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Written by Zainab Habib

Advice is always easier to give than to follow - and I'm unfortunately prone to not following my own advice.

I've said that exact saying to at least two friends this week yet I realized that I haven't been following my own words in certain aspects of my life. Though we usually don't do substandard work at SoJo (we all make mistakes but it hardly can be called substandard effort), there are times where I don't hold other people up to certain expectations.

Expectations are usually considered a bad thing, but I personally don't view them badly in certain contexts in the professional world. To clarify:
  • When you can't have expectations: there are things that are beyond your control - certain outcomes that no matter what you do, you really can't do much about it in the end. This is where expectations are unhelpful because in the end, it's not up to you to decide. Example: you didn't get a promotion even though they promoted someone else in the organization who may not have worked there as long as you have. Though it is fair to feel that this decision was unfair, you may also have to consider what management's reason was for the decision.
  • When you can have expectations: however, you can still have certain expectations over how you interact with someone to a certain degree, which is a part of process. I would include expectations around conduct like (but not limited to) respect and politeness -- because they maintain someone's dignity. Example: following the situation above, you then ask your boss if you can talk about why you didn't get the job. She tells you why they chose the other candidate, even if nothing was particularly "wrong" with your application or interview. Though you couldn't control why they chose Candidate B instead of you, you can still have a level of expectation about how your boss addresses your concerns because it's part of being in a professional work environment.

My (sometimes unhelpful) approach as of the last few years is to have fewer expectations. I personally tend to be the type to do it all for myself, and often don't ask for help even when I should. Not having as many expectations of others has allowed me to maintain control to some degree (if I don't have expectations, I won't be disappointed, right?) but it also may be too relaxed of an approach when working with others -- almost letting the substandard take place.

Over the last few months, I've had to be a firmer manager and representative of SoJo when working with team members and partners (current and potential). How then do I temper what expectations I should have, and what should I not expect?

For one, I'm taking back the idea of no expectations: I'd like to have one expectation, which is to not get substandard - whether it's substandard treatment or substandard work. To be fair, there is a difference between substandard work and not-as-great-as-it-could be. Substandard work is a reflection of how one views you - because they felt you didn't deserve their best work.

And you always deserve someone's best, no matter what. :)
Written by Zainab Habib

Last night, I was at a workshop when I met someone who works with media production. We struck up a conversation about we do but I didn't realize that I was walking right into a sales pitch.

Please note that this post is certainly not meant to disparage her for her effort; in fact, quite commendable really on her part. I certainly don't blame her, even if I would've preferred that she had handled that differently. It's her job to find these opportunities especially at moments like this. But I was having a difficult time trying to get myself out of it, especially as I was stuffing my mouth with pizza (I was very hungry) until it became clear that we could not "work together" because we have no budget at SoJo for that work. It really would have been great to have that help - unless it clashed with our values as an organization, why would I reject such assistance otherwise?. But as she put it, "no, that won't work for us."

Side note: I believe there is a very clear distinction between a) working together where all parties are on the same playing field together (a collaboration or partnership) and b) providing services that involves a transaction and one party conducting work for another (a client-service provider relationship).

Perhaps it was her tone that set me off internally; I know I can be a bit sensitive. However, I couldn't help but wonder what bothered me about the situation generally. After some reflection this morning:
  1. We're a start-up and hybrid organization, so we’re not making truckloads of money at this point. It’s not necessarily the best assumption that a start-up would even have enough money for what a service provider would try to sell to you as "the basics", even when it's sometimes as immediate and looming as legal and financial concerns.
  2. Content is one of our core activities. It’s essential that we do things like strategies, production, and the like in-house. Because we don't have as much money as we’d like, I'm willing to instead learn how to do those basics on my own. That's just how you get by in a start-up.

Disclaimer: my last full-time job before SoJo was with a consulting firm so I understand why outside expertise is important. But it makes the most sense to outsource or hire a consultant for a job when it’s not a core function of your organization and you have no one with the ability to take it on.

She and I agreed we’ll keep in touch and as she said, maybe we'll be able to talk when SoJo has money. But maybe by that point, I hope we’ll be big enough to have that knowledge in-house, whether it’s by me learning that material or by hiring someone who brings that knowledge will them.
Written by Zainab Habib

I read this quote from Bill Gates a long time ago:

“I choose a lazy person to do a hard job. Because a lazy person will find an easy way to do it.”

You may have also heard of KISS:

KISS = Keep It Simple Stupid

I don't think I realized how true these were though until today. See, it was the 15th of the month and I had forgotten to write up a book review (well, I had forgotten to even read a book or make notes with the review in mind). I knew I had a book review that our community builder Shauna had submitted when she first started at SoJo. However, because it had been done on different guidelines than what we were using at the time, we hadn't done anything with it.

Mind you, I've been thinking about this change for the past few days. Last night, I went through some of my favourite magazines at home and browsed around on the web to see how other people do book reviews. And much to my delight, these range from the long (New York Times' Sunday book reviews are 2 pages long) to the short (see YES! magazine; the last one I did a count for was under 300 words). So I knew I had a range of options to play with (besides, if the rules don't work for you, make your own).

This morning, I got in later than I would've liked to and realized I still had to write a book review. But why not use what I already have and let the readers decide for themselves what format they like? So dear loyal readers, let us know what you think of Shauna's book review of Everyone Leads: Building Leadership from the Community Up by Paul Schmitz.

AJ's always encouraging me to keep it simple and to avoid over-thinking everything - that often can doing more work than necessary, especially if it's a task that requires some trial and error. And Bill Gates has said it too.

Here's to my first experiment to keeping it simple from the start! Now, to make sure this continues.
Written by Zainab Habib

I'm working on a book recommendation for Monday, since my aim lately is to publish one on the 15th of every month. I just took a look at our page views in SoJo's books section and I see... 0 views on all of them.

That is just downright discouraging. However, there could be a number of factors for this that I should consider:
  • we don't advertise them much. Our advertising is really on social media and we rarely put them out there on Twitter or Facebook.
  • we don't write recommendations on books that our users would be interested in reading.
  • they may not be written in a user-friendly format.
  • no one actually reads book reviews/recommendations... or books (this isn't a bad thing; some people, like my brother, just prefer different mediums like newspapers and magazines).

