My Start-Up Story: Advice for Would-be Entrepreneurs from Mobile Evangelist Sian Morson
As a young girl, I remember having a fascination with how things worked. Anything remotely electronic, I would take apart and put back together again. Even so, I never gravitated towards any of the STEM subjects other than those that were required. I believed they were “too hard” and didn’t have a teacher that made them seem particularly exciting. I did, however, take a BASIC class in junior high school, which I really enjoyed. My instructor was Mr. Fuller, an African American. In retrospect, I realize how unique this was. And truth be told, Mr. Fuller was probably the first Blerd I’d ever seen or met! The class piqued my interest so much that I asked for and received a Commodore VIC 20 computer and later on, a Commodore 64 when that was released. I remember being up late at night writing lines and lines and code, but eventually my interest in computers faded, and I turned my attention to other matters. It didn’t help that I wasn’t particularly good at math and I was just OK in science. A career in technology was never really on my radar. I focused on my creativity and eventually landed in film school at NYU, but the fascination with how things work remained.
When the dot com boom (v1.0) happened, I was front and center and had relocated to the San Francisco Bay Area. I was working as a bartender at the time, but dot com cash was everywhere and it was changing the city in many ways. It was while I was behind the bar that I came into contact with some of the newly-minted millionaires and employees of this ‘new economy’. I quickly found that technology fed my latent fascination with how things work.
My first real contact with a true software engineer came when I met my friend James. A nocturnal creature, he coded all night and slept during the day. There was something truly fascinating about the myriad of computers in his loft apartment. I was also impressed by the lifestyle that ‘engineering’ afforded him as well. I asked him to teach me about what he did and he reluctantly agreed.
It was a rocky road. I was only learning HTML at the time. We were using a WYSWYG editor called Visual Page. And let’s just say James wasn’t the most patient teacher. But I managed to pick up the basics. He gave me an old computer and a modem. From the moment my modem connected, I knew that the Internet would change everything. By then, my skills, though rudimentary at best, qualified me for some of the jobs that this new economy was creating.
I started my career as a project manager managing teams doing large-scale web builds and banners (remember those?). I wasn’t even sure what we were building when I started, but I knew that I was able to communicate well with people and get them to do what I needed them to do. Project managers are responsible for the successful (on time and on budget) delivery of projects, and communication is key. I have an innate gift of gab, so in a way, it was the perfect entry point into technology.. By managing engineers and creatives, I learned about their work and how they did what they did. I learned to speak the language and excelled at my job, eventually moving in up in the ranks and working at various agencies in San Francisco, New York and London.
My initial idea for Kollective Mobile came as I was deciding to leave my job as Director of Interactive at a Bay Area pharmaceutical agency. I knew that whatever I would do would be in the mobile realm. I’d just spearheaded the creation and expansion of a mobile subsidiary, and I’d seen the exponential growth of mobile since I’d relocated from Europe back to the US. I knew mobile was the future, and I knew how to manage a variety of skillsets – from technical engineers to creatives (designers, writers etc.) and project managers. I knew how to placate clients and deal with complex issues. But I still didn’t know that I was on the brink of starting a new agency. When I finally accepted that, it was quite daunting. I’d always worked for large, global agencies. It wasn’t immediately apparent that I could do this on a smaller level. I discussed it with family members and friends to get their take. But very few of them even knew what I was talking about. Agencies are a breed of their own. Anyone who has spent time working at one can attest to that fact. But, I still wasn’t comfortable talking to coworkers about my idea. So, I didn’t. I kept it stealthy until my launch.
Starting an agency or any other business is difficult work. I had the name set up, but then I had to find clients and talent! Fortunately, I was able to tap my network to find people who were willing to take a chance on me. Once we proved ourselves on the smaller projects, we knew that the larger projects would eventually come. And they did. We found ourselves in a position where the competition was fierce; we were being undercut by other mobile development shops that were shipping work overseas. But eventually, our clients would come back with horror stories of unfinished work, badly written code, and products that simply didn’t work. We took those as opportunities to show what we could do and to build solid relationships with our clients. In the beginning, no job was too small. We pretty much took everything that we were being offered. Now, we’re a bit more selective. But when you’re initially starting out, you need a wide range of jobs to prove that you can do many different kinds of projects.
One of the things that I learned early was that we needed to diversify our client base. So while one of my goals was to work with small businesses, I realized pretty quickly that they were not going to sustain ourselves working only with small businesses. We sought out a range of clients from small businesses to large advertising agencies, mid-sized companies and even start-ups and government work because we were hungry, but also because the range of projects that we would be able to work on. The breadth of the work was staggering. We were able to work on cool, disruptive apps for Silicon Valley startups, simple prototypes for independent entrepreneurs, and consumer-based apps with a larger user base for million-dollar clients. In some instances, we were invisible to the client, and in others we were a part of a large campaign with a team of over 30. All of this variation really makes getting up in the morning really exciting.
It Wasn’t Always Rosy
Along the way, there were disasters too. Growing pains make for awkward situations, and sometimes clients think that you are bigger than you really are. When you take on a big project, your client expects a certain level of flexibility that we weren’t always able to provide as quickly as they may have liked. In one instance, we were working on a global account with partners in China, the US and the UK. Coordinating communication across country lines with language and cultural barriers as well as time differences made for a challenging project. We struggled to stay on top of the feedback coming from all corners of the world and even, sadly, dropped the ball a few times. Luckily, we were able to communicate with our client who stepped in and helped out by channeling all feedback through one main stakeholder. This made the process much easier and we were able to get the project back on track. Ultimately, it was very successful for us and them. I’m happy to say that we’ve worked those issues out but it was pretty touch and go there for a month or two.
One thing about having your own business is that you can never sit back on your laurels and coast. You’re always out there trying to find the next client and trying to understand which direction technology is moving in. Things are moving so fast in the mobile space that it’s important to stay abreast of all of the wonderful changes taking place. Clients expect that, and if you want to stay in the game and be competitive you need to keep up.
I am always trying to find new opportunities to learn. Since I do best outside of a structured environment, the advances in technology have been great because you don’t need to sit in a classroom to stay abreast.. I learn best by doing. Sometimes when we’re placed in a position where we have to learn something quickly is the best way. When you’re running a business and you’re all doing it together it can be crazy but mostly it’s exciting!
Advice for Entrepreneurs
Plan everything: Plan the business before you actually start it, and once you’ve started it plan every project. Success comes from proper planning and preparation. You might be able to wing it for a little while, but it won’t last long. Failure is certain without it.
Surround yourself with like-minded people: Some people are leaders and others are followers. There is no judgment in that statement. But leaders don’t often hang out with followers. If you’re on a path or a mission, you need to surround yourself with people who share your drive, your determination, your struggles and yes perhaps your failures, too.
Always have an outlet: Work is great. You will do plenty of it when you are running your own business. But, work isn’t everything. Balance is important. So, take time to ensure that your life is well balanced. Entrepreneurs often glamourize the ‘start-up grind’; the long hours with no sleep and stories of living in cars and on ramen noodles. But that life is overrated. Make the time to do other things, whether it’s seeing friends, meditating and exercising, or veg’ing with a bit of reality TV.
Get a mentor: Entrepreneurship isn’t new. Find someone who has done it before and spend time with him or her. Be prepared to listen and learn.
Try to find a lesson in everything: There always is one.
Ultimately, it’s important to remember to have a good time at whatever it is you choose to do. I always say entrepreneurship has been the most difficult undertaking for me. But, it has also been the most rewarding thus far. If you can find the time to enjoy the work you do, that’s half that battle.
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