Recommitting to Why I’m Here

Finding My Voice Here started when I chose love over location. After nine years of China – living among hutongs and highrises in Beijing and a countryside community in rural Yunnan – I’m currently spending a bulk of my time in the US and I’ve challenged myself to publish a post a day from now until the end of 2014.

While I’ve stumbled a few times since the first now, I’m lucky that “now” has a flexible definition based on the day you read this. I’m happy to announce that the new now begins today (March 6th). I’m curious where this much concentrated writing might take me. And I hope you’ll join me in the journey.

Before we both go, I wonder what question you might offer today – be it to me or to another – to move a discussion forward on this blog or elsewhere?

Startup Weekend UH


I just finished as a participant in my first Startup Weekend. It was a blast. Thanks are in order for PACE (The Pacific Asian Center for Entrepreneurship) at Shidler College of Business at University of Hawaii, as well as Joey Aquino, our Startup Weekend Facilitator.

Before I knew Joey as the excellent facilitator I know him to be now, and before we even began the weekend, he said something to a group of us that I was not expecting: this event is more about experiential learning and building community over company creation.

Should I have seen this comment coming? Maybe.

At the time, I wasn’t expecting to fully participate in the event, and planned to be just a spectator. But as the dust starts to settle on a fully immersed weekend, I come away with a fantastic experience and some takeaways worth noting.

1. Just Jump In

Standard advice, but Startup Weekend hammers this point home. I was on the fence, I was not planning on staying past the pitch portion of Friday evening, but of all the good ideas pitched, I saw something extra interesting between two ideas that happened to set up shop next to each other during the round of mixing: Show Aloha and a Futures game concept, so I started to explore by asking if these two ideas could be combined.

And then I ended up in a conversation with two guys (thanks Daniel and Alex) dreaming about a new type of pants who needed a third to stay alive. My classmate, Robson, was about as close as I was to calling it a night. And then we went all in for the rest of the weekend.

No regrets.

2. Too Many Opinions, Too Little Time

Conversation the first evening was relatively fluid and, in hindsight, of course it was easy to get a great start. We had a short window and would have more time to go into detail on Day 2. During Day 2, our ideas started to run all over the place.

The first best thing we did was to develop a common set of questions to better understand the good, the bad, and the ugly when it came to people and their pants. We did a couple of interviews together and then spread out, which enabled us to cover more ground and come back together with each of these insights.

Then the coaches came. Folks from the community with diverse backgrounds in business were great to talk to. They pointed to problem areas and had good ideas to share.

Sounds like a lot of great exchange. And the problem is…?

Essentially we were starting to have more and more ideas sharing and floating without the chance to reflect. We were not doing a very good job as a team of setting structure for ourselves. We were not proactively working to come back to what was most important.

3. If you don’t stand for something, you’ll fall for anything & The Power of Outside Opinions

Coming back to what was most important is a challenge in and of itself, and especially hard if you don’t attempt to define what is most important. We had a tough time processing all of the information inputs because as a group we allowed ourselves to see the merit in many of these ideas and be overly influenced by them.

And sometimes it seemed as though our group took the approach that the coaches had better ideas than we did, as opposed to seeing how our ideas could be empowered by ideas brought up by certain coaches. Can we relate this to the value that companies place on the opinions of outsiders over the opinions of their own?

Where and how do we balance these opinions from inside and out?

4. Holding On Because it’s Hard to Let Go

There were several points during the weekend where it felt like we were moving in a good direction together, and then we somehow reverted back to the very beginning and an idea that I just couldn’t get behind. And despite advice – both internal and external – to move away at various points during the weekend, we still kept reverting back.

Just a couple of hours left before presenting, it became clear that we had arrived back at this familiar juncture. Thing is, it probably felt different on some accounts because we were attempting to fit this old idea into a new potential market.

But feeling strongly that the idea was not the right one for us, I wondered aloud if we were trying to fit the market to our idea or the idea to our market? Instead of coming up with potential new markets for this idea, why did we not come back to problems we identified in markets we knew how to better articulate our ideas to and connect with?

Our Founder had originally conceived the idea based on his discomfort with the way in which pants raised his body temperature. And all of the questions we asked of people lead to answers focused on issues with “comfort.” This was related to size, fit, and our major sticking point, heat.

If there was any mention of how hot it was to wear pants, this seemed to dominate discussions. It was our comfort zone, the place where we kept returning. But the majority of people we interviewed seemed to be frustrated most by the fit of their pants. Why were we holding on?

5. Listening is Important

Should this even be a point of learning? Isn’t acting as a good listener a given in any conversation? Through the weekend the important distinction about this point of listening for me was distinguishing between listening for what you want to hear compared to what is being said.

Having a hypothesis is fine, in fact, encouraged. It’s best to have an idea of a general direction we’re going in and what possible answers could be. And developing good questions to help us learn more about problems and pain-points, as well as current solutions and areas of satisfaction is invaluable to the development of our ideas… if we choose to listen to what people are telling us.

But what about vision? What can be said for being completely stubborn about an idea that you truly believe in and want to take to the next level no matter what anybody says?

6. The Influence of Shared Vision

What does it feel like to participate in a vision you do not buy into?

This was my weekend reality. And part-way through the weekend I found myself almost ready to say goodbye. My concern was that our Founder was blinded by his vision. Dreaming of pants made of board shorts came out of the desire to stay cool in a pair of pants that could be worn in multiple settings. I admired his interest and commitment to this problem. He cared enough to buy two pairs of board shorts and find a way to sew them together into a pair of pants.

