I'm a Web Developer and Entrepreneur out of Washington DC.

Zvi Band

Founder of Contactually.
I'm also passionate about growing the DC startup community, and I've founded Proudly Made in DC and the DC Tech Meetup.

Kick off, then f*** off – Servant Leadership in a startup

11/30/2013

As our company grows from three guys on a door desk to something more substantial, we’ve invested a lot of time not just to running the company but about **how** we run the company. That is particularly relevant for the CEO role. In talking to many CEOs and a fair amount of research – it’s clear there is no “right” way to run a company – it all comes down to the culture of the company, the personality of the leader, and the type/stage of business.  I personally know & have read on CEOs who are 100% top-down, who run a military-style org structure. I know CEOs who micromanage to get things exactly as they want. I know CEOs of successful companies who have said they’ve never had so little to do.

It didn’t happen overnight, nor was it forcefully implemented, but the personal method of leadership that I’ve adopted is servant leadership. Bring on the right talent, ensure we’re going in the right direction and there are clear communication channels between everyone, then do whatever I can to help them.

My friend Peter Corbett has a slightly different term – kick off then f*** off. Point them to the goalposts, then stay out of their way.

The people we’ve brought on are the top of their game (or will be as they grow). As one of three founders, we still need to serve in an inspirational role, but day-to-day CEO, my role is to help them execute as best as possible. Quite literally – our 1-1s consist of two main questions – How’s everything? and How can I help you? These two questions uncover not only their priorities, but what else they need that are external to their abilities or time allotment. Critics may think that this can be abused to the point where you’re doing their job – the passing off of work would be the sign of a bad hire rather than abuse.

In a SaaS world were the customer needs to come first, this attitude of serving not only your users, but your team as well, seems to work. So far.

The 12 tools I can’t live without

11/28/2013

Beyond the commonplace tools (Google Spreadsheets, Dropbox, Evernote, Google Apps, etc) and the obvious (Contactually!) – I’ve listed out some tools that I use daily, if not multiple times daily, to assist me.

  • Trello – We use Trello to organize anything we’re working on – from product feedback to ideas to my personal to-do list.
  • Join.me – This is our go-to conference + screensharing application. It’s so incredibly simple to share your screen, get someone to join the conference, and pass control around, it’s a great example of power through simplicity.
  • LetterFeed – Every day, you’ll get a digest of what changed in the Google Spreadsheets you have access to. It gives me some great insights that I may not otherwise know. You have to see for yourself.
  • Mention – Mention goes deep and delivers mentions of Contactually that I wouldn’t have found otherwise via Google Alerts or Twitter.
  • Intercom – Intercom is a great tool for your application in general, but what I specifically use and love it for is the morning email, which gives me some idea of who signed up yesterday.
  • CloudApp – This tool has become so interwoven into our team that the rare time it’s down, you can hear groans and curses in our office. Not only can you easily capture a screenshot and get a shareable link (for dropping in a bug ticket, email, chat), but you can very easily share a file just by dropping a file onto the icon in the toolbar. More recently I’ve been using Skitch for screenshots too, as it adds the ability to annotate screenshots.
  • Omnigraffle – As product leader, I <3 Omnigraffle. <3 it.
  • Alfred – If you have a Mac, use this to replace spotlight. Cmd + Spacebar and you can do anything you want. I primarily use it for finding files, opening applications, and performing some quick math.
  • Buffer – I use buffer personally and love it.
  • Signals – Who opened my email?
  • Boomerang – Primarily for it’s Send Later functionality, I also use it when I want to ensure I get a response on something.
  • Currently – Currently provides a more attractive + useful blank tab experience for Chrome.
hindsight

If I could go back in time, I’d kick my own ass

11/27/2013

There’s a scene in How I Met Your Mother where Marshall imagines dropping in right at the point where his teenage self starts smoking, and slugs him.

I’ve adopted a mentality that, if at any point I’m able to traverse time a year, even six months, back….

I’d kick my own ass.

It has nothing to do with age or maturity – but the cycle of learning is so rapid that I’m able to recall a not-so-distant set of things I was focusing on, what I was worried about back then, what I had no clue about. Ugh, that guy.

Screen Shot 2013-11-24 at 6.55.32 AM

Celebrate the wins

11/25/2013

The typical startup journey involves a lot of failure, which has luckily been embraced by the entrepreneurial community as a positive experience. Beyond the obvious aspect of innovating in a way that, statistically, won’t work, the act of barn-raising a new company is fraught with it’s own issues.

The product has bugs.
Support times are too slow.
Our metrics aren’t adding up.
That candidate said no.
We didn’t hit our goal.
Personality clashes.
Differences of opinions.
Paying DC taxes (which sucks).

