Lessons Learned in San Francisco

chinatown
In November 2014, I traveled to San Francisco and spent 5 days (Thursday–Monday) skating the streets to introduce FoodCircles to different startups, engineers, and connectors. I received some of the best technical, managerial, and fundraising advice of my life and wrote the following as a response to the question, “So, how did it go?”

Guidepost to Reading — There are two general ways of reading this post:

The “Lessons” Route: skim down the post, looking for the bold or yellow-highlighted sections. When you find something you like, feel free to read the context.


The “Narrative” Route: read the full perspective of an entrepreneur—and many times wantrapreneur—trying to find his way through the city and his first startup.

Late Wednesday Night

The journey started on a late, rainy night finding my way into the hills of Chinatown to get to my Couchsurfing host’s apartment. I once slipped on my longboard and watched it almost get crunched by traffic. Thinking back, losing my board would have greatly limited my trip and experience. But thankfully, that didn’t happen. I got to Ken’s place and he was already asleep, leaving a note for me on the table. I hit the strange bed in the strange city in the heart of Chinatown and tried to get ready for the day that was to come.

Thursday

I started at 9am Thursday with Jessica Henry, a UM connection out in SF to pull together disparate startup communities in Ann Arbor and SF. She spoke to me about St Anthony’s Foundation and Project Open Hand as potential nonprofit partners, and offered to vouch for my permission to attend a private meetup the following morning, Civic Love (a place for social entrepreneurs working on local impact).

With an appointment with an engineer at Facebook next, I found my way down via BART and Caltrain to 1 Hacker Way for lunch. Sumeet Vaidya showed me his floor and team (Facebook Groups), which was 10 feet from Mark Zuckerberg’s famed glass office. As we caught up on life, Sumeet told me about how Facebook still tracks basic user engagement, which was sort of funny to me, but still made sense. What was not funny was the fact that Facebook tracks user engagement and FoodCircles does not. Who do we think we are? His simple, yet appropriate measurement:

–Workflow–

1)    OK, first, how many people have signed up?
2)    Of those people, how many have logged in over the last month?
3)    Of those, how many have logged in over the last week?
4)    Of those, how many logged in twice in the last week?
5)    Thrice?
6)    Fice? Ok fine, four times?
7)    Five times?
8)    Six times?
9)    Seven?

It’s not rocket science to measure this or to target improvements. Moving users down this ladder helps indicate that we have a product that matters. And today really, we’re only measuring that top rung at FoodCircles. Seeing Facebook do this, the last company in the country that needs to, was a pretty big gut-check for me.

Pondering what to do

Pondering what to do

After lunch, I continued down to Palo Alto where I met with Praveen Alavilli, a native iOS and Android developer formerly part of the Community and Mobile team at PayPal. When we were developing our apps at FoodCircles, we were two weeks from release when we got shut out by PayPal for processing payments on our app. Then a small miracle occurred. Praveen made himself available to us and made a manual override happen with the underwriting team at PayPal. So I tracked him down to thank him.

Praveen and I

In addition to thanking him in person, Praveen taught me how to finally fix our push notifications.

Originally, we wanted to create virtual “fences” 1/8 mi around FoodCircles venues, where if a diner encroached one, they would receive a “heads up” message that they could feed a child by eating nearby. The issue we faced was the app would have to keep the GPS on to be able to deploy the notification, leading to a background battery drain, and likely eventual deletion. So instead we’d gone with a method where we’d open the GPS before dinnertime (Thursday 430pm) and send a quick message regarding the closest #BOFO venue. We limited this to once per week, but our engagement for the notification was egregiously low yet.

There is a third way of doing things. Praveen helped us see instead of keeping the GPS on, that when our diner inevitably closes our app, we could make a request to the OS to wake us up when certain coordinates are met (the OS is commonly running location services anyway). In the case of FoodCircles, 25 sets of coordinates for 25 restaurants. When we’re woken up in this way, we know it’s because we’re near a restaurant and then can send the right notification. We’re able to do the fence notifications as envisioned, without being the main perpetrator for using the GPS.  We’re obviously not masters at what we’re doing, so even this little insight will help us help our diners in a major way.

Praveen also spoke to me of beacon technology, and how it could apply to a secret project of ours. He then told me about Poynt, and how they had scheduled themselves into a massive market opportunity in Fall ’15. With the team and plan lined up perfectly the capitalize, capital was not a hard objective to hit. He was kind enough to introduce me to one of the Poynt people behind it all, Rishi Taparia, whom I spoke with Monday. Cool!

