Life is Good® co-founders play kazoo

29 Jul

Anyone who starts a keynote by throwing a frisbee to the audience and ends by playing the kazoo probably knows something about playfulness.

Life is Good® co-founders John Jacobs and Steve Gross argue that playfulness is the ultimate trait of a successful entrepreneur. Seeing as they have built an empire based on optimism, it is hard to disagree.

John and his brother Bert sold their first Life is Good t-shirt over 20 years ago. They wanted to create something simple and positive in a world inundated by negative news. Though their brand would eventually spread to all fifty states and thirty countries, the first several years were not easy.  Jake and Bert spent many years bootstrapping, driving a used minivan around the East Coast for over six years years trying to sell t-shirts in college dorms. “We were really pathetic,” John said. “We were in our mid to late 20s and meeting people with real jobs.” But this experience taught them a valuable lesson: ‘no’ doesn’t hurt you. “You should try your idea in some format as soon as you can,” he said.  “Either you succeed or you learn.”

In 1994, Jake and Bert sold out all their t-shirts featuring the smiling stick-figure, Jake, at Boston’s Central Square street fair.  Soon customers began to re-order and the company began to grow. John remembers getting phone calls about Jake. “People asked, does Jake fish? Does he kayak? I told them, give me 2 hours and he will!” As the number of products began to grow, so did the Life is Good® brand. Customers started to send letters explaining that the “Life is Good” message helped them to overcome adversity. John and Bert saw an opportunity to spread their mission of optimism, and the Life is Good Festival was born.

For several years, the festivals supported Project Joy, a non-profit organization Steve Gross founded to help children overcome trauma through the power of play. In 2010, Project Joy teamed up with Life is Good Children’s Foundation, creating the Life is Good Playmakers. Steve Gross argues that play is invaluable to helping children heal from trauma and stress. “It provides the motivation to fully and joyfully engage with, connect with, and explore the world,” he said. In the same way, play can propel an entrepreneur to new levels of success:

1. Playfulness leads to joy. It blurs the line between work and play.

2. Playfulness provides a social connection to a community. It encourages interaction and collaboration with others.

3. Playfulness provides a feeling of internal control. While fear and stress zap energy, playfulness makes you feel safe, worthy, and empowered to create something new.

4. Playfulness helps you to stay engaged. Being present allows you to recognize new possibilities and seize opportunities.

John and Steve stressed that people want to rally around something positive. “Optimism can take you anywhere,” John said. “Focus on the good and it will grow.”

$26 mil by 26 years old: Matt Lauzon’s Secret Sauce for Success

21 Jul

Entering Gemvara‘s eighth floor loft office space in downtown Boston, you’d never guess that the company’s founder and CEO is 26-year-old Matt Lauzon.

For one, he walks into the “Game Room” – Gemvara’s large conference room where the MassChallenge-sponsored event was being held – dressed in jeans, a button-down shirt and sneakers. Right away, it’s apparent that for someone who raised 26 million dollars for his business, Matt does not take himself too seriously. His first question is “Where is the beer? It’s on me if someone can run out and get it.” Waiting for the Bud to arrive and the presentation to begin, attendees browse the nearly 20 open positions posted on the conference room’s outer wall. Clearly, he’s doing something right. (more…)

Securing Seed Funding: tips from angel investors

17 Mar

Ultralight Startups invited six angel investors to a panel last week to give emerging entrepreneurs tips on securing seed funding. The event, held on March 10th in NYC, was simulcast to an audience at WorkBar Boston. Several new companies delivered pitches in both locations, including DealSurf, Vizibility, Brainscape, Twigmore, Sourcepad, and ZizzOut, among others. Regrettably, there was a noticeable dearth of women on the panel, among the pitches, and in the audience. I will return to this issue in a future post, but in the meantime, please enjoy my notes on funding your venture and the tips straight from the angels themselves.

What is the best way to fund my start-up?
Apparently, this is the wrong question. The panel agreed that you should always bootstrap in the first phase, using your personal network to grow overtime. To me, this seems easier said than done, but then again, I’m not an expert. The panel countered that customers are always a better source of revenue than investors: having a strong customer base provides the buoyancy you need in that initial phase. (more…)

James Honan on Financing Your Venture

2 Mar

Let’s talk about money!

James Honan, Harvard’s Senior Lecturer on Education, led a “Financing Your Venture” workshop yesterday at the Harvard  Law School.  As a faculty member of executive education programs with a specific interest in non-profit financial management, Honan posed three critical questions to starting and funding a social enterprise.

