Lessons learned at TechWeek by someone who perhaps should’ve been barred from entering

**If you’re reading this in a reader, you might want to head over the to actual post, so you can see all the pretty pictures!**

Before I get into today’s post, a mention of my last post, Five fights I had before 8AM.  Someone sent me the message “I read your blog from yesterday. Sounds like you had a crappy morning. Hope things are looking up.”  From the majority of comments received, i.e. “Your latest blog made me smile,” it seems that most people got that our “fights” weren’t really fights and that all of my gripes were just silly, inconsequential reflections on living with someone, but just in case there are folk running around the world thinking Boyfriend and I experienced tension over a loaf of bread, it was all in jest!  No actual anger transgressed.

Ok, onto today’s post.

Much like Social Dev Camp and BarCamp last summer, I once again recently found myself at an event where I wondered:

  • What am I do doing here?
  • What language are they speaking?
  • When will security escort me out for being a fraud?

That said, there were plenty of things that happened that made me think, maybe I do belong at TechWeeka week-long festival, conference & expo celebrating the technology, web, and interactive communities —

Though TechWeek is well, a week, I only went down to Merchandise Mart on Monday, to attend the sessions put on by SPARK Women.  SPARK Women was touted as a conference designed to encourage women to get started and make the leap into entrepreneurship while understanding their unique advantages and challenges.

Session #1: Jill SalzmanRockstars, Babies & the Mothership

I learned that one need not spend six weeks creating slides.  Jill’s slides – “2009,” a photo, a two sentence quote – perfectly complemented what she said and allowed the audience to mostly focus on her and her words.  When it comes to presentation slides, simpler is better and very effective.

Jill wove together personal stories with six business lessons.  I found myself laughing and nodding/swaying/amen’ing in agreement throughout [my “Stevie Wonder/black woman in Church” state as Boyfriend calls it].

How to be a Serial Entrepreneur

  • Lesson #1: make it up
  • Lesson #2: sleep
  • Lesson #3: give yourself the promotion
  • Lesson #4: tell your cousin
  • Lesson #5: tell your dentist
  • Lesson #6: tell everyone

Jill opened a music management firm and discovered she was great at publicity and booking, so she added those services.  When I started Mac ‘n Cheese Productions, “productions” meant video production.  But then I discovered I was good at identifying unique, fun, comfortable ways to help others make connections, so I added board games in my living room and dancing awkwardly in front of a sold-out Park West audience of 700 to my services.  When you find out that you’re good at something, brainstorm ways to turn your likes into cash.  That way, when you’re spending hours “working,” you won’t feel that you’re working at all.  I don’t feel I’ve worked a day in my seven years of self-employment.

Jill’s cousin sent anklets from Bangkok for Jill’s kid and everyone kept asking her where she got them, so she had her cousin send more and started selling them.  Long awesome story summarized: Jill found out another cousin of hers was living next door to Gwen Stefani’s parents, so sent said cousin a set with a note to give to Gwen’s parents, hoping they’d give them to Gwen.  Two months later, this picture was taken, Perez Hilton wrote “Stylin!” and had it on his show, which resulted in a People Magazine mention.  The business blew up.

I love that Jill very common-sensically observed a money-making opportunity and didn’t let the fact that she didn’t have an MBA or a background in imports or accessory-ware experience stop her.  She also didn’t go crazy and order a gazillion Bumble Bells.  She placed orders as needed, always with a few extra on hand, but never a warehouse full of dust-collecting baby anklets.  AND Jill has optimistic balls!  She frickin’ sent Gwen Stefani’s parents a handwritten-note.  What are the odds that that would actually turn into something?  Huge proponent of this type of thinking — go big.  If you shoot for the stars and fall just short, well that’s still pretty darn good.  So, Tim Ferriss, Jill and I are hosting an underground supper club for entrepreneurs in the Fall; I know you usually charge a million dollars for speaking engagements, but would you consider a free dinner, unlimited Franzia, and hanging with cheeky girl-hosts instead?