I headed back to the city to meet a few new friends and an old one for dinner. For how much I’d been navigating, it was an adventure keeping my phone alive, but I was able to coordinate and somehow grab a table for 4 in a slammed ramen shop. Ritu Jain and “the” Matt Barnick (an actor, of course) were introduced to me by an extremely kind person from Orlando I had met at Q Talks in Grand Rapids. He found out we were heading to San Francisco and demanded we meet his friends out there. And then there was Kelly LeCoy, an extremely like-minded entreprenuer who started and sold Uptown Kitchen in Grand Rapids before moving to SF a few months prior. I remember Ritu’s story (originally from India) who moved to a tiny traditional town in Kansas in the middle of grade school. She self-funded undergrad and grad school before joining a startup. Motivating… She said,

“people want to give to a person.”

Ritu was referencing that I needed to bring a one:one relationship between the diner and the person assisted if I wanted to succeed. She also referenced HandUp, a homeless giving startup she’s friends with and recommended I meet them some day. After the meal, which Matt and Ritu so kindly paid for, Kelly walked me back to Chinatown, telling me about some of her difficulties and successes and interactions with God post-move.

SF nights

She got to meet my couchsurfing hosts and later left via Uber. I chatted with the hosts for awhile and then crashed.

It was the first day I could remember that I wasn’t late for a single appointment.

Friday

Starting early, needing to get to Civic Love by 8am, I punched in the address for a hostel instead and ended up late to the breakfast. I blasted in, and sat at the long table and heard introductions. I eventually gave my own and it was well-received by the other civic hustlers (among others, an urban-focused VC, Faithful Fools, a harm reduction coalition, a “prototyping walk”, Neutral Ground, and a man who said he hadn’t done anything interesting in the last month and didn’t anticipate anything interesting in the next month either).

Topics up for discussion:

  • When are nonprofits’ expectations of service providers unrealistic?
  • When are startups creating things nonprofits don’t need? (particularly relevant)
  • How might we talk with the homeless? More so, how might they learn to talk to us?
  • What if there was an “Instagram for giving?” (“like” a photo to make a $.50 donation, etc.)
  • What if there was a company dedicated to help restaurants and bars source meaningful, local art which could be sold and offer a revenue share with the artist?
  • Why aren’t there more “popup” nonprofits? i.e. pop up to solve the problem, solve it, peace out. Do big nonprofits have enough incentive to actually reduce the problem?

After Civic Love ended, I stayed to chat with the “uninteresting man”, Ben Snyder, and then planned to stick around the space until a noon lunch with Damien Madray, co-founder of a failed project called The Glint. I outlined and wrote a quick intro request email to Hy Carrel, one of the Civic Love organizers who knew people at Project Open Hand and St. Anthony’s Foundation (orgs Jessica Henry recommended sharing FoodCircles with), plus FoodCircles’ crucial Thanksgiving email. Damien came by, but he had meetings and I had the email to send, so instead of lunch, he told me about the Friday happy hour they’d be hosting. In the meantime, I got a rejection by Hy to introduce me to the two nonprofits. He was put off by the brevity of my request. He also didn’t like that I included a template he could copy/paste if he wanted. This was a key learning for me: Hy didn’t know who to introduce me to, or why. He didn’t know what I was going to ask them and what was in it for them or him.

I jumped on my board, a two-mile skate away from my meeting with the man running partnerships and growth at Gumroad, Ryan Delk. The location, Coffee Bar on Mariposa and Bryant, was beautiful and I could tell a lot of startups were at work or were in meetings with other companies, just like me. Ryan got there and I introduced myself, still a little perspired from the skate down. I offered to buy him his drink at the least, and he refused. While we were negotiating this, a man in front of us in line, turned and said, “Kumar?” It was my friend Mike Miller from Grand Rapids! Mike works for a garbage startup (based in SF) in my office space, GR Current, and was in town for meetings. He made it clear I should have reached out (I wish I had), but also told me he’d intro me to Justin Milano, a previous cofounder, later on. Mike split, and Ryan and I went upstairs to talk.

Ryan was a really interesting intro to receive. Well over a year ago, as we were building joinfoodcircles.org in 2013, we took a lot of inspiration from Gumroad, specifically the way they’ve designed and tested their payment forms. We jokingly call ourselves “the fastest checkout in the Midwest”; because Gumroad is on the west coast. So we had a great deal of admiration for them. I was introduced to Ryan out-of-the-blue by his former chemistry teacher from Orlando (my Q-Talks friend once again). When it happened, I was so taken aback, it took me some hours to formulate a response. Ryan actually emailed me first, calling himself “a big fan of what we were running after”. He gave me, a total stranger, his cell and encouraged a meeting. I later found out he gets ~75 meeting requests per week, so clearly this was curious behavior and was one of the first questions I had for him was,

“Why?”