There probably are more points missing from this list, of course. However, considering this list, the first three points are things we can control on our end: the first is something we can definitely do more of and we'll be able to confirm the other two if users actually tell us that. The last point is something we definitely cannot control and so if this were the case, it would be wiser to not do them.

So I'm asking you, our readers, for feedback on any or more of these questions:
  • do you like to read books? If so, what kinds of books? If not, what else do you like to read?
  • do you read and use reviews? I'll be honest: I usually pick up my books based on a) someone telling me about them but more likely because b) I'm in the bookstore browsing and it catches my eye or c) I read about it and the topic really excited me.
  • what would you like to see recommendations on?
  • is there a different way you'd like to see them written?

Leave me your comments below and/or email me at (I promise you'll get a reply!).

Written by Zainab Habib

SoJo has a great team of staff members. We have brought people on board because we identified their potential and fit with the organization and the roles at hand. Our passion for SoJo’s vision and our commitment to use our skills towards that vision are the fuel necessary to keep SoJo moving as we continue to grow.

However, we were able to recognize instances where some team members were "underperforming". Goals were not being met, and deliverables and deadlines were falling through the cracks.

By taking the time to understand their strengths and limitations, we were able to adjust responsibilities and roles where they could take ownership and that were better aligned with their capabilities and interests. These minor changes included focussing one team member exclusively on one project and entrusting another with organizational work that had to get done in a different area. We then noticed visible differences as we watched the transformation from “underperformance” to full potential and flourishing in these tasks and roles.

I later came across this article on hearing too many questions on the site. One of the main reasons leaders hear too many questions from their team about their work is because they might have “delegated tasks rather than results, vision, and resources”. We let team members take charge of the tasks by letting them know what we were expecting at the end (vision and results), while ensuring they had the know-how and resources to get the work done.

Here is what I learned from that experience:

#1. We constantly have to re-evaluate and identify when changes need to happen, and to recognize that we cannot be shy to act on the changes necessary to keep SoJo moving forward.

#2. We want to move away from delegating tasks to owning the vision of what those tasks should lead to. In our case, we couldn’t have done this without Step #1.

Rather than working harder, I work smarter with the limited time I do get with each of our part-time staff. Working with staff on things they take ownership of is what helps develop them and SoJo to their fullest potential.

Today is my first day back at the office since our team meeting at the beginning of the month. I've been travelling overseas, for the past 2 weeks, but consciously decided to disconnected entirely from the Internet for most of my travels. While my hectic travel schedule did not feel like a vacation, being disconnecting from the daily inflow of work communications was desperately needed. My last Internet detox occurred 7 months ago.

The difference between this detox and last detox -- was last year I created detailed workplans for every team member before leaving. Aware that the team required guidance and direction, I took it upon myself to pre-orchestrate operations and team outputs.

I left the office a few weeks ago with a different type of confidence. While I had high-level discussions of expectations of deliverables with some of the team members, I really left it up to everyone to see what they were able to accomplish without my guidance. This laid-back approach happened for two reasons: (1) I didn't have the mental capacity or time to micro-manage everyone's schedules, as I could hardly keep up with my responsibilities (2) I wanted to see how the team managed without my direct involvement in the day-to-day operations of SoJo.  

My phone number was given to our key team members to get in touch if emergencies arose. Never once while I was away did I doubt our team's abilities to handle whatever came their way -- giving me piece of mind that I haven't yet experienced. It was great.

I'm now slowly catching up with the team to check-in on their status and progress. I was pleased (but not surprised) to discover that most things continued to move forward. Albeit I identified inefficiencies and know that some outputs would have increased had I been there to catch the bottlenecks, but all in all, the team did very well. Rather than get caught up on the things that didn't go well, I focused most of my feedback on what was learned and how things can be done differently next time.

My hands-off approach over the past few weeks is proof that the team is equipped to handle daily operations, providing me with the space needed to scale and grow SoJo.

AJ and Kanika at the start of the event
Written by AJ Tibando

Last night Kanika and I went to the International Start-Up Festival, held at the CN Tower.  It was one of my first ‘tech’ events, as most of the networking events we go to fit more on the ‘social innovation’ side of SoJo. It was a great event. While we were just there for the networking, many of the start-ups were taking part in the Elevator Pitch contest - where they had to make their pitch to investors literally inside the CN Tower elevator and they only had the length of the trip from the bottom to the top to win over the crowd.  What a great idea!

It was interesting to see the difference in the crowd and the type of ideas and projects they were starting, and to compare the worlds.

Usually when I’m talking to people in the social innovation world, I find myself listening to their ideas and thinking in the back of my head, ‘Ok, but HOW?’  People have incredible ideas for changing the world and making an impact, but sometimes I’m skeptical about how they’re going to actually execute their idea.  This time I found myself asking the exact opposite.  People would describe an app they were developing and to make it easier to decide where to go for dinner or make online shopping more intuitive – interesting ideas but I could hear that voice in the back of my head saying, ‘Ok, by WHY?’ Some were trying to make a difference, but most were just trying to make a profit.  

I realized that one of SoJo’s greatest strengths as an organization is that we’ve focussed every step of the way on making sure we could answer both of those questions.  For us, WHY we do things determines HOW we do things – and our strategic business decisions have always followed that thinking. Last night was a great reminder that what we’re doing really is new and unique, and it reinforced to me how important it is that we get this model right because it could hopefully change how people think about launching a new start-up in the future.

Rebecca working on SoJo's website
In September SoJo welcomed two high school co-op students. A risky decision that paid off with great rewards. Today is one of our high school students' last day with SoJo. Rebecca was responsible for publishing 100s of articles online, writing unique content, research activities and following our daily news feeds. We got accustomed to seeing her in the office everyday, with a bright smiling face and great work ethic. We're happy to know that SoJo was a formative experience for Rebecca, as she begins her career as a writer. Read her thoughts and reflections on her experience working as a junior editor with SoJo:

Before coming to SoJo, I had no idea how booming the startup world was, or what social innovation really meant. I was just your average high school student, harbouring unrealistic hopes of doing my co-op internship at a fabulous magazine.

