Everywhere you go, people can help you grow.
Three weeks back we decided to kill our baby. It was not out of the blue. This had been coming for almost a year now. But like good, gritty entrepreneurs we kept plugging away until the roof finally fell through. You would think it took a big crash for us to call it quits but it didn’t. It was the smallest thing.
A missed meeting. That’s all it took.
I’m glad for that missed meeting. Glad for the slightness and triviality of it. If it had been a major setback, like a deal falling through, our entrepreneur instincts would have kicked in and we might have hunkered down with renewed energy to ‘fix’ it.
But something simple like a missed meeting did such a great job of sealing the deal and helping us move on.
TappedIn officially launched in Feb 2011 but my cofounder and I had been plugging away at it since September 2010. TappedIn was a pivot from our 6-month endeavor of testing the waters with our original concept. And now 2.5 years later we have reached the end of our road.
This post is not going to be a eulogy or sob story recounting our failures. I mean it to be a document of our journey, a testament to the bumpy ride we had and reminder of the reasons we have bruises right now. More importantly, it is a compilation of the lessons learned along the way. It is mostly for us to learn from and move forth with gusto but it is also a gift so someone, somewhere can avoid the mistakes we made.
The early bird gets the worm: We were relatively early in the social discovery space. No one was talking about or interested in the ‘discovery’ of people, until early 2012. It exploded at SXSW 2012. By then we were 18 months into the game. We had a beta product, partnerships with TEDx and Eventbrite, we had proven the concept with a handful of clients and had even made some revenue. My cofounder and I were plugging away at it fulltime. We should have raised money then. Instead we waited for ‘just one more improvement’, ‘ just one more event’, ‘just one more bug fix’ and before we knew it, we were at the end of 2012. Social discovery had fizzled out by then, our competitors had raised a ton of money, my cofounder had had to find a full time job and we weren’t dramatically better than where we were a year ago. It became really hard for us to raise money at that point. Without cash in the bank, our CEO was unable to work full time, nobody was taking home a paycheck, we were barely able to pay bills and were severely demotivated. Lesson learned: If you know you have a short runaway with personal cash, raise early so the question of paying rent is off the table.
“All great things are simple and many can be expressed in a few words”: (Churchill) Our tagline was ‘Make conversations matter’. To this day we still aren’t sure if that was the right tagline for TappedIn. We spent weeks, maybe months trying to figure out what it was. We knew it would evolve over time but we just wanted to get close. And we couldn’t. This was because our stated vision was too big and too vague. It didn’t directly tie in to the product we were building. We were unable to tell our story well or connect the dots well because we claimed we wanted to change the world but we were building something that most people didn’t think they’d even need. Lesson Learned: Have a powerful vision but make it easy to relate to, easy to build toward and easy to adopt.
It is not the unmelodious but the discordant who ruin the orchestra: There’s still no unilateral consensus on the tagline. We all had different ideas\perceptions of what the mission and vision of the company was. If you’d ask the three of us (CEO, COO, CTO) to pitch, you would hear different words come out of our mouths. This stemmed entirely from the fact that we hadn’t truly internalized the mission. This made decision-making extremely tedious and complicated. We each approached it from three different points of view, spent hours, days, sometimes weeks going back and forth figuring out the next step. Before we knew it, a lot of time had slipped away in ‘brainstorming’ without getting any real work done. Lesson Learned: Make sure the entire team is on the same page and is united in their thinking about the purpose of the product and its impact.
That which can be broken will be broken This is such a simple lesson oft retold. And like all basic rules of life it is easier said than done. We knew we needed to have unwavering belief in our vision and the problem we were solving but it was so hard to stick to our guns in the face of ‘feedback’ from seniors in the industry. We were looking to sell our story not looking for someone to buy our story. We should have firmly believed that there’s someone, somewhere out there who will ‘get it’ – who will believe in the story as passionately as we do. Lesson Learned: If there’s magic in what you’re building, trust that there’s someone out there who will believe in the magic too. Your job is to find that someone. Not change the colors of your magic.
Observe the opportunity, define the problem, discover the market and invent a solution: This seems like common sense but is so easy to forget when you are in the thick of things, lost in system crashes, bug fixes and an oversized social media diet. We easily ridiculed the Silicon Valley ethos of ‘build it and they will come’ but were unable to shake out of our day-to-day business to go out there, sell, collect some letters of intent and come back to the drawing board. Until recently we kept pursuing a customer model that was just not working. The pieces fell into place recently and we did figure out who to sell to and how but it was too little too late. Lesson Learned: Don’t work in a bubble. Go out there and find people who will pay for what you’re building. Do this early.
