to say that I will revisit it when I can give it the time it deserves. It has taken me over a year to get comfortable writing an email like this and kindly push something to the side without guilt or feeling the need to address it right away. At a time when I'm engaged in complex tasks, its even more important that I stay focused on them; as that will free up even more time for the other things I hope to engage in.
Source: Multitasking: Switching costs
Exactly two years ago today, September 20, 2010, I wrote SocialJournal.net's first blog post
. At the time, SoJo did not even exist. I was still dabbling with the idea of converting my Master's thesis into an e-book and had no idea what form SocialJournal.net would manifest itself into. Two years later, SocialJournal.net remains a blog; however it has taken on a voice of its own and inspired the creation of many exciting products geared towards helping people take their ideas for social change into action. I would compare the first 365 days of SocialJournal.net
as dipping your toes in the shallow-end of the swimming pool. Only eight months after the inaugural blog post did I decide to pursue SoJo full time
. The building blocks came in place in the first year: SoJo got its name, defined its brand identify, got more clarity on its purpose, released a private beta and most importantly I realized that SoJo has a long journey ahead
. What initially started as a part-time venture spiralled into a vision larger than I can grasp.
In hindsight, the past 366 days of SoJo is comparable to jumping into the deep end of the pool. Where focus was a great challenge in SoJo's first year, this past year was marked by execution. I learned how to set a direction
, quickly realign our focus
, set goals
and accomplish the tasks at hand
. Despite this new focus, I was still very open to seizing new opportunities
; but also struggled with prioritization
Without a technical team in place, I had the tenacity to endeavour to launch SoJo's first public site
at the SociaLIGHT conference, in front of 1000 people. Given the resources we had at the time, it was a huge risk. Leading up to the launch, it was 3 weeks of hustle
, staying calm in very stressful situations
and a great deal of nerves
. Alas the hard work paid off, and not only did SoJo have a successful launch
-- we effectively send out a message to our community: To opt for courage over fear
. The first step to action is putting yourself out there, and SoJo led by example. Later on in the year, SoJo published its Manifesto
, a set of guiding principles and core values which would ultimately influence every decision made.
SoJo finally got a home
! Although it took a couple of months to feel fully welcome in Ryerson's Digital Media Zone, I am now proud to tell everyone about our home and extremely grateful for being incubated in this incredible environment. The support received from this community
over the last few months has been phenomenal.
Through various speaking engagements, I started becoming excited about the possibilities of SoJo emerging as a thought leader
in social innovation, effectively using technology as a vehicle for social change, and more generally on taking ideas into action.
With the press coverage and increased credibility came more attention. As the founder of SoJo, I was now being approached by many folks for advice and help. Although humbling to know that people respect your opinions, I learned and continue to learn how to push back and place and increased value on my time
I recognized the need to work smarter, not harder
. In efforts to get myself better organized
and not get bogged down by my inbox
, I challenged myself to email-free Saturdays
-- and have since disabled all notifications on my phone. More than ever do I acknowledge the importance of not being connected to my work 24/7.
I felt like a small fish in a big pond when taking SoJo's first international trip to the UK
. That trip inspired a strategic move a few months later to launch SoJo out of Beta
. Moving forward, SoJo needs to move out of the sandbox and into the real world. Yes people are more critical and have endless expectations, but taking SoJo out of Beta has given myself and the team confidence to share SoJo and highlight all of its strengths
; namely our endorsement from the Canadian Commission for UNESCO, reaching over 15,000 individuals during its beta test phase and creating the most comprehensive collection of informational resources and tools geared to helping early-stage social innovators take their ideas into action.
Yes, we have a site to be proud of, but this latest product launch's greatest accomplishment was without a doubt the success of bringing together SoJo's team
. We held our first team meeting
only 3 weeks before the launch. 366 days ago
I clearly stated that SoJo's greatest challenge ahead is its people; on boarding and managing the right people to the team. Human resources will remain an ongoing challenge, however it is no longer our greatest challenge.
SoJo has been incredibly lucky with its people this year. Our co-designer experiment
was extremely successful. Technical talent joined at the right time. Linus
came in time to see our public Beta to a successful launch, Jesse
joined in time to see SoJo's post-beta launch, and Rebecca
joined as our first female developer. Despite being lucky with technical talent, my 8-month long search
for a CTO came up dry. After countless hours into the process and utter exhaustion
, I have shifted my energy away from this full-time search. We have since opted to crowd-source SoJo's CTO
. An idea that is experimental; as brilliant as it is risky. Necessity forces you to be creative, and I'm hopeful this will be a great interim solution. We recruited
more senior talent to help in communications, outreach and partnerships.