But when the idea of SoJo was brought to me, I was definitely intrigued. And now, after four months of writing, editing and learning, I’m really glad I took this opportunity.

Working as a junior editor at SoJo, I learned a lot. My supervisor was Zainab, SoJo Editorial Coordinator. She was smart and supportive, someone I’m really glad I got to work with. I was inspired by Kanika’s work ethic; seeing how much travelling and work she does. Her commitment to SoJo is outstanding. Jesse, the Product Lead who manages the website, was also helpful, fixing bugs and helping me navigate through technical issues as I learned how to publish content online. Everyone else on the team in general was really friendly, and welcomed me with open arms.

I’ve had so many highlights during my time here. The team meeting in November was fun, eating chocolate, discussing SoJo’s next steps, and meeting new people. Writing my book review was also a highlight for me, it being the first real, professional piece of writing I’ve published. Working with Robleh Jama of Busy Building Things was interesting, being able to collaborate with him and get my feet wet doing real journalism. It was definitely a learning experience.

I also really loved working from SoJo's office in the Digital Media Zone (DMZ) ! The DMZ is a multidisciplinary workspace for research and learning, home to many startups in downtown Toronto. It’s such a bright, open workspace with fun, smart people. It was not what I expected from an office, which I thought would be cubicles and deadlines.  Everyone is working on something cutting edge and new, and everyone is supportive of each other. Working in a space with forty other companies seemed daunting at first, but it’s been fun meeting new entrepreneurs and learning about what they’re working on.  I’m also definitely going to miss the food! Around the DMZ, there’s always cake, snacks, pizza and other assorted foods. We’re always celebrating and encouraging!

As for the future, I’ve recently applied for a teen editor position at an online magazine. The gig entails writing content/blog posts, making playlists, writing book reviews, etc. With my new experience at SoJo, I think it will really give me an edge over the other applicants. Digital publishing is obviously a big part of online magazines, so I’m glad I got some real life experience with it through SoJo. Wish me luck!

I feel really lucky to have been able to do my co-op placement somewhere as unique and new as SoJo. Even though it wasn’t a trendy magazine, SoJo was even better, providing me with new skills and new experience in the world of startups. It’s been a long ride, but I’ve definitely made enough memories, friendships, and experiences to last a lifetime.

Written by Rebecca Mangra

About an hour ago I submitted SoJo's application to the Future Fund. This was the fifth and final step of a long, tiring and very competitive process. SoJo is among the finalists and we have a really good chance of securing the funding needed to grow our organization. This is a great opportunity (especially in light of our recent funding challenges), so I prioritized extra effort on this task.

While this was my first time writing a grant proposal and my learning curve was fairly steep, it wasn't my first time writing a proposal. Last year started with SoJo's application to a prestigious Fellowship, I assisted Jesse writing our first research fellowship (which he received), and despite everyone's doubts - I miraculously completed an intense 89-page proposal for a Research Grant in the Fall.

Similarly, SoJo has been through 4 product launches: a closed Beta, open Beta, official launch and finally a cross-platform mobile version. All of those launches resulted in working around the clock, all-hands-on-deck attitude, intense focus and endless details. Many parallels can be shared with the experience of writing major proposals and product launches, however my attitude is different towards both of them:

Saying what you're going to do vs. Just doing it
SoJo has been action-oriented since its inception. Innovation is not knowing all the answers, so we trusted the process and consistently received gratification as we learned and progressed. On the other hand, telling people exactly what you plan to do and how you're going to do it is quite tiring. To me, it feels contrived, and in some ways an inefficient use of time to write out a master plan- as it is rare that things go according to plan.

Control over timelines
All of our product launch dates were self-imposed. We decided when we wanted to complete them, and held ourselves accountable to ensuring all launches occurred on time. Application deadlines are not in our control, and often force us to work at times when we do not want to work: ie over the Holidays or during key strategic business planning times.

Control over outcomes
The win from a product launch is clear: our product advances and is better.  The win from a proposal isn't so clear. If you are successful - awesome. Team SoJo has collectively invested over 100 hours into this recent application. If we're unsuccessful, there will be great disappointment for not succeeding and frustration for all the time that was invested with little to show. I'm learning to lower my expectations on outcomes and seek value from the process instead.

While its clear that product launches are a lot more exciting for our team while we're in them, writing applications for external support are just as important to grow the organization. I must treat them both with great importance and while the outcomes are different, the time dedicated to each one is equally valuable.

The last day of the year is always a very reflective day for me. Reflecting on all that was accomplished and learned -- and how that will influence behaviour and decisions in the coming year.

2011 was a highly experimental exploratory year. While there was great confidence in the need for a resource like SoJo, we didn't know exactly HOW it would come to life.  With100s of exploratory meetings and discussions, and an incredible amount of hard work the year ended with our first beta product launch.

2012 can be summarized as the year of fighting. With a product under our belt an increased clarity on how SoJo fits into the world, we were:
  • Fighting to prove our legitimacy to prospective partners
  • Fighting to explain the value of SoJo to people who just weren't listening
  • Fighting to establish and defend our legal structure (which we're still figuring out)
  • Fighting to convince funders of the impact created by SoJo
  • Fighting to get the attention of people who blatantly dismiss and ignore us
  • Fighting against a system and sector that operates fundamentally in contradiction to our values
  • Fighting to show the world that we are capable of doing the intangible and achieving excellence

Demand for SoJo's resources are higher than ever. At the same time, our team is more stretched than ever before. I need to be cautious of how we allocate our resources and energy. Mental energy expended on fighting is wasted resources that serve no value to SoJo. I'm done fighting. I'm done with the associated negativity. I'm done with trying to prove myself or SoJo to others.

Most of my talks this year were centered on struggle, adversity and overcoming the naysayers. SoJo is in a beautiful position to invent the future. It is so much more powerful to inspire through a vision, instilling values of an ideal of what the world should look like, rather than focus on its shortcomings.