He told me something similar to an adage I’ve kept in my life: We are all busy. 15 minutes given to somebody can change their life forever. Somebody did that for me; I’ll do the same. But Ryan takes it a step further, committing to respond to every personally-addressed email he receives, no matter what. That obviously means he declines, and he says he gets about 3 days behind, but he usually keeps up by nailing those early morning hours (6am-8am). Speaking of which, he also has a great tip for weeding serious folks vs wantreprenuers:

When people ask for his time, Ryan pitches Saturday 6am calls (he’s up by then). If the person won’t commit to that, it’s probably not worth his time.

Brilliant. He’s also married, and belongs to a men’s group at church (an apparently rare thing in the city). His age? 22. He grew up in Orlando and I asked how he made his way to SF. He said after working a summer at the iHub in Nairobi (East Africa’s first UX design, testing and training lab), he decided to get in tech. And that he did – fast. He pitched Square a remote sales commission position in Orlando, and nailed it (the power of the ask). When in SF for meetings, he met Sahil, a similar ambitious youngster (did I just say that), with serious code and design skills. Sail pitched Gumroad to Ryan and he came on to help do deals and grow the company. How? Well, should I ever decide to shy from cold emails, knock me upside the head, will you? Ryan did it for six months until he got traction with Gumroad, and continued to do so for months after. Ryan’s latest deal? Eminem releasing an album exclusive to Gumroad. No iTunes, no Spotify, no nothing. NBD.

We then transitioned our conversation to FoodCircles and a successful fundraising event. Ryan liked our early traction, but expressed concern that a single pilot wouldn’t be enough for a VC-backed round (typically $500K+). I understood and told him about our upcoming plan to raise an additional $300K to show we can duplicate this in multiple pilot cities. I asked how he’d raise $300K, and he said $150K in local money, $100K in grants (something I hadn’t considered), and $50K from SF angels I knew. In terms of developing meetings with investors, he testified to a great tip that I had used before and reeks of Alex Schiff.  When your investor is in a different city, driving an appointment with them, timed with a flight purchase can be really tricky.

Scenario:

  • Desired Investor in City X
  • You in City Y with no plane ticket yet

Option A: Email/call investor saying you wish to meet with them and ask what day/week they are in town and available so you can punch your ticket. Not only is this vague, and leaves them to parlay their whole schedule in the next month for you, but you also reveal you’re desperate enough to buy a ticket out their way just to meet them (not a great position to put them in).

Option B: Buy your ticket in advance and let them know you’re coming. If they can’t meet in that range, you’re out of luck.

Option C (Ryan): Email/call investor saying you’re in City X for meetings for Z week and want to take the opportunity to meet in person. Offer two specific times that fit into your {non-existent} schedule to connect over your company. They respond with either of the two times that would work, you then buy your plane ticket for Z week. If the investor can’t do either, and doesn’t propose an alternative slot in Wk. Z, or the option to connect over phone before/after your trip, their group probably isn’t a good fit for you anyway.

Ryan also said a good rule of thumb between rounds of investment is 20X growth. Any previous rounds of investment should have gotten you 20 times further from where you were before, and your next round should get you 20 times further than where you are now. This is one sign of a healthy company.  For FoodCircles, our first investment round ($67,500) took us from zeros across the board to 3K local diners + 25 paying restaurants = 4000 children fed. 20X seems like a lot; that it is, but equates to 60K diners, 500 restaurants, and 80,000 children fed. Off-the-cuff, I think that would take traction in 5 major markets, which can be broken into city-sized steps. Certainly reasonable, and perhaps the necessary vision an investor needs to see and believe in.

By the end, Ryan encouraged me to create a bulletproof “case study document” of what we’ve done in Grand Rapids, demonstrating good non-organic growth (what the team is capable of doing) and better organic growth (what our diners and partner nonprofits do). He, of course, also urged me to reach out in case he could be helpful in the future. Great guy is an understatement.

As Ryan and I parted from the second floor of Coffee Bar, I stood there planning my next move. Moving to plug in my computer, another startup asked, “Hey, would you mind doing a quick usability test for us?”  Happy to oblige, I sat down with Rusty Lakalka of Spire and his teammate designer, and began to think out loud as I went through their signup process. Spire is device you wear on your hip that measures all sorts of interesting things, especially related to sleep, energy levels, and productivity. You track it through an app, which the two team members watched carefully as I went through and found confusion points. Fun exercise with a smart designer and engineer. I, then, compelled them to do the same for joinfoodcircles.org and our Android app. Man, was it a humbling experience. But I’m happy to say I was able to write it all down for both platforms. They loved the app, but also recommended I take some design cues from the Yummly app. I wish we had the capital to bring on our team to at least part-time to address some of these issues, but for now these and some others remain unaddressed.

