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FD Success Story: Write or Read – How to Make Long Distance Work

Hayden   |   November 21st, 2012

Sabrina Ricci and Richard Shank are FounderDating members who met online and decided to start Write or Read, an e-book analytics platform that is currently in alpha. Sabrina is based in the New York area, Richard is based in Portland. They are currently working on Write or Read part-time, with hopes that this will grow into a viable business.

Why did you decide to be an entrepreneur?

Richard: My first “business” was when I was in the 2nd grade. I made nametags that went on the front of desks, and sold small ones for a nickel and large ones for a dime. It has always been a part of me, and I don’t think I woke up one day to say I wanted to start my own company.

Sabrina: I didn’t really think about it until when I went to grad school at NYU to do my Masters in Publishing. A group of us there decided to try our own e-book publishing company because a lot of things are changing in the publishing world. It didn’t end up working out, but it made me realize that it could be really great to experiment and try my own thing.

Why did you apply to FounderDating?

Richard: For me, it was peer pressure of sorts. When FounderDating launched for Portland, one of the people who supported it was Kris Wallsmith. He’s a great guy and we run in the same circles, so I ended up joining because of him.

Sabrina: Write or Read was actually my thesis project in grad school, and I had an opportunity in NYU to be part of an incubator for it. I knew I needed to find the right cofounder, especially a technical one so I spent a few months frantically contacting everyone I knew and looking in a bunch of places. I stumbled upon FounderDating through one of my searches and it sounded amazing so I applied.

You’re not in the same city, so why and how did you connect?

Richard: When I signed up, I went through and contacted a couple of people. No one necessarily struck me because I’ve been looking at publishing for a couple of years. I realized I had to find somebody who really understood publishing knows the industry and has the contacts and involvement in it. I filtered the list and when I read what Sabrina had written on her profile, I thought it would be a good fit and so I contacted and pitched her with what I could offer.

How is that relationship working and how do you stay in touch?

Sabrina: The relationship has just been virtual so far but working really well. We use Assembla, email, have the occasional Skype meeting so we’ve been pretty good about communicating, letting each other know what’s going on and what our expectations are.

On average, I’d say we message each other on Assembla about three times a week and have a video Skype chat once a month. The Skype sessions tend to occur when we have something specific we need to discuss, such as finalizing features, sharing relevant research that should be discussed, and in one case, having a meeting with a potential partner based in Brazil.

Are there challenges associated with having a virtual relationship?

Richard: Quite honestly, I haven’t really experienced any. A lot of it has to do with the trust I have in Sabrina being able to do her role. I don’t think twice about what she’s doing – I know she is, there is plenty of evidence that she is out there holding up her end of the bargain. It is very apparent to me that she knows what she is doing, so I don’t feel like we have the need to be in absolute constant contact or we need to sit down and see each other face-to-face.

Sabrina: The most important thing for me has been to be able to communicate and know expectations. I don’t worry about any of the technical side and I know it will get done.

How did you build trust between the two of you?

Sabrina: For me, trust comes from the ability to communicate. From the beginning, I wanted to make it clear that I’m flexible with my plans, as long as we keep each other informed about what’s going on. I think it also helped to talk to Richard via a video chat on Skype–the next best thing to meeting in person. We established a rapport and the fact that he offered to work with me for a few months and then either talk about a partnership or just leave me with the code made me think, ‘this guy is awesome.’

Since then we have communicated regularly, and I think over the past few months we’ve built a strong foundation. And like Richard said, when we have a misunderstanding, I believe we’ll be able to work through it.

Richard: Well, for me its a little bit of how I view people. I think people will do the right thing and I try to base my approach to people on this premise. I know it doesn’t always hold up, but its a good place to start. Sabrina was pretty open about what she wanted to do in her FD profile. I tend to trust people who are open more than I trust people who are closed and afraid of someone taking their idea and running of with it. Of course, I did a little research on her and found that she’s been pretty heavy into publishing which gave me confidence she was serious.

From there it was a matter of how we interacted and also just seeing what she is up to. She has other sites and blogs and I know what is going on with her professionally. I see she’s out there pushing forward great ideas about publishing and getting her name brand out.

When we have things that need to be done, she’s on it and handles it quickly and efficiently. Along the way, I look for any potential red flags, but I haven’t seen any. Until she gives me a reason not to trust her, I will continue to trust her. When the day comes we have a misunderstanding, we’ll work through it. Some of the more solid relationships I have grew through a misunderstanding.

