Posted by: Jenn Deering Davis | December 20, 2010

2010 recap

2010 has been a pretty kickass year. Among other things, I turned 30, completed my PhD, sold our condo, moved to San Francisco, and built TweetReach into a solid and growing business.

At the end of every year, I always like to take some time to remember the year and think about all the things I’m grateful for. So here are a few of my favorite moments from 2010.

Posted by: Jenn Deering Davis | December 6, 2010

8 (startup) things I’m better at now that I’m 30

When you’re 21 years old and working on your first startup, you’re convinced that you’re so much smarter than everyone who tried this before you. You don’t need advice or help – you just need to bust your ass, build a cool product, and then you’ll have millions of customers and can retire by age 25. This naive confidence is incredibly important to young entrepreneurs. Amazing things have been accomplished by young people with no fear.

Of course it turns out that very few of us hit a home run that first time. But the bravado (arrogance?) we had when we were 21 is eventually replaced by something even more useful. Dare I call it wisdom? I probably shouldn’t, as it would be presumptuous to assume that I’ve figured it all out at age 30. But I certainly am better at some things now compared to when I was when I was 21, and my current startup is better for it. Here are a few of those things.

1. Selling. I always hated the selling part of startups. I can’t count the number of times I’ve wailed, “But I’m not a salesperson!” to my co-founders in a wave of frustration and anxiety when it was my turn to do something remotely related to marketing or sales. As it turns out – yes, I am a salesperson. If you’re a founder, you have to sell. You might not be going door-to-door, but you will be selling in some capacity. I’m still not great at it – I often feel too pushy or like I’m talking too much – but I’m getting better every day. It helps to have a product you’re passionate about. But I now understand that selling is core to a successful startup. And I actually enjoy it.

2. Meeting new people. I’m an extrovert (if you’ve ever met me, you know this is true). But meeting new people in professional settings is terrifying. I remember the first tech event I attended years ago in Austin; I drank two beers before I had the courage to leave my cozy, supportive corner to talk to someone. These events are much easier for me now, even here in San Francisco. It helps to know that most other people there are just as nervous; focusing on that is the tech mixer version of visualizing everyone in their underwear. Plus, I now have a foolproof small-talk-generating-algorithm (patent pending) I can rely on if I need it. Ask me about it next time we’re at a happy hour together. And I realize how much I enjoy meeting new people and learning about what cool projects other people are working on.

3. Asking questions. To ask a good question, you have to listen closely. This applies to customers, co-workers, other entrepreneurs, and everyone else. I’ve definitely become a more focused listener, which allows me to ask useful questions. I’ve found this particularly useful when we’re working on new features – our customers are more than happy to provide us with more feedback than we can ever incorporate. I just have to ask them for it.

4. Standing my ground when it’s important. It’s hard for me to commit to a side. I’m typically one of those wishy-washy (I prefer to call it “open-minded”) individuals who sees the merit to multiple arguments, so it’s hard to side with one over the other. But I’ve learned that sometimes in a startup, there’s no room for wishy-washy. You have to make a decision and commit to it. There is plenty of room for debate and reevaluation, but there always comes a point when you just need to pick a side and move on. This is particularly important when talking to potential investors and reporters. These people ask hard questions, so it’s useful to be able to state a clear opinion and back it up with evidence. This was also useful during my dissertation defense. Doctoral committees – much like a company’s board – can sense indecision and they will pounce on it.

5. Answering the phone. I hate the phone. Despise it. I don’t know why; it’s not like a telephone killed my parents. But I hate it and I never used to answer it, even if I liked the person on the caller ID. However, now that I’m responsible for making sure our customers are happy and things are working like they expect them to, I have to answer the phone. When the phone rings, I answer it. I do this a lot. And you know what I’ve realized? It’s not all that bad. I’m still working on this, but at least I don’t get the sweats when the phone rings anymore.

6. Being concise. One big thing I’ve learned from explaining our startup at loud tech events with shoulder-surfing conversation companions is the value of brevity. I’m a lot more likely to hold someone’s attention if I can speak concisely about what we’re working on. If I’m bored when someone talks on and on and on about her project, then people will certainly be bored when I do it. I have 15-second, 30-second, and 60-second versions of our pitch, plus a variety of other short ways of talking about what we do.

7. Listening to advice. The brash and overconfident 21-year-old has matured into a slightly less foolhardy near-adult. I definitely realize the value of external advice now. I remember once hearing that the wisdom that comes with age has more to do with knowing what you don’t know than knowing what you do know. I think this is important – other people might have more insight into something than I do and it would behoove me to listen to them. This leads me to my final point.

