Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Making Decisions

Lately I've started thinking about how I make decisions and how frequently I take too much feedback into account in making my decisions. We are programmed from a young age to believe that all decisions need to be thought through meticulously and democratically (especially women) and that we need to gather as much feedback as humanly possible to find the middle ground between all possible positions and make everybody happy. When I was a kid, I thought the way our government worked was mythical and magical. Everyone who voted had a say in our policies and offering up solutions to key decision-makers in order to change our country and the world. Nothing could be farther from the truth. In fact, many of our seemingly independent choices have been intentionally socially engineered and dictated from a top down approach.  Read Nudge for a deeper dive into libertarian paternalism:

In my particular case, it could be the perfectionist in me who seeks to optimize and believes 110% effort needs to be placed into everything- including decisions. The longer it takes for me to accumulate enough information and the more stakeholders I make happy, the more I feel I have a better shot at having made a good decision because of the sheer amount of effort and methodology I've placed into it and the number of people I'm still on good terms with. While applied effort and tireless optimization leads to good results in most cases, I don't think it really works in the case of making good decisions and being effective at co-founding a start-up. Here are my reasons:

1. In a start-up, you must act quickly. More moving and less analyzing is required to keep your team motivated, see measurable progress, and make mistakes quickly enough to discover new solutions. It's trite, but perfectionism and analysis paralysis really does kill.

2. Bike-shedding is more likely to occur when all of your decisions are a democratic process intended to please everyone. This is because everybody wants to feel special, appreciated, and like they've left their "mark"- hence the tendency to argue and stay mired in minor issues that are easier to be "experts" on, like the color of the bike shed, instead of examining pragmatic issues that really matter, like how to construct it.

3. Being right is different from being nice. Or maybe being truly nice is actually being willing to hurt people's feelings to be right. If you truly care about the well-being of your start-up and the well-being of your team, who have invested their precious time with the hope of success, it is selfish to protect your feelings by catering your decisions to others when you know they might be wrong. Concession and peace-making leads to diplomacy, not results. You don't want to people please in order to have a watered down product that you are embarrassed about.

4. Some of my best choices have been random decisions, the result of random occurrence or accident or made in the heat of the moment because of deadlines and pressures that forced me to act quickly and behave instinctively. Serendipity tends to occur when you veer off the plan, time pressure forces you to throw out extraneous information, and centuries of evolution have hard-wired us to know more than we think we know. Gut instinct is often key to making good decisions.

A fascinating psychological study called the Asch experiment revealed that people will conform to the opinion of a group regarding something as obviously wrong as the length of a line in order to remain liked:

And I wouldn't be surprised if this happens a lot in start-ups. It's very important not to drink your own Kool-aid and get lost in democracy when it comes to making decisions.

Even if the start-up has the appearance of a democracy, there is usually that one dominant person who makes everybody believe it is a democracy by carefully crafting choice architecture to speed things along.

Friday, January 20, 2012

What Stylematic is Learning from Hollywood and Tech

Hollywood and Tech? "No regrets!"

Prepping for in the field shoot with the Gastineau Girls

With Deanna Lund from "Land of the Giants"

Having lunch with fellow boot campers- including Miss Jamaica World (Chantal Raymond) and Miss Southeast Georgia (April Brooks)

Last weekend, I attended a Hosting Bootcamp in Los Angeles that kicked me into gear. I had originally signed up for the Lean Startup Machine weekend with Eric Ries, but due to room constraints, the venue was not able to accomodate my team and I decided to jet down to LA instead.

The experience proved to be extremely valuable- and I learned a lot of information that is helping the Stylematic team to deliver wonderful presentations and establish our brand. Incidentally, Stylematic had a slew of presentations due this week. We were invited to speak on a panel at Fashion and Tech SF: as well as do a demo rehearsal pitch at Startup Monthly.

The following is what I've learned:

1. It is very important to brand yourself. You formulate your brand by looking at the things you are most passionate about, your personality, and how other people see you. My brand was "No regrets" because of the story I told about  handing Katie Couric my first journalism resume on the street when I was seeking a job after my graduate program. Stylematic is in the process of figuring out its brand and we are asking users, friends, and ourselves about what we stand for and what our cultural ethos is.

