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10,000 T-Shirts

This past Thursday wrapped up a fun couple months-long ride that saw my friend Kevin, my brother Alex, and myself team up to turn an idea into something that would be worn by 10,000 people. The journey started when we learned about a fan-designed t-shirt contest that the Baltimore Orioles were hosting.

My brother and I had coincidentally thought of some Orioles t-shirt ideas before we even knew about the promotion. Kevin came to us with some ideas of his own, and from there we decided that we would all go in on a submission together. In thinking through all the ideas, we decided on one of Kevin’s ideas, which he had mocked up using MS Paint. From there, we procrastinated on actually putting pen to paper, and it was coming down to the wire:

I started designing the t-shirt, expanding on Kevin’s rough mock-up, using an open-source illustration software called GIMP. I then began adding to the design using Adobe Procreate on the iPad. My dad helped out at this stage, as he is very talented with iPad illustrations. The last stage was to design the back. I had a rough outline that I turned over to my sister, who skillfully made the design of the back consistent with that of the front using Adobe Illustrator. At the eleventh hour of the due date, Kevin submitted our final design for us.

Cream Pie

A few days later, we got the exciting news that we were one of three finalists out of a pool of over 500 submissions!

web screenshot

It was now time for us to get the word out to friends and family to go vote for our design. I was overwhelmed by the amount of support we got. Friends of friends of friends went to vote for our work. I’m grateful for everyone who took the time to vote for us. It went a long way:

Along with many friends and family members, we attended the Orioles game on September 26. The Orioles printed our design on t-shirts and gave them away to the first 10,000 fans. It was a pretty cool feeling seeing people wearing the shirts and others asking where to get them. Not only that, but we got to go out on the field during the pre-game ceremony, during which Kevin threw out the first pitch. He did a good job (thanks to Josh for the great gif):

kevin

Here are some other shots from the night:

big screen

SAMSUNG CSC

 

Culture

I recently went on my second “culture tour” of a company’s headquarters in as many years. Last year, it was at Zappos outside Las Vegas, and this year I visited The Motley Fool in Alexandria, Virginia.

I recommend touring both offices if you happen to be in either locale. While they both have amazing employee benefits, amenities and policies that will blow you away, perhaps the most jarring thing you’ll find at both workplaces is how genuinely happy the employees are to be there.

I’m sure the employees at both company’s love the game rooms, nap rooms, free food and unlimited vacation, but I’m guessing that those perks are not the root cause of happiness at those companies. In fact, I did not see those perks being heavily utilized while I was on the tours (granted, I was at both offices pretty early in the morning). There is something deeper and less tangible going on than cool office spaces. I don’t have the exact answer, but my theory is that employee happiness at these two companies is the result of the companies having a culture that actually lives and breathes its core values.

Many companies list their core values but only pay them lip service. When employees are exposed to contradictions between company values and how things are actually done, there’s a subconscious, discordant force at play within the company which affects employee happiness.

I’ve felt that something’s-not-quite-right feeling at many companies, but not at all at Zappos and Motley Fool. Whether or not I’m on the right track with my theory, my visits to the two companies have stressed the importance of building a culture that is true to your company’s core values. I will make a deliberate effort to build that type of culture in my company and any future business.

Thoughts from a Non-Self-Loathing MBA

Downplaying the value of an MBA—both the degree itself and the degree-holder—is a common topic in the startup world. I will not jump on that bandwagon because that would suggest that I regret getting my MBA.

I have absolutely no regrets getting my MBA (though my student loan payments can be painful tests of that attitude each month).

My Experience

I did a 5-year combined BA/MBA with the goal of getting a job on Wall Street. The program was a great opportunity for me, because I was more than halfway through completing my major in History when I realized I wanted to go into finance—not whatever you go into with a history degree. If I had switched majors to finance so late in the game, I would have put myself on the 5-6 year track for just a BA. Instead, the combined MBA program allowed me to stick with and finish my BA in history (in 3 years)—then go directly into a full-time 2-year MBA.

It was during my MBA entrepreneurship class four years ago that I stumbled across AVC and Feld Thoughts, two blogs that ended up being my gateway drugs for startup addiction. From then on, I knew I would not be seeking a job on Wall Street, but that I would find other gigs that would prepare me for taking the leap into entrepreneurship. (It’s not that Wall Street does not prepare you for entrepreneurship, but that I was no longer interested in going the Wall Street route at all).

In short, if it weren’t for my MBA, it’s possible that I would not have stumbled across the blogs from which I caught the startup bug. Because of that and the great friends I added to my network, I can’t possibly regret getting my MBA.

Would I recommend getting an MBA?

If you’re the career-type, then I’d say yes. My MBA would have prepared me pretty well to be a good corporate employee and eventually a manager in either finance or marketing. And again, the network you get from your cohort is perhaps the most valuable thing about an MBA.

If you’ve already caught the startup bug, I would not recommend getting an MBA for these reasons:

1)   The time commitment – Most MBA programs take two years or more. In two years, you could learn an incredible amount by starting a business of your own, failing, learning from your mistakes, and starting another business. (Not that failing should be a goal, just that you would have time for all that to happen in the time you got an MBA.)