I started this year with a resolution not to drive myself into the ground. Fighting (or the perceived need to fight) was exhausting, and in many ways brought out the worst in me. It took a toll on me mentally and can be attributed to an unpleasant burnout. Since I'm not really good at keeping resolutions, I've now decided to end the year with leaving behind Fighting.

SoJo is a moving train. We will gladly welcome onboard anyone who shares our vision and commitment to seeing it a reality -- but the train will not stop or slow down for the those who don't make it to the platform on time. They can catch us at another station, but for now, SoJo needs to value itself more and trust that it has all the support it needs to push forward.

While I let go of fighting, I hope to liberate this chip on my shoulder which has only been growing deeper with time. The ecosystem was not very kind to me in the early days of SoJo, and continues to act in ways that I don't agree with. As a response to these frustrations, I've been sub-conscientiously trying to prove everyone wrong. Instead of wanting to prove people wrong, I need to stop reacting and focus on proactively building the future. Over the past couple of months, SoJo has achieved phenomenal success, recognition and we have the strongest team ever.
The best way to end 2012 is to let go of the negative energy and celebrate what makes us awesome.

The Ontario Trillium Foundation launched a Future Fund -- a fund to support ideas that will strengthen the infrastructure for young social entrepreneurs in Ontario. This fund has SoJo's name written all over it, as SoJo already meets all of the Fund's stated desired outcomes. Yesterday I was invited to pitch to the committee allocating the funds from the Future Fund, in addition to other investors, funders and stakeholders.

While I've spoken dozens of times on stage about SoJo and "pitched" SoJo hundreds of times informally to prospective partners and supporters, a pitch to an investor -- with a clear expectation of money on the other end -- was a whole other story. Reflecting in hindsight; I placed a greater deal of pressure on myself this time, as the stakes were higher considering the uniqueness and potential of this opportunity meeting some of our financing needs.

Many hours went into the presentation. Some team members helped to frame the story of SoJo in a concise and engaging format. An advisor who has successfully raised many rounds of venture capital financing, and someone who has been on the other side of 100s of pitches shared additional thoughts on the storyline. One of our very talented designers successfully interpreted that story into hand-drawn cartoon-like representations. SoJo's brand and identity is built on a do-it-yourself theme, and my pitch to an investor needed to represent that as well. A corporate-like presentation wouldn't do justice.

Having never been a fan of powerpoint presentations, I was forced to step out of my comfort-zone of picture only slides, to add text and numbers to the presentation. For the first time, I had to get myself out of the "delivering a workshop" mindset to a "selling your vision mindset."

Despite being down with influenza for more than a week (and almost voiceless the night before), I woke up yesterday morning pumped and excited. All of the nerves left me, as I was excited for the opportunity to share SoJo's good work to an audience who had the power to help us in a very meaningful way. While I do wish I had a little more life into my presentation, I am very pleased with my pitch and left feeling confident in how I represented SoJo.

This Fund is highly competitive, so we'll see if SoJo is something the Fund sees value to invest in. Regardless, this process has thought me a lot about communication and understanding your audience, skills that I will undoubtedly use and refine in the near future.  

It's a word that I have a twisted obsession with: the more I hate hearing myself say it, the more I use it. It comes out of my mouth without a second thought, and I've become so comfortable with this word that I've lost consciousness of using it. My lack of self-control has forced me to outright ban this word from my vocabulary. The B-word being BUSY. Here is why:

Busy is relative
While there is always a need to improve my time management skills and my ability to create more space in my life for non-work related activities or personal down-time, at the end of the day, BUSY is my new normal. I will never get through my inbox or complete the entire to-do list. Busy is a relative term. What is busier than busy? I've over-used this word to the point that it has lost its relevance. I must accept the fact that the demands for my time will always outweigh the amount of time that I actually have. As such I must be smarter about how I choose to allocate my time, and not let BUSY be my excuse for putting the effort to actually change my behaviour.  

Being busy is being rude
Everyone has a lot going on in their lives. When someone asks me to meet this week and I tell them, "I can't, I'm busy", I'm making the assumption that my time is worth more than theirs. If I make a commitment to participate in an advisory role and do not attend the meetings, I'm in fact using BUSY as a cover-up and am indirectly telling everyone I don't actually respect the other advisors' time, because if I did, I would honour my commitment. Being BUSY is fairly presumptuous and outright rude, actually. If I legitimately do not have time in my schedule, instead of saying that I'm BUSY, I should tell people when my earliest availability is and also reconsider ongoing commitments.

Lacks articulation
When people ask me how I'm doing, my gut response is to say "I've been really busy." I've started to catch myself get too comfortable using the B-word as a catch-all-phrase. Using BUSY as a catch-all phrase belittles myself, as this word really doesn't mean anything. It is not concrete or tangible. Rather, I'm hoping the B-word Challenge will force me to be more articulate, and list out the actual activities that have been occupying my time.

Perceived loss of control
As alluded to above, BUSY doesn't actually mean anything. If I cannot articulate the things that keep me BUSY, then am I really that BUSY? Saying that I'm BUSY is most often followed with a sigh, anxious tone or frazzled look. BUSY is most often said in lieu of "I've consciously decided to allocate my time this way, and I'm in full control." If I'm consistently using the B-word, then it can be perceived as my inability to control my time. Busy is not synonymous for confidence. In my role, I must always sell SoJo and my ability to deliver on our vision. Always telling people that I'm BUSY doesn't emanate confidence or control.

Not a badge of pride
A recent NY Times essay states compelling arguments about society's obsession with self-imposed busyness. The writer refers to the 'Busy' Trap as "a kind of existential reassurance, a hedge against emptiness." I would like to be seen as someone who achieves results, not as someone who is always BUSY. In fact, I'm on personal mission to prove that it is possible to achieve success without driving yourself into ground, and with grace. BUSY is not graceful. By constantly telling people I'm BUSY, instead of the work that gets done, I'm essentially feeding into this vicious cycle of the busyness trap.

