Turning 29 in #LDN during the age of #Unemployment and #TechCity

keep-calm-youre-only-29-10Hi everyone!

Yes, it has been a long time. Precisely, 20 months and 12 days since my last post. Wow!

I don’t particularly like blogging (you can easily get that). I mean, I am an active subscriber to many, and I am a Digital Strategist aspiring to become a Growth Hacker. Let me rephrase that: I do not really like writing blog posts.

Today (well, yesterday, actually, the 8th) was my 29th birthday. 29 is usually an awful number. It is almost 30, although it is not really 30 yet, but it is still “getting there”. So you basically feel older than you actually are.

For me it has been a week of revelation, though.

On Monday I lost my job. It wasn’t a “proper” job, as we immigrants are used to say. It was an Internship, but, still: I had a 3The-Lean-Startup months contract with an early stage startup, which ended up to be a less-than-a month job.

It was not the first startup I was working for, and, anyway, I have been studying and researching on startups for ages. So, yes, I know that “most start-ups fail” and “most new products are not successful”. But, also, I knew that “the story of perseverance, creative genius, and hard work persists”, so I thought that my startup would have gone on (E.Ries, 2012).

It did not. It was a kind of a shock for me (and my colleagues, too).

Straight after that I basically had 2 choices: either get drunk or stay positive. This time I chose to stay positive.

iyaffullorigcoloursMy choice was probably helped by 2 fresh experiences of mine: mentoring the MACE Students at a workshop in collaboration with the International Youth Arts Festival, and an introduction course on coaching held by the Coaching Academy.

What did I do in order to stay positive?

1 – I spent the first two days on “market research” (job hunting, of course).

2 – Once I got to know which job adverts suited me, according to my skills, I started to make a massive research about the companies that were looking for those skills.

3 – I made a selection of those companies, mainly using as terms of evaluation each company and members’ (founders and directors) expertise, core focus and USP, because “as you climb the ladder of success, be sure it’s leaning against the right building” (H. Jackson Brown, JrI – or probably Anonymous, but, still, the quote gives you the idea).

4 – I picked each company one by one and went further into my research, trying to get as many information as possible from wherever on the web.guerrilla markting

5 – I wrote customised cover letters. When I say “customised” I do not mean just changing the names on the recipient. That is what many companies do when they send emails and, frankly, I, as a customer, I feel like they assume that I am an idiot. Anyway, of course part of the contents were the same – I am still the same person with the same skills and experience  -. In a way, I took that particular task as if I was trying to get my customers’ attention. I am a Guerrilla Marketing passionate, so I even used some of its methods to write my cover letters.Last, but not least, I was completely honest.

Many people told me that in applications you have to “fake” it a little bit. Because…everybody does that, so every employer expects that you actually “pimp” your CV. Well, I have never felt comfortable with that. So I actually never did it, but I guess I did it a bit in my cover letters, apart from last week. Last week I was completely natural and honest.

OLD STREET ROUNDABOUT6 – In less than 1 week I got 3 interview out of 5 applications to Tech City startup jobs that I completed. You might think that it is a small number, but it took me more than 3 hours between researching, coming up with each cover letter, and actually click on “send”.

I have no idea if those companies will take me on board. I mean, I made probably a great impression, but sometimes it is not enough.

However, I am so happy. I am still unemployed, and very conscious about that (I am not going to book any holiday at the Hawaii Islands, for instance), but I am very confident that London will give me a job (aka internship, which for me is still a job) in less than 2 weeks. It might not, but , as Walter Cronkite said, “success is more permanent when you achieve it without destroying your principles”. My strongest principle above all is honesty.

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FROM A PASSION TO A BUSINESS

The beginning

In January 2012 I moved to London. I had a flexible contract as a sales assistant with a minimum wage salary. I barely had enough money to pay the rent and the transport expenses. Ergo I could never eat out.

It was the official start of my baking experimentations. I occupied all my spare time to cook, thus I became more and more expert and, with my surprise, even creative at baking: I had ever thought that who was creative at such a mysterious art should have been born like that. Finding myself under the same definition made me really passionate.

I couldn’t imagine that such a passion could have been so strong to drive me and my team into my first business experience.

In October 2012 I was admitted at the MA Creative Economy at Kingston University; we had just formed the Young Enterprise teams, and we were actually registering each team on website.

Solve a Need from The LeanEntrepreneur.co

As business teams we were supposed to create something which could solve a problem we encountered or observed in our living context.

A couple of days before, I was preparing the dinner. I was about to struggle trying to stir the risotto and then putting the spoon in the balance on the border of the pot, in order not to smear the kitchen surface. I failed: the tool stayed in its position for a while, but then it fell every time.