8. Discerning. I’ve gotten much better at recognizing what’s interesting and important. Whether this is in a conversation with a stranger at a conference, determining which email to answer first, or knowing when I need to close the MacBook Pro and take a break, I have learned something important about evaluation. Life in a startup is all about choices. There’s never enough time to do everything, so every day I make countless decisions about how to spend my time. I am always weighing two options and choosing the one that seems better. Experience leads to better decision-making.

So it turns out that getting older isn’t all that bad. Sure, people say that 30 is the new 25 (or is it the new 18? I can’t keep up). But I’m pretty happy with how a little maturity helps me make this startup better than my first one. I’ll check back in when I’m 40 with an update.

Posted by: Jenn Deering Davis | November 23, 2010

Quick Appozite update

A lot has been going on with Appozite lately. We’ve been pretty quiet the past few months as we’ve been working on new stuff – not to mention moving to San Francisco – so it’s definitely time for an update.

CheapTweet celebrates its second anniversary this week! I can’t believe it’s been two years since we launched. It’s come so far since then. It’s still doing great, so we’re not focusing many developmental resources on it right now. A while back, Twitter added us to their suggested users list, which has been awesome. The @CheapTweet Twitter account now has 66,000 followers and grows more every day. And it’s Milton the pig’s favorite time of year again – the holiday shopping season, which is always a fun time to be in the deals space. So things continue to move along smoothly with CheapTweet.

TweetReach has really become the core of our business, and that’s a good thing. We released our Pro subscription back in April, and in the six months since then, it has surpassed all of our expectations. A ton of very cool customers have signed up in those six months (and trust me when I say cool – you’ve seen some of them on TV!). In the next week or two, we’ll be publicly announcing the TweetReach Tracker, our real-time measurement component of TweetReach Pro. I’m particularly excited about the Tracker and its (current and future) analytic capabilities. We’re continuing to develop our social media metrics as we grow that side of Appozite’s business.

Anyway, that’s the quick update. I suspect I’ll have some more exciting news to share very soon, so I’ll keep you posted.

Posted by: Jenn Deering Davis | November 8, 2010

Not all of us have cords to cut

Reading a GigaOM article about cord-cutters today, I was struck by how little it resonated with me. Which was weird, because I love television and I am a big advocate of cutting the cable cord. I haven’t had cable (or satellite) since sometime in 2000. And I really think we’re nearing a point when anyone could easily cut their own cord.

But this article seemed to miss an important point about cord-cutters. The article estimates that 500,000 people eliminated their basic cable subscriptions in the third quarter of 2010. To start with, that doesn’t seem like a very big number, and its impact is lessened further by the fact that we don’t know how many of them simply switched to satellite or another provider. The article also troubled me because while discussing a significant cultural trend, it felt to me that it missed an essential component of this trend.

I think there is a considerable generational difference between people who have cable and people who don’t. Many supposed generational differences in technology use can be overblown or exaggerated, but this seems to be one of those differences that actually exists (at least for now). People under 35 are simply not as attached to cable or satellite TV as older people are. This is not to say they don’t watch TV – because they definitely do – but they watch it in less traditional ways. They don’t see $100+ per month cable plans or even physical TV sets as necessities. A week ago, GigaOM posted another study with similar results.

I think this has something to do with college. By the late 1990s, broadband internet was available at most universities and with it, the opportunity to do so much more with the web. Napster was a really big deal when I was in college, and it led to the creation of local file sharing programs where students swapped TV shows, movie and other video with each other. In 1999, most of us didn’t ask – or even consider – “is this legal?” Napster was there, so we used it. Plus, we just didn’t watch a lot of TV in college, so we weren’t particularly attached to a set of shows.

So when I moved from the dorm (where we had free cable) to my own apartment in 2000, I just never got cable TV; neither did many of my friends. We watched sports at a bar or TV shows at a friend’s cable-equipped house or simply convinced that friend to record our favorite shows. And we soon discovered other people – people we’d never met – would share their TV recordings on YouTube and other sites for anyone to watch, so it was easy to find what we wanted, especially before networks caught on and starting removing programs for copyright reasons. Older shows were available on DVD, which we got from Blockbuster, then Netflix. And attaching a pair of $7 rabbit ears to a TV provided a pretty impressive amount of broadcast TV, even an HDTV. I am still amazed at the amount of high-def content available for free over the air.

