My founding myth: an iceberg, not a snowflake.
At least once a week, I’m asked the interminable question — ‘So how’d you come up with that idea?’ I’ve taken a number of approaches to the answer, from the epic monologue that begins with my birth and ends with last week’s most recent feature build to the empirically correct but gross oversimplification — ‘I didn’t. My husband did.’
I guess if you came up with your product idea while standing in the shower, or picking one too many dog hairs off your pants, then your founding myth can be whittled into some delectable moment of eureka, easily digestible by friends, family, potential investors and cocktail party strangers. It would illicit the various acceptable responses like ‘Cool’, ‘Wow, that’s amazing’, and ‘Huh. Interesting.’ But I’ve always struggled with our founding myth. While others can roll it off their tongues as succinctly as their elevator pitch, after almost 3 years since we started our Bespoke journey, I still fumble to articulate the iceberg of truth that lives beneath the surface into a mythical snowflake.
But I’ve always struggled with our founding myth.
Any answer that arrives to me immediately following the question seems like it might reveal a bit too much context about me, my life, my co-founder’s life, our personal backgrounds, social circles, socioeconomic standing. But I feel like it’s the only place for me to start.
We don’t want to be wedding videographers forever. I mean, when we started Films by Francesco it was because we didn’t want to be 9–5er’s forever, so everything has its honest beginning in a desire for change from some previously acceptable state of being. But after a decade of building a company with an unmatched clientele, unique approach and clear value proposition, being a ‘celebrity cinematographer’ still only means riding the coattails of the distinguished members of our human race who have worked tirelessly to make their names known and be perceived as successful. We shot Chelsea Clinton’s wedding. Lebron James’ wedding. Nicole Richie’s wedding. So what?! I’m not Chelsea/Lebron/Nicole’s friend, and if you said my name it wouldn’t immediately register to them that I indelibly, intimately, and candidly captured quite possibly one of the most important days of their life for them to cherish forever. I’m hired help, much to my ego’s chagrin. I’m a service provider in the life of successful people who can afford my services. The embellishment of the importance of my services over that of say, their housekeeper, their interior decorator or their pool boy are of my making, seemingly irrelevant to both Chelsea/Lebron/Nicole and said pool boy.
But that was the business we chose, and that chose us, and it’s been a good run. It’s still a company with generous lifespan left, one that (maybe) hasn’t quite peaked yet, with possibilities to evolve. It’s a combination of my and Francesco’s passions & talents. It’s taken us around the world and back and given us the opportunity to be in places and in company that most people could only dream of. As far as our friends and family are concerned, we’ve ‘made it’ — jumped a rung on the ladder, done better than our parents.
But in life, we want to be invited to the party, not serving its guests. Part of it is surely about financial security. We’re two blue collar kids that grew up in a place where a mortgage & a pension were the signs of success, and a high school education was ample. (My mother actually asked me during my junior year of high school ‘Why I felt the need to go to college?.’ I’m not kidding). But its more about knowing we’ve created something great, something meaningful, and that we’ve made a difference, left a mark. It’s part of the fabric of who Francesco and I are to keep changing, keep creating, to do more. Not in an insatiable way. In a ‘I’ve got more to offer the universe in this lifetime’ kind of way.
We’ve been in the works with Bespoke for almost 3 years. That 3 years includes 6 months of brainstorming on the front end, 3 months of looking for a dev team, 8 months of building a product that we would launch in April of 2013 — a product that I started pitching around NYC like a madwoman — one that had almost 600 users — and one that came crashing down in a moment when Google Reader disappeared that same summer. Looking back I can say that I’m proud that we were able to build & ship that product, and that I was ballsy enough to go headlong into the tech startup space without having a clue, a connection, or knowing how to write a line of code. But I wasn’t necessarily proud of the product. I knew it wasn’t quite right. I knew we were far from getting ‘there,’ and I came out of that first 18 months chalking up my $100k of skin in the game as my ‘entry fee’ into the tech startup space.
Something changed last fall. A shift, a pivot, an iteration. Call it what you will in tech-speak, but on a more personal level, we had changed. The shitstorm initiation into startup world was starting to solidify itself. I felt more grounded, more realistic and more sure of our path, albeit not any more sure of whether or not we’d succeed.
We started toward a milestone that would revamp the entire product, its value proposition, its function. We started a friends & family round, and took our first investment from my in-laws — a HUGE step for the girl who left home at 16, put herself through undergrad, and never so much as asked for a dime from anyone, for anything (when Francesco bought me my first proper winter coat the first winter we were dating, I cried — a lot — at the simple act of someone providing something for me without asking). It meant that this was bigger than a pet project, that it was going somewhere, that it was determined to be something. That we were determined to get it there.
After three months of building, we met our first milestone, which was amazing — except that we were out of money again, our film company was having a tough start to the year, and our newest friends & family investor was on the fence about putting the money in that would get the rest of the product built and ready to roll out. There was a lot of sleepless nights, a good deal of tears, and more uncertainty from one day to the next then I ever care to relive. I wasn’t sure we were going to make it. We thought about throwing in the towel. We felt foolish for thinking we could ever run with the big boys. That we could ever break the barrier between working the party and being a guest. For thinking that our great idea and our grit and scrappy wherewithal were going to be enough to get us in the game, and that someone would be willing to take a chance on us. We were on a ledge. After I was done wallowing, I put my big girl panties on and talked our good friend into giving me $50k of his hard earned cash. I convinced him to believe in something that in the moment I wasn’t even sure was going to work. We celebrated Transitional Labor Day on January 28th, 2014, and made a pact to move on, come hell or high water.
From January until today, we’ve made, missed and underestimated some amazing milestones. We’ve been behind on rent, racked up a credit card or two, and relied on good cheap food as a consistent reward for enduring sleepless nights, long days, giant frustrations and tiny triumphs. We’ve forged deep connections with our dev team and lost twice as many friends for being antisocial. We’ve aged in dog years over the past 10 months, but we’re making it happen, one small step at a time.
In September we launched a product that we’re incredibly proud of, and have accepted our newest list of challenges as the inevitable next step we can’t not take. It’s kind of like having a kid. It never gets easier — it’s just that certain things get simpler while others get harder. And the things that get simpler don’t really get any simpler, you just learn how to manage them better. At the moments you think you just can’t do it anymore, some small win is made and it gives you that feeling like when your kid says ‘Mama, I love you.’ You keep on keepin’ on for one more day.
We’re still on the ledge. We’re still in the ‘you might live or you might die’ phase of startup life where it’s not entirely clear that we’ll make it. But we do our best on good days to leverage that knowledge into action. On our worst days when we’re feeling paralyzed, we watch the news or read the paper to remind ourselves that there are much bigger problems in the world than ours, and that we should use our powers for good — make a great product that’s meaningful, one that helps people be better, work better, create better & connect.
Our founding myth will keep evolving, but our founding truth remains — we’re in it for the long haul. Authentically, transparently, and always with a little comic relief.
Bespoke is available for iPad. If you’re a visual thinker that wants a better way to browse the web, reach out, we’d love to connect. firstname.lastname@example.org