Wednesday, September 28, 2011

    My first time on a panel: Arsalyn Youth Forum

    Out of nowhere, I got an invitation from CAUSE to join in an arsalyn youth forum and sit on a panel in front of 150 high school students.  The title of the discussion was Social Media, Civic Engagement and You!  and at first, I was hesitant to jump in due to doubts about how much value I could add.  I certainly had SOME experience with social media, but was it enough to sit on a panel and talk about it? Not to mention, when putting social media into a civic context, I had even LESS to share.

    The young audience

    This doubt about adding value was further magnified on the day of the event, when I read the bios of my fellow panelists.  At the panel table, sitting with me was Diana Nguyen (blogger for the Huffington Post and co-author of, Diane Ellis (lead editor of, Ayofemi Kirby (Director of Strategy and Programs for, and last but not least there was Kristina Lieu (Friend and fellow CASIC intern of class 2010). These rather distinguished panelists, had years of experience and accomplishments over me and in the beginning it was a bit intimidating.  However, after the first few questions, I realized I contributed the ever important student perspective to the panel and began to relax. 

    The distinguished panel

    As the discussion progressed, I was wary about what VC Brad Feld had wrote about panels usually being “dull, vapid, generic, stupid, non-controversial, politically correct, or just plain boring."  At the halfway mark, I felt that as a panel we were not boring but definitely non-controversial since we agreed on every question.  After that realization, I decided to throw caution to the wind and try to be humorous by keeping my answers off the cuff.

    When asked about the shutting down of social networks during the Arab revolutions, I started off with “it sucks," which caught the audience off guard as everyone else on the panel was using fairly formal language.  In another instance, a student asked what news sites had no bias and I joked “well I can tell you that it’s not Fox news.”

     My best line of the night came as a response to a question about whether FB liking or retweeting gave people just enough satisfaction that they would stop contributing to a cause because they felt like they had done their part.  I bluntly told the audience that anyone who felt they did their part by just clicking a button was probably not going to contribute that much anyway.  Furthermore, I explained that slacktivism has some benefits including getting the word out and more importantly providing positive reinforcement for the people behind the cause.  I closed by telling the students "I don’t know if it is just because I am a geek but when I get retweeted, it makes my DAY,” which in addition to illustrating my point got a lot of laughs. 

    I had a whole lot of fun speaking on the panel and hope I was not too over the top that they will not invite me back.  After all, making people laugh and dropping knowledge, what else could I ask for on a Saturday night?    

    CAUSE team

    Monday, September 19, 2011

    Bootstrapping Business Trip

    A couple weeks ago I went on what could be called my first business trip ever. Initially, the trip was purely personal; I was going down to LA to see some old faces at the CAUSE intern graduation. I wrote off the three days as lost time, before it dawned on me that I could make this trip into a customer development exercise.

    One of our lunch groups was trying to expand out into cities around the country. The expansion did not go smoothly and had stalled at this time. Los Angeles and San Diego were two of the cities that were part of the expansion, so I decided to schedule meetings with the local organizers and see how we could get the ball rolling once again.

    My first stop was in San Diego, where I sat down for a cup of coffee with one of the writers of the Lean Customer Development books. He was quite frank about the weakness of our value proposition and in no uncertain terms told me to go work on it immediately. Just telling people networking was good was just not cutting it, I really had to spell out the benefits of these lunches.

    Moving forward, the SD organizer advised I set up lunches preemptively and then invite people to the event rather than waiting for the group to reach a critical mass. He explained that people would be more willing to join a lunch group if there was a set lunch to look forward. As for promotion, he suggested I craft boilerplate (pre-crafted) emails to organizers to send to their members that clearly illustrated our value proposition. Then with these emails do an A-B test by sending one email to a half of the group and another to the other half in order to determine what language was the most successful. The key to making these lunches happen was to create a turnkey for the organizers, making the lunch recruiting process as effortless as possible. At the end of our meeting, he invited me to come back and attend his weekly coffee meet up so I could talk to the group members and tease out what would get them to attend a Wednesdays lunch. Needless to say, I left that cafe thoroughly enlightened.