And then came Hulu, iTunes, Netflix Instant, and the TV networks’ own websites – the newest and most sophisticated additions to the cable-less arsenal. In the early days of those streaming services (I started using Netflix Instant in March 2007, when monthly viewing hours were still capped), we watched a narrow selection of content on our small computer screens. There wasn’t much available to watch and there weren’t many good ways to stream directly to our TV. But we stuck it out, because it was just so cool that this stuff worked at all. And then came the Roku, the device that changed it all for me. In early June 2008, Hayes and I got our first Roku. At first, the Roku connected only to Netflix, which was pretty great in itself, but now it connects to so many more services.

In the ten years I’ve been without cable, things have gotten much, much better (and much more legal). I’ve never personally used BitTorrent, as I now tend to take the if-it’s-not-available-legally-I’ll-just-wait approach. But between Hulu and iTunes, I can watch basically any show I want the day after it airs. I don’t buy many shows on iTunes; I try to limit it to one or two per season. Right now I’m only paying for The Walking Dead, and it was cost $15 for the entire season. I’ll watch other shows when they’re streaming on Netflix or available on DVD.

In some ways, it surprises me that it’s taken this long for others to realize how easy – and cheap – this is. In other ways, I can understand the hesitation. It’s only been recently that getting good content legally was a real option. And there are still shows I can’t watch. Or, at least, that I can’t watch in real time. For example, Conan O’Brien starts his new show on TBS tonight but I won’t be able to watch it until later. And I’ve missed out on a lot of the new Futurama episodes. But when it comes right down to it, it’s still just TV. And no matter how much I love TV – which is a lot – I’ll be okay if I miss a show or two.

Maybe I’m way off on this. But this seems to ring true within my peer group (mostly college-educated, employed, middle class 25-35 year olds). I welcome your thoughts in the comments.

Posted by: Jenn Deering Davis | October 13, 2010

Analyzing tweets to better understand real-time crisis communication

I just posted an analysis of some interesting TweetReach data on the TweetReach blog. The post is called Measuring the Real-Time Impact of News on Twitter and it looks at tweets we collected during the recent UT shooting. An excerpt is below, but if I do say so myself, I think the whole post is worth a read.

We’ve been running a TweetReach Tracker for a few months that measures Twitter activity with and about the @statesman Twitter account. On September 28, @statesman regularly tweeted updates and important information about the shooting. Those tweets were retweeted and discussed repeatedly, resulting in a huge Twitter reach day for @statesman. Huge.

On a normal weekday, the @statesman Twitter account, which has more than 26,000 followers, reaches on average around 75,000 unique Twitter users through its own tweets, as well as others’ retweets, mentions, and replies. We’ve been tracking this activity since mid-July, and before 9/28 it peaked at a daily reach total of almost 180,000. On the day of the UT shooting, that number skyrocketed to a unique reach of 1.45 million unique Twitter users. That’s more than eight times its previous peak reach day and 19 times its normal reach.

The overall exposure (total impressions generated*) on September 28 was nearly 3.7 million, up from a typical weekday average of 125K and a previous peak of 292K. 2,700 Twitter users posted more than 4,500 tweets that day. In fact, 56% of all tweets with “@statesman” in them for the entire month of September were generated that day. @Statesman tweets were retweeted by many other news outlets, including the @washingtonpost and @dallas_news. They were also retweeted by lots of Twitter notables, many of whom don’t even live in Austin (a surprising amount from the Bay Area, actually).

Read the full post here.

Posted by: Jenn Deering Davis | September 21, 2010

Why startups fail (hint: it’s about communication)

Last week Paul Biggar, co-founder of NewsTilt, wrote a pretty extensive blog post about why their company failed. While it sucks to shut your company down (especially only two months after launch), I’m impressed with Paul’s candor and reflexivity in his post. And I’m amazed at the courage it took to say these things publicly. For many of us, failure is a scary and very private matter.

Paul cited four main reasons the company failed:

  1. [My co-founder] and I had major communication problems,
  2. we weren’t intrinsically motivated by news and journalism,
  3. making a new product required changes we could not make,
  4. our motivation to make a successful company got destroyed by all of the above.

As a fellow startup founder, I can sympathize with these. And as a communication scholar, I can see how incredibly detrimental these could be to a young company’s success.

A startup requires long hours, commitment to an idea others might not understand, endless energy and optimism, thick skin, supportive friends and family, and passion. I strongly believe that if you don’t love the idea you’re working on, then you’re not going to be successful in the end. This is why #2 is so dangerous – it’s easy to become less and less involved in your idea when it’s not your passion. Customer service and acquisition will suffer, too; if you don’t care about your idea, then it’s hard to convince customers to care about it. Killing yourself to work on an idea you don’t believe in will lead to emotional exhaustion and burnout. (If you don’t believe me, ask anyone who’s ever written a dissertation.)