I can’t remember what story this relates to but at some point Jill said, “I didn’t spend a penny, not a penny.”  Oh, the resonation!  It’s the stories of everyday people who successfully start businesses not with a $500K loan from dad, lottery winnings, or savings they accumulated making Ridiculous Amount of Money at some corporate job, but with bartering sessions, a camera purchase with a payment plan that allowed for a year to pay for it with no interest accrued if paid on time, and having no shame in telling everyone and anyone about your business that resonate with me.  I had enough in savings to buy a Venti skinny vanilla latte when I started Mac ‘n Cheese.  My mom helped me buy an iMac.  An aunt gave me a $3000 loan.  The rest of the help I received was people referring folk to me and/or hiring me themselves.  I quickly realized the art of networking, the huge pay-off to going solo to things [you’re forced to meet new people or  you look like an idiot standing by yourself at the punchbowl], and to sign-up for a range of activities that I wanted to do anyway [guitar, improv, volunteering, alumni club], with the thought that if nothing comes of the activity other than you have a good time, that’s great; if you get a client out of it, cherry on top!  And more often than not, the latter occurred.

Jill, and most of the speakers I heard at TechWeek, is a huge fan of tell everyone your idea.  Don’t be worried about people stealing it.  I’ve been approached for years about franchises, trade-marks, copyrights, most recently at Fear Experiment when a patent lawyer came up to me post-show, pressed his card in my hand and said very sternly, “You need to call me right away.”  I don’t know, naive perhaps, but my thought has always been, if someone wants to steal one of my concoctions, more power to them.  I kinda stole the Mingler idea from others, tweaking it to fit my interests and needs.  It’s the curator of the events that drives the events’ success or failure, and call me crazy, but a six-foot biracial kinda-Jewish with a Jesuit-degree girl who wasn’t named for the first year of her life, didn’t get immunized until she was a junior in college, raised by a self-taught organic gardener single-mom, and grew up sans TV, microwave, tupperware, and car is hard to replicate.

Jill talked about how no one ever showed up to her online events, like webinars.  She learned the power of face to face.  And to that, I say amen!  People are hungry for opportunities that get them away from the computer screen, texts, and TVs.  Which is why I have an ever-growing list of folk who want to pay money to do something they’re bad at in front of A LOT of staring eyes.  Speaking of which, Fear Experiment Round Two mandatory info sessions coming soon, make sure you sign up to be alerted to dates/times!

Session #2: Kerry Knee and Mahlia Mustafa, The Fundamentals of a Winning Pitch

Kerry, the co-founder of Flirty Girl Fitness had many slides that scared me, due to the graphs, numbers, and vocabulary not in my vocabulary.

But she obviously knows what she’s talking about, with a very successful business that is thriving in an economy where many are failing.

She said to diversify your offerings.  Besides pole-dancing [and many other types of] classes, she also sells DVDs, clothing, poles, instructor certification [2500 people pay $40 a month].  A pal of mine once suggested I create “Minglers in a Box” and sell them to people interested in starting Minglers in their cities.  A Fear Experiment [FE] audience member asked at the show where he could get an FE tshirt.  Wheels spinning of stuff to sell in the Mac ‘n Cheese online store…

Kerry also pointed out that the investor is investing in YOU more than your idea.  If you’re passionate and likable, that’ll take you far.  I learned this recently when I had a practice session for the MIT Whiteboard Challenge [a whiteboard, a marker, an idea, and five minutes to convince a panel of judges to give you prize money] and knocked it out of the park, so said the panelists, with my personality, but then fell flat on my face in the actual competition when I lost that nervous, infectious energy.  And also ran out of time before I got to describe the success and money-making potential of my project, the two most important facts.  Oy.

Session #3: Funding Basics: What options are available?   Are they right for you?

This was a panel, wonderfully moderated by Desiree Vargas Wrigley of GiveForward [like Kickstarter but for medical expenses].  I used Kickstarter to raise money for the Fear Experiment program, over $5000 in a week; imagine doing that for a “real” cause!!