I headed back to the Digital Garage where I shared some of FoodCircles and also Talim on the big screen with coworking members and people from NEO (a design firm officing there). After everyone headed out for the weekend, I had a food truck event and a Facebook house party 2.5 miles away to make it to. But before I left, I sat in a cushy beanbag couch in the now-empty warehouse and composed a few critical followup emails. But this session was a little different than most Friday night email sessions. I was still smarting from Hy’s decline earlier, and also was considering what I was doing when pitching meetings to busy people such as Ryan without really specific ways I needed help (or could give help). So I turned to the Internet for advice, on how to ask for advice.

http://awesomelytechie.com/ask-business-advice-via-email/
http://www.nicholasreese.com/how-to-ask-for-advice/
Bonus: https://medium.com/@taps/say-thank-you-b8f9267adc65/ (from someone I was talking to the following week)

These articles helped me distill my emails to requests that made saying yes/no easy.  I offered more clarity and context to not only Hy, but also all my upcoming meetings after the weekend. I can say the recipients appreciated it and gave us a framework on what I needed addressed during our limited time together.

It must of been two-hours of writing before I finally headed out into the night, now very late for a food truck meetup where many of Ritu’s recommended contacts were hanging out. This was a part of my experience that felt very much like a Grand Theft Auto game if you’ve played one. Every few blocks, a new feel. Tons of pedestrians all doing and saying different things from neighborhood to neighborhood.

I got to the destination, but there were no food trucks to be found. There were just some skaters hitting jumps and rails. As I watched them, I looked up the event’s website, which listed a different address. I skated about a mile more there, and ended up parked in front of a gay leather bar (still no food trucks). I didn’t have another address, and so cruised the city to kill some time. I stopped at a stoplight and spoke with a mother just getting off 2nd shift to pick up her son. I walked into a bar and a drunk Packers fan and her friend bought me a drink and two lotto tickets. I walked out and went to a jazz cafe, which was shutting down because not enough people came out (what!?). Later on, my friend from Facebook texted me the address and I started the (long) skate over. Two bolts from one of my longboard trucks popped off, which made the work a bit harder, but not too bad. After crossing through a few more thronging districts, including the Castro on a Friday night, I reached this posh hilly neighborhood and bought some much-needed fruit at a corner store to keep the energy up. I walked into the Facebook party, again a little sweaty from the skate. Sumeet and his friends were impressed I had skated it from downtown and quickly poured me a drink. The views were spectacular and the conversation geeky and intellectual. Things started thinning out, and my friend offered to taxi me back to Chinatown instead of letting me skate. Super nice.

It had been a truly great day, and led to an even greater night’s sleep.


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Saturday

Saturday’s main event was to head down to Mountain View and catch former CTO Ryan Proch (now Googler) playing some jazz at an Italian restaurant. But before that, I went to this thing called Doodlefest, caught up on a bit of work, and also got lunch with Ken whom I was staying with.

Ken is a sales manager at a startup called DoubleDutch that deeply analyzes the UX of event and conference attendees. He led me deep into Chinatown, eventually coming upon his favorite Vietnamese restaurant. I had been in awe of Ken’s servitude for travelers in SF — he pays for and maintains a 2-br apartment in the heart of the city just to have a space for travelers. Literally a full room (plus towel service) kept for whomever needed it, free of charge. He often takes his lunch breaks with travelers and makes sure they find their way. At what cost? A tennis lesson if possible, states his Couchsurfing profile, and just cool stories about where you come from. The same week I was staying at his apt, he had another couchsurfer from Australia on his couch. The same day we left, he was hosting another group of six surfers over. Incredible. But Ken modestly played it off.

“It’s a great situation,” he said, “I don’t have a roommate when I don’t want one, and when I do, I have dozens of interesting ones to choose from.”

Maybe more of us could use this sort of attitude.

Stranger, host, friend.

– Stranger, host, friend.

Doodlefest was hosted by a nonprofit gallery and studio Creativity Explored, who’s mission is to provide a place for artists with developmental challenges to learn, create and sell their artistic expression. The fest was to see a group of talentless sketchers (like me) come together to create our own usable font. Per usual, I was so late, I missed the whole thing. But as I walked around the gallery, looking at the fonts and the pieces the disabled artists had created, the instructor Rod Cavazos of (The) Alphabetic Order, spoke with me and appreciated me stopping by even though I couldn’t participate. We spoke about type, the work that goes into making it, and its piracy. I told him about the project I was working on, and again appreciative, Rod offered me the use of any of (T)AO’s fonts I found fitting. I haven’t taken him up on this offer yet, but plan to do so.