It's going to be difficult to go cold-turkey and omit a word entirely from my vocabulary that I use multiple times a day; hence my public documentation of this challenge. To help hold me accountable, everytime someone from my team (the individuals who interact with me most consistently) catch me using the B-word in context, I will have to buy them a gift. If anything above resonates with you, then I encourage you to take on The B-word Challenge with me.

Trevor working on SoJo from Latin America
This post was written by founding team member, Trevor Gair.

Although not my idea, SoJo became my baby. I am so grateful to have played a role in its early stage creation. From the outset, my primary role evolved into building SoJo’s community. This was appropriate. I love to connect people, learn about new media and own a licence to experiment.

From Guatemala, on March 8, 2011 I sent SoJo’s first tweet. From there I tackled Facebook and LinkedIn with a goal of spreading word of SoJo’s mission to make new friends and inspire action. Later my duties would include the monthly SoJo e-Journal newsletter and several rounds of feedback solicitation from early adopters.

Building an online community is the underestimated pillar of successful internet business today. Inspiring individuals to believe in and actively support an avant-garde concept is challenging. Engaging them deeply enough so that they become advocate users even more so. I am so pleased to acknowledge that already thousands of changemakers are making good on their passions through SoJo and that the budding community is one of the contributing elements.

I have never lived in Toronto and so always worked with the growing SoJo team remotely. In fact, it was eight months working with Kanika virtually before we actually met in person. This had a profound effect on my relationship with and outlook on the venture. I believe it helped me to think like a typical SoJo user – somewhat isolated, dreaming big and working hard. In essence, I have lived one of the core pillars of what SoJo seeks to foster – that there are no barriers to building what you are passionate about seeing exist.

This October I made the decision to pass forward my responsibilities within the SoJo team and embark on an international voyage that I have been dreaming about for years. My decision to depart bears no reflection on my belief in SoJo’s mission or direction. Since our public beta launch in November 2011, the venture’s momentum has continued consistently in a positive direction - oscillating only intensity during different periods. I believe the future brings with it accelerated growth and success for SoJo. The world is ready for what we envision and the SoJo team will deliver.  

As I left home for new adventures on November 1st, I was able to route my flight itinerary to the Middle East through Toronto. A brief 22 hour window enabled me to share laughs and engage in constructive team building without the need for a virtual Google Hangouts. It was special and truly brought to life the quality of individuals that Kanika has assembled to help make SoJo a reality.

I wish the SoJo team all the best going forward. I will be following closely. I can’t wait to see my baby all grown up!

Follow Trevor's international adventures through Iraq, Iran, Pakistan and India at

This is Part 1of a multi-part series of SoJo's journey of seeking the funding needed to scale its operations and bring it to a point of financial self-sustainability.

Up until now funding has not been an issue for SoJo, as the focus has been on proving the value of our product and the need that SoJo is filling in the market. I believed and continue to believe that if you deliver a valuable service or product, then there will be the resources or market to support that product. Rather than focus our time on securing funds, we were busy building, serving our community and validating the consumer-facing product.

SoJo's product has been validated many times over. With an endorsement from the Canadian Commission for UNESCO as a leading educational platform, an active community of over 2,000 individuals without marketing or outreach efforts, and over 65,000 pages viewed online, and incredible press coverage around the world, it’s safe to say a resource like SoJo is needed by early-stage social innovators.

Over the past 2 years, I've been monitoring the resources and funding options that are available, as I knew we'd eventually need to tap into them and also feed onto our platform. Here is a highly simplified overview of the funding landscape in Canada:

· A not-for-profit with a proven track record of managing funds or a charitable organization that has been through the hoops of receiving CRA charitable status and delivered on projects already are normally eligible for non-refundable grant money from private foundations or government agencies.

· Traditional for-profit organizations with a proven business model, built prototype and validated proof of concept and normally eligible for debt or equity financing to scale growth or build out the product further.

· The most common form of support comes from friends and family of the founders who invest in the founder and their ideas, because they want to support the individual or believe in their ideas.

SoJo is an early-stage social innovation project and when speaking with my peers we all share the same rant: there's big talk, but early-stage social innovation financing is virtually non-existent in Canada. Yes, there are many competitions and awards (which dominate the airwaves leading us to believe that this funding exists). However, the probability of getting them is less than 1%, based on the ever-growing demand for these funds and often allocated based on the bias of the grantors. SoJo was a semi-finalist in the one of the largest awards for social entrepreneurs and we gave it our all -- but were unsuccessful.

Grants route:
Innovation by definition is the act of making what already exists better or starting something new. Although "social innovation" funds are starting to pop up among foundations, applicants must still be either a registered charity or have a proven track record of financial management to show accountability. Although I understand the funding constraints found within these organizations, I will be honest when I say it's contradictory (and counter-intuitive) to demand applicants fit into traditional organizational structures, when innovation is all about starting something new. With no charitable number and only a few dollars in our bank account, this makes us ineligible for many of the opportunities available. We've since built strong relationships with some of the larger funding agencies and I will continue to explore and create opportunities. Umbrella organizations exist to support innovative projects, acting as a financial and legal fiduciary but they take a 10% overhead charge on all incoming funds (which is a lot of money for a tiny nimble organization such as ours) and only work with unincorporated projects - further making SoJo ineligible.  

SoJo is still eligible for traditional non-refundable grants if we find our own fiduciary sponsor. SoJo partners with over 50 nonprofits and charities. I personally reached out to everyone who is eligible and not a single organization was able to help us out. Either they are applying to the same funds themselves or their Boards are not comfortable assuming the risk that comes with the added legal responsibilities. Conversations come to a dead-end, and I end up feeling like I'm 'begging', when I know that SoJo has nothing but value to add. I've spent nearly 2 months seeking out a fiduciary sponsor and have since realized it’s no longer worth my time to actively pursue this route.

Equity investments:
SoJo has a brilliant vision for its revenue model, and it will come from its B2B Whitelabel product. This product has been anecdotally validated by various HR professionals and staff from prospective clients. However, rule #1 of business is that until you have a paying customer, your product has not been validated. Without a validation, it’s difficult to seek mainstream debt and equity funding. 

