Written by Zainab
I've been struggling to write blog posts - or really anything - for over a week now.
If you're not familiar with the term, writer's block refers to the state of being stuck and unable to write. Wikipedia's article gives a grim opening to this:Writer's block is a condition, primarily associated with writing as a profession, in which an author loses the ability to produce new work. The condition varies widely in intensity. It can be trivial, a temporary difficulty in dealing with the task at hand. At the other extreme, some "blocked" writers have been unable to work for years on end, and some have even abandoned their careers.
For a writer, this state feels similar to paralysis, in that the inability to write feels like one can't move, express, or be.
Like many others, I've had writer's block before and usually, it feels a lot more trivial. This time, I've tried a number of tactics that were not proving as effective:
- writing on paper. Sometimes you need to get away from a screen and just write without filters like spell-check.
- writing in a different location. Certain moments throughout the the conference I was at earlier this week made me go "aha, that would make a good blog post!". And though I made notes in between kiosk visitors, I still couldn't bring myself to write more than a few bullets.
- taking a break. I worked at home yesterday, thinking an extra hour of sleep and three hours saved on commuting would help me feel more energized. Not a single word was written, aside from my emails.
I saw a tweet this morning that finally
had me put these thoughts down in print:
And sometimes, that's exactly what you need to do, even when you have nothing to write: write anyway.
I'm sure other writers can relate to me when I say that for me, my writing is part of who I am, that the pen is my sword, and my written words are my voice.
It feels good to write... even if it is a struggle to do so at the moment.
Written by Zainab Habib
Amongst the other discussions in the blog posts over the last two months, we’ve written about how it’s been working without Kanika to guide us along the way as SoJo’s chief catalyst and biggest ambassador.
Despite this, we’ve continued to keep moving forward in the midst of this unexpected phase of SoJo’s journey. In fact, the SoJo part of the office feels very lively and we have been buzzing with activity
, especially since AJ joined the team full-time.
To be honest, the situation has never been ideal. It certainly has been a setback in many ways. However, while taking on Kanika’s commitments and functions within SoJo in addition to our individual roles, we have started to have discussions about what works and doesn’t work. We’re discovering what really happens at SoJo when she isn’t there as the Chief Problem Solver
. As we now discuss any issues with each other and not with Kanika, this has forced us to ask the harder questions aloud: “why do we even do/use this [task/section/process/tool]?” We have also had to talk about it, because this question has come up in multiple instances, both in our day-to-day operations and with the site overall.
It also helps that SoJo now has new team members to look at operations and community. Because they are used to thinking in more strategic terms and
are just stepping into the organization, they are better able to ask the questions that we had to ask and even to suggest different ways of doing it. They’re using their lack of knowledge about how things have been done before at SoJo to consider our alternatives to tasks or processes, while still working towards the vision and values that we care about most.
To get ourselves off the ground, SoJo had hit the road running. We sprinted at an unbelievable speed and were often “busy” just getting things done. Yet something that throws you out of your routine forces you to rethink previous assumptions and processes. Perhaps you may have been slowed down because you were short on resources (say funding or team members) or time; and so needed to be careful with how you expended your energies, time, and resources in order to make it to your next destination.
Now we’re at a point where we’re trying to check how far we have come and whether we’re on course to our destination or if we have been sidetracked at all. We’re hoping these new questions and strategies allow us to constantly move, shake, and innovate. We can then turn setbacks into opportunities for pulse checks instead.
Written by Zainab Habib
It’s been some time since Kanika has been away from the office. It was right around then that AJ joined us full-time and was thrown into the position of juggling between Kanika’s commitments for the next few weeks and
beginning work on organizational development and outreach for SoJo on a full-time basis
One would naturally wonder how things are going at the office and how we have handled it as a team. This comes at a point where we are continuing to expand our team and focusing on particular aspects of SoJo, as we continue to work towards being the leading online resource that social innovators reference to turn their ideas for social change into action.
Yes, it definitely feels like something is missing. It is certainly not
the same without Kanika here. She may be The Boss but she is certainly not
bossy. Unlike the stereotypical Queen Bee, she has been supportive and she treats each of her staff without hierarchical bounds, allowing most of us to work directly with her on different projects for SoJo and to develop ourselves professionally and personally with her assistance. She is also the face behind the SoJo brand and has been at the forefront of it all. Her time away then has certainly created a shift in how we view SoJo from the inside and out then, knowing that she isn't here.
However, Team SoJo has really banded together to make sure we continue business as usual. Our partners have been very understanding and many have offered their help with whatever we may need. Our core team has continued to work on our individual projects and support the teams within our respective areas. We have also started a routine of working together as a team more formally; for example, we now have scheduled in weekly meetings between the full-time team every Monday. We are also now in the midst of assembling a team to focus on building SoJo’s community.
All in all, SoJo is definitely buzzing with activity. Even if we are missing the Queen Bee.
My last blog post costed me a pretty intense headache, so I decided to give writing a break. I am still on bed rest recovery from a traumatic brain injury which has forced me to disconnect from the world, including SoJo. Many thanks for all your well wishes! I’m in good spirits and haven’t gotten worse and I couldn’t ask for more. In my first month, I still communicated and had meetings with some members of the team to give them guidance and support (and also to appease my curiosity and fuel me, as SoJo has always been a great source of energy).
Just a few hours/week of work where I was neither here nor there was enough to aggregate the symptoms of my concussion. With an incredibly slow recovery, I decided to disconnect completely from the world: my phone is shut off and people have no way of contacting me while at my parents’ house. This will continue until I see visible and noticeable progress, which I estimate to take a few weeks.