I also think that to have a successful startup, you need a kickass co-founder (which also assumes you need at least one co-founder, though not everyone agrees with that). It’s a heavy weight to bear on your own. And no one is good at everything you need to do in a new company (nor does she/he have the time to do it all). Having a co-founder or two who’s going through this with you is helpful, maybe even necessary. More than that, though, co-founders need to communicate clearly and often. This is why I think #1 on Paul’s list should be #1 on all startups’ lists.

This is something I’ll preach to anyone who will listen – communication is the key to all relationships – but it’s particularly relevant in this case. In many startup situations, you spend more time with your co-founder than you do with your family. If you can’t communicate effectively with that person, then things will deteriorate to a point where you just can’t fix them and either a founder will quit or the company will fail.

So, here are a few important communication tips for a startup.

  • Be honest. Speak your mind, share what’s going on. In fact, just say something. Talking is good.
  • Be patient. You will be grumpy sometimes. Your co-founder will be grumpy sometimes. You might not be on the same page about a new feature or issue. Stop for a minute and take a breath. You’re both tired and stressed; try to be nice.
  • Take breaks. From work, from each other. See other people sometimes. You both need space.
  • Ask questions. If you don’t know something, ask. If your co-founder seems upset about something or stuck on a problem, ask her/him how’s it going.
  • Listen. Just be quiet and pay attention to the other person for a few minutes. Try not to think about what’s on your own mind. It’s always easier to solve someone else’s problems than your own.
  • Remember that you respect each other for a reason. Occasionally, think about the reasons why you’re working together in the first place. This is the smartest person you know. Sometimes you might need to remind yourself of that fact.
  • Have fun. Every day, stop working and do something fun for ten minutes. Have an office dance party, eat some cookies, go for a walk, play ping-pong, whatever. Just don’t talk about anything work-related for ten minutes. And once a week, take an entire afternoon or evening off. You can still work the other 6.5 days in the week.
  • Talk about what’s going well. In a startup, it’s easy to focus on the negative – traffic’s down, money’s not coming in fast enough, the competition was just featured on TechCrunch. It’s helpful to remind yourselves of the positive. Celebrate your successes.
  • Focus on solving problems. Instead of getting bogged down by what’s going wrong, try to reframe things as problems to be solved. Everything can be fixed. So figure out what you can do to make a bad situation better.

Now that I’ve written these out, I realize how similar a co-founder relationship is to a marriage. In the early stages, it really might be just the two (or few) of you. Because of this, communicating clearly, openly, and frequently is just as important as building a great product and finding customers. The way that you communicate early in your company’s existence will shape the culture of the future company you’re trying to build.

Posted by: Jenn Deering Davis | August 24, 2010

Married to my co-founder

My husband Hayes and I co-founded Appozite just over two years ago. Since then, and as you probably know, we’ve developed a handful of applications, two of which have been pretty successful. And in those two years, we’ve learned a lot about working together.

What you might now know is that this isn’t the first startup we’ve done together. In 2001, Hayes and some good friends from college started Liquid Communication Systems, a company that built a cool business IM tool called Effusia Business Messenger. Most of the investors in Liquid were family members and friends. Our experience with Liquid definitely shaped how we structured Appozite, just as our experience with Appozite will certainly shape our next venture, whatever that may be.

One of the first things people ask me about our business is what it’s like to work with my husband. Some people seem almost appalled by the idea, others just want the juicy gossip, but most people seem to be genuinely curious about how it works behind the scenes. In fact, lots of people tell me they wish they could work with their significant others.

Hayes and I certainly don’t do a perfect job – of course there are definitely heated conversations, disagreements, and occasional grumpiness – but we’ve spent two years working together to make this company successful. And we’ve spent twelve years working to make our relationship successful. I like to think we get a little better at both every day.

So, if you want to hear what we’ve learned from our experience starting this company together, then please vote for our SXSW panel, When the Family Business is a Startup. We’ll also have an investor on the panel to address questions about the fundability of family-run companies, at least one more entrepreneur with this kind of experience, and a relationship expert to help us with some practical advice.

Recently, there was an active and fascinating conversation on Hacker News about how marriage impacts startups. There are a thousand answer to this question, and we only have a few.  But we’d love to be able to bring this conversation to South by Southwest.

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