Penn Jillette, when talking about his partnership with Teller, said that they have lasted this long because of a mutual respect for each other. Over time, they have become good friends, perhaps best friends in one sense of the word, but what they have is built on respect. So when they go through periods when they cannot really tolerate each other personally, which happens in every relationship, their respect holds strong through that. I respect Sabrina and I believe she respects me and I believe its a great foundation for trust.

Tell us more about Write or Read.

Sabrina: The idea is a place for self-published authors to get insights or metrics on their e-books, such as basic demographics on who’s reading, how long they are reading so that they can tweak their stories and make themselves better self-publishers. Readers can subscribe to the site and read e-books from us.

Richard: I’m handling the technology side and Sabrina handles the marketing and business side of things.

Is it working?

Sabrina: We have about 1400 people who have signed up to be notified when the beta rolls out. I used to have my own micro-publishing company, and I have a few authors we’re working with. For our alpha, one of our authors Preston Randall self-published a book and we’re going to use his book to test it.

What’s in Write or Read’s future?

Richard: We’re pushing our alpha out beginning of next month. From there, we’ll be bringing authors on and having a nice collection of books that people can read from. We’ll then see how it goes, make changes and have a beta release for the first quarter of next year.

Right now the e-publishing world is on fire, and everyone is trying to figure out what to do and where to go. Rather than focusing on where we should be in 6 to 12 months, we’re focused on the next 1-2 months and keeping the cycle short. A lot will come out of the alpha and beta and we will find out what people are really wanting from the perspectives of both people reading e-books and authors who are writing.

We’re running in a more agile way rather than predicting what is going to happen. Web technology is changing fast and while we know where we want to go, we want to see what happens and change with that.

What advice would you give to future entrepreneurs in finding a cofounder?

Sabrina: Communication and setting expectations is really important. It has been really great working with Richard because I know he’s working on his end and I can focus on mine. I’ve worked with other people in the past and we didn’t have good communication and it led to some issues.

Richard: The best advice I can give is to take it slow. I’ve jumped into situations before, where instead of “dating”, I jumped straight into getting “married” and three weeks later you’re “divorced”. To me I noticed that the relationships and businesses that have worked out for me are those that have taken time. If it works, you keep moving forward and if it doesn’t you just move on and go your separate ways.

Interested in learning more about Write or Read? Sign up to be notified about their beta launch. You can also find them on Twitter – Sabrina (@sabsky) and Richard (@iampersistent).

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A Founder’s Constant State of Rejection

Hayden   |   November 13th, 2012

This FounderTalk – The Real Story post was written by Mike Greenfield. Mike is a serial entrepreneur, having cofounded Circle of Moms and TeamRankings.com. Mike is also a 500 Startups mentor and an angel investor. He describes himself as a data geek, and blogs at numeratechoir.com. You can talk to him on Twitter here.

When recruiters ping me about open positions at hot companies, I tell them “thanks, but the next company I work for will be (another) one I start myself.”

It’s not clear whether I’m masochistic or just dumb; life was a lot easier before I got started on this whole founder thing.

An Easier Existence

The first seven years of my career were pretty straightforward.  I was either as an individual contributor or leading a small team inside a larger company.  Within a year, I’d figure out a few things I could do to be successful, and I was able to cruise along easily.

PayPal hired 22-year-old me in 2000 to help solve the company’s massive fraud problem.  For a few months, I didn’t really know what to do and flailed around a bit.  But I soon created a template for predicting fraud, and used it repeatedly to apply a few techniques to solve many fraud problems.  I was an individual contributor and making a comfortable salary; though I was working hard enough, my job lacked major challenges and I had little stress.

From there I went to LinkedIn, where I spent two and a half years leading the data analytics team.  I faced more stress at LinkedIn than I had at PayPal: I had to hire people, I had to meet regularly with LinkedIn’s executives, and I was a lot closer to the company’s decision-making.  Moreover, while at PayPal I had a known problem (detecting fraud) with an unknown solution, at LinkedIn I had an unknown problem (lots of data; what to do with it?) and an unknown solution. 

Still, while I was at LinkedIn, my work-related stress was almost nil.  I was occasionally exasperated by my colleagues’ decisions, but what could I do?  LinkedIn’s successes were nice but hardly life-affirming; its failures made me roll my eyes but not search my soul.

In these larger companies, I found myself in positions where I was almost assured of success: I was skilled and solving problems I knew how to solve.  I’d soon learn that life as a founder is completely different.

