Written by Zainab
Business cards are great to hand out and receive - but only if they are a) informative and b) acted upon.
I've gone to a few events where I've given out my card and where I have received cards. It's common for many people to give a card during or after their introduction, since it often helps people visually see a name and it's an easy way to hand out contact information. Mind you, these are general business cards, which we mostly use by adding our own email addresses in that space you see there. Most cards are naturally informative because of the way they're usually structured.
Therefore, it's the follow-up that is left. When I give out a business card, I am usually hoping the recipient will follow up with a visit to our website or blog, check us out on twitter or Facebook, or ideally write to me at email@example.com
(my email address). If I get a business card, I will do my best to follow up, hoping that they'll respond too.
However, I can understand it's sometimes a bit difficult to follow up. After all, what should
one write? After many attempts at this process, my latest go at this has been about building more personal relationships. I've sent the people I met at the OCE Discovery conference an email personally saying it was great to meet them, a link to our website, and a note offering how SoJo or I could help. I avoid including a description about SoJo because it makes the email even longer and they can explore the site on their own since I've most likely told them about it in person.
What has this yielded so far? Approximately 4 out of 9 people responded back to my email, which I truly appreciate. Not everyone will respond back though and understandably, it may feel discouraging. However, that's the worst that can happen: you won't get a response. At best, that email could be the catalyst for a great business relationship or partnership - which is exactly what I'm going to aim to foster with those who wrote back.
For the beginning of this week, I was at the Ontario Centres of Excellence (OCE) Discovery Conference, “Canada's leading innovation-to-commercialization conference, showcasing leading-edge technologies, best practices and research in Ontario”. I’ll be writing a series of posts on things to keep in mind when going to a conference or event as an exhibitor. This is the second post in the series.Written by Zainab
The Ontario Centres of Excellence Discovery Conference, like many conferences, is a great place to be if you are looking for exposure to a variety of stakeholders. When we got the chance to have a kiosk at Discovery for absolutely no cost through the Digital Media Zone, I jumped at the chance knowing that it could introduce us to many of the people that we had to meet in order to help move us along. OCE’s Discovery is exceptional in their information and guides to participants and exhibitors alike, and one of the first pages in the Young Entrepreneurs’ Guidebook included this piece on the audience expected to be there:
This is a very diverse group of people then to be speaking to, especially given that this isn’t a case of a clear majority with a few exceptions.
You may have your pitch but how do you make sure it works for everybody? Some possibilities to go with.
- Start by asking about them and why they're at the event. Something they say could really trigger an opening for you to talk about your initiative/organization or even about yourself if you happen to share something in common. I somehow met many Ryerson alumni and a variety of people working in education at this conference.
- Adjust your pitch to each person. Make it meaningful for them, instead of giving the same talk to everyone. It's a different conversation with everyone.
- Or find a quick line that has the potential to lure anyone in. I remembered this article on SoJo on using conversational hooks for easy elevator pitches and found my hook today at one point. It was a lot easier to say "SoJo is about helping people take their ideas into action." Once you see a look of interest, it's much easier to go from there.
- I assure you, you will find your exhibitor voice. Each pitch gets easier, since you same the same things throughout the day and find what works most effectively and efficiently to say.
- Let people experience what you do for themselves. In our case, it's a website and so I show people the homepage on an iPad (everything looks more impressive on it) and ask them to select where they are in their journey. They then click their way through and it's a more engaging and interactive discussion.
The key thing to keep in mind is to find what works for you and what you do. Adding your personality to it makes the participant's visit to your booth/kiosk that much more effective since it becomes a meeting between two people, not an infomercial at an audience of one.
Written by ZainabAs we were preparing for AJ’s temporary departure from SoJo, I gave a lot of thought to the support. Because we are in the office the most, I speak mostly from my observations of Jesse, AJ, and myself – especially over the past few months. This is the second post from a two-part series. Click here for my post on getting support within SoJo.
Though we certainly support each other within the organization, we also find support in people outside of SoJo – especially from people who operate in the same capacities we do. For Jesse, that may be other web/product developers in the DMZ because they understand the same technical issues and can learn from each other. For Kanika and now AJ, that seems to be other Founders and CEOs, as they navigate the same challenges at the helms steering their organizations towards particular visions.
Though I don’t know if there are any other full-time editors in the DMZ, I have found that external support mostly in one of the other day-to-day managers. Though Omid's company is about marketing apps and we’re about content, we also deal with some very similar issues as we both ensure that everything is running smoothly at our respective organizations.