The issue for me was two-fold. The first was that we were not letting a good idea evolve into a great one. Going back to the point above – I felt we were not listening to a larger group of people. Our choices were determined largely on what resonated with “hot pants.”

The second was that the vision was continually articulated as college students who did not want to change clothes for different uses.

As a bonus, surf culture was the marketing linchpin.

Let’s be clear, I’m open to being swept away by surf culture at some point during my stay in Hawaii. I also think that there are a critical mass of people out there who are trying to find a pair of better fitting, more comfortable pants. But if we’re building a global pants enterprise (okay, let’s even scale it back to domestic), how many people want to buy a pair of pants because a famous surfer that only 10% of our target market has even heard of? How many people are tortured by the heat produced by wearing pants? How many people experience pain from a wardrobe change involving their pants?

You probably got the vibe that I’m not ready to line up for this product.

And the first question we received from the judges after giving our presentation was rightfully sarcastic, “Is changing clothes a challenge?”

Or am I drinking my own kool-aid by pointing out this first question?

Great businesses have grown out of personal agitation. But I wear pants just about every day. And wear them comfortably. Bottom line here is that I became increasingly turned off by a vision I didn’t connect to and really was unsure what additional value I could provide.

7. Limited Time Supports Decision-Making

But I stuck with it. I tried to be a better listener myself. And we were coming up on crunch time for our pitch, so we had to make some decisions.

In working through our presentation, the time restriction became our biggest ally. We continue to refine our slides, and it became pretty clear what we were missing. And the next question was whether one of us were in a position to provide the answer.

8. Are the Right People on the Team?

In these crunch time moments where we had to complete our slides, our team was momentarily distracted by a guy outside who seemed to be taping himself doing some sort of freestyle walking.

I thought it was fun for about 20 seconds. While I am not sure what Robson was thinking, I saw our two other teammates get extra excited and went to encourage this guy to wear our pants and get some footage of him practicing his craft.

Looking through the slides, we had plenty of ideas that focused around “marketing” and telling the story of our product. And we did not have a finalized target market, which meant we also did not have a slide on the market size, expected revenue, or anything else of numerical value. This is why marketers sometimes get a bad rap – big on talk, small on substance.

Three thoughts came to mind –

First, freestyle walking footage in our board short pants would be fine, but how many people in the room (especially on the judges panel) would connect with this? Are stories that are interesting to us, the same stories that resonate with others?

Second, even if the judges panel connected with the pants idea and loved the quick video of freestyle walking. How will we answer questions around numbers without any in our presentation?

Third, as a marketing major in college these days, what are students learning? Is the full picture taught, but are most students just not as interested to recreate it in their own works? Finances are an equally import part of the big picture as they connect to the who will buy, why they buy, how they buy, where they buy, when they buy. I know the financial part of the story is where I hope to improve, myself.

If we are all best-suited to storytelling, but not identifying facts behind market segments, are we the right team to tackle this problem, or any business problem?

9. Good Things Come to Those Who Wait

Having moved beyond a number of our issues, we had our eyes on the pitch and Daniel and Alex’s presentation, and went outside to practice.

After two plus days of talking through these ideas, even pitching to Robson and I was a challenge for our teammates. And working through this challenge together we found some incredible energy.

It was at this moment that we were completely in alignment. We had defined our roles. We were producing a specific deliverable. We were attributing value to what we gave and what we received back to the process. We were all committed to one vision, giving the best Smarty Pants presentation we could muster. And for the first time over the weekend since the first night, it felt like we were one.

And we come back to Joey’s point – learning over creation. That said, creation is very much a part of the learning process. It was through this experiential process of creating that we accelerated our learning process into the span of a weekend.

Perhaps none of these takeaways will move mountains for you as a reader of this post. But having a full blown review session that brought together each of these ideas was very powerful.

No matter how much you “know” the principles, it is helpful to be reminded. And no matter how much you know the principles, it is not necessarily easy to work them out in practice.

We faced plenty of real world problems this weekend, that are not exclusive to the business environment. It is a challenge to have many opinions swirling around you looking to you for structure and setting priorities. And if you don’t stand for something, you may fall for anything.

Flexible can be good, it’s a lesson my parents instilled in me from a young age. But flexibility should also have a purpose. In APLPland we talk about the difference between flexibility and adaptability. Flexibility in my mind has come to  mean you can start somewhere and end up anywhere. As counterpoint, adaptability means you start somewhere, have an idea where you’re going, and then enable that idea to guide you to a destination that is different, but related, to where you expected to get to when you first set off.

I think Robson has done a better job than I in articulating this difference:

“Maybe the difference between the two are how easily you can change your goals and that is connected with having a vision. A flexible person or plan can accept easily a change due to some fact along the way, for example, instead of going to the movies you can easily accept go to a restaurant. There was no big vision to hang on to, meaning that the goal itself was open or not very well defined. Being adaptable means that your goals are clear and that you accept minor changes along the way but the goal itself is unchanged. If the previous situation was framed as “to have fun” instead of “go to the movies”, that person would be an adaptable person, because the ultimate goal was reached, independent of which activity was performed. When people say you should be adaptable and not flexible, maybe that is what they are trying to say. Have a clear vision, have your ultimate goal clear, and go for it, even if the path you planned is not possible anymore.”

But back to the point, admittedly, it can hard to let some things go. Sometimes it is about listening to your inner voice where you balance the various voices around you on the road to making decisions. Without being a good listener, whether it is to yourself or to others,  it may be challenging to keep others connected to you – to what you’re doing and where you’re going. And at that point the question both for you and for them – are we the right people to be supporting each other moving forward?

And at the end of the day, perhaps the next question is what is holding you back from starting?


Today’s image is relatively self-explanatory.