Armed with authority to make key decisions and a strategic plan, AJ is at the helm of SoJo, where she liaises with one of my closest advisors who has been involved with SoJo since its inception. While I do trust these individuals and the team, there are some things that only I know and it is my instinct to only want the best for SoJo. If I see people steering off course or focusing on less important priorities, I can’t help but want to provide that feedback. Since I’ve chosen to disconnect entirely (as that is actually what it is best for SoJo), I have no option but to trust and be at peace with the outcomes of the decisions made without my input.
I will not deny the challenge of having to let go (temporarily) of something that has been deeply a part of me for so long, but I’m not at all worried.
SoJo is in very capable hands and having to let go out of necessity does make it infinitely easier.
So thank you Team SoJo, for allowing me to let go.
A few weeks back, I had a pretty bad fall which resulted in a serious concussion.
While in the hospital (thankful that I still had my memory, and was able to speak and feed), the Emergency doctor told me that I should do nothing that would stimulate my brain; which included reading, watching TV, listening to music, physical activity, thinking, and above all else, working. I was very disciplined to follow doctor’s orders hoping that I’d be well enough to hop on a plane a few days later and deliver my first ever TED talk in Washington, DC... wishful thinking on my part, as this injury was much more serious than I was ready to admit to. Since then, I haven’t been in the office or attended to my inbox and was forced to cancel many other trips, meetings, and exciting opportunities, as I am still unable to function like a normal person. Basic routine activities such as reading, carrying a conversation or looking at screens are not a struggle.
So where does this leave SoJo?
Without any warning, I left the team. Doesn’t help that this incident happened less than a week after a two week trip where I was still dealing with the backlog.
With the exception of a couple of conversations with some team members, I’ve had no other contact with the team (whom I know is counting on me for direction and support). What makes this unforeseen break less stressful is the confidence I have in Team SoJo to keep moving on. See my last post.
Right now, my body or mind have zero tolerance for stress, which means I’m not allowed to think about or empathize what the effects of this major disruption has had on the team. SoJo remains a largely volunteer-run organization and in many ways, I have been the glue that has been holding it all together. We are in the midst of building our internal capacity to be a stronger organization; it is y hope that this will make us more robust and not set us back.
Going into my 4th week of doing nothing, I’ve been told by several doctors that recovery will still take a while. (In case you’re wondering, this blog post was hand-written.)
The greatest thing going for me (and SoJo) is time. I will be back – it’s just going to take time.
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.
Earlier this afternoon I had a meeting that didn't go so well. I can handle one bad meeting, its a consistent trend of bad meetings that start to get me anxious. The meeting in many ways represented my frustrations of the system that I'm trying so hard to fix. I felt as though no matter how hard I worked - it was never enough, and that the system was incurable. Today's meeting was the last straw that broke my back and I was ready for a mini-breakdown. While my instinct was to fight, get defensive and show everyone up -- I reminded myself that I left fighting behind with 2012. Giving up is obviously not an option, as we've come too far to throw in the towel. That leaves me with finding a solution. When talking through my frustrations with an advisor, he responded with the following words:
"Kanika, this is what you signed up for. Your job is to find a solution. That is what you do."
And so I was inspired to change my title to Chief Problem Solver -- because that's what the person on top does. It is my responsibility to ensure that the organization progresses forward, irrespective of setbacks and inherent challenges. When something does not work as planned, or the problems only feel like they're getting larger with time; finding solutions is really the only way forward. It takes more creativity and effort to find a solution, (especially if you don't think the problem should exist in the first place) however in the long run, that is the way to go.
I'm not actually going to officially change my title to Chief Problem Solver (as I like Chief Catalyst way too much), but it is a hat that I will carry at all times, and remind myself -- that when things look rough, rather than give up or fight, find a way around by finding a solution.
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 http://theSoJo.net
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 http://SocialJournal.net, with the goal of welcoming more suggestions and the hopes of attracting more attention to this important, but overlooked issue.
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.
Last night I had a great call with Trevor, SoJo's community builder. Trevor joined SoJo when it was just an idea and has been instrumental in bringing this vision to reality. Trevor's been primarily responsible for setting up our social media presence, coordinating feedback and engaging with SoJo's growing community. Having been through the trials and tribulations of defining SoJo, dealing with the setbacks and deeply involved in all of our previous product launches, Trevor has been pivotal to our successes thus far. I was just informed last night that Trevor will be going on an extended escapade throughout Asia for the next couple of months, leaving in 2 weeks. I was forewarned that this trip was on the horizon, however details only started to firm up this week. I honestly did not expect it to come so soon, and the end of the month feels like it's just around the corner.
I am going to assume that Trevor will be off the grid as he will be travelling in remote rural areas, but also focused on this new chapter of his life. I'm thrilled that he is seizing this phenomenal opportunity, but also mindful of the void that will exist within SoJo's team.
What does this mean for SoJo?
We have 2 weeks to transition all of Trevor's responsibilities to an already stretched team. Social Media engagement, Newsletter Editor, Front-line contact with users, and feedback management. Beyond the actual manpower (and losing a very smart and competent team member), I'm a little nervous about losing all the institutional memory and insights that are in his head. Trevor holds a very unique perspective and it is through brainstorming activities and ideation sessions do those insights emerge to help to shape our strategy and future directions.
This will be the first time SoJo goes through a major transition/turnover of a key team member. It doesn't help that I'll be virtually inaccessible over the last week of October on the road, speaking at various conferences and venues across 4 cities. Or that Steph, our Communications coordinator who will oversee the transition will be in Australia for a 2-week work trip at the beginning of November. Regardless, SoJo has a solid team and I'm optimistic that this process will be as smooth as it can be.
Transitions are inevitable and I'm looking forward to all the learning that will take place during this critical period.
I gladly welcome any advice you have on navigating through this process.