1. Money for what?

One of the first questions any founder will need to answer is to explain why you need funding. What will be different? How will it get better? What is the impact? How will we know? Hanon recommends the Root Cause workbook on Business Planning for Enduring Social Impact as a great guide to considering these questions, developing a business plan, and identifying a financial strategy.

2. Can you connect the dots between your financial resources and impact?

At the heart of any social venture lies a theory of change. Hanon recommends developing a logic model to clarify your interventions and their impact. The Kellogg Foundation Logic Model Development Guide is a useful tool in connecting the dots between resources, activities, outputs, outcomes, and impact. Linking money to measurement also encourages donors to think in terms of scale. If you can demonstrate that your approach works, a donor may be enticed to make an even bigger investment.

3. How can you do more with less?

Foundations are asking tougher questions about financial sustainability in a tight economy.  In this environment, your board of directors would do well to develop a multi-year financial plan based on several scenarios. What programs can your organization provide under the most difficult circumstances? What will you be able to accomplish with middle range funding? And, if you dream the dream, what are the possibilities of a serious investment? Clear and simple financial plans will convey to your donors the impact you can have at each level.

But recognizing the very real challenge of doing more with less, Hanon warned against sacrificing vision to limited resources. “People want to invest in a special person and a special idea,” he said. “Do not compromise that vision.”

Leadership Tips for Women

6 Jan

Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg gave a great TED talk recently on why we have too few women leaders. Though she admits to not having all the answers, she offers three powerful tips to help women reach top positions:

1. Sit at the table.

2. Make your partner a real partner.

3. Don’t leave until you leave.

Women 2.0

4 Jan

If you’re looking to join a network of women working in tech, check out Women 2.0.  It’s a great resource and the host of Founder Labs, a pre-incubator event focused on developing teams and ideas. I particularly like their list of female founders and their successes.

New Year, New Startup

3 Jan

In case you missed it, ABC’s Good Morning America ran a segment this morning on how to start a new business in the new year. Tory Johnson of Women For Hire and Spark and Hustle offered a several good suggestions, arguing that starting a small business can revitalize not only a career, but the economy, as well. This discussion echoes an earlier NPR On Point show, which focused on innovation and entrepreneurship as the seeds for an economic comeback. Personally, I am a proponent of entrepreneurship as the foundation for development and economic growth, but there are many who would disagree. Certainly, entrepreneurship is not for everyone and cannot be seen as a panacea to unemployment. However, for those who have considered the possibility, the current economic climate just may offer the perfect opportunity to experiment with a new venture. If this resonates with you, Tory Johnson’s tips will be useful for getting started. You can read her article here or watch the clip below. I have also summarized her tips and included my own thoughts following her recommendations.

1. Make sure you want to be a small business owner. I absolutely agree with Tory. Before you commit to starting a company, you should ask yourself whether an entrepreneurial lifestyle appeals to you. Are you prepared to accept full responsibility for your business’ successes and failures? Are you comfortable with financial insecurity? Can your romantic relationship handle the stresses of the late, long hours you will spend developing your business? As the co-founder of Peace in Focus, I continue to face these challenges, but for me, the rewards of the creative process far outweigh the obstacles.

2. Figure out a “tried and true” business you’re excited about. All the literature I have ever seen points to passion as the key to entrepreneurial success. After all, if you’re not ready to buy your own idea, why would anyone else? The part where Tory and I differ, though, is on the notion that you should focus on “tried and true” businesses to be successful. I find “cupcake shops and hair salons” too stale to spark entrepreneurial inspiration. I would argue that you should focus on tried and true business models instead. Ask yourself what makes certain businesses successful and then adapt your innovative idea using that model. Jim Collin’s Good to Great is an illuminating study on what sets the great businesses apart from the good ones. See Chapter 5, “The Hedgehog Concept,” to help you find the intersection between your passion, unique strength, and economic drivers. (more…)

Our First Post

30 Dec

Hello and welcome to Couple of Startups, an entrepreneurship blog authored by us, Kate Fedosova and Erhardt Graeff–two entrepreneurs who help each other with their respective startups and also happen to date each other.

The title of our blog is a pun cute enough to make you puke, but we hope our entries will be useful to other entrepreneurs. The plan is three-fold:

  1. Record the work we do and the people we meet on our entrepreneurial journeys
  2. Catalog the resources we find helpful or inspirational
  3. Discuss entrepreneurship from his and hers perspectives

Note: we may talk too much about the Boston area (where we live) or about our cat Chloe (whom we love).