SoJo broadened out its mandate
. We moved from serving youth to serving first-timers, and from projects to social innovations. SoJo also created its own legal structure: the hybrid social venture
. Two moves which will serve as an integral foundation moving forward. Disappointments were inevitable, and with time became better at dealing with disappointments
A breakthrough moment emerged when I came up with a viable idea for a business model
. After nearly 2 years of people asking me: "how will SoJo make money" what a relief to finally have some answers. May I remind you that our focus up until now has been proving the value of SoJo, and not monetizing it. As such, SoJo is a living breathing example of what can be accomplished with very little money.
A theme that emerged throughout the year is the importance of listening to your body and taking care of yourself
, and the value of taking a break
. The past 12 months have been a record for the amount of times I got sick. In the new year, I vowed to be living proof that it is possible to achieve success without driving yourself into the ground
. Although I no longer romanticize struggle
, considering I suffered from a near burnout
only a couple of weeks ago, it is clear that I still have a long way to go...
Moving forward our greatest challenge will be managing growth
. Graduating from an entirely bootstrapped early-stage startup to a growing startup that needs to accelerate its pace of development and acquire newer resources to get started. Although I'm intimidated by what lies ahead -- when looking back at the past year, past behaviour has shown that miracles are possible and that SoJo has consistently been able to overcome adversity. Bring it on!
Today I decided that SoJo will submit a research proposal to Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada, due October 1. I've been told it takes about 2 months to submit a comparable type of proposal. Having never written a research grant before, let alone collaborate with academics I am seriously starting to question my sanity. Regardless, this is a fabulous opportunity and one that I am eager to take full advantage of. Although I've know about this fund for a few months, I only realized last week that SoJo is eligible and should consider applying. Late last week I approached the research office, expressing my interest in this application and requesting their help finding me an academic researcher. I received a very stern warning saying that I was endeavouring to something incredibly ambitious given then timelines and that a lot of work lay ahead of me. Being a qualified applicant, the research office had no choice but to help out. With a little persistence on my end, they sent out an email to a generic listserv of faculty members, and within 12 hours I received 7 responses. That early validation and interest in SoJo was integral to getting this process started. Because in those same 12 hours I received an incredible amount of cynicism and doubts from those around me.
This grant is a collaboration between an industry partner (SoJo), College partner and University partner. I was confident that a researcher from Ryerson University would come on board based on initial interest. SoJo has had a longstanding relationship with the Ontario College of Art and Design (OCAD) and I eagerly approached the Dean of the Design Faculty to get onboard. To my negligence, OCAD is actually a University, so that early excitement led to even greater disappointment and embarrassment. I was now without a College partner (when I told the University partners that I had one. This is my first lesson is real-time negotiation). And so I did what every entrepreneur does: hustled with relentless energy and optimism. People raised their eyebrows as soon as I mentioned the October 1st deadline. I simply responded with confidence and shared the vision, and that was enough convert many skeptics. I called upon everyone I knew, asking for a huge favour to facilitate introductions with demanding turnarond times. I approached strangers and asked them to vouch for me. Lucky for me, SoJo has great credibility and has an awesome project -- but it was a stretch to say the least.
Need I note that the first two weeks of school is the busiest time for anyone at an academic institution, let alone deans and professors. Here I am making demands and asking senior and very busy people to clear their schedules.
After a couple of conversations with the key collaborators, this morning I got the green light from the both the College and University collaborators. I just came out of our first meeting with a list of things to produce for the next 48 hours (I'll be away from my computer for 36 of those hours, let alone my existing busy schedule). I'm ecstatic that SoJo is going ahead with this, and will let this positive glow overpower any doubts or reality checks that arise over the next 10 days.
In the words of of the lead researcher: "It will be a miracle if we get this application in on time. It'll be an even bigger miracle if we are successful." This is coming from someone with a 100% success-rate with such types of applications with NSERC and who administers millions dollars worth of research annually.
Start-ups are run on miracles, and history leads me to believe that miracles do happen. So there is no reason to stop believing / hoping... Its going to be a long week and a half ahead of me and this team. Wish us luck!