You would wonder though what we discuss, considering there are certainly things you cannot disclose (many organizations have non-disclosure agreements). Here are some of the ways in which we support each other by sharing:
- Frustrations. For example, we both have had students working for us, and we’ve discussed what one would do when managing youth, who do not necessarily operate in the same ways we’re used to in the professional or entrepreneurial world.
- Expertise. Because we work in different areas, we give the other tips that can help us improve our own functions at the office. For example, I told him how I don’t feel confident when I’m pitching. He’s in marketing, so he gave me a few pointers and assured me that it comes with practice.
- Company. Sometimes, we may be the only one around for each of our respective companies so we talk, laugh, and usually have a buddy for information sessions or office lunches.
I find that support like this provides me with new perspectives and suggestions, particularly if that person has a similar role elsewhere. In turn, I become a better intrapreneur when I learn from others, both in and outside the organization.
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
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. Fragmentation
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 weekend I had the opportunity to hear the CEO of one of Canada's largest companies speak about values, transparency, and self-awareness. Impressed by his outlook on business and responsible leadership, I was motivated to send him a note this morning, to explore interests in working with SoJo. This could be a very big deal - or nothing at all. I was excited and nervous all at once.
With no pre-existing relationship or shared contacts, I very carefully drafted a cold-email. A cold-email is an email where you reach out directly to someone of interest, without an introduction. Introductions are great, as they allow you to lend off the credibility of your mutual contact and can give your email priority among all the nameless messages; however when there is no mutual contact a cold-email is the way to go. Cold-emails can often feel like you're sending a message to the black hole - but if done right, can be incredibly successful.
Over the course of the last year and during my academic research that led to SoJo, I have sent hundreds of cold-emails. SoJo has been relatively successful with cold-emails. More than half of the content on http://theSoJo.net have come as a result of cold-emails. When going on our first cross-Atlantic networking trip, some of my most engaged and meaningful connections came as a result of cold-emails.
I am obviously a big advocate of cold-emails, and as such, SoJo has implemented a policy where we respond to all new incoming emails within a timely manner. However if you are not cold-messaging us, here are some insights that may help you overcome this fear:
Practice, Practice, Practice
Daunting initially, it gets easier with time. The more cold-emails you write, the better you get at articulating your message in a way that resonates with your audience. With no human contact, it can be very difficult to get the attention of your reader and compel them to take the initiative to respond to your message.
Be clear with your intentions
Everyone is busy. Be honest and state your intentions upfront. If you don't have a clear idea of why you're messaging this person, then perhaps wait until you confidently feel like you can lead a meaningful conversation that will offer value to the other party. You'd be surprised of the number of people willing to help, but it's your job to ensure they understand what you need.
Opportunity cost of waiting
You miss 100% of the opportunities you don't take. Ask yourself, what's the most you have to lose? The time you spent writing that email and disappointment that comes when you receive no response? The more you send, the better your probabilities of a positive response. Often we don't send a cold-email, because we're waiting for a warm introduction, or for the right time to sell our vision. Its ok if your product is not perfect or if you don't have all the answers. That's why you're reaching out to others to get involved.
Its OK to be nervous
While it gets easier with practice, if you're sending an email to someone whom you're excited to connect with, the nerves will still kick-in when you're about to click "SEND." That's ok. It serves as a reminder that you're still passionate about the work you do, and have the courage to put yourself out there. This is a good thing!
Write with no expectations
If I had to guess, I think my success rate on cold-emails is about 40%. Although I put an incredible amount of effort into drafting good cold-emails, with time, I've learned to let go of the expectations of a response. In my opinion, it is better to be pleasantly surprised, then sadly disappointed. People are busy. Some people don't acknowledge or read an email if it is not from someone they know. I personally don't think this is smart business, as we must be open to opportunities that present themselves in many forms -- but we must be mindful of the reality that exists.
Twitter is also cited as a highly effective way of building meaningful connections with strangers, and some of the suggestions above can be adapted for other forms of communication.
This past weekend Harvard Business School and Harvard Kennedy School of Government hosted one of the world's leading forums to engage in dialogue, debate, and expression around social enterprise: The Social Enterprise Conference. I attended this conference 3 years ago as a delegate, and left that conference in 2009 impressive by the breadth of speakers and topics covered. This year's schedule was equally packed, and the weekend convened over 1,600 people.