This B2B product will create a market that does not yet exist. SoJo has no competitors right now on its public-facing site, and our market research shows that there are no competitors in the B2B market that SoJo will create. The price of this product can only be dictated by the market. With a market that does not yet exist, the return on investment is so speculative at this point it won't be even worth anyone's time to discuss those numbers or create a business plan. The plan is to get our pilot customer to share in the development costs, serving as validation, which will allow us to seek the appropriate funds (or generate our own revenue) to build out this product. Until then, equity or "impact investing" types of funding are not an option for SoJo.

In the interim, I've been advised to take the time to create a competitive analysis for this product which can help convince prospective investors of the potential that lies in this market; however it’s still going to be long stretch. SoJo has since hired a Business Development intern who will help with these activities.

Although the B2B has great potential, from our strategic planning emerged the importance of focusing on the consumer-facing (B2C) product. With B2B on hold for the next year, these funding options seem ever distant.

Friends and family:
Between the volunteer hours, in-kind support from partners and financial investments from the founding members (and our families) over 13,000 hours and $500,000 have already been invested into SoJo. Albeit most of this money is in-kind, it does not dismiss the significance of the investment and risk already taken by those involved in SoJo. It’s fair to say, we've exhausted friends and family and this is no longer an option.

Why does SoJo need money?

As alluded to in my previous blog post, a part-time unpaid team cannot fuel the growth that is needed to make SoJo the universal ubiquitous resource for early-stage social innovators. We have taken this as far as we could without external support, and have come very far may I add; however, we are quickly running out of steam.  SoJo needs money so it can build to the point where it can sustain itself (aka bridge funding).

I've read enough reports and heard enough people talking about the importance of supporting social innovation. Social innovation starts somewhere, and for those of us in the trenches, in our early stages and without all of the answers, the outlook does not look bright.

SoJo's vision is to be the starting point, to provide social innovators with the knowledge and emotional support needed to get started and stay motivated in the early days of their journey of creating positive social impact. With a world of ever-increasing social, environmental and political challenges, no one will deny the importance of getting more people and fresh minds involved in building and acting on creative solutions to these challenges. For social innovation to thrive, all of us in the ecosystem need to provide more support to the early-stagers. SoJo is doing its part through education and emotional support, however its time for the rest of the ecosystem to step up and invest in early-stage social innovation. Otherwise this thriving ecosystem will continue to leave brilliant ideas and incredible potential to the curbside; a shame, especially when I know the resources exist.

As I navigate through the challenges and frustrations of seeking bridge funding to bring SoJo to the point where it can be financially self-sustaining, I plan to candidly document this journey on, with the goal of welcoming more suggestions and the hopes of attracting more attention to this important, but overlooked issue.

Written by Zainab Habib. Editorial Coordinator at SoJo. Follow Zainab online @zainabhsays

Yesterday, I tweeted “About to do my first pitch ever for @The_SoJo at the @RyersonDMZ within the next hour.
Exciting and nervous. All at once.”

This captured exactly what I felt at that moment, knowing that
a) I did not have enough time to prepare;
b) I found out three hours before that the pitch was moved up a day earlier than planned; and
c) though I have many gifts, marketing is certainly not one of them.

Yesterday for the first time, I pitched on behalf of SoJo. I had a script and practiced, but it didn’t necessarily turn out that way. I felt as though the first half of my pitch was unnatural as I had to read some of the material so that I did not miss anything (I still missed a few points) and I delivered it standing at my desk where I felt unnatural, posed and formal. The demo, or walkthrough of was much more relaxed as we were seated and I was using more of my own language. Although I was super uneasy immediately after I completed that first pitch, the response I received was fantastic. The guest of honour tweeted his thanks to SoJo and another emailed me stating that they were all very impressed with what we were doing as an organization.

We are often our worst critics. Somewhere in between the pitch and the demo, I realized I had to just do this as myself. That is often the simplest solution when trying to represent our initiatives or organizations. Trying to morph ourselves into an ideal of any kind, like the great salesman, just doesn’t work. People can sense the fake, and investors and key stakeholders are people too.

I’ll also add that people, not products or services, take action and create social impact; and when your product or service is really great, it will be able to speak for itself. Your role is to simply convey that your conviction and belief in your work in a way that keeps others engaged. This will take some time and practice, but I assure you that it will come effortlessly at some point, just as I found my pace once I did the demo in a way that came more naturally to me.

My lesson learned: you have to play upon your own people skills, whatever they may be. Your pitch then will simply be an extension of you and your project.

Collectively, I've spent more hours on MS Powerpoint this past week then I probably have over the past couple of months combined.

In school I absolutely hated slideshows, perhaps its because professors had the most un-engaging presentations or because whenever I saw someone use slides in a presentation, it felt overly corporate and impersonal. Unless absolutely mandatory, I often refrained from using this tool when making presentations. Even when defending my Master's Thesis (the research that inspired the creation of SoJo) I didn't use slides.

When delivering presentations on SoJo or hosting workshops on Ideas - into - Action, I've only recently started to use slides -- that too with stickmen and cartoons. In the countless meetings held over the past 2 years, I never used slides to explain SoJo either. I like to believe I'm a much more engaging presenter than a static slide, and as such preferred to lead more free-flow conversations. Now that SoJo is actively looking for money and soliciting the support of other people to help us in this quest -- I don't have the luxury of personal contact with everyone on their initial introduction to SoJo. As such have been creating overview/backgrounder documents to do the talking on my behalf.

Despite my reluctance to embrace Powerpoint in the past, I quickly started to love using this tool. I'm particularly appreciative of the flexibility and ease of moving around boxes and different types of content make my documents look more visually appealing.

Although I now have a newfound appreciation for slides as an effective form of communication, I still don't think a slide deck can ever replace a real conversation. Slides can serve as a great complementary support, as they allow the audience to visually capture key takeaway ponits, but should never be the focus. I already shared my first deck to a couple of people and hope to use a different one with the handful of meetings scheduled next week. Let's see if I'm able to use the deck effectively, or if I refer back to my comfort zone and lead a more free-form conversation...