I thought that maybe many women like me had the same; therefore I sketched a spoon hanger which could be attached to the border of a pot. I showed it to my team mate Maria: she found it a clever idea, and push me to speak with the others, Lucy, Natalie and Angelika. They liked it so much that as soon as I proposed to call ourselves “The Spoonist” they eagerly agreed.

The observation

During our first meeting we started discussing about the brand. We decided to change our name in QB- quanto basta, which means just as much as needed, and is a typical kitchen unit used in traditional recipes.

That was the same day of our first “observation”:  I was cooking for all of us, and the team examined the difficulties I encountered.

RESEARCH-FIRSTWith hindsight, if customers experience is what shapes all perceptions and value of the brand, as Bernd  Schmitt and David Rogers underline in their “Handbook on Brand and Experience Management” it would have been better to observe external people cooking, ask them questions and not even name our idea of the product. Just afterwards it would have been appropriate to start to brainstorm ideas about the brand, embracing a “holistic view of costumer value that encompasses rational and emotional benefits” (SCHMITT, ROGERS, 2008).

After a couple of weeks we found many competitors, and we realized we couldn’t effort the costs of the materials as well- that was another conceptual fault: we wanted to make a product made by expensive wood, but the reason we wished that was justified just by our perspective, without any proper market research.

Since we were already so immersed into our brand, we found more difficult to adjust our product rather than restart from the beginning, even if this is exactly what a startup should expect most of the times. As Eric Ries sustains, “instead of making complex plans that are based on a lot of assumptions”, exactly like what we did, we should have made” constant adjustments with a steering wheel called Build- Measure- Learn feedback loop” (RIES, 2011). We didn’t didn’t apply Ries’ validated learning at all, and this is probably why therefore we repeated the same error.

 A New Idea

When I was a sales assistant I had a minimum wage salary; as I was also attentive to eat healthy, I started to cook my own lunch at home. Being an environmental friendly person, I hated wasting the plastic bags I used to carry my lunch: so with my boyfriend Aldo I designed a lunch bag. Since QB was in need of a new idea, I proposed it and the team was enthusiastic.

I was sure there was a need of the product in the market. I noticed that almost every Londoner used to buy meals around. I made some researches online and luckily I found many statistics regarding a high amount of expenses per capita for lunch out, other than alarming articles on the dubious healthiness of take away and fast food meals.

We started brainstorming about product development. Lucy made a model out of fabric: by the end of November we were the first team which had a prototype. Nevertheless we repeated the same mistake: we didn’t follow Steve Blank’s Customer Development. We didn’t “get out of the building” before creating the brand and defining our persona. We should have tested our product from the very beginning with just a sketch, to find out whether our lunch bag was “a vision or a delusion”. (RIES, 2008).

Blue Ocean and Experience Design

Ask Your Market from The LeanEntrepreneur.co
As long as we didn’t create a new product- there were already different lunch bags on the marketplace-, from a first sigh it couldn’t have been told we developed any Blue Ocean strategy.

Actually, I noticed that people liked the idea of bringing their own lunch, but many of them were not capable to cook or were lack of meals ideas. The Internet was already full of blogs about food and recipes, nevertheless I saw an opportunity. According to the case of the Cirque du Soleil, which, “breaking through the boundary traditionally separating circus and theatre, made a new and profitable blue ocean from within the red ocean of the circus industry”, I realized that we could act in little like a Blue Ocean company by matching the food-blogosphere with the bags market. (KIM, MAUBORGNE, 2004)

I proposed to publish on our website simple recipes not for every visitor: just for our customers. Following the rules of the Experience Design Manifesto, our aim was to make people more confident of their capability of cooking, to inspire them and feel better. We wanted to transmit them the importance of a healthy and environmental-friendly lifestyle, but also make them have fun while baking. Last but not least, our recipes sharing community was aimed to “strengthen relationships between people that live the same experience” as well. (PEREIRA, 2008)

 Design Thinking

It was Natalie who insisted on “less is better”. She was really pragmatic. I was the exact opposite, I wanted to add dozens of features to our lunch bag. While exploring Design Thinking, I discovered how much what Natalie sustained made sense. We followed her.