There were a lot of interesting bits, here are a few things that stood out —

Matt McCall, venture capitalist

  • When you go into the board room to ask for money, act like “you are lucky to be talking to me, maybe I’ll take your money”
  • Girls of working mothers are more independent and resilient than those of stay at home moms

Cliff Turner, angel investor

  • If you don’t get funded, ask why you didn’t get money
  • Don’t forget to ask for money; sometimes it truly is as simple as just asking

Jessica Kim, business owner

  • Raised a couple hundred thousand from friends/angels with a minimum of $10K to invest
  • Tell friends and family “If there’s a chance you will ever feel bitterness towards me, I don’t want your money”
  • Worst meetings were when she tried to fit a certain mold; just be yourself!

Rona Borre, business owner

  • Started with a $100K loan from dad and a promissory note
  • By month two, was cash flow positive and able to pay back Dad
Kurtis Trevan, Silicon Valley Bank, was also on the panel and said good stuff.  I just neglected to write specifics.  Sorry Kurtis!

Session #4: Penelope Trunk, Keynote Speaker

Penelope is a writer, mostly about careers, has a very popular blog, and is married to a Wisconsin farmer.

Many people did not like her message, or lack of a message they said, and were appalled that she was the Keynote.  Penelope doesn’t have a filter, is very crass, and often says what others will not [she has Asperger’s Syndrome].  She’s blogged about her abortions, her miscarriage in a boardroom, what it’s like to have sex with someone with Asperger’s, and lots of other really personal and controversial topics.

That said, while I may not have agreed with everything she said, I enjoyed her randomness, her un-pc’ness, and her humor.  With seemingly most of the people I know who saw her upset in the aftermath – a girl I rode down in the elevator with commented, “I was so inspired by today, [Penelope] really took the wind out of those sails” – I second-guessed myself and wondered if the fact that I wasn’t offended meant I was a horrible and/or dense person.  And then I decided not to spend any more time reflecting on the subject.  I thought she was weird and funny and out there, I chuckled, covered my eyes, and “Oh no’ed…” various times, and when I got home, I subscribed to her blog and asked the SPARK organizer how I could get the free copy of her book I had won.

Penelope started off saying she was going to list 7 Things that People do in Startups that Annoy Me.  I may have missed one, or she may not have gotten to seven as she was all over the place, but there’s what I gathered –

1. People who go after funding when their company shouldn’t be funded

2. Worry that people will steal your idea — pitch everyone!

3. Don’t ask for help

4. Horde equity

5. Go to all women stuff

6. Aren’t nice

Random Penelope Thoughts

  • Own your idea, say it’s your company, take ownership of it!
  • Funders are always rich white guys with a yacht and two families
  • Don’t have cursive fonts on your resume
  • People who like your idea will want to share it with their most connected folk
  • Women who are 29 have to get pregnant and women who are 35 want to work part time, so women want to be with men because men are willing to make work their lives
  • As a general rule, you never want to be in a room full of women
  • Investing is a people business so be nice
  • You need help from everyone
  • Follow-through with investors, entrepreneurs, employees
  • Be the humble, kind generous person because you’ll need it
  • For a tech conference, a room of ½ and ½ men and women is ALL women
  • It’s crazy how bad your eggs get when you’re 35
  • You have to be married to your company when you’re a startup
  • Every sector where it’s all women sucks (teacher, nurse)
  • No matter how much women make, they all want to be with a man who makes more
  • You should always have a partner [female is best if you’re a female]
  • Trait that unites all startup founders: ability to understand weaknesses and find those to surround you to compensate
  • Divorce rate for entrepreneurs is through the roof

She recounted how she put on her blog that she’d have a book for sale in three months, without having ever written a book and not having started this one, and made $25K in two weeks with pre-orders.  Wow.

So my take-aways from TechWeek, where I felt like I kinda belonged and kinda didn’t:

  • Things will fall into place if you’re proactive and start the wheels turning
  • Small steps can lead to huge things
  • Go big even if it seems unrealistic
  • Use simple slides
  • Tell everyone you know about what you’re doing
  • Be passionate
  • Get people to pre-order something I have no experience making and haven’t yet started
  • Elston is a great street for biking; Elston is a horrible street for walking one’s flat-tired heavy Dutch bike six-miles home after a long-day TechWeek conference