Excerpt from SoJo's latest overview slide deck
Almost all of my greatest insights have come to me during the weekends. Not being connected to my inbox and daily operations of work definitely helps to take step back and reflect. I suffered from a burnout in September and October has felt like an off month all around. Over lunch with my brother on Saturday, I told him that I was concerned with how much SoJo feels like its taking over my life; and my inability to control my schedule (as evidenced by working on 12 hour days when I set a goal for myself to NOT work around the clock). Only when I said this fear out loud was I compelled to actually make some changes.

Solution: find the root cause of these persistent feelings of being stretched.  I was instructed to list out all of the activities (whole projects, not tasks) that myself and the team worked on over the past week. Despite having only 4 days in the week, I effortlessly listed over 30 ongoing activities; myself being directly involved in about 25 of them and solely responsible for 10. Its not that I have trouble delegating ( the team at SoJo will be quick to acknowledge my comfort with letting go and giving responsibilities to the team). Being the only person that understands all moving parts of the organization and the vision, I'm often called up for input to keep everyone on track. SoJo is a flat organization, and building in reporting structures has been difficult because most of our senior team members barely have the capacity to deal with what's on their plate, let alone manage and provide necessary support to other colleagues. Strategic planning has dragged out over 2 months and no clear changes have emerged.

SoJo grew incredibly fast and as such the scope and depth of the work at hand has grown exponentially. The problem is, our team hasn't grown at the same pace -- in fact, it has shrunk. Most of our team members came together only in the Spring, they had a lot of time to devote to SoJo and were fresh on energy. Fall is always the busiest time of the year, irrespective of where you work. 15 hours of commitment per week over the past 6-8 months has since shrunk to 5 hours. I'm extremely grateful to have product lead Jesse full-time with SoJo, but its not enough. Some of our team members are burnt-out from having to manage SoJo and other personal activities and have been forced to take a step back. A lot of the momentum from the summer quickly fizzled away in the Fall, as everyone's other schedules ramped up.

Making myself personally available to 10+ team member's part-time, fluctuating schedules has taken a toll on my personal health and wellbeing. I no longer have evenings, as I make myself available to people's consistently changing schedules our team members who can only come into the office after their day job finishes. To top it off, there is little consistency as SoJo is understandably not the top priority (so it is common for people to fall off the grid for weeks and I am left with no choice but to understand). These inconsistencies get me frustrated and the bottlenecks that occur as a result affect the momentum of the entire team.

All this to say that these are the trade-off with working with an a part-time unpaid team. I will say with full confidence that SoJo has an exceptional team which led us to all of SoJo's successes thus far, but in its current form will be unable to sustain the inevitable growth that has already hit us. I'm actively finding solutions to our staffing challenges (finding money needed to bring on some of our team members full-time), however in the interim need to make some changes and trade-offs.

Some of these changes include:
- Reducing the scope of activities the team is actively involved in and fine-tuning our focus even more
- Prioritizing need areas and tackling them one-by-one (rather than all at once)
- Un-flattening the organization to get me less involved in activities that I do not need to be involved with, so I can focus my energies on driving the vision forward

The changes noted above are going to be difficult as everything feels equally important. The Forbes article from this month nailed it:

"Kanika and her start-up have a compelling story and have received plenty of media attention. It is to be seen how SoJo can up the momentum, increase users, net-in some big-name partners and take its awesomeness places. What SoJo needs now is this: Focusing on the product, leveraging relationships and creating new ones, building tangible results including right media coverage, and forming a right-spirited and a serious advisory board. Kanika’s leadership and the ability to learn and adapt is the make or break factor here."

With growth comes change. Change is never easy, but I'm thankful that I've started to recognize the need to learn and adapt now, and not when its too late.

Menu bar that mysteriously lost all its formatting
Who is Murphy anyways? What did he do to be forever immortalized as the thing and/or person that countless people curse at, on a regular basis?

Our beloved Product Lead Jesse is on a vacation in Europe for the next 2 weeks. He handed off the SoJo in working condition, yet surely enough if something were to go wrong, it would go wrong while he is away and inaccessible. I found too many unpleasant surprises this morning, that I stopped counting. I'm not in total shock, as Friday afternoon we experienced some problems and SoJo's been having issues for the past couple of months with its theme, further making me convinced that there is a ghost manipulating our website. Jesse has been incredible at consistently fixing these problems in such a timely manner -- its easy to feel helpless and lost in this dire time of need.

Your patience and tolerance is requested for the following reasons:
If the SoJo site takes a little longer to load
If some pages on SoJo look a little off
If you stumble across a broken link (we have over 60 of them)

Rest assured that myself and our team is trying our best to point out the issues and are actively troubleshooting accordingly.

My ability to stay calm in stressful situations has been tested multiple times. It is painful to have such obvious errors appear on a public site, and I'm trying my best to keep my cool. I hope to not jynx myself, however know that things could be much worse and am thankful that SoJo is working at 80% functionality right now.  

Thanks for your understanding. I wonder if Murphy is secretly a brilliant person who has been trying to teach us a lesson all along... problems are inevitable, the true test is our ability to rationally deal through them?

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:
  1. You can't expect anyone to give you a silver bullet answer to your problems. Best is to enter every conversation without any expectations.
  2. Letting it all out doesn't always make you feel better. Use your discretion and open those wounds as far as you want to. 

Exactly two years ago today, September 20, 2010, I wrote'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 would manifest itself into. Two years later, 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 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!

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. _

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...

Disclaimer: What I'm about to share is highly experimental and is not grounded in any theory or practice.

SoJo has many exciting product development decisions to make. Based on early insights from the strategic planning process, SoJo needs to improve the navigation, usability and interface of the public site. In parallel to making these improvements, SoJo is building its first-ever enterprise-level software product. The stakes are much higher now, and decisions have greater implications. I was able to guide the team to building a content site using a Wordpress framework in its most basic functionality. This next phase of growth is much more complex, and beyond our current capacity.