Communication can make or break you: It sounds cliche but its true. Its do or die when it comes to internal communication within the team. It is key. Words matter. Intent matters. And most importantly, communicating the right thing at the right time with the right person matters. Our communication was broken due to several factors unique to our situation – past experiences, full time jobs, differences in personal values and misalignment of priorities. Communication sets the tone and energy within your startup so work on it from day one. Set the rules and create an internal protocol. Lesson Learned: Take the time to create a culture around communication. It is worth the time and effort.
Your team can be democratic or totalitarian, not diplomatic: What this means is that while every one enjoys the principles of universal adult franchise in decision making, they also have to accept the will of the majority, and if there is no majority the leader should rule with the fist of law. Either way is fine because it leads to decisions and therefore progress. The worst thing one can do is try to make everyone happy and in the process delay important decisions. We believed in looking at the 360-degree view of things, inviting everyone’s opinion and evaluating the situation from every possible angle. The result was bad decisions and terribly slow progress. Lesson Learned: Ensure the team is aligned but don’t pander to every whim and fancy.
If you are not the solution, you are the problem: Self-criticisms is one the most important skills entrepreneurs should have, but even more important is having an undying resolve to find a solution. We made a big deal of the obstacles that would get in our way instead of focusing on problem resolution. This stemmed partially from our lack of faith and partially from natural disposition. It put brakes in our progress and hurt team morale. Lesson Learned: There is a fine line between self-criticism and doomsday thinking. Be careful where you stand.
“Hard-work always pays off” is an over statement: At some point we started feeling entitled to success. We felt burnt out by the long hours and sweat we were putting in and just wanted to see some light at the end of the tunnel. We were spinning our wheels and while that was squeezing every ounce of breath within us, it wasn’t helping moving us forward. This sense of entitlement played a big role in making us slowly fall out of love with our company. Lesson Learned: Burning the midnight oil doesn’t automatically guarantee success. Results do.
There you have it. This was our tale with all its pitfalls and holes.
We feel heavy-hearted right now but humbled and grateful to have been part of the journey. We were a great team that truly loved and supported each other and we were deeply fascinated by how TappedIn could forever change the way people networked. We couldn’t quite get it right this time but we will be back with something sturdier and better.
If this helps even one person avoid some pitfalls on their journey, this will have been worth it.
The old adage “You are who you surround yourself with.” is true.
It is a fact that your maximum personal\professional growth is the average of the 5 closest people to you.
This is especially true when it comes to extreme personal development.
Whether you own a business, are a senior manager with extensive experience or are just starting out in the corporate workforce, you need to be around the right people. If you do not surround yourself with people that push you to be better, success will be very difficult to achieve.
TappedIn’s mission is to help you be surrounded by a group of people that genuinely care about making things better for you. We dream of a world in which our loves are filled with people who support others to be their best selves.
Through online conversations, frequent face-face meetings and attendance of professional events you will be challenged and encouraged to achieve more in life and at work.
The social circles you develop through TappedIn will equal higher Return On Relationships (we call it ROR) that simply translates to higher self worth and recession-proof friends.
Join us in our mission to surround ourselves with the right people.
Imagine that if everything that happens to you really happens for you - that everything is a gift and you have to figure out how.
Your greatest pains and tribulations makes you who you are today but you have to see it as such - instead of thinking of the pain and fueling it with more pain, ask why have I been given this challenge?
See everything as a blessing. We can practice law of attraction or we can truly live it. Don’t give up because things didn’t work out the way you had hoped for - those are defining moments, moments that shape who you are today.
You can in the end not get what you had hoped for but it is still a blessing , there is something to gain from it even if you feel there’s not.
So don’t stop believing - that’s called having blind faith.
What do you have blind faith in today? How can you turn things into reality today for what you really want?
Some thoughts after reading Seth’s blog about FOMO and the lizard brain…….
All you have is right now, right here. The secret is to keep moving, don’t stop for a second unless you’re completely exhausted after achieving great results. At rest is when thoughts impact us, drain us of energy, and slow us down.
But if you keep your goal in focus and have broken things down into small bricks and steps - then you can build your desired future brick by brick. Every choice you make with each minute of your day either builds on the previous brick or removes a brick towards your goal (s).
The lizard brain (has existed since the bible - Paul, etc…) competes with linchpin results - it’s an internal conflict within all of us - it comes in the form of thinking you need to have fun now, laziness, feelings of wanting to be distracted vs just doing and being fearless with your time and actions to accomplish more.