Seeing former CTO Ryan for the first time in years, doing something he loved as much as code (jazz sax) was rather surreal. During breaks in the music, I sat with him and tried to dig at how Ryan was able to improvise so well with music and the essence on why he loved playing. The way he spoke to it, I don’t think I can convey through typing now, but there was deep appreciation and joy in his eyes and visage that I so rarely see. It was cool. He also spoke to the love for his career at Google matching this love of music, which again is rare. Time well spent with an old friend in a new world. I then traveled to meet another friend, who was throwing a pirate house party in Palo Alto. A highly thought-out party this was, and I again enjoyed the intellectual sparring going on.

I got to split a taxi back with one intellectual, Michael Lai, a recent graduate from Harvard. Michael is focusing on creating a 4-year university in which each semester takes place in a different country.

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One question he and his roommate asked me was why I’d started FoodCircles. I replied there were many suffering individuals in this world and that based on my faith as a Christian, it was part of my job to help these people. Michael didn’t take that for an answer and probed, asking what I meant. I was fascinated by his fascination in my faith, and soon found out the essence of Christianity had never been shared with him before (something I’m not used to in Grand Rapids). So I did my best to share the basic idea of salvation before we split up. When I paid him for the taxi, I concluded with the thought that religion starts with whether or not Christ rose from the dead. If he did, then we should probably listen to what he had to say.  If not, then it opens the door to other explanations.  I wished him well in his journey and hope to connect again with him someday.

Sunday

Sunday morning I had a dream about a mentor back in Grand Rapids, Kelly Bonewell. I saw him standing among a church congregation circled around him pleading with the group to wait on the Lord. He went into deep descriptions of words, “longing”, “long”, “waiting”, “wait on”.  He physically shook members’ shoulders as he depicted examples of people waiting on the Lord. He was desperate enough that I woke up and wrote it down.
I hopped on a morning bus and headed for City Church, where I was meeting Kelly LeCoy and a friend. I was late per usual, and was disappointed to catch just the end of a very cool, jazz-style worship set. The pastor asked us (me),

“To what voice are you listening?”

“What things in life do you prioritize over all else?”

“When we forget His voice and vision, we become defined by our stumbling. But if a GPS can reroute us, maybe a God can reroute us too. Maybe God’s goal in your life isn’t just forgiveness, it’s healing too.”

Typing my notes here helps me not to forget some of these good words. As we were about to leave afterward, I was greeted by several cases of gourmet donuts. As I sunk my teeth into a vanilla creme, I smiled to myself, “This is church.”

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We headed out to a series of beautiful events, called the Now! Festival taking place in the Panhandle district. Kudos to the organizers. I’d like to see more like this and sites like FunCheap in other cities. We led off with a “Story Forest” which involved answering the prompt, “When I was young, I … “ on a plank with a sharpie. We were then to hang the plank with string over a tree branch. In seeing all the stories and adding our own, our group created a forest.

Second up was slacklining, a popular balancing act that I hadn’t tried to-date. Finally, was the “Silent Disco”. Hard to describe, but I’ll do my best…

The basic premise is you have a band, who’s sound is projected over a local network and not through speakers. Then you give the crowd a set of headphones that can exclusively tune into the signal, and off you go. I actually think a cool alternative would be just to create a space for people to listen to their own music and dance to their own beat publicly. Anyway, within the headphones was a beautiful sound created by a White Stripes / The Outer Vibe-esque band, Not Sure. Not Yet. Outside the headphones, the scene looks and sounds totally stupid. People are bopping their heads and dancing to the worst sounds imaginable in the middle of a public park. But within the headphones is quite an amazing experience! But when I tuned in, I found myself immediately wanting to capture the moment with my GoPro or smartphone. I mean, how cool is this! But I then remembered that there was literally no way to experience it unless you were right next to me with a special pair of headphones on. It would be forever visually / aurally unremarkable from the perspective of a photo or video. Boring, or even silly.

A scarce modern-day moment that could never be captured or shared socially, forcing participants to realize it and relish the moment for what it was before it was gone.

Objectively, a quite rare moment for me in teen and adult life. Kelly had to go get some work done, so I left to meet my “useless friend” Ben Snyder from Civic Love over coffee. We met at The Mill, not too far from Haight (Hippie) Street and The Panhandle. Don’t let the current lack of direction fool you, incredibly sharp guy here. I found his acceptance and admittance of his dry season refreshing and honest within a fairly hubristic culture. That’s why I thought to hang out after Civic Love, and so that we did over super-thick SF toast (backlash here) and coffee for THREE hours. He called what FoodCircles was doing “movement building”, and encouraged me to simplify the language for our diners (“get an app for half-off, feed four kids”) and restaurants (“We help your diners feel good and do good by choosing to eat at your restaurant.”).