SoJo has great development team. When given proper direction and structure, they are able to execute above and beyond. That being said, both developers are fairly junior and SoJo is the largest technical project either of them has worked on. Trial by fire has been our methodology thus far,  however it can be a hindrance in moving SoJo forward. The entire organization needs to work at a more accelerated pace to achieve these next set of milestones.

When seeking advice, my challenges around the gap that exists between translating business requirements into functional requirements, the need for a CTO (Chief Technical Officer) came up quite often. Most successful technology companies are co-founded by a technical person, who becomes the CTO. Bringing on an external CTO at this stage of our development will be challenging. We have no intentions of selling SoJo for millions of dollars in the coming years, and the financial payout seems be to be a large motivator to attract good senior technical talent.

Technical recruitment has always been a challenge. Linus and Jesse joined SoJo right before major product launches. For the past 8 months, I've been keeping my eyes peeled for a technical partner. After 3 intense and focused months of searching for a technical team member, I've learned that effort will not always equal result. With the inability to offer a 6-digit salary and a highly competitive market, finding the right person will remain an ongoing challenge for us.

SoJo is in a conundrum where it needs a CTO to grow, however is unable to find one -- therefore the only logical solution is to create one. To fill its technical deficiencies, SoJo will be crowd-sourcing its CTO. This is highly experimental in nature. I have not found any successful case studies and I am still figuring out what it will look like.

Traditionally, crowd sourcing implies reaching out to the public for assistance. In this case, I will be reaching out to a closed network, seeking referrals to source individuals looking to commit their skills and experience to SoJo. Since SoJo is not building any unique technology, all development related activities can likely be covered by our existing development team. What we need instead is support in project management, information architecture, decision making and industry insights. Most of these skills come from experience, and so it makes sense to leverage the experience of many professionals, most of whom can complement one another. In addition to benefiting from the skills and expertise of experts in their respective fields, not having someone in the daily grind of the business can also provide fresh perspectives.

Product vision and business requirements will continue to come from me, so the crowd-sourced CTO will be used for technical guidance.

This approach is highly risky for many reasons:

Lack of ownership and accountability
SoJo will not the first priority of any of the individuals. Being a secondary activity, they may not dedicate the mental energy or time required for this role. A dedicated CTO invests in the company, both with their time and expected payoff. It will be difficult to hold a crowd-sourced CTO accountable to the advice that they provide, as the consequences of their advice may not directly impact them. Beyond goodwill and the opportunity to shape an organization with huge potential for impact, there is not much more that I can offer to our crowd-sourced CTOs in terms of compensation.

Effectively communicating the problem
A crowd-sourced CTO will not be able to get into the trenches or depth of problems. Only someone that works on a project day-in and day-out will understand all of the intricacies of certain technical issues and implementation problems. When only providing incomplete information, we risk getting incomplete or misleading advice.

With multiple brains giving out different pieces of advice, it is likely that we will receive conflicting and incomplete advice. Distinguishing between everyone's bias can result in a lot of inefficiencies or lead us down a wrong path. Similarly, the different features and technical elements to our products are all intrinsically linked. Each crowd-sourced CTO will likely look at their own issues in isolation. Without taking into account the technical inter-dependencies of each of the solutions, it is possible that solutions to one problem create bigger problems elsewhere. 


Having a dedicated CTO will free me completely of all technical related activities. With less focus on the product, I'll be able to dedicate my time to equally important CEO-type activities, such as getting funding, building the brand and supporting other functions of the organization. In addition to coordinating the schedules of the CTOs I will still be primarily responsible for relaying that guidance to the technical team.  

Risks considered, I'm quite excited about going ahead with crowd-sourcing SoJo's CTO. This could be an experiment gone wrong, in which case we know that we exhausted every option. On the other hand, this can potentially be a new model for what is possible, given limited resources.

Over the month of July, everyone on the team was asked to reflect and make note of their key accomplishments, strengths, challenges and missed goals. Although SoJo continues to have a very young team, most have been onboard long enough to assess their performance and contributions. Often when you're in the daily grind, it is easy to forget about all that was achieved. Taking a step back to reflect allowed everyone on the team to do so, and take pride in their growth. Likewise, it is often easy to forget about challenges after they've past and continuously  repeat behaviours without awareness of the need to make corrections.

Zainab (the editorial coordinator who has direct contact with all of the editors) and I have started to turn these notes shared by our colleagues into individual development plans. In addition to sharing my thoughts on each team member's strengths and challenges, a section on Core Competencies was added. Through the use of specific examples, this section highlights a series of competencies, making specific reference to what was done well, and where improvements can be made. Each competency was backed by several examples, ensuring feedback was grounded in reality, and also aided the individual receiving the feedback to relate and better understand where actions could have been done differently.

The third and final section is a personal development plan. I am personally committed to developing and growing every member of SoJo's team, and ensuring that SoJo is positive learning experience, beyond the direct contributions everyone makes to our mandate. Everyone's development plan consists on average of 2 mutually agreed upon tangible goals. By writing out the developmental plan, it holds SoJo (myself or Zainab) and the individual team member to ensuring it happens.

Often we are not aware of the changes that we need to make. A manager or a peer is best positioned to provide an alternative perspective, as they can make the unconscious conscience or validate an assumption that previously existed. This inaugural round of development plans is adding some much needed structure and order to SoJo, and we're learning tons. Up until now, SoJo has had a very flat, friendly and collegial culture. To get over the fear of giving [critical] feedback to a colleague who is more like a friend, it is important to be reminded of the goal. In our case, we all share a goal of making SoJo the best it can be. As such feedback needs to be constructive, where the intention of personal growth is clear.

Making these plans are an investment, as it takes a lot of mental energy and time (2-3 hours for each individual). People are SoJo's greatest asset, and I see this investment necessary to show our team that we care, which in-turn will make SoJo the best it can be.

Likewise, once everyone's development plans have been completed, I will be inviting the team to share their feedback on my performance and leadership. This 360 review will provide a complete and thorough evaluation of everyone in the organization, ensuring we can all develop and grow together.