The inner conflict is triggered by internal thoughts and external observations, which trigger thoughts. Thoughts become actions, actions become habits and it repeats.
Your thoughts shape your reality.
Controlling your thoughts is the 80/20 of Seth’s blog entry. First you have to answer the question - Who do you want to be when you grow up? What does that person look like and how does that person behave? Once you know that, write down the behavior patterns of that ideal person you want to be. Then document every action you do throughout the day against that matrix. Tell your closest friends who you want to be.
We must win in the mind before entering the battles of life. This is not easy at all but with constant focus and daily endurance to win, it will be felt in your soul.
The soul should control the mind not the other way around. This means connecting with your soul is The Secret.
Coming up….How To Connect With Your Soul.
I got to chat with Sarah Bird, COO of SEOMOZ and one of my favorite leaders. We talked about her journey with Moz, her relationship with Rand (CEO of SEOMoz) and life in general as COO of a tech startup.
Sarah has always been an inspiration and it was delightful to get a glimpse of her journey so far.
Here are some snippets…
Rand and I had been friends for 4-5 years at the point I was planning to get out of law. SEOMoz at the time was just closing $1M in funding and Rand thought it would be a good fit.
I had no idea what SEOMoz was. I just knew it was something to do with the internet. But I am very interested in problem solving and being a generalist. It seemed like a great fit. It turned out we were both incredibly naive and had no idea what we were embarking on. We decided to jump in and learn as we go.
We were not intentional about the path we were on. We were new to the startup world and didn’t really know it all. I was the 8th employee and SEOMOz had just launched their subscription product 7 months before. We were getting traction on that. Most of the revenue was coming from the consulting business Rand ran with his mom. The whole business was born because Rand and his mom were doing consulting projects and they built this tool to make their job a little easier. Then they realized that all their friends in consulting could use it too.
Those were interesting and difficult years. I remember, in the early days I would talk about $250 and really question, “Is this the right place to spend $250?”
And now, the scale has changed and I prioritize based on current finances, which are at a totally different level. It is so interesting looking back at the early times.
My relationship with Rand is great now but it has not always been so. Partly because we were both new at it and partly because he ran an established business with his mom.
Rand and I have similar values that has helped our relationship survive. We both believe in people first and are very empathetic. Neither of us are yellers. We are like, “Oh we’re having a fight, we should hug and make it up.”
There were many other choices Rand could have made and gotten someone with more skills and experience for this role. But in hindsight I think I was the only one that could have helped in those early years because there was so much conflict that if we hadn’t had the underlying friendship, it would have fallen apart. Because of our friendship and his trust in me, even when we disagreed he would say, “No, she is a good person and she is trying to do the right thing”
There were definitely times where I thought about quitting and he thought about firing me. There were many days where I felt “I don’t know if I want to go to work tomorrow and why am I even trying this?”
Great cofounder relationships are like a marriage in many ways. Once you go through so many painful transitions and overcome them together, there is a lot of stability. We have disagreements today also. Sometimes we have long drawn out arguments for 4 months but a lot of the uncertainty has gone. I don’t think about quitting anymore and he doesn’t think about firing me anymore.
For a long time I felt I was inadequate for the job and didn’t have the right skills but over time I have realized that I was actually the best person for the position because I didn’t come with baggage.
When we have problems, its possible that someone experienced would already know how to solve it whereas I take an hour to figure it out but the great thing is, I look at a problem objectively with a fresh eye and find a solution that works for our context.
Strategy and Product\Market fit
Three interesting dynamics were at play for us. The good news was we had a subscription model. At that time it was the cool thing to do and it covered for a lot of mistakes. It was profitable and we stumbled upon a great business model early on without intentional planning.
The second great thing was SEO itself. It was a great business at the time and still is because it is an incredibly important part of any business’ marketing plan. So we got lucky by being in the right place at the right time.
The third was that we were our first customer, because Rand built the tool to help his consulting business. That was a good thing and a bad thing. The pro was that we validated the tool ourselves. The con was we never went out and spoke to users.
We said, “let’s build the most awesome tool we can and if we build it they will come.”
We built what worked for us, which was data heavy spreadsheets. That was a huge mistake because we learnt that our customers didn’t want reams and reams of data. They wanted a simple tool that gave them easy-to-digest information.
And it was a painful learning curve to realize “oh not everyone likes gigantic spreadsheets choc full of data” So we learnt to listen to our customers and build what they wanted.
We now have a deep customer focus, a customer advisory board and spend a lot of time thinking about the customer.