2)   The financial commitment – MBA programs are expensive. Things would be a little easier for me without my monthly student loan repayments. I would rather be investing that money in my startup.

3)   MBA programs can be very old-school – I was disappointed that my MBA classes had almost no mention of anything tech-related. No mention of online CPCs in marketing class. No mention of lean startup principles in entrepreneurship class (granted, it was slightly before the Lean Startup movement came about). No mention of the mobile web in strategy class. Given that this whole Internet thing is so obviously here to stay, I would have appreciated some acknowledgement of it in class. Hopefully things have improved in the time since my MBA, but—since MBA curricula seem to be slow-moving—I wouldn’t be surprised if most programs are still analog.

If you have already started an MBA program and have the tech startup bug, all is not lost. Just start a business during the program and work on it in your free time.

Again, I have no regrets about getting my MBA. It was a crucial part of a string of events that got me to where I am today: happy.

Conscious Capitalism

A couple weeks ago, I went to hear John Mackey, the founder and CEO of Whole Foods, discuss his new book. I’ve followed Mackey’s philosophies for a while now, as I think he’s got the right idea. Here’s a blurb about the book from his blog:

“Free enterprise capitalism has been the most powerful creative system of social cooperation and human progress ever conceived, but its perception and its role in society have been distorted. Now is the time to demonstrate to a skeptical world the truth, goodness and heroism of capitalism rather than perpetuate the false stigmas of selfishness, greed and profit maximization. We must revolutionize capitalism and show that businesses are the greatest value creators of all, with the power to push humanity upward for continuous improvement. Here, John talks about the unique opportunity businesses have to unleash creativity.”

I get saddened at times thinking about the problems that humans have caused for our planet and for future generations of humans. Despite there being great non-profits and other organizations out there doing wonderful things, it sometimes feels like the problems we’re facing are just too big to overcome with those measures.

The one area of hope I see in possibly overcoming some of the issues we’re facing as a species is in what Mackey calls Conscious Capitalism. I’d argue that for-profit businesses have the power to reach and activate more people and spur more effective change than other organizations, including activist groups, non-profits and governments. A big reason behind this is the power of brands. People love their favorite brands – staunchly defending them against naysayers and unsolicitedly promoting them in interesting ways.

Occasionally, I’ll see people with real tattoos (the permanent kind) of a consumer brand. That’s how you know you’ve built a strong brand: someone freely chose to undergo thousands of stabs from a sharp needle to inject some sort of permanent inky substance into the beautiful, living, breathing organ that is his or her epidermis in order to wear your brand with pride. Give yourself a pat on the back, Marketing team. You deserve a bonus.

So I think building a movement that sparks purpose-driven and “conscious” businesses, with strong brands, is the most realistic way of making real, positive change. I’m hoping that the Conscious Capitalism movement gains some steam.

Lean Startup Experiment – Part 4 – Analyzing the Results of My Lean Startup Hypothesis

I’m excited to announce that the adjustments to my hypothesis (described in Part 2 – How to Make an Effective Lean Startup Hypothesis) and the corresponding changes to my website (described in Part 3 – Adjusting your Experiment to Test your Hypothesis) have provided me with some useful data.

In my original goal for the experiment, noted in Part 1 of this series, I pledged to move forward with my product idea if two people actually pay for my product.

The results

I shouldn’t be surprised by the results because of my confidence in the product idea, but (drumroll, please…) nine people have paid for my product! It was an amazing feeling receiving those first few emails from PayPal saying that someone paid me $25 for my product. Of course, since I don’t actually have a product to provide them yet, I sent them a nice email thanking them for their interest and apologizing that I was unable to fulfill their order. I refunded their money right away.

Why I’m especially excited

As if being paid actual money for my product idea wasn’t exciting enough, there are a few additional reasons why I’m especially excited:

  • Aside from the nine people who paid me for my product, an additional three people contacted me expressing serious interest in my product. For example, one person asked if I would ship to Canada. While the nine paying customers are much more meaningful than the people who expressed interest, it’s exciting to know that it’s even more than just those nine people with interest in the product.
  • All paying customers reached my website from organic search results. So, not only were they paying customers, but I spent $0.00 acquiring them (not counting for the minimal time I spent creating the site and optimizing it for SEO).
  • And possibly the most exciting thing to note: the people who paid me for my product bought it sight unseen! Indeed, my website does not yet have any pictures of the product on it. Creating an image of what I think the product will look like would have required too much of a time investment for me to figure out how to manipulate Photoshop enough to alter an existing product image.

Validated

It might still be premature, but I’m ready to consider this product idea validated after this experiment. After all, nine people have paid me cash money for my product, sight unseen. In other words, the pain point that this product solves is great enough that people are willing to pay for a solution without even knowing what the solution looks like. For all they know, the product could be hideously ugly, but that didn’t stop nine people from shelling out real cash.

I will discuss my next steps in the next post in this series.