                         Head of User Experience, Sunny Lee, and CEO, Karen Song with
                         Laurie Wright, FIDM at the Fashion and TechSF Panel 1/19/12

2. The audience is always more important than you are. As long as you are aware of the audience, your copy is better, you can inflect the copy with more of your personality, and ultimately host a better show. Confidence can't come from technical proficiency of the script you are given. On the contrary, confidence comes from knowing you are entertaining and satisfying your audience (even with your mistakes) Once you read as if you are talking to the audience, all nervousness fades away. Like an entertainer, the CEO must always consider the user experience. The User is more important than you- your strength and power comes from knowing that you are satisfying your users (not just building a technically proficient product).

                        Stylematic was invited to give a special presentation and speak on a panel about
                       applying mobile strategies to fashion businesses for Fashion and Tech SF 1/19/12

3. Your opinion equals your personality. Opinions are like ass holes (everyone has one- a place for your food to come out). There's no shame in having an opinion because everyone has one, and your opinions are your personality. Thus, a host that is "too nice" and doesn't have an opinion does not have personality, and wouldn't be fun to watch. Since Stylematic is a group of girls, it's taken us a while to arrive at this conclusion. Some of us are inclined to be afraid of expressing our opinions and tend to "agree" in order to be polite. However, I'm beginning to realize a start-up is not a democracy- it is a place where decisions should be made in the best interest of the group. In the midst of intensive product and pitch discussions we've learned to articulate our own opinions more and distill the best perspectives in order to create a better and better product. Some start-ups may not realize that the creative process needs to be arduous and painful at times for true progress and productivity. Stylematic and its personality was borne out of an interesting collection of creativity and tension. Ultimately, you need push back from group members, arguments, and differences of opinion to infuse personality into your product and create something truly unique.

                                   Stylematic CEO, Karen Song with CEO of RTist, Jenn Allen,
                                  and Stylists from Mannequin SF at the Fashion Institute of Design
                                  and Merchandising

4. Be funny. Talk candidly. Give stronger inflections to headlines and put in transitions in your voice. These small things make a big difference to your audience in telling that compelling story.

The Stylematic team definitely put some of 1, 2, and 4 into our presentations at Startup Monthly practice demo. Many people in the audience came up to us and said we delivered an engaging presentation that told a great, memorable story. The lessons learned from hosting bootcamp don't just apply at a personal level, but apply at a broader level to the whole Stylematic Team and speaks to the importance of always putting the customer, "our audience", first, not only when it comes to pitching, but when we are developing the actual product. Looks like Stylematic is progressing and I am so proud of the work we've done.

Stylematic will be pitching this upcoming Sunday (Jan 22, 3-11pm) for Startup Monthly at 474 Bryant St., San Francisco, CA 94107. Come check us out!

Monday, November 21, 2011

Women 2.0 Startup Weekend

Hi all,
My name is Karen Song and I am a female entrepreneur living in Silicon Valley. This past weekend was my first Women 2.0 Startup Weekend experience-- and it was so powerful that I am starting a blog just to talk about it.

Let me start off by saying- I don't relate to women very well. I attribute this to several possibilities. This may sound strange-- but I can actually go for days without seeing another female because I work with males and then come home to my boyfriend. I am also strangely intimidated by women and the feminine expectations imposed upon women. I'm not particularly verbose or well-spoken, smiling in a pleasant manner and validating other people's opinions hurts my face after a while, and attempting to speak in a high-pitched, friendly manner feels incredibly unnatural. I find that without these social niceties, I come across as gruff and offensive to the average female and therefore I am horribly shy about all-female events.

So imagine my despair when I walked into the hatchery to a crowded, noisy roomful of lots and lots of women (this is an absolute rarity in Silicon Valley). Pitches were about to start, so I thought of an idea for a fashion start-up and got in line. Alas, no one wanted to join me in my venture but I ended up merging together with a crew of other girls who were also interested in starting fashion start-ups. Again, I was shy- these girls were bubbly, out-spoken, articulate and polished--so I let other group members take control of the discussion.