We’ve both been incredibly involved in fund raising and we have different memories of how that process played out. I accompanied Rand on all the roadshows.
Rand writes stories of how fundraising was a challenge and how we failed to do it. But I remember it so differently. I remember us being very picky with our terms and the valuations we wanted. And we said, “No thank you.”
I think it was really important to work together as a team and present our story to investors. Even if they didn’t invest it was really important to talk to different people and get asked the same questions. It made us go back to the drawing board and address the things we kept getting asked about.
I like the whole process of building presentations, bringing people in a room and presenting the plan and the vision.
Rand took it personally but I didn’t.
Thank you Sarah!
This is a guest post by a very dear friend of TappedIn’s Bob Britting.
Altruistic Networking is a philosophical state of mind that has nothing to do with networking, per se. It represents a positive manifestation and response occurring as a result of a person doing good deeds for others - and expecting nothing in return.
One of the most important elements in building relationships with other human beings is trust. To wit, when two sales people offer a product, and the cost/benefits are virtually the same, the buyer will lean significantly towards the person they trust more. In fact, using the same example, all things being equal that is, the person having garnered the greater trust can even charge MORE for the same service or product. As one can see, this phenomenon can actually result in greater profits and Return on Investment, for example… simply by generating a more visceral trust.
Further, Altruistic Networking cannot be masked. It has to be part of one’s wiring, so to speak. That is, to “fake it” and create a persona of being altruistic will work occasionally, but over the long run will be easily recognized by the more astute individual - and result in a greater distrust of the “faker.”
Altruistic Networking is a state of mind. One must truly recognize the need to be altruistic! It is not always inherent and is difficult to teach… but it can be done because most individuals want to help their fellow human beings.
One small example. When a customer - someone from whom I am receiving money for work I am doing for him - seems to be in trouble at his office, I will search for other opportunities for other positions at other companies by taking time to reach out on his behalf with a number of my colleagues and use some of my very valuable “chips” so to speak. I do this KNOWING I will lose him as a customer and may not get the business from his replacement. I could try to squeeze as much money as I could from him before he is gone. But, I know that he is unhappy and may need a change. I care about his feelings and his future. Not my own. He recognizes the sacrifice. I expect nothing in return. He leaves for another job (not one of the ones I sent him). The first person he calls is me. That’s a real anecdote.
Experience has shown that Altruistic Networking will result in a more intrinsic, longer lasting relationship with customers and a greater amount of business. They will like, and sometimes even (kind of) love you - two powerful emotions. The result is that they will remember you longer, and will choose you before someone who has given of themselves and is willing to receive nothing in return.
Thank you Bob!
One thing we don’t have enough of is Time and the other we have too much of is People in our lives.
How do we determine who to invest our time with to build sustainable relationships that add value in our lives?
Investing time in people has become a hit or miss activity for most of us. We all know we need people to move forward in life, we can’t do it alone. Knowing who to meet is important, but we need to take a step back and examine why building relationships beyond transactional ones, like ones built through LinkedIn, are truly needed.
Time: With so little of it in our busy lives, we jump at the opportunity to network whenever we can because society and our DNA tells us that to move forward in life we need to network and meet people. And then what??
Because of time limitations we default to transactional relationship building tactics and methods. So we meet people, then what? To deepen a first time interaction, the conversational content and words we choose to use affect the complete outcome of that interaction. If time is short and we are caught up in our busy lifestyles and our own daily conflicts, how do we transform our conversations into more wins so our time and energy aren’t wasted?
That’s easy. Just care about learning the other person’s needs and offer guidance or some type of support. It doesn’t matter how funny you are, how smart you are or how well connected you are. What matters is that beneath all our desires, when our masks are put away, deep inside, we all seek friendship, understanding, and belonging. It doesnt matter who you are, we all have these needs.
For e.g. Warren Buffett’s entire history is built on serving the personal needs of trapped investors. We sometimes forget that markets are just people, with social feelings driving the action. Well this is true in relationship building too.
All of this is easily depicted by reviewing Maslow’s hierarchy of needs where he studied exemplary people like Einstein, Eleanor Roosevelt, Jane Adams etc. What surfaced is 5 levels of needs. The most basic fundamental category of needs is the “D-Needs” – Deficiency Needs: esteem, friendship / social, love, security. If our D-needs are not met, we tend to feel anxious and tense. Those feelings paralyze the relationship building process. We go into our reservoir of human energy and become depleted quickly. Our listening abilities which are usually underdeveloped are even further reduced when a D-Need isn’t fulfilled within 5 mins of a first time conversation.