IVEY, one of Canada's leading business schools approached me to write a case study on SoJo. I was delighted and honoured, as IVEY cases have a far reach nationally and internationally and what better way to get out SoJo's story.
Up until now, I shared SoJo's story in more of a narrative format; explaining chronologically the milestones we've achieved, challenges faced and decisions made. Yesterday I met the lead researcher, Professor Oana and case writer Melissa. It is fair to say, I had no idea what I was getting myself into. Oana started the interview asking me about the tensions I am currently facing. Before I knew it, I felt as though I was in a psycho-analysis therapy session. Her questions were poignant, difficult, intense, and reflective all in one.
Over the last 2 years, I have had conversations with a couple hundred people about SoJo. My messaging has changed throughout, as did the product of SoJo -- however the vision was always the same. Albeit with time, I've become a better communicator, based on an initial conversation, not a single person has been able to understand the depth and scope of SoJo's vision. What was special about yesterday, is that I never explicitly told Oana what the vision was, or what SoJo was working towards, however she was able to recite to me with precision and greater eloquence what SoJo stands for and what it strives to do. Although a little scary, more than anything this validation was encouraging and exactly what I needed at this point of tension. (see earlier post on burnout
Again, without sharing all of our key actions, decisions made and iterations, Oana drew a model that scientifically mapped out SoJo, our trajectory, the implications of our decisions. Models are incredibly abstract, and she was able to ground every node into key actions made by SoJo. Her assumptions validated what we the strategic planning team has been talking about for the past month. Having been through academia myself, before this conversation I was convinced that there was a disconnect from the ivory tower and reality. Without an agenda or political bias of her own, coupled with years of cutting-edge research, Oana restored my faith in academia. She is a fountain of knowledge and was able to clearly do what no-one has been able to.
This blog has been an outlet to share my thoughts, and it has been second nature to document SoJo's story. Being asked to trace back motivators, emotions and feelings with greater precision was difficult. Talking about vulnerability brought me down unexpected philosophical tangents. It felt as though I was being deconstructed as an individual, as she made inferences about my personal relationships with people and what motivates me as a leader. I'm still digesting and making sense of it all...
3 hours later, she circled back to her first question, and identified that the source of my tensions is growth
SoJo has graduated from early-stage startup to being a startup. Accelerating the pace of development, building out resources to meet this growth is only one challenge. Outgrowing our users, while being authentic and true to the vision is the greater challenge. As we navigate through this period of growth, I will be more disciplined about documenting our journey on this blog. Please bare with me, as the lack of coherence in this blog is a mirror reflection of the lack of coherence of everything in my head.
I left this interview feeling like I got more out of it than what I gave the case writers. I suppose that's what we call a win-win.
Earlier last week I came to the realization that I was going over the edge and reaching burnout. Although I started writing this post over a week ago, I'm only now having the courage to openly talk about it. Having a persistent and stubborn personality often forces me to push my limit.
Some indications that lead me recognize that something is wrong:
Insomnia: Normally, I sleep like a rock. Many of my friends are envious of my abilities to sleep on a park bench in broad daylight. I suffered from insomnia every night last week. My subconscious is constantly busy with noise. I was unable to reason through my thoughts, as everything was blurry.
A visit from the parents: My parents came into the city early last week to see me. When asking them what inspired their visit (it is rare that they come during the week), they both said: "we're worried about you."
Sick: Feverish, sick and without energy to move, I spent a couple of days in bed trying to recover and recoup. Morning wake-ups over the past 2 weeks were a struggle.
Grungy: I showed up to the office wearing sweats. I was raised to always look presentable when being out in public, but on days when I had no external meetings, I had no desire to put effort into my wardrobe.
"You look tired": Although feeling sick and going for the grungy look does solicit such comments, being consistently being told by the people who see me on a daily basis "you look tired" made me realize I wasn't given off a positive image of myself.
Limited desire to engage: As an extrovert who naturally derives energy from engaging with other people, I had very little interest in holding up a conversation with someone who wasn't a team member. Conversations which would normally come effortlessly, now came with great effort.
Knowing that something is wrong: Although these signs were apparent, sometimes what's worse is feeling like you have weights on your shoulders bogging you down, but not being able to pinpoint why. I absolutely hated answering the question: "how are you doing?" I did not want to sound ingenuous by saying that I was fine, when I wasn't, but also did not want to say "I feel horrible, and I don't want to talk about it."