In addition to gender expectations and where I fit on the spectrum, I've also thought a lot about my silence. I attribute my silence to several possibilities.

A) Natural predilection and genetics: my grandfather was notoriously quiet and would sit through the majority of our family gatherings without uttering a single word. Sometimes I would even forget that he was there.

B) My aversion to small-talk. I actually like talking about things that matter to people and contrary to what most people think, I actually enjoy conversation if it is meaningful and relevant (then I never shut up). Unfortunately, most discussions never reach that point and "breaking the ice" or "shooting the shit" is what most large groups of people are most interested in doing.

C) The most disturbing reason of all: Self-doubts about my intelligence and aptitude.

In addition to the strange gender ratio, I believe this last reason I cited is something that many women in Silicon Valley experience. It takes practice for a woman to assert her voice and command authority without feeling uncomfortable, guilty, unsure, etc. etc. because to some degree it has been entrained in us by society. I actually attended a talk that Sheryl Sandberg gave about this very subject- she literally gave "voice" recommendations where she implored us to stop ending declarative sentences with a question mark (e.g. "I think we should deliver this power point next week?") and inflecting our voices with apologetic insecurity in order to feign niceness.

Personality wise, it takes a lot for me to throw my thoughts "out there." My thoughts are valuable to me- not to be trampled upon by others. And unfortunately, the culture in Silicon Valley makes me want to hold onto my thoughts all the more tightly to myself. They say that sexism in Silicon Valley isn't blatant but it is there-- on multiple occasions, I have doubted my intelligence and aptitude because of an unpleasant interaction with a condescending male where my voice was literally bull-dozed over with a constellation of overwhelming facts and rationalizations. Sadly, I never experienced this before coming to Silicon Valley. There were always various reasons for my silence, but this wasn't one of them. I was always smart, confident in my quiet, industrious nature, and bold when it came to advocating for things that really mattered to me. But here, I find myself uncharacteristically quiet. Quiet not because of my personality, but quiet because I'm afraid.

And so it was with trepidation that I inched my way into this group of girls and began exercising my voice. Like a squeaky wheel that hasn't been oiled in a while, my voice sounded awkward to me at first. It felt unnatural to just say things and express an opinion to nine people without wanting to take it back. But over the course of those 72 hours, I found my voice becoming stronger and stronger. Stronger because there was a place to exercise it, and stronger because people were listening. There are communicative differences between the way women and men relate to each other and being amongst a group of women was surprisingly refreshing. These women were collaborative and cooperative. I didn't feel like I necessarily had to be "right." Mu passion for the project overcame any shyness and I began to make suggestions. The group even looked to me for advice and leadership on aspects of the project (given my previous experience at another start-up weekend event). And in the end, I was so proud of the work we had done and the concepts we had built together as a group.

We didn't win, but it was a treat just to see the amazing work that other teams were able to accomplish in such a short period of time. Women from all backgrounds- high schools drop outs, non-technical women, technical women, self-labeled Ivy League "douchebags"-- put their heads together to deliver amazing presentations and creations. Mobile apps that help women to feel safer walking home late at night and record people's life stories and interactive language learning programs are just a few of the cool ideas that people presented. The take home lesson that I learned from all of this speaks to the ethos of this area and the Gold Rush-- it doesn't matter where you come from, who you are, what you do, or what your resume says-- the beauty of Silicon Valley is that you can be anybody and still build something amazing.

Women 2.0, Startup Weekend, and this group of girls restored something incredibly valuable to me- my confidence. Confidence in my abilities, confidence in my femininity, and confidence in my ability to build positive relationships with other women.
Can't wait for the next event!

Karen was part of the Stylematic team, a group working on developing a mobile app that delivers personalized style recommendations for what shoppers should buy based on what's already in their closet as well as their personal style. We  merged together into a group since we all wanted to pursue fashion start-up ideas. The Stylematic refined its idea after doing a creative ideation exercise where we grouped  colored post it notes with user stories and problems by category.