Our idea was respecting almost all of the 10 rules of Design Thinking. It was innovative: it matched the food blogosphere and the bags market; useful: well, at least we assumed that; aesthetic: it was functional and beautiful at the same time; understandable: it reminded the paper brown bag of the childhood, so it was “already seen”; honest: it was what it seemed; long-lasting and environmental- friendly: it was washable, reusable and an alternative to plastic bags; simple, with the pleasure of Natalie: our final design was just a sack with a ribbon to close it. (RILEY, 2013)

Fail

Never Force the Market from The LeanEntrepreneur.co

As we assumed our target was composed of students, considering they have to eat lunch at University and usually they have little money to spend, Natalie and Maria went to interview some of the potential customers. The result of our first official market research was a disaster: almost every people declared they weren’t interested neither in our product nor in the community. Some others said they weren’t willing to pay the price we set.

Many startups like us are mistaken at this step.  They “fail for lack of customers”, because they don’t “attempt to learn about their customers (or potential customers) until it is too late”. (RIES, 2008)

Luckily we were not that late in the process- it was still December- so we completely changed our target into female office workers between 25 and 40. For the third time we didn’t go out of the building before going on with the plan. We assumed. We didn’t clearly understand that customer development wouldn’t have been “an excuse to slow down or change the plan every day” but “an attempt to minimize the risk of total failure by checking” our “theories against reality”. (RIES, 2008).

Challenges

In December Lucy left us due to personal reasons. She was the leader not because she was the official Manager of the team. As Diego Rodriguez wrote on his blog, she “made the difference by acting”. Since the beginning she acted “on what she knew”– branding and product design- and “felt it was right”. (RODRIGUEZ, 2013) She was the only member who was already working in a business. As a startup, we were living in a state of “extremely uncertainty”, and this meant that the entire project could have easily failed. (RIES, 2011) Lucy was willing to risk her personal reputation for the good of QB. That is why we got lost for a while after her departure.

Angelika became the new leader. We had two urgencies at that time: getting both the product and the website done. Lucy had already found a manufacturer who apparently was interested in making our lunch bag, thus Angelika, Maria and Natalie tried to contact him and had a long journey in the Warwickshire to visit the factory.

Since I was the only team member who knew something about graphics and webdesign, I decided to take care of the website. I bought the domain, installed wordpress and started creating my own child theme during my spare time- I had already a full-time job. Although the huge number of forums, tutorials and communities of developers, it has been an extremely hard work. I assumed to publish it in 3 weeks: it took 3 months. The final version was online at the end of March.

In the meanwhile our manufacturer disappeared. Angelika and Maria tried to call him many times, but in the end he wasn’t interested in our business any more. It was February. The first trade fair we were supposed to attend was at the end of the month. That meant we had to sew the bags ourselves. From a Blue Ocean strategy point of view it wasn’t that bad: by sewing the bags on our own we managed to make the product low-cost.

Angelika went to Lucy’s to learn how to sew, and took her sewing machine. We passed entire days sewing all together at Angelika’s – she spent even more time -, and for the end of we had almost 20 products done, and finally started to sell.

Personal Epic Fails

The extreme delays of both the manufacturing and the website availability postponed our social media presence. In other words, to get our product and service done in the best way, we diverted our attention from the relationship with customers to the design and production. Instead of accelerating the feedback loop Build-Measure-Learn of “The Lean Startup”, we retarded it.

As a consequence, our sharing community actually never worked. It was mainly my fault. Even though I was supposed to be the most expert of the team in Social Media, I lost myself designing the website. I wanted it to be perfect.

In many of his speeches about customer development, Steve Blank underlined that the unfortunately diffused approach “build it and they will come” is largely wrong, because “issues are customer acceptance and market adoption”. (BLANK, 2008)

Social Media is today’s most effective channel to speak with potential customers and to test assumptions in order to accelerate the feedback loop. Nevertheless I moved it completely to the background.

Working on the website made me forget the impulse which should drive every startup: passion. Passion and Love are the first two secrets of success. I had both of them at the beginning. The story I told you speaks for me. Before developing  the website, I used to create many recipes and took pictures of them. After that I just wanted to get rid of it, because I was working hard, yet I wasn’t enjoying it. (JOHN, 2005)  

My team could felt that my enthusiasm was lowering, and that effected it as well. I wasn’t the leader, but I was the core: the lunch bag was my creature. I didn’t motivate my team; I became even negative and dubious about the future of QB.

Lessons for the future

QB was my first startup experience. It was the first business project I have ever been involved with. I never learned more from a University project than at MACE. To be sincere I wasn’t so used to fail. Thanks to Quanto Basta I became able to accept my faults. Moreover, it’s not all about admitting mistakes.  The best learning I am putting in my pocket is the 8th rule of success: persist. Persist to failure and to Criticism, Rejection, Assholes and Pressure (CRAP). And never give up.

