September 30, 2009

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Entrepreneurship tips from Sarah Prevette (Sprouter) at the Toronto Girl Geek Dinner

Last night’s Toronto Girl Geek Dinner with Sarah Prevette, the founder ofSprouter, was a great braindump of entrepreneurship and networking tips.

Sarah told us stories about her failures and what she’d learned along the way, particularly the importance of talking to potential users and reaching out to the community. Her tips for engaging with the community were:

  • Amazingness. Provide value. Don’t focus exclusively on What’s In It For Me. Be worth talking about. The best way to achieve success is to enable someone else’s.
  • Accessibility. Respond in a timely manner. Don’t ignore reactions, whether positive or negative. The worst thing you can do when people criticize you is to ignore it. Be open. Share the facts.
  • Authenticity. Provide as much information as you can. Be real, be transparent, be honest, and be yourself. Be patient when answering questions. Privacy really is dead, so get used to it.

Here are other tips she shared:

  • Release early, release often. Don’t worry about making things perfect. Worry about making people care. Just push things out. If they hate it, they’ll tell you why they hate it. If they love it, great. It’s indifference that sucks.
  • Be entrenched in the community. Talk to people. Listen. Do your homework. Do the legwork.
  • Twitter is a great backchannel that can add a lot of value to conferences and conversations. If you’re not on Twitter yet, you should at least read it when you go to a conference, and follow what interesting people are saying. Otherwise, you’ll miss out on half the conversation.
  • Twitter helps connect with the community. Twitter accounts for far more of their site visits than either Google or direct traffic.
  • Make sure you activate your network. Collecting business cards is not networking. Adding people to LinkedIn is not networking. Act onyour network. Find ways to reconnect and be relevant. Meaningfully reach out. She mentioned a new habit she’s working on: revitalizing her network by stacking up business cards in front of her, randomly picking five people, and consciously looking for ways to reach out and help that person succeed.
  • Entrepreneurship is stressful but fun. The last year has been the most stressful and the most fun for her.

Here are some notes from the Q&A:

  • What’s your business model? Ad-supported freemium.
  • Aside from the aforementioned stack of business cards, how do you keep track of your contacts? New startups like CloudContacts, NetworkHippo are interesting. (Sacha’s note: Gist is another social aggregator, too. It’s pretty darn awesome.)
  • How do you scale accessibility? Hopes that as usage scales, revenue scales, too.
  • Who built your site? Internally developed. One rockstar doing Ruby, a total team size of three. Shout-out to Jet Cooper team for the design.
  • What tips would you give new entrepreneurs?
    1. Do it. If you have a fabulous idea, do it. Talking about it at dinner parties is not doing it. Researching is not doing it. Do it.
    2. Solicit feedback. Get feedback not only from people who’ll be nice to you, but people who’ll tell it like it is. Talk to your potential users. Push beyond the fluffy responses. Ask for specifics.
    3. Find a way to grow organically, or find the money to do it. Don’t worry too much about equity. Don’t be afraid of investors. Don’t do things in isolation.
  • What key trends are you seeing? Mobile applications, geolocation, better filters. Also general trends like green.
  • What was your biggest obstacle? Not engaging the network enough. Either that, or ego. No, network. You have no idea who’s going to be the key person in your network, so just connect with people.
  • How do you know where to go for funding? Again, network. Ask startups who’ve been funded by investors; they’ll have insights. lists startups.
  • How does the amount of sleep you get compare to when you were a teenager? Used to be a big sleeper as a teenager. Now is usually thrown off by jet lag, etc.

Toronto Girl Geek Dinners is giving away one free pass for people who would like to attend the Mesh Marketing event. Tweet @s_moore with the answer to the question of why it would be awesome for a girl geek to go to the event, and the most creative answer will get a free pass. More details about that and upcoming events at .

Working around networking weaknesses and playing to strengths

Yesterday taught me a little more about my quirks when it comes to connecting with people.

First: I’m horrible at matching names to faces out of the blue. I compensate for this by glossing over it and smiling back in a friendly manner when someone smiles at me. If I’m lucky, people will give me enough tactful cues to remind me who they are in conversation. A name, an e-mail address, a particular characteristic – that’s usually enough to trigger my associative memory, which is strongly verbal instead of visual. Once I know who someone is, then it’s easy to access lots of other things I know about them, and people have complimented me on my ability to remember little things about people. But that initial link can be difficult, which is why I like interacting with people online where their names are associated with their words and I can look up people’s records in my database.

I occasionally feel quite anxious about this (especially when people put me on the spot), but I wonder what would happen if I simply accepted that and worked with it. I like how my mom handled it whenever I invited my friends over. She used to tell my friends that she’s likely to forget people’s names, so that’s the reason why I keep reintroducing people to her. And I would do so, reintroducing even friends who’d been there again and again, until my mom laughed and referred to them by name. If I can find a way to explain to people that I draw a blank on names a lot, while making it clear that it’s me, not them, that would be cool.

Also, I’m working on this by sharing my stories, asking more people to never put people on the spot like that, and avoiding doing so myself. If you think someone might have forgotten your name, reintroduce yourself instead of embarrassing the other person. ;) I also like including memory-joggers into the conversation, so that helps.

Second: I’m a little people-blind when it comes to slurping information. I remember concepts more than I remember authors, plot lines more than I remember actors, and posts and ideas more than I remember bloggers. I sometimes find it hard to figure out names that are out of context. I suspect I tend to skip past people’s pictures, too.

Maybe if I slow down a little, some more of that will stick in my head, and I’ll gain a peripheral understanding of what people are up to. I could also apply a tip I picked up today, which is to look for web traces for random people. Hmm, I think I can make a virtual assistance process for that…

Third: I’m good at connecting the dots. I may not be good at matching faces to names, but once I know who people are, I enjoy asking questions to find out what they’re passionate about, and I don’t hesitate to drag people across the room to introduce them to people they should get to know. ;) I’m good at remembering things people might have in common with other people. I’m working on getting better at that by taking notes, and I can get even better when I find or make a personal social aggregator and search engine.

It’s important to play to your strengths and work around your weaknesses. Real-life events can be tough for me, particularly if people don’t have nametags. There are a whole lot of people at work and elsewhere whom I should know, but don’t really. Heck, my memories of high school and college classmates are quite fuzzy. But I like connecting the dots. I get a kick out of doing so, and I love creating value that way. I’m good at that, and I’m good at supporting that with tools.