Ben addressed the challenge I faced to build capacity for our team, with advice to make simple requests with plenty of lead time to team members like Adam. “Hey, why don’t you come to me in X days with 2-3 concepts on Y design sprint?” Because I spend a lot of my time still on Grand Rapids tasks like account management, social media, and user support, Ben suggested categorizing time into either (P) Production or (G) Growth and keeping a stringent 50-50 split (for example, writing and publishing this post falls into “G”). He spoke to how following 99u and reading Peak helped him learn to execute (99u offers “education you didn’t get in school on how to make things happen”).

From the perspective of an investor, he asked: “How do you know you have (or how will you get) users really excited about this product?” (reminding me of Facebook’s engagement workflow above)

From the perspective of a designer he asked, “what if the pay-more scale looked something like this?” and sketched a smiley-face balloon that rose if you decided to give more in our app. He also wanted to see “kids fed” replace ”meals donated” as our metric, which reminded me of what Ritu Jain had to say, “People want to give to a person”.

Overall the events, the parks, the view, the feel of the Haight Street, and the people I met along the way convinced me that should I ever move to SF, The Panhandle would be where I put myself into play. I look forward to visiting again and spending more time there.

Monday

Monday was my last full day, and it started with one of my most pleasant meals of my life. I was to meet Megan Gebbart at The Grove downtown for coffee, but showed early to grab some sustenance. The main brekkie menu was pretty expensive ($12 & up) and not all too attractive, but then my eyes laid onto the kid’s menu and beheld the AB&J special for a sensible $4.99.

Knowing from my days with the Dollar Lunch Day, Almond Butter & Jelly sandwiches were especially tasty, even more so with hand-grilled bread. Toss in some vegetables and ranch? Solid.

toast 2
MSU grad Megan Gebhart conducted a cool social experiment once. Very simple: every week for a year, she had a coffee with someone she didn’t know and wrote about her experience. Kinda what I’m doing right now about her. Weird. Anyway, 52 coffees, from Steve Wozniak down to a second grader. Her story and resulting book are worth a look here.

When sharing with Megan some of my challenges to build capacity (to build the business locally, to try and expand, and to try and grow the product), Megan urged me to follow the mantra

“invest 2x time to invest 1/2 time down the road.”

The moment I got back, I started thinking that way with our digital and local storyteller interns. Today, it’s to the point (maybe not 1/2 yet) where I’m certainly more hands-off locally.

And when it came to demonstrating, Megan helped me think about it in terms of measuring success and focusing time on “moving people in one circle”.
circle

I’d say most of our efforts since launching have been on just that outside loop.

Megan also runs social at the Mashery, leading me to ask how to handle social accounts as we grow to multiple cities. When confronted with the idea that we might need to create multiple Pages for multiple cities (i.e. facebook.com/foodcircles, /foodcirclesCHI, /foodcirclesDET, etc.), Megan let me know I could simply create a post off the main page and (for free) target a specific geography with the post. For the launch of a BOFO venue in Corktown, I could target the post to Detroit users whereas Chicago users wouldn’t see it. This seems to dive into it if you’re interested (“Limit Your Post’s Audience”).

She also said Groups and Pages serve different purposes and encouraged me to create Groups for each local market, with the caveat one would not be able to skirt finding a dedicated community manager and still succeed.

Groups purpose: facilitate discussion

Pages purpose: enable brief updates

To have a lively, engaged Group, that consumed and produced conversation like a fire, Megan said there was no way around not having someone part-time to stoke the flames. So good news in that this was the direction we were going anyway and bad news that there would be no shortcuts this time.

After meeting with Megan, I skated in the direction of OrderAhead, an app and service in the hyper-competitive online food ordering space. Quite a fight these guys are in and are slugging through. Ki Moon runs Operations, and after hearing about FoodCircles, was pretty impressed with our traction and revenue to-date. But that wasn’t what I shared first in our conversation. Typically when I pitch FoodCircles to a new someone, I introduce our traction numbers pretty quickly. “Hey, hey, not only is it cool, but look at these numbers!!” With Ki, for whatever reason, I didn’t get into that until he asked maybe halfway through our coffee outside his office. When he asked and I disclosed the numbers, he was impressed. I think for me it suggested that to lead with traction, “Here, here look at numbers!” isn’t always the most advantageous.  Perhaps it is better to let someone in on the concept simply, and then when they ask, “so how’s it going?” then you offer the stats.