Feeling overwhelmed, before any of the above symptoms surfaced I approached an advisor to talk. He knew right away that I was in a lull and tried his best to tease out the source of my frustrations. I had nothing to say.
In response, he said two things:
~ The more successful you become the greater your challenges
~ Let it be
That was 3 weeks ago. At the time, I did not understand or appreciate the latter piece of advice. Rather than recognize and accept that something was on the cusp of stirring inside of me, I deliberately chose not to listen and let it be, and continued going down a path that would ultimately lead to a burnout.
When reflecting back, I wonder if I had the foresight to accept what was going on, then maybe I would have spared myself a lot of emotional and mental stress and could have rationally tried to identify the root causes of my feelings of being overwhelmed. Perhaps I needed to push myself over the edge, as great insights have since emerged.
It's hard to say. I do know two things:
1-Burnout sucks, and its nothing one should strive toward. I'm still learning to catch onto the signs before tipping over the edge...
2- When you're in a lull, you can only go up from there. I am seeing the light and it is a great feeling.
Earlier today I had my first meeting with one of SoJo's crowd-sourced CTOs
to learn about Project Management. As evidenced by the fallout from our server decision
, up until now every decision has been made in an ad-hoc, do-what-it-takes-to-get-it-done
fashion. This lack of organization and planning led us through a successful private beta, public beta, and post-beta launch. We were nimble, weren't bogged down with management and accommodated where we saw fit. Now that the scope and complexity of SoJo has grown, so has its need to get better organized and do things smarter.
To fill this deficiency, we invited an experienced project manager to join the team in an advisory capacity, lending off her 30+ professional years of experience in project management. This is a risk, as she has never worked with a start-up, and her methodologies may not necessarily apply to the needs of a fast-paced, ever-evolving organization such as SoJo. The biggest risk to seeking external project management support is getting slowed down by un-necessary processes and planning, when SoJo's greatest advantage has been our ability to implement and execute in a speedy manner.
Although a tad bit overwhelming, today's session was incredibly useful, and I learned a lot. I learned how to articulate our functional requirements at a high-level and the methodology used to break them apart into functions and prioritize. SoJo has always been victim to scope-creep, so having an objective process to prioritize features based on need, ability to implement, and risk will help the product team stay focused and on-track.
Making choices has historically been challenging, as I am always seeking an optimal solution with only incomplete information. She introduced me to a more structured way of making decisions, also referred to as triple constraint project management. As per the diagram, one side is the dependent variable (in the case of our public Beta launch, we were constrained by time to launch at the SociaLIGHT conference). Once you are clear of your dependent variable, you are then able to adjust the other constraints accordingly. Seems quite logical, but now whenever I make a decision I will visualize this triangle and remind myself that I cannot have it all. This will definitely help to keep me focused and grounded.
To avoid the gerbil on the wheel syndrome
, I'm hopeful that external project management support will help to keep us moving forward, without burning unnecessary energy.
SoJo has been running lean
since inception. I often take a step back with awe, thinking about all that was accomplished with no external funding. Bootstrapping a venture comes with tradeoffs and compromises. SoJo's beta site was initially hosted on one of our team member's servers to save costs. At the time it felt redundant to pay for hosting fees when there was trusted and freely available resource. SoJo has since migrated to a dedicated server, recognizing the need for full control, however outstanding files were on our original shared server. Since we do not own the server, we do not have full access to it. Our former team-mate is currently travelling in rural China with limited access, and getting access has been a challenge.
It is incredibly frustrating to move a product forward when there are bottlenecks that are completely beyond your control. An issue as simple as access has definitely slowed down the entire development team. This lesson has taught me to think long-term when making immediate decisions. It is impossible to foresee every possible implication of a decision, but understanding the risks upfront can help to make more informed decisions.
All things considered, given my limited knowledge and our resources at the time I think I made the right decision accept full responsibility for the unintended consequences that we are now facing. As the stakes increase however, we need to make more informed and well thought out decisions, as potential risks also increase exponentially.
At a time when everyone on our development team is frustrated, I must be particularly understanding to their situation, readjust expectations and ensure their negative energy does not get bottled up. To keep my peace, I go back to our core values
, and remind myself that we must embrace imperfection...