Metamotivation as described by Maslow is when our basic level of needs (D-needs) are met, then higher levels of needs can be achieved and focused upon. Metamotivation is the motivation of people who want to go beyond the scope of basic needs and strive for constant betterment.
Metamotivated people are driven by B-needs (Being Needs - growth needs that don’t stem from a lack of something, but rather from a desire to grow as a person) not D-needs. The human organism is dominated by needs and we encounter people every day.
Imagine a world where “Hello, how are you” is replaced with “what are your needs today and how can I help you now”?
TappedIn is on a mission to create that world.
Me: Tell me about your story and how you got started.
Dan: My cofounder Jason and I started working with websites 5 years ago. We started a message board and ran a discussion forum around trading files in addition to an IRC channel that we both moderated. Online communities as a whole was something we really cared about. Then we lost touch with each other for a while before meeting back up in college. We started tinkering around and working on a bunch of projects together. One of the things we were working on was our notion of what the future of online communities could be. We built Disqus essentially as a way to embed online communities within websites not necessarily blogs or even publishing. The initial response we got from people we were showing this around to was very positive.
Those days, I was reading Founders At Work by Jessica Levingston and coincidentally she happened to be near Berkeley for a book signing. It was a very small crowd and I ended up having a great conversation with her about what we were building. She encouraged us to apply to Y combinator. We ended up applying and getting in. We left school and spent the next 3-4 up in Boston with the Y combinator class.
After graduating from Y combinator, we moved back to the Bay Area, leased an office and focused deeply on the product. In two months the system was already getting a lot of traction. We started raising money in early 2008. One of the early people we spoke to was Fred Wilson. His blog was one of the first 20 that had Disqus installs. I wrote to him and said we were raising and luckily he happened to be flying down to SFO that week. We met up for coffee and within an hour he was excited and onboard.
Me: What is the team glue? What keeps you guys together when the going gets really tough?
Dan: Early on we didn’t really think about that at all. It never occurred to us because we were so focused and heads down on building the product. You could say it was rampant naivete. We were only building and not thinking about anything else. Nothing else came as an alternative for me. For me it was more like let’s just keep going.
Paul Graham of Y Combinator has an article called Don’t Die and it talks about how startups fail because they choose to fail. I know that is a very simplistic explanation but the key takeaway is that to make a startup work, you just have to keep going. We just kept going and never stopped to think what would happen if this thing didn’t work out in 6-12 months.
Luckily for us, we started seeing traction early on and it didn’t take us long to see success.
Me: Tell me about your relationship with your COO.
Dan: We don’t have a COO. Our organization is pretty flat and I have a lot of VP’s across different areas and they just help me do whatever it is I cannot do. Overall we just have the CEO and CTO.
Me: How would you describe Disqus’s culture?
Dan: We talk about culture a lot. Culture is a fuzzy phrase and I feel it is a combination of environment, attitude and many, many small things. When someone asks me about the culture at Disqus, I like to describe the people rather than the company instead of saying it’s a casual culture or a fun culture.
The culture of our people comes down to what they care about and why are they here. So if you ask the people at Disqus whether they care about comments, most people will say ‘No’. I would say no. I don’t really care about comments. Comments is only a component of what we do and what we do is really centered around the objective of making huge influence in a category that we are building on the web. I think everyone in the company understands that and is excited about building experiences that affect people all over the world using the web. That’s what defines the culture at Disqus.
The other thing that I go back to when discussing the culture of Disqus is there is an early emphasis on meritocracy. We’re closing in on 50 people but the way collaboration works is still similar to a small company. Everyone’s contributions and opinions are really important and that’s because we bring on people who are really smart.
Me: How do you attract the most competent people?
Dan: Our very first hire was our friend. We were in a position where we’d left school and had been heads down building this product and there weren’t many people we knew. So the way we grew our team in those days was to talk to our friends and friends of friends and friends of friends of friends. To this day we rely a lot of the referrals that come through the extended network of our current employees. We put a lot of emphasis on hiring through referrals.
Very early on, people get excited about startups, about product and tiny teams and are passionate about the idea. Today however there is a large emphasis on lifestyle of the work and company culture. So we really play off the extended network of our employees because it is so important to find people who are like-minded, work well in teams and who fit into the culture seamlessly.
One of the rules at Disqus is, we like to hire people who were doing the job somewhere else and were the defacto lead. For e.g. if we want to hire someone to handle design, we will not necessarily look for a Director of Design or Design Manager. We will look for someone who has been doing a lot of work in design and is looking for a chance to prove themselves. We are looking for people who feel stunted in their growth not because of performance but because of the machine of the large organization.
