5 things I learned from creating a new thing
One year ago today, my cofounder and I hopped in my car, blasted Adele’s Hello and screamed the lyrics attempting to calm our nerves before doing this interview on why we had launched The Evergrey that day.
For me it was a BFD. Just a few years before that, I had been asked in a job interview where I saw myself in five years – I said I wanted to start my own thing. I knew it would probably be related to local journalism, but besides that, I had no idea what I wanted to do with all the ideas I was dying to experiment with.
After many Slacks, throwing together a pitch deck and talking with other journalists, my cofounder Mónica and I decided to work with a media startup (WhereBy.Us — The Evergrey’s parent company) to get our dream of a Seattle journalism project off the ground. We were fortunate to have full-time salaries from the beginning that allowed us to fully focus on building The Evergrey. And it also put more pressure on us to build a successful thing even faster.
Here’s what I’ve learned from handling that (not-all-bad) pressure over the last 365 days.
1.Spending hours coordinating an event, editing a piece or pulling together a project isn’t what’s tiring. Decision-making is. The amount of decisions we made early on, for me, could feel mentally exhausting sometimes. It felt like every decision was important, and so it required a rigorous, thoughtful discussion. And even though we communicated to our early users that this was one big experiment — seriously, I think we used and still use the word ‘experiment’ a dozen times a week––we had to figure out which experiments were worth trying or felt aligned to our mission. That’s why I appreciate this advice from Jeff Bezos. Seattleites — however you feel about the dude, he’s got a few good nuggets of wisdom:
Figure out which decisions are reversible and which aren’t by asking “So what if you’re wrong?” Get comfortable with uncertainty by staying flexible after the decision is made. “Many decisions are reversible, two-way doors,” he said. For those decisions that can be easily undone, use “a light-weight process.” He wrote that you can tell if it’s a lightweight decision by answering the question “So what if you’re wrong?” (Business Insider)
2. It’s hard to know when to continue to push really hard for something or let it go. Everything. Feels. Important. All. The. Time. But there is a point when even 10% more effort really doesn’t make a difference for our users. And yes, there’s still a little voice in my head that says, ‘No! That’s not true!’ But it is. And I’m working on developing a better sense of where that point exists. Conversely, when I’ve made the call to “let it go,” it’s been hard for me to appreciate the work I’ve done so far because I keep thinking about how it could have been better. That leads into my third point…
3. I’ve learned a lot about what it takes to build something, but even more about what it takes for me to build something. I’ve learned a lot about myself this past year. Some things I really didn’t know and others were brought into sharper focus for me. I’m a perfectionist (that isn’t a humble brag, I very much struggle with this). I’m my most-intense critic and plagued by self doubt (my husband and sister know this better than anyone). I have (sometimes too) high standards (see #2). It’s great to be self aware, and it’s also so hard to stay open to constant self-awareness and self-improvement while also trying to build a thing. But it’s important, and I’m still learning how to do it well.
4. It’s necessary to feel comfortable publicly owning the thing I made. When building something from scratch, I was forced to put that thing and myself out there for all the feedback, criticism and praise. One of my biggest challenges this year has been/is figuring out how visible I want to be as a cofounder of a very public thing that is all about building relationships and community. Yeah, I know, when put that way… While I’m a social extrovert, I find that it’s much easier in public places to receive feedback than praise and to listen and ask questions rather than make declarative statements. It’s a fine line: The thing you made isn’t about you, and yet it kinda is.
5. It’s important to feel confident that what we’re doing is having an impact. Not because I need an ego boost — though obviously receiving positive feedback from users always feels great. But because I gotta know whether what we set out to do is working. Yes, this sounds obvious. But it’s been so easy for me to get caught in the hamster wheel of tasks and pushing projects forward that I’ve forgotten to consistently evaluate whether we’re hitting our definition of success, and if not, course correcting. If we don’t know whether the thing we built is helping people meaningfully connect to their city and build relationships with other curious locals, then why the hell are we doing what we’re doing?
I learned other things too! Ask for help, because when people are excited about the thing you’re making, they’ll pitch in any way they can, which is really, really awesome. Creating a culture and tone that encourages regular user feedback is the most important thing you do from day one. Stay excited to learn, because that makes building something way more meaningful and fun.