References

(BLANK, 2008) Steve Gary Blank, “The Customer Development Methodology”, slideshare presentation for Stanford Technology Venture Program’s Roundtable on Entrepreneurship Education, published by Venture Hacks, last access on 23/05/13, available at http://www.slideshare.net/venturehacks/customer-development-methodology-presentation

(BLANK, 2008) Steve Gary Blank, “The Four Steps to the Ephiphany- Successful Strategies for Products that Win”, Third Edition, 2006, pdf file published by Lulu.com

(BRAZ, 2008) Andre Pereira das Neves Braz, “Experience Design Manifesto”, 2008, last access on 23/05/13, available at http://www.brazandre.com/manifesto/

(JOHN, 2005) Richard St. John, “8 secrets of success”, February 2005, published by TED Talks in December 2006, last access 23/05/13, available at http://www.ted.com/talks/richard_st_john_s_8_secrets_of_success.html

(KIM, MAUBORGNE, 2004) W. Chan Kim, Renée Mauborgne, “Blue Ocean Strategy”, Harvard Business Review, October 2004, last access on 23/05/13, available at http://hbr.org/2004/10/blue-ocean-strategy/ar/1

(LANDBERG, 2003) Max Landberg, “The Tao of coaching: boost your effectiveness at work by inspiring and developing those around you “, Profilebooks, 2003

(RIES, 2011) Eric Ries, “The Lean Startup”, Portfolio Penguin, 2011

(RIES, 2008) Eric Ries, “What is customer development?”  , Startup Lesson Learned, 8 November 2008, last visit on 22/05/13, available at http://www.startuplessonslearned.com/2008/11/what-is-customer-development.html

(RILEY, 2013) Wells Riley, “Startups, this is how design works”, 2013, last access on 23/05/13, available at http://startupsthisishowdesignworks.com/

(RODRIGUEZ, 2013) Diego Rodriguez, “The heart of leadership”, Metacool- thoughts on the art & science of bringing cool stuff to life, 01 May 2013, last access on 23/05/13, available at http://metacool.typepad.com/metacool/2013/05/the-heart-of-leadership.html

(SCHMITT, ROGERS, 2008), Bernd H. Schmitt, David L. Rogers, “Handbook on Brand and Experience Management”, Edward Elgar Publishing, 2013

Bibliography

Babak Nivi, “Customer Development: How to develop your customers like you develop your product”, Venture Hacks, November 5th 2008, last access on 23/05/13, available at http://venturehacks.com/articles/customer-development

IBM, “The new collaboration: enabling innovation, changing the workplace”, IBM Corporation, 2008

Mirko Pallera, “CREATE!”, Sperling & Kupfler Editori S.p.A, 2012

Sheryl Sandberg, “Lean In”, WH Allen, 2013

Steve Blank, “Embrace failure to start up success- An ambitious US programme aims to turn scientists into entrepreneurs.Go on, says Steve Blank, unleash your inner capitalist.”, NATURE International weekly journal of science, World View, A personal take on events, 8 SEPTEMBER 2011, VOL 477, 133, Macmillan Publishers Limited, last access on 23/05/13, available online at http://www.nature.com/news/2011/070911/full/477133a.html

Theodore Levitt, “Marketing Myopia”, 1960, in Best of HBR, July-August 2004

Tony Robbins, “Why we do what we do”, TED Talks, filmed February 2006, posted June 2006, last access 23/05/13, available at http://www.ted.com/talks/tony_robbins_asks_why_we_do_what_we_do.html

Brilliant Minds to Observe

Yes, I know. It has been a long time since I published my last post. More than a month. It is not that professional, isn’t it?

Well, I don’t have any excuses, but the positive aspect of my absence lies in my participation at many different networking events, so now I have a lot to blog about.

ImageOne month ago, on my first weekend of unemployment after I quit my job at Franco Manca, I volunteered for the London Mobile Start-Up Weekend at Google Campus. To be sincere my role was really easy: on Friday I just had to receive the participants, give them t-shirts and gadgets of the event, help the staff to organize the voting for the pitches, and the other days just prepare and serve the food and help the participants with whatever they needed.

Volunteering let me live the Start-up Weekend from an external point of view. During my free time I walked through the teams observing them, and while I was serving the food I had some really interesting chat.

I became really passionate about some of the projects which came out from the event, especially     two of them, one more serious and one more funny.

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The serious and useful one is Courier Now, a brilliant app which let people send their postage through normal people who are travelling. The sender buys the traveller the ticket or in general pays for the journey.