We don’t hire for brand names or titles. We hire for skills and results.
Me: Communication is a huge deal as you grow your team. How do you ensure everyone is on the same page and ideas are flowing efficiently?
Dan: This is something that I don’t think anyone has found the perfect solution for. Everyone does communication and collaboration differently. We talk about this a lot because we fall short in a lot of ways. But we’ve come a long way in the last two years and I’m really proud of where we are today. Our team is split into a bunch of different functions - Community (outreach, support), Business Development (sales, marketing) and Product (management, design, engineers) and we allow them to run autonomously. Each group has a different way of communication. They have their own internal meetings, which are generally kept short and small. They use different tools – Asana for project management, Basecamp for CRM and Fabricator is used by engineering.
In general, we avoid sending blasts of information to the entire organization. We do a lot of optional communication so if people want to know what’s going on they can use internal wikis or read our weekly newsletter that is sent out at the beginning of every week. Everyone contributes updates from their world just summarizing what’s going on.
Every other week we have an all hands (our NY team joins in using Google Hangout) – its very short and precise because this is such expensive time for the company. 45 minutes is the cut off. I generally lead it and revisit the goals, highlight the metrics and give a quick update on where the company is headed.
Me: Do you guys follow a particular software development Lifecycle or another process?
Dan: Early on we did an even combination of gut building and a lot of feedback. This was very subjective feedback – we didn’t really look at numbers or surveys. We put it out there and got feedback and whatever we heard loudest we took it to heart. And over time what happened was we had a much better sense of trust in our own instinct.
Now we combine the gut instinct of our product team with the metrics presented by our business side. Metrics are very, very important because you can only improve what you measure so there is a big emphasis on metrics.
We like to start with gut instinct because that is where innovation is and we improve it with the data we collect using surveys and feedback.
Me: How did you figure out your business model? Did you follow a process or did it fall into your head one day?
Dan: Our business model is to offer premium services to large media companies like CNN and Fox News. This was never the business model we had in mind. As we built it out and started tracking usage patterns we discovered that Disqus was increasingly used by publishing platforms like blogs and media channels.
We are focused on growing the user base not really growing our paying user base. The goal is to build and test things out and learn as we grow since this is a fairly new medium and platform we are building.
Foodspotting is such a fun way to share the stuff I eat with my friends.
Here is a sneak peek from Alexa, their CEO, about what goes on behind the scenes at Foodspotting.
Me: Tell me about your journey and how you got started.
Alexa: I travelled to Japan about 3 yrs back and was fascinated by their culture and cuisine. Naturally when I came back I wanted to relive my experience and enjoy the same foods. I started looking around for places that would serve the same dishes I ate in Japan but discovered that although there were avenues to search for and find the cuisines one wanted, there was no way to search for specific dishes. There was also no way to share a particular food item with my friends.
That’s when I decided I wanted to build a tool to capture and share my experience with one particular food item.
I am a UX designer and didn’t know any developers at the time so I started by flushing out the idea in design and wireframes. It was six months later that I met Ted, now my cofounder, and we teamed up and he brought my designs to life.
Me: What is the team glue? What keeps you guys together when the going gets really tough?
Alexa: I feel blessed to have found Ted as a cofounder and to be able to build this company with him. We are very honest to each other and very transparent. We communicate a lot and there is no sense of competition or trying to one up the other. We also get excited by the same ideas and that helps both of us be on the same page.
Me: What are the things you keep in mind when you hire?
Alexa: Culture fit and competency is extremely important for us. We take this very seriously which is why we included the list of roles and job description we wanted to hire for in the pitch deck we used to raise Series A. We had a hiring plan even before we raised money.
Me: Communication is a huge deal as you grow your team. How do you ensure everyone is on the same page and ideas are flowing efficiently?
Alexa: For the longest time we had no structure. It was an informal and casual environment and everyone took responsibility of their own tasks. Then as the team grew (we are now 12 people), the informal approach didn’t quite work. It was causing people anxiety since no one knew what the goals and deadlines were. So I had a personal, one on one conversation with each person and discovered that everyone wanted structure and some form of process.
Now we use Trello to track our tasks and timelines. Everyone loves it. We use it to keep everyone on the same page.
We also have our own unique exercise that we do together as a team daily. There is a big blackboard in the common area of our office, which is divided into four buckets. The buckets are: New Ideas, Things We Plan To Do (in priority order), Things We Are Currently Doing, Things That Have Gotten Done.