SoJo initially approached the Social Enterprise Conference to get involved by either hosting a workshop on taking ideas into action or providing post-conference support to all delegates by making our online resources accessible to all delegates. Ideally, we would have loved to provide a lot of great support to the delegates this year, most of whom are interested in building social ventures, but this conference will be around next year, and now that we're connected with the organizing team we will be sure to connect with them well in advance for the 2013 conference.
We were instead invited as a Media Partner, which I was excited to accept, as there was still a lot of value in informally networking with the delegates and attending the sessions. I will be posting information from the different workshops I attended on theSoJo.net
for everyone to reference, stay tuned. Among one of the most interesting sessions, was an interactive workshop facilitating more effective meetings.
I used my 'media' privileges to get special access to the speakers and most of the people whom I spoke with are excited about getting their knowledge and content available on SoJo. In terms on building content partnerships, this conference was a big success.
In line with our efforts of making knowledge more accessible through the use of technology, @The_SoJo did an open call for questions to our community, that should ask while present at the conference. After-all, this was a fabulous opportunity to pick the brains of leading researchers, and practitioners in the field of social enterprise. We were asked how to successfully build the hybrid model among non-profits and for-profits. After attending a couple of sessions on funding, legal structure and many hallway chat, there was no conclusive answer. My biggest take-away, is that a lot of focus is being placed on building a business model for non-profits and methods of enabling [larger] for-profits to be more mindful of stakeholder engagement, but no-one was talking about organizations that lie right in-between both structures. Sorry @eszterer, but rest assured, SoJo is committed to finding an answer!
My biggest disappointment was the environmental footprint left from the two-day event. Plastic water-bottles, disposables for every meal and a 130+ page conference manual, all multiplied by 1,600 over two days = a lot of waste. For a student-run conference on Social Enterprise with sessions on sustainability and the environment, I would have hoped to see the organizers lead by example and pay special attention to these details.
Similarly to my experience in 2009, I left this weekend impressed with the energy among this year's participants and am excited with the meaningful connections that arose from our participation.
Content Partners: Organizations and individuals who will make their content available on SoJo's platform
Network Partners: Organizations that will openly endorse and promote SoJo within their networks, helping us build our community base
Pipeline Partners: Organizations that offer complementary services to SoJo and will integrate our online resources in their core programming. This third bucket is what gets me really excited, as it proves that SoJo can be the glue that binds this fragmented sector together!
Although everyone was open to learning more about SoJo and were pleased that I made the effort to reach out to them as I saw value in collaborating -- a good number of the people whom I met were surprised to see SoJo invest in an international trip while we are still in Beta. For an organization that is still bootstrapped, investing in a week-long international networking trip could be seen as premature. My rationale however, is that investing in the relationships with the individuals who can support SoJo's mandate makes good business sense, as those relationships may materialize into strengthening SoJo's product and reach.
London is a city rich in history and character, which was well-reflected in the meeting venues such as tall glass towers, loft-style shared workspaces, coffee shops, publishing houses, a museum -- and even afternoon tea at Kensington Palace. Likewise, of all of my international travels I've never been so disoriented. I learned very early into this trip that Google Maps is not always accurate; that streets do not follow a grid, and thus are incredibly difficult to navigate; and that underground Tube transfers between trains can take up to 10 minutes, even if you're in the same station! I'm thankful that everyone was understanding of my tardiness -- next time I'm in London however, I can no longer play the "this is my first time in the city" card.
It's safe to say that SoJo's first cross-Atlantic networking trip was a huge success. Time to focus my time on building our product and organization so we can deliver on the promises made during the trip.
With over 20 scheduled meetings and many more informal conversations, SoJo's first cross-Atlantic networking trip felt like a whirlwind that came and went. Three types of partnerships were developed over the course of this visit:
Our public beta has been live for 2 months now, and with such positive feedback and traction in North America, now feels as good of a time as any to make our mark globally. SoJo is an online tool. Although our team is based in Canada, our platform is freely accessible to anyone who has access to the Internet. That being said, having a physical presence in the regions we're looking to expand our reach is equally important -- as nothing replaces the value of face-to-face contact.
The United Kingdom is significant for two reasons:
1-Grow our Community: there is a vibrant community of young social innovators who need our support in taking their ideas to action.
2-Form Partnerships: there are many organizations based in London that (similar to SoJo) are building the infrastructure to support youth in their endeavours to do good in this world. SoJo cannot operate in isolation and must collaborate with other established institutions to more effectively deliver on our mandate and support other organizations to achieve mutual goals.