    The next day, I was back on the road and in LA meeting with another organizer. I managed to clear up some miscommunications about the level of involvement for the organizer and ended up getting him on board for the next lunch. It turns out that the LA group only met about once a month and these were usually speaker events. The organizer thought that his members would be interested in bimonthly casual lunches as it would help with networking and community building. After this meeting the attitude of the organizer went from I am too busy/not interested to let us give it a try. What a lesson on the power of in person meetings.

    Coffee's for Customer Development

    Back in San Diego, I attended the coffee meetup that the SD organizer hosted, where I met Dave, a member of the group who suddenly made the value of lunch very clear. Dave explained that the entrepreneur by nature is isolated because he has to act as if his startup is doing great and problem free to the outside world. Dave envisioned Wednesdays lunches as a support group for entrepreneurs, a place where they could openly and safely talk about the problems they were having with people who have been there and done that. When I heard that, I thought it sounded like a pretty good tagline for entrepreneurial themed lunches.

    While talking to Dave and the other group members, it dawned on me that this was no different from the anthropological field work that I was used to doing. I was utilizing the same interview and observation skills that I had honed out in the field, doing academic research. Customer development suddenly seemed to be just applied ethnology and the idea of being one’s own customer was nothing more than participant observation.

    The day before my trip started, Startup Weekend (SW) cleared me to go to their LA event and my trip got extended to a whole week. That is how I ended my trip in beautiful Santa Monica, handing out flyers around SW. Not too exciting but it had to be done. There is no insight like the one you get from being on the ground with customers and I relearned that while handing out flyers to people who kept asking me what a lunch club was. The founders and I had always thought that the term "lunch club" was self-explanatory, but after interacting with the SW attendees, I realized that was not the case. So next time on the back of the flyers there will be definitely be an explanation. My trip ended on a high note as I was invited to the front of the stage by the CEO of SW and allowed to pitch the lunch group to all the participants. I could not have imagined a better way to end the trip.

    Ending on a high note at LASW

    Friday, September 2, 2011

    My PR stunt that never was

    Three weeks prior to launch, I was at the office discussing what we should do for our launch.  Our PR consultant upon checking into our office on foursquare discovered that we were located right next to tech publications GigaOM, Wired and CNET.  That's when she suggested we hang a giant banner announcing our launch outside the office to catch the attention of passing journalists.  The idea was good, but it just did not have enough pizazz for me.  Instead, I suggested that we buy pizza, put our logo on the box as well as a message inside along the lines of “Wasn’t eating lunch together fun? Now do it more often at We launch today!” The proverbial icing to this idea would be that us to delivering the pizzas in person so that we could pitch directly to the journalists.

    It was an idea that was inspired by the story of how the AirBnB founders sold rebranded generic cheerios as Obama O’s at the Democratic National Convention in order to keep their company running.  My PR stunt idea resonated with the founder Hugh and I began to flesh out the idea more. 

    First order of business was to figure out how to brand the pizza boxes.  I played with the idea of printing custom boxes but that was quickly shelved when I discovered the costs.  Instead, I settled on just printing stickers which were cheap and had a quick turnaround time.  If the pizzeria did not have blank boxes, I figured I could get them at Costco and if that did not work out I could put the sticker over the pizzeria logo. Finding the pizzeria was the easy part with the help of Yelp.   

    Our PR consultant pointed out that the publications we were targeting were mainly staffed by bloggers and freelancers who were not regularly in the office.  “No worries” I wrote her, I will just tweet them all that wanted to buy them lunch this coming Wednesday.  So I built up Twitter lists of TC, CNET, Wired and GigaOM writers with the intention of tweeting them all to get them to be in the office on launch day. 
    The whole project was going to by estimates cost around $1000 with 40 giant 18” pizzas going out to 4 offices.  A small price to pay for the potential to be in publications that combined reached well over a million people.  In my mind, I reasoned that doing this stunt gave the journalists two possibilities for writing about, the fact that they would find the service innovative or conversely the stunt innovative enough to write about.  Either way I would get noticed.     

    As the pieces of the stunt started falling into place, the only thing I worried about was how to get past security.  Scenarios of me finessing my way past the security guard and pitching to an office full of bloggers swam around in my mind up to the day before launch. 

    Alas, in the end we got contacts in the publications so a last minute PR blitz was not necessary to get coverage for our launch.  My grand idea was shelved the day before launch and all the prepartion was for naught.  However, it makes one hell of a blog post.