We discuss items in each of these buckets, update them and add new ones in. This way everyone has a clear picture of where we are currently and where we’re going.
Me: How did you figure out your business model? Did you follow a process or was it obvious?
Alexa: We are at the vision phase of business model. We have brainstormed and tested a few ideas some of which are really powerful. But right now, we are still focused on getting the consumer experience right first.
We approach things from a product perspective and are trying to answer some very fundamental questions like ‘What problems can we solve for local businesses?’ ‘What value can we provide that they will pay for?’
One thing we’ve consistently done and are going to scale up is employing a Feet on the Street approach. We’ve just gone out and interviewed a ton of people in SFO and NY trying to understand their pain points, their needs and solutions they would pay for. That is the best way to collect real data and use it to feed our product development.
The following post is by our fabulous VP of Engineering Anurag Phadke.
It has been just a fortnight and it already seems like it has been ages since I last ventured out into the jungle. This time around its a focused photography tour in the Kabini Reservoir, situated about 220kms from Bangalore. The trip was made possible courtesy the good folks at toehold.in and my very generous team @ TappedIn. It was my reward for being a productive member of the TappedIn team in realizing our combined vision. My personal opinion, I got a pretty sweet deal.
So this was the plan. 3 days, 2 nights at the River Lodge at Kabini. 4 safaris, 2 in the evening and 2 in the morning. All expenses paid, except booze.
A quick geography of the region, before I get in to the details. Kabini is part of the Nilgiri Biosphere Reserve which covers 5520 sq. km of protected forest spread across the three states of Karnataka, Kerala, and Tamil Nadu in the south western part of India. The Nilgiri biosphere reserve in turn is part of the now “world heritage” site, Western Ghats. Sandwiched between the Nagarhole National Park on its north and west and Bandipur Tiger Reserve on its south, Kabini, is an artificial reservoir formed as the backwaters of the Kabini dam on the river Kabini. (Overuse of the word Kabini, if you ask me, but what are you gonna do about it!). Our base-camp, Kabini River Lodge, is a Government of Karnataka operated resort situated on the picturesque banks of the reservoir. Once the hunting lodge of the erstwhile maharaja of Mysore, during the colonial days, it has since been converted into a rustic resort capturing the old world charm with modern amenities.
The journey began on a clear Friday morning. I was scheduled to pick up a couple of journeymen from various spots in Bangalore before heading out towards the destination. This being a photography tour, a big part of my luggage consisted of my SLR camera and its assorted accessories. On second thoughts, my luggage in all kinds of travels consists of a little too much camera equipment. That in no way implies that I am any good at it though.
Now, jungles naturally lend well to wildlife photography and in wildlife photography, bigger is always better. Before any amorous thoughts cloud your judgement, by bigger, I am hinting towards the size of the lens that will be mounted on the camera. In anticipation, I had opted to rent a bigger lens, 100-400 mm Nikkor for these 3 days. A decent upgrade on my humble 18-250 mm all-purpose lens. After some formal introductions with my fellow travelers, it was a quite 5 hour drive till we reached our destination.
I was sharing a tented cottage with another fellow from our troupe. First order of the day once we reached was lunch. It was an elaborate and thoroughly tasty affair. The sumptuous lunch naturally led to an afternoon siesta. And while I was basking in the glory of the Photographer of the Year award in my dreams, the remaining members of the group kept filtering in.
The accommodations were setup intelligently with folks of similar photography equipment bunked together. The first foray in to the jungle began with a round of tea and biscuits at 3.30 PM, following which, we packed up into the resort jeeps in anticipation of some awesome cat encounters. It was only a matter of minutes before our guide got a signal from another about a leopard sighting in another part of the park. A mad dash followed to the spot already teeming with other jeeps. All the guns were pointed to spot on the right side of our jeep. The guns here refer to the 500 & 600 mm lenses mounted on the umpteen cameras. And these lenses are huge, bulky beasts, a good meter or so long and resemble grenade launchers in appearance. Everyone was super excited, and I too joined the communion of excitement. Truth be told though, I was faking it. I had not cited the leopard at all. I could not, for the life of me, make out the feline form in the general direction of all the pointed fingers. Thankfully, the leopard was in siesta mode, allowing my slow focussing mechanism to finally locate it. I will let the photos do the talking.