Leading up to this trip, I did not have a professional network in London. Instead of feeling intimidated by charting into unknown territory, I spent the past month being resourceful and creative, tapping into my existing network for referrals and sending cold-emails to total strangers worth connecting with. Although I only have a handful of meetings confirmed, I'm confident that my schedule will quickly fill up, as I'm hoping to get referrals while I am here.
Exhausted from only a few hours of sleep on an overnight flight from Toronto, I'm writing this post from the train en route to Central London incredibly excited and pumped thinking about what this upcoming week has in store...
Over the next 7 days, I will be engaging in a highly anticipated and intense networking trip in London, UK.
However upon further reflection and on less than 30 hour's notice I decided to take advantage of this opportunity. Although I missed an entire day of doing important SoJo work at the office, it was an incredibly productive day in other respects. Some of the key highlights include:
- Connection to a Philanthrokidz: a company being incubated by the Accelerator Centre that shares a parallel mandate to SoJo - empowering youth to make a change in this world through technology.
- On behalf of SoJo, I've been invited to participate in the Canada 3.0 Conference steering committee to talk about engaging youth in their programming. The hosting organization of this conference, the Canadian Digital Media Network is based in Communitech. Having an in-person meeting although us to undoubtedly strengthen a valuable relationship.
- Received offers from other incubated companies to tap into their professional networks to source potential applicants for our Product Lead role at SoJo. Some of the best team members come through referrals and Waterloo has amazing talent, so I am thrilled to now be tapped into those networks.
- A senior analyst at Communitech with significant web experience offered to help advise us through some of our product challenges.
It is important to focus on core operational work. SoJo would not have released its public Beta on time had we not made that our only priority. Although we have a lot of operational work to complete, we are also looking to expand our team, build partnerships and carve out a space in the sector. Identifying and pursuing unconventional opportunities is the way to build a rich network of individuals who will help us achieve our goals.
Staff at the Digitial Media Zone facilitated a day-long trip to Kitchener to visit a tech incubator similar to the DMZ called Communitech. A parallel exchange of tech incubators had never happened before in the region, and the goal of this trip was to learn from the other companies who are operating at a similar stage and forge collaborations. SoJo is a huge supporter of collaboration, so when I first heard of this initiative thought it was a brilliant idea. Despite enthusiasm for this initiative, I initially opted-out of the trip, as I felt it difficult to justify an entire day out of the office. In less than 5 days, I will be in London, England for an intense networking trip.
It is one meeting in particular that got me thinking. For the past few months I've been informally advising the development of a new program that will support the social entrepreneurship sector as whole. It is a rare opportunity to shape the development and design of a new initiative that can significantly impact the social innovation sector in Canada as a whole. Further, I was very pleased to know that my expertise in this sector is valued and recognized.
Time is at a premium however - and if SoJo is not getting value out of these exchanges, I personally do not have the luxury to invest many hours of my time sharing my insights and thoughts. Circumstances would be different if SoJo was a cashflow positive or revenue generating company, or if I was a semi-retired professional. Right now however, SoJo is building its foundation at record speed and with very limited resources.
I try not to see every exchange in absolute or as transactional terms -- because they are not. You never know where a conversation can lead. Many individuals have been very generous with their time, and have advised SoJo in its early days as well. It only seemed fair that I reciprocate.
Earlier today however, I pushed back. The questions were never ending, where I was giving a lot and wasn't able to see if I was going to get anything from the other end. After a couple of hours of my time used for 'fact finding purposes,' I felt it was appropriate to share my perspective and where I was coming from. As someone who has a difficult time saying no, pushing back was not easy. Surely enough, I did not handle the situation as tactfully as I would have liked.
I may have potentially jeopardized a valuable partnership for SoJo. I may have spoiled my reputation as an individual who is willing to give and contribute to the welfare of the sector without seeking immediate gain. All that being said, my focus my lie first and foremost with the interests of SoJo. It is in the best interest to both SoJo and the community we are serving that I be more mindful of how my time gets allocated and remain focused on achieving our goals.
Exhausted and completely fried from a day of 8 very long meetings, I'm starting to recognize the importance of placing more value on my time. Most of the meetings were directly valuable for SoJo: Strengthening relationships with existing partners, building the foundation to new partnerships, designing new programs, seeking business guidance from an advisor, and an informational interview with a potential new team-mate were among the positive meetings.