Ki also mentioned an interesting term as we attempt to grow, he said, “Scale the playbook”. Playbook is an interesting term, and could come to define the “package” we seal up and offer for nonprofits in other cities looking to engage a younger demographic (which FoodCircles helps Feeding America West Michigan and Kids Food Basket among others currently).

He asked whether we considered ourselves either a “utility” or “discovery” product, and I said, “good question”. I’d like to think of FoodCircles as a utility app, something people use to meet their desire to help others continually. There’s a lot of discovery apps out there. But what would our actual diners say? How should we position it moving forward?

After meeting with the battle-tested guys at OrderAhead, I went forward to meet with Scott Birch and Dhiren Mewada of Vino Volo. Dhiren is a good friend and advisor to FoodCircles, having completed his MBA at UM while I was finishing undergrad. He’s currently the director of strategy at VV, which operates some 20 wine tasting and food bars around US.

The three of us sat around a table at a French sandwich bistro and discussed how FoodCircles at Vino Volo could optimize waste. Their “Buy One, Feed One” dish could be used to move food that needed to go or that was purchased at a discount that week (increased margins). These move-worthy dishes’ proceeds would put a meal on the table for the disadvantaged, plus keep content incredibly fresh on our app. Not a bad outcome all the way around. Since pitching the idea to our restaurants, one of our steakhouses has actually switched their BOFO dish to a STEAK (yes, steak for $1+ donation) they hoped to move more of. Advice validated.

After lunch, I headed out down to Mountain View to hang out with Ryan (the former Circler) at Google HQ. On the Caltrain over, I rung up the Rishi Taparia at Poynt who I emailed during the “asking for advice” learning session Friday night. Rishi challenged us to get the “Buy One, Feed One” dish featured on the restaurant’s own site versus merely ours. I mean, it makes sense; they get a lot more hits than we do alone, plus they have the incentive to do so (if not perhaps the technical know-how). Because of our social mission, Rishi also advised having a solid plan to convert to a 501(c)3 if our finance piece didn’t work out for any reason.

I also rang up Justin Milano of goodstartups and Wes Selke of Better Ventures. When I was able to connect with them, Justin pointed out a challenge that we will have to face and solve if we are to succeed as a company:

“The reality of consumer behavior is self-serving, and your product needs to have a compelling hook outside of the charitable outcome.”

I tend to agree with Justin. I mean, after all, when I am hungry, the last thing I’m thinking about is charity. I believe that if our app is stripped of a superior experience at local restaurants, a meaningful followup post-donation, a method of demonstrating their compassion to friends, charity alone will not be able sway behavior. Wes Selke said the same thing, admiring our passion but holding concern regarding consumer behavioral change due to charity. Wes, a serial investor with his partner, revealed some helpful tips on grad school (don’t go until you feel “ready for a change, or burned out”, which I’m not yet) and also his preferences when he receives pitch materials from startups.  Here’s the outline he proposes below:

First, BE on angel.co.
Second, give me a good deck: 10-15 slides max.

1)    Outline first the team
2)    Then, the revenue model
3)    The exit strategy
4)    3 milestones from your last round
5)    3 milestones from your next round
6)    Whatever else you think is important (perhaps evidence you’ve followed the Lean Startup book)

One of the lessons I learned implicitly through both of these calls:

ALWAYS send a short deck or executive summary IN ADVANCE before having a call with a potential advisor or connector.

Not only is it a nod of respect to prepare someone you’re to speak to, it saves the time of needing to convey basic mechanics you’ve shared 1000 times. Plus, it’s a visual intro vs audio for them. Even when they don’t open it in advance, they see that you’re thinking for them and are thinking ahead. Regrettably, I didn’t do it for Wes or Justin in this case.

Post-calls and visit to Google HQ, my trip was reaching its conclusion. I made a small presentation at a food tech meetup and was impressed to see a couple attendees had already looked us up and knew how everything worked. Smart people. Once the last meetup’ers left the space, I spent some time with one of the good guys, Peter Shanley, who helps organize Civic Love and is a project manager at NEO. We caught the rather disturbing film Nightcrawler at a theatre nearby, and I actually spent the night at the Digital Garage before taxiing down to the airport for the 5am flight out.

Tuesday

Why include the flight back? Because the guy I sat next to had a Harvard hat on and turned out to be a serial entrepreneur and former state senator of Washington. Joe Tanner was the second grad in Harvard’s history to graduate in just 3 1/2 total undergrad years (two years at community college). I loved his pitch to get admitted to Harvard after growing up in a rural Texas town to parents of a hardly a high school education (and placing in the bottom 3rd himself). After serving in the Navy, his officer-advisor recommended a few community colleges in California. Joseph instead wrote to Harvard, who took a grand total of six transfer students the year he applied (of >1000 applications). Joe’s pitch? Harvard asked for students that “add to the diverse fabric of our academic community”. Joe simply asked: Do you have a single student who’s served abroad (Vietnam), has come from a town of less than 800, with no family history of college?