Flirt Now! is the funny one ^_^. It connects people and actually lets them buy each other a drink or other gifts through the app, which are not virtual but real. It adds some gaming features by providing a function based on gps which can locate all the people who are online and close to you while you are walking in the streets. It can be used just for fun, between friends, or for finding a proper flirt.

I wish good luck to both of the apps, I really believe they can develop great projects.

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The reason I wanted to be part of the Startup Weekend staff was networking. Now that I did my first experience with them, I do want to continue, not for the networking. I mean, it is really important to be connected with many new people with different skills and background, but the whole meaning of the event for me is not just that. It is creating from scratch, from almost zero. And observing this process taught me many lessons which I didn’t notice during my Young Enterprise business project, because I was more involved (and I am) in it, and maybe less objective.

ImageThe Start-up Weekend is an experience I suggest to everyone. The reason I think this is because of the time they give you, which is really short. You have to come up with an idea, choose your team mates without knowing them, dividing the roles within the team, write the business plan, curate the branding and the design, do market research, do the prototype, do the interviews, do the finance, and pitch. In 54 hours. Impressive, isn’t it?

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Yet, observing the teams was like walking through an magnetic field: many brains were working hard, liters of red bull and beer were there to keep their hearts strong and passionate, and even while they were eating you could tell that they were still thinking of what they could do to improve their prototype or to reach more customers or to make a better logo or to produce or not produce a launch video.

I felt like a part of a massive group of thinking, smart and brave people.

When someone asks me why I chose to volunteer for the Start-up Weekend, I simply answer “it is worth it, believe me.”.

Just attend and see.

Tuesday Sunny Tuesday

Last Tuesday I had an interesting journey through the heart of London, between New Bond St, Marylebone High St, Tottenham Court Rd and Piccadilly St. I was lucky: it was a reallly sunny and windy day, so I could walk between the various stages, and I even ate outside like the Londoners!

I went in 4 of the most famous and cool store in London: Fenwick, Conran, Heal’s, and Fortnum & Mason. I tried to sign the locations on the GMap below.

maps ok

I didn’t started the journey for fun: it was an assignment for our team of the Young Enterprise Programme. After the Kingston University Fair last Thursday, we received some feedback from the judges, and they told us that our stand was too messy and that it was unclear what we were selling, which is a very weak point for our team.

Here I publish the photos of our stand, so you could understand and agree or disagree with the judges.

2013-02-28 15.03.04 2013-02-28 15.05.12 2013-02-28 15.05.24

On Friday Yash, who was one of the judges as well, suggested to all the teams to go in big stores, bringing some inspirations and some knowledge from them.

This is the reason of my Tuesday walking- journey.

I took many photos, you could find them at the end of the post.

While I was walking in the sun I thought about how in London most of the shops and the stores are really very original, every single shop window is well-finished until the smallest detail. They give so much importance to words and graphics, too, and to colours.

The famous stores I visited are really different from each other, from the products they sell to the way of displaying them. But what I found similar between all of them is their tidiness, their attention to the colour-matching in realtion to the message they want to deliver to the costumer.

Fenwick communicates luxury and fun, because of the colourful collections they show.

Conran is the most original store, and even if it sells particular products, it communicates quiet and light. I really appreciated their massive windows, which give a different breath to the rooms.

Heal’s is a furniture megastore, and what I loved was their use of multimedia – the store is full of screens where they project old movies – and the prevalence of the browns in the kitchen area. I spoke with one of the shop assistants, and she explained to me that they try to make the costumer feeling like it is at home, and every shelf or table is set up while keeping this in mind.

The last but not the least stage of my journey was Fortnum & Mason, in the tourist Piccadilly Street. I went there twice, the second time the morning after, because I wanted to take some pictures without the people inside the shop. The feeling I felt since my fist step inside the building was like being in a theatre: red carped, wood furniture, everything was so precious and antique.

I went to the ground floor, because I needed to see the fresh food department. The feeling there changed completely. It was like being in a local market of a small town in the countryside. The intention was for sure exactly to communicate that they sell fresh, organic, homemade food, but with the elegance which marks Fortnum & Mason.

After almost three days I guess that a selling point – a stand in a fair or a table in a store – has to be set up following a few simple but fundamental rules:

_ Firstly clarify the message which is wanted to be spread;

_ Secondly analyse which objects/ displayers could be used while not distracting the customers from the message;

_ Give the priority to recreate the environment of the product;

_ Communicate tidiness, order and cleanliness.

At the end yes, our stand wasn’t following those rules at all. We tried to do our best, but we mistaked. And it is good, because now we could improve our selling point, and learn.

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