And that’s maybe 1% of the problems we have dealt with or still continue to deal with to this day.

And while it’s great that the failure that accompanies experimentation is accepted in our industry (we added it as part of our values too), what’s not discussed is it wears on the team. Day in, day out, month over month – being aware and constantly discussing what’s not working can kill you.

So celebrate the wins.

Here’s what we’ve developed to aid us:

Instant Reporting: Whenever a customer upgrades, we post a message to our team-wide Hipchat, with a funny message, their name, and the Customer Guru who worked with them. Early on, anyone around would have a mini-celebration, which funny gifs, emoticons, etc. As we’ve grown in volume and it’s no longer a 1-5X daily occurrence, that has tapered off, but it still provides that little bit of dopamine which can make such a difference.

Metrics: Metrics tell you what needs improvement, but it can also report the success of past efforts. When reviewing metrics with your team, try and connect that with the actual initiative, large or small, and the team members responsible for that (doing this is useful for many other reasons as well, of course).

Positive Feedback: Whenever we get any snippet that commends our product – a blog post, a tweet, a customer email – that’s instantly forwarded on to the team. We also collect it in an “Awesome Board” on Trello, so we can review regularly. The dev team is usually awash in what’s wrong or needs improvement, so it’s important to hear that, overall, our platform is making a huge difference in thousands of lives.

Great Customer Experience: Beyond enjoying the product, if any of our external receptors catches a positive note regarding a customer service experience, webinar, or guru call, we forward it on to the whole team, ensuring we commend the person responsible.

Awards: We have a number of awards that rotate among our company week over week. Come up with ones that reflect your own company culture – we’re not telling you ours :-)

Show and Tell: Our product and marketing teams, every two weeks, shows off to the rest of the company what’s changed, recent initiatives, even little tweaks. We’re still a small (16) tight-knit team, but having a time dedicated to the hard work these men and women have invested pays off.

There are a number of other large or small dopamine delivery tools we implement, but these are the major ones which could be implemented in your venture as well.

We do.

11/24/2013

Most people won’t. Which means those that do change everything.
Bryce Roberts

I credit much of Contactually’s success not to having some secret sauce (at the outset), being right, hiring the smartest people in the room, or anything else that would qualify as a competitive advantage. That’s important for other reasons.
We’re successful because we show up every day, and do.
No matter what challenges lay in our path, or failures we have to swallow, we move forward.

Thank You, LivingSocial

11/19/2013

After a meteoric rise, LivingSocial has had a tough go recently. Between layoffs, lowered valuations, competitor out-maneuvering, and one of the longest downtimes I’ve ever seen in a consumer site, it’s pretty hard to imagine them fully recovering from this to the grandeur that they used to be. For better or for worse, online forums have been watching, and in some cases even cheering, it’s demise. I’m sure seeing that the support of your local community that once championed you has reversed polarity can only worsen the decrease in morale they’ve been experiencing in the past few months.

I want to thank LivingSocial.

  • They showed it was possible to build a wildly successful startup in DC. Not DC meaning Virginia. Downtown DC. If you’ve had a chance to visit their office, you’ll be amazed this is a few blocks from the White House, not the Golden Gate Bridge.
  • They built a team of some of the sharpest product talent in the world – and then grew their own via Hungry Academy.
  • They inspired the local community – everyone knew someone who works or worked at LivingSocial, and loved it.
  • Groups like the DC Tech Meetup, ProudlyMadeInDC, and Foster.ly, while not directly created because of LS, were able to ride the rocketship of enthusiasm over LivingSocial’s early success, and help serve as continuing beacons of entrepreneurial activity in the region.
  • The talent created and incubated in LivingSocial’s many offices have and will feed other startups in the area, kickstarting the flywheel of talent that a startup ecosystem so badly needs.

So, LivingSocial, thank you.

And if anyone at LivingSocial (esp. dev/UX/design/sales) is looking for their next opportunity, Contactually would be happy to have you. Email me.

2013-10-20 07.35.56

Why Structo Failed

10/20/2013

In 2010, I started working on a startup called Struc.to. It’s dead now, not even worth the hosting costs or domain registration. All that’s physically left is ~300 stickers I never distributed, a standing banner I haven’t gotten around to throwing out, and a dog bowl my wife had made for me (or Astro) as a gift.

Struc.to had the chance to be one of the first BaaS (backend-as-a-service) platforms – a cloud RESTful backend for your web and mobile app. You wouldn’t need to worry about managing or scaling a database, dealing with schema, form validation, APIs etc. We would handle it all for you, even giving you embeddable forms you could inject in your web app.

s1_920I was pretty lean starting it up. I hired a designer to put together a landing page, and ended up building a really great brand + style to go along with it. I first unveiled it at Digital Capital Week, got a couple video interviews, blog posts, and other coverage. My friends and local tech supporters rallied behind the idea. I received enough validation that it was worth building, so I started building out the full platform.