A great case of discerning exactly what a “customer” wanted and pitching that, instead of simply what the “seller” had to offer. Joe pitched exactly what Harvard was looking for and was received.

“You can’t get a Yes for a question you don’t ask!” laughed Joe.

He is currently working on laser technology with a team across the country. One of the applications is making tattoo removal complete and painless, clearly of value to many a regretful inkster.

“Each day we make 100 tiny decisions. It’s these decisions that define our life as a whole.” Short-term gratification lead to long-term consequences. The laser tech perhaps could help remove one of these. 🙂

I asked him about grad school and my desire to develop one more deep consumer experience before heading back. I’ve been told to go sooner rather than later, before “it’s too late”, so that I have time to build up income, build a family, etc. I asked Joe, an entrepreneur himself who only started college at 24, who went to grad school even later, on why he chose to go back at the older age that he did. He said the following that I will remember,

“One day, I decided that the concept of age would not be a decision-making factor for me any longer.”

He’s in his 70’s today and flying hundreds of thousands of miles a year, developing new tech around the globe and has a law degree. Sounds like an attitude I could see myself having.  Lastly, Joe’s take on FoodCircles? He called it “a turnkey solution for nonprofits” that could be very valuable. He said if I was focusing on the product and users, we were missing a killer salesperson, or vice versa. Joe resides near Seattle and I look forward to meeting him again sometime down the road.

We touched down in Chicago and then Grand Rapids, where I was so kindly greeted by our Local Storyteller, Kyle who picked me up without a coat in 18 inches of snow and took me out for wings and a burger at a #BOFO establishment to catch me up on what I’d missed and gameplan for what was ahead. I was back in Grand Rapids, ready to stay awhile, but not for too long awhile.

car


I decided to mail Joe one of our “Inner Circle” shirts, and that quickly turned into ironing and packaging ~40 different shirts + Thank You notes for everyone I had met over those 5 days while I wrote this post. It was quite an effort.

gifts

receipt

— the longest receipt I’ve ever been a part of

Packaging all of these was extremely time-consuming. I thought to ask someone from the team to help, but I didn’t want to involve them in what was a solo journey. In hindsight, I probably should have. A man even walked in the FedEx where I was putting all this together and exclaimed, “You’re doing all this by yourself??” My thought exactly. He left with, “You know, you kind of look like an app developer.” I stood there stunned. I guess it was clearly obvious by the fact I was at a FedEx packing t-shirts.

Anyway, I’ll let you sort through the thoughts above. I’ll also conclude with a few ideas on how to plan such a trip.

  1. brainstorm all names you know that belong to a certain city like SF, NYC, Austin, Seattle, etc.
  2. cross off the ones you know can’t help you in a specific way
  3. let trusted friends and advisors know you’re traveling and ask for people you should meet along the way (side note: I made a full-length film using this method once)
  4. contact your resulting list with specific asks (following the “advice on asking for advice” section, and the “Ryan Delk” method for 2-3 high-priority contacts)
  5. Wait for a tipping point of 8-10 replies/appointments and then punch your tickets
  6. Get around and kick ass
  7. Say your thank you’s
  8. Write up a post like this either for yourself or for people who care about you
  9. Start writing a list of contacts for a repeat trip or the next trip elsewhere.

Here’s my list for next time in SF. As you can see, it won’t be long till I’m back there again.

  • Michael McCarthy
  • Josh Tetrick
  • Rose at HandUp
  • Ben Snyder
  • Justin Rosenstein
  • Ryan Delk
  • Dan Lynch
  • Jamison Detweiler
  • Lana Volftson
  • Mark Swartsman
  • Bhargav Prakash
  • Eric Jorgenson
  • Michael Lai
  • Nipun Mehta
  • Pavi Mehta
  • 33%-50% of contacts from last trip

My question for you; who should I meet when next in SF?  Someone I should add?

Special thank you to: God, Ravi Jain, Thomas Frank (UM), Jessica Henry (UM), Sumeet Vaidya, Peter Thanley, Praveen Alavilli, Rishi Taparia, Ryan Proch, Matt Barnick, Ritu Jain, Kelly LeCoy, Ben Snyder, Pacific Tradewinds Hostel, Uday & Shanthi Kumar, Ken Murch, Ryan Delk, Random African American guy from Stanford on BART, Megan Gebhart, Dhiren Mewada, Ki Moon, Digital Garage, my longboard, Joseph Tanner, and you for reading.

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