Founder Changes

When I co-founded the company that became Circle of Moms, I found that my day-to-day responsibilities changed greatly.  Instead of working in a cubicle in a huge office, I sat across from my co-founder at my kitchen table.  Instead of asking IT to set up a new database for me, I figured out how to do it myself.  Instead of asking a marketing person to write copy for the emails I wanted to send to users, I wrote the emails.  Instead of being the crazy analytics guy the engineering team would never want writing production code, I coded the whole darned site myself.

And those are the unimportant changes.  Here’s the important one:

A founder must continually put himself and his company out on the line for others to judge.

For an asocial geeky dude that was an enormous shift.  At LinkedIn and PayPal, I rarely took big risks and didn’t have to put myself out on the line.  As a founder at Circle of Moms, I did it every single day.

When you’re a founder, your company defines you.  That means that your company’s daily ups and downs become your personal ups and downs; that’s a big adjustment.

I’m a fairly even-keeled person: when my co-founder would jump up and down with excitement after seeing good feedback on a new feature, I’d describe it as “encouraging”.  I maintained a healthy lifestyle over those 4.5 years: I exercised almost every day, I ate a home-cooked dinner with my wife most nights, and usually maintained a good balance between working hard and living the rest of my life.  Nevertheless, I’d still leave the office on many a Friday night completely despondent about the week I’d had, worried about the company and its prospects.

Five Ways to Fail

A consumer Internet company must do well in five areas: product metrics, revenue metrics, hiring, team culture/productivity, and fundraising.  In the four and a half years I spent as CTO of Circle of Moms, we never had a time when all five were on a great path.

Just after we launched the site, our product metrics were excellent, but thanks to the financial crisis investors weren’t eager to invest in anything.  In 2010, our revenue numbers were excellent, but our traffic stats were dipping.  In early 2011, our traffic recovered strongly, but we had more trouble selling ad inventory.

Team culture may be the area where founders take success and failure most personally.  If I showed up at 7 AM and left at 8 PM, made honest appraisals of company strengths and weaknesses, and took full responsibility for my failures, shouldn’t my colleagues do the same?  And if they didn’t, was it a personal rebuke of me?

Good founders feel strongly about establishing the right environment for a happy and productive team; that’s surprisingly hard to do.  A challenging but not unusual week might feature one employee taking an extra day off after a vacation, another one calling in sick with an important deadline the next day, and two others playing big-company-style political games against one another.

Those three ordeals were independent of one another and seem small in retrospect.  But at the time, I felt like the roof was caving in: our employees were rejecting my leadership and they were getting lazy, political, and unproductive.  The end was surely near.

Likewise, hiring is vitally important and requires thick skin.  At Circle of Moms, we’d reach out to dozens of top candidates and usually hear nothing in response.  I’d spend a full day at Stanford pitching our company to CS undergrads — far more tiring than any day I’d ever spent coding.  After several months, we’d finally find one good candidate and make him an offer.  When he’d instead choose to work for another startup — whose name was well-known to TechCrunch readers but whose vision we didn’t quite get — it was hard to avoid getting flustered.

Raising capital almost invariably features many rejections from investors, even with companies that become very successful.  We experienced periods where our traction was good and fundraising was almost too easy (we turned down money from one VC because we saw he hadn’t even bothered to sign up for our product), but we also failed in several attempts to close a larger venture round.  It’s easy to see a lack of fundraising progress as a company (and personal) failure: if you can’t raise a lot of capital, there must be something wrong with you.

As a techie individual contributor in a larger company, I could go to work everyday and execute 99% predictably.  As a founder, I had to find ways to plead your case over and over — to employees, investors, candidates, advertisers, users — and I got rejected a lot.  For an introvert, the amount of pleading and subsequent rejection came as quite a shock.

As a founder, you need to be prepared for this sort of rejection.  It should affect you: if it doesn’t, it means you don’t care enough and should be doing something else.  But a rejection of your company is a (hopefully) rational move by someone else, and it’s not a reflection on you as a founder or an individual.  Don’t take it personally.

Of course, the founder/non-founder divide I describe doesn’t need to be binary: non-founders can and do sometimes work like the founder I describe above.  A number of the top people at Circle of Moms took ownership and were truly wrapped up in the company’s success, and that helped us immensely.  And those are the best people to have on your team.

Founder or not, taking ownership and repeatedly putting yourself in front of the world to be judged is difficult.  But ultimately, it’s a tremendous way to learn, grow, and succeed.

Think Mike is awesome? Got feedback? Let him know.

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