What happened?

Poor Validation – A signup on your landing page is completely different than someone creating an account, reading your API docs, setting up an app, and coding something real. I had lots of people who supported me and liked the idea, but in hindsight, it was largely surface level. I failed to really dig in to my customer development interviews and get 100% clarity that this is something that people would use/need.

MVP Complexity – As I started building out the app, it hit me – this is going to be really hard. There is a whole lot that needed to be built out before the first person can reliably build on it. Even when I dogfooded my own service, I found myself running into major missing pieces.

Distraction – It was always a side project, as I was overbooked doing client work, which was far more lucrative than the margins Struc.to could have ever afforded. I betrayed a key rule.

The number one thing not to do is other things. If you find yourself saying a sentence that ends with “but we’re going to keep working on the startup,” you are in big trouble.
Paul Graham

Struc.to never really died, as it was never really alive, just a side project, competing against paying client work, and losing all the time. I just went from spending 90% of my time on consulting work to 100% of my time on consulting work. But when people would ask me how Struc.to was going, with genuine care and interest, I would lie, and say “it’s going great. we’re launching soon.” I hadn’t worked on the codebase in months.

Focus.

It was a lesson I was not willing to repeat again. When we started seeing Contactually had legs, I tried to figure out how we could dedicate more time to Contactually. 500 Startups, more than anything else, was an opportunity to burn the boats. The day we signed with 500 Startups, I started winding down my consulting gigs. There went any distractions. Contactually just celebrated it’s two year birthday, with 16 employees.

Selling my Turntables

05/24/2013

IMG_0010
I wanted to be a DJ.

In college, I had put together a little bit of money from internships to buy a basic CD setup. I was terrible. I sold my equipment.

When freelancing, I was making enough money to buy a proper rig – Technics SL1200MK2s, Rane mixer, Scratch Live, coffin case, etc. I took months of classes. All I needed to do, in my mind, was put in my 10,000 hours and I’d get to some comfort level.

But then I started Contactually. I put all my professional energy into that. I strained relationships with my family, weakened or lost friendships, gained weight, and let my household (finances, investments, etc) collect dust. I can count on one hand the number of times I powered on the mixer in the first year of starting Contactually.

I believe strongly in focusing on three things. I sold my turntables.

There are many opportunity costs in being an early stage entrepreneur. While I am better at splitting my time between professional and personal activities, trying to be a DJ will be my opportunity cost.

Giving Back

05/23/2013

When comparing friends’ respective industries, one point of pride for the early stage tech community is the strong focus on giving back and helping those one, two, three billion rungs below you up the venture ladder. I would not be where I am today without the advisors and mentors I’ve connected with – whether I’m on the phone with them every day, or simply exchanged a quick email with. Steve Blank points it out here.

While not a seasoned entrepreneur with multiple exits under my belt, I’ve been advising and mentoring others through a number of venues (including Acceleprise and 1776). As someone who has usually gone through whatever a mentee is dealing with in prior years, months, or even days, I can lend some insight. Usually, it’s “here’s how I screwed it up, this is what I would do again” flavored advice.

Where I can add the most value:

  • Product design and specifications
  • Metrics
  • Technical issues
  • How to recruit and support sales/marketing talent.
  • How to screw up, or not, as a CEO.
  • How to start growing a positive company culture.

What I don’t advise on:
Funding. While funding is often a key part of the status quo for startups, it’s not what I choose to focus on when mentoring and advising startups, nor should “introductions to investors” be a key outcome of our relationship. While I’ve raised multiple rounds of funding from angels, incubators, and institutional VCs, I have two strong beliefs here. A) There are countless others who are more experienced and can therefore provide valuable advice and guidance. B) There are so many more important things than fundraising. Fundraising is a distraction, so let’s focus on something else.

DC-based or not – let’s chat: zvi@contactually.com

Approaches to Competition

05/21/2013

As is common knowledge, competition is an inevitability. There are people with similar ideas as you. There are solutions your desired userbase is already using for the problem at hand. As you grow and start making waves, you’ll be attacked from above, below, and sideways.

When first learning about a competitor, I used to think it was game over, and give up.

I'm walking away...

I wasted incalculable years of my life fearing competition, letting it keep me up at night, question my startups’ mortality, and demotivating me, often to the point of giving up and walking away.

Done with that. Now, it’s a mix of emotions.

Usually, it’s two ships passing in the night – take a quick look, and carry on your way.
Passing in the night
It’s part “Hey man, this world is big enough for the both of us, we can coexist”
Getting Groovy On Little Beach

It’s a little bit of “We’re going to destroy you. We’re going to win.”
POWER

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