We spent a good 1.5hrs at the same spot, waiting patiently for the leopard to show its full face, but it was not to be. It was closing time and we had to hightail our way out of the park in a jiffy. But not before our guide spotted another leopard high up on another tree. This time too, I took a good minute to finally locate it but it was just too far and a tad too dark to be captured by my camera. The jeeps dropped us back to the eating area and I promptly stuffed my face with the awesome dinner spread. 2 sightings on the very first safari. I couldn’t believe my luck. And had it been just that over the the entire trip, I would still have left super satisfied. But I was on a lucky streak. Night was early, after a round of booze and a nice debrief session on the first safari as well as some general photography tips. That was gonna be the format over the remaining day and a half. A safari and a follow up session.
The next morning I was up bright and early and the 1st morning safari began yet again with a round of tea and biscuits. There was a nice chill in the air, the kind which fills your lungs with clean crisp forest air and makes you feel all warm and fuzzy. The forest had a mysterious hue to it in the early morning hours. And like last evening, within minutes of entering the forest, our guide got the signal of yet another leopard sighting. Icing on the cake - it was a couple.
The next few minutes flew as our driver drove like the wind to the designated spot, while I adjusted my camera settings for that perfect shot. It was then time to patiently wait, stalking in the general direction of where they were last spotted. Our driver jostled back and forth in the melee of jeeps for an optimum spot. It wasn’t too long before I saw something move in the bushes towards my left. Others saw it too as the sound of clicking cameras punctuated the jungle silence. I kept my eye on the prize and my finger on the shutter release button. I was literally tracking the majestic creature with my lens as it strolled its way behind a tree. And for a few moments it was invisible. It was probably just checking its make up before stepping on the stage. There was a fallen tree right at the opening of the bush. The leopard calmly got on it and proceeded to give us all sorts of sitting poses. One of the best ones that I was able to capture.
After a good 10 minutes or so, it decided to show us its cat-walk, literally. It was pure joy to see such a majestic animal walk across the road right in front of our jeep and into the bush on the other side of the road. My luck decided to take a short break at this point and I lost the crossing over shot between my still focussing lens. And just like that it was over. Or was it. I heard a rustle in the bushes on my left again. It was the female. In all this excitement I had completely forgotten about it. It continued walking through the bushes barely visible before giving a long hard look to us mere mortals. Captured here.
She vanished pretty rapidly after striking this pose, not to be seen again for the remainder of the time we were there. But what a spell binding glimpse it was. The whole troupe was over joyed. We had hit the jackpot, it would seem.
4 distinct leopard sightings in the first 2 safaris. This was way beyond my wildest imaginations for this tour. The evening safari for that day was bland by any standards. No big cat sightings. We were getting used to those. Still spotted a few beautiful birds, an adult tusker and its calf and scores of spotted deers. Some assorted pictures here:
The last safari of the tour turned into quite a different kind of adventure for us. We entered the forest that morning in search of the big cat. A tiger.
There had been some reports last evening about it and we decided to try our luck. We had already seen a huge tiger pug-mark by the side of a road. It was time to admire it in flesh. A patient wait at a familiar haunting spot didn’t yield results. We started to resign to our fate. We had already outdid ourselves in terms of sightings. Thats when the message came. There was another leopard sighting elsewhere in the park.
The familiar routine of making a dash for it followed. We were again greeted by a melee of jeeps. This time around though the leopard was playing hide and seek with everyone. The leopard was supposedly heading in a specific direction. Our jeep driver got a little over excited and decided to take us to the fag end of the leopards supposed path. The roads that the jeeps roll on are more like muddy jungle paths and they tend to be pretty bumpy. Our driver in his excitement decided to push the limits a bit. The result, on a particularly steep bump, the jeep’s front axel decided that enough was enough and gave up. The jeep came to a screeching halt, for good and we were now stranded in the middle of a jungle with a leopard supposedly heading our way. Luckily we were within walking distance from a busier road and decided to make a move for it in a tight bunch. Messages were transferred and we hitchhiked our way back in the other safari jeeps.
Once back, we heard the news. Hearing that our jeep had broken down, one of the safari jeeps had turned back to pick us up. And luckily for them a tiger had decided to take its morning stroll on the very same path at that very moment. Double bummer. I kept ruing my luck as I flipped through the tiger snaps on a fellow photographer’s camera. We had missed it by a whisker.
But I couldn’t stay sad for too long. This trip had already exceeded all my expectations. I had managed to capture a diverse array of wildlife including no less than 5 distinct leopards and had been richer for the experience.
The photos were processed in a jiffy and they have turned out pretty well by my standards. I have a few new photography techniques in my arsenal thanks to the very informative sessions by the tour captains. I have also realized how much difference a longer lens makes in wildlife photography. Thankfully I don’t need to empty my bank accounts to buy one. I have the option to rent anytime I decide to head back into the jungle.