Class: 2014 Winter Accelerator
StorytoSong Project is an experience. Our company brings the stories of life into song. We offer workshops and consulting sessions to build songs from spoken stories and experiences, celebrating people's lives through collaborative songwriting. Our products help our cutomers to reach beyond commercial music to the real stories of life. Our mission is to help communities hear the musical voices of their own people and to help each person create a song from their own life. Our products include (but are not limited to): 1. Special Event Songwriting 2. Songwriting Workshop or Demonstration 3. Gift of Song 4. Personalized Song 5. Story-to-Song Performance 6. Custom Orders
The Sandbox may be over, but my work as a startup entrepreneur is just beginning. The past three months feel like a surreal, frenetic blur. They were very real and quite invaluable. I took an abstract idea and found a way to turn it into a viable business with tangible products. I even worked with my first few customers, who helped me to shape the suite of products I offer.
What happens now?
Now, I have to continue growing my business and put into practice the knowledge I gained from the Sandbox.
I need to create my next set of goals and accomplish them.
I need to continue learning from potential customers and from the members of my Sandbox community and beyond.
One of my goals is to pitch my business at the MassInnovation Night event that will be held at the Merrimack Valley Sandbox office in Lowell on April 9th. To be able to pitch my business, I need your help. Please follow this link to learn about the event and vote for Story to Song to help me reach my goal.
This link takes you directly to where you can vote! Four of the ten companies will have the chance to share their business story and product line.
Thank you for helping me to get this far through your support and encouragement.
I will not let you down!
Fake it 'til you make it
I went to an extra Sandbox session this morning. I went into the session thinking that it was about fundraising, but the more appropriate title would be “Pitch Practice and Ego Destroyer.”
I came home with a hopeless feeling in my heart, heaviness in my chest, and a lump in my throat.
You will feel better if you make something to eat, came a voice inside.
So I started heating up some food.
I put in a load of laundry. Cleaning always helps me feel better, like I have accomplished something, however futile.
But I still felt crummy.
Criticism can be painful, especially criticism that cuts to the very heart of problems you know you possess.
I know that have low self-esteem. It doesn’t seem to matter that countless people have told me I am brilliant, beautiful, and have no idea of the lasting effect my presence has on the people I meet.
I still struggle to truly believe it.
Friends, family, and colleagues have told me that I should be more confident, but I just cannot seem to hold onto the feeling or project it on a regular basis. I have confident moments, but they are fleeting at best.
Confidence for me is like body image, which I have also struggled with for most of my life. No amount of feedback from other people can make me believe I am beautiful. I have to choose to believe it for myself and to cultivate that belief from within for me to learn to walk and talk as a person who believes they are beautiful.
I have been learning that low self-esteem is not a helpful quality to possess for an entrepreneur. This morning’s session was a clear reminder.
This would seem like a no brainer, and it does not come as a surprise to me. I mean, Duh. Why would someone give their money to someone who is not confident they are going to be able to succeed?
Now for context.
My fellow classmates and I sat around a bunch of tables that formed a square. At the front of the room sat two presenters from the Sandbox business mentor community.
Each presenter introduced themselves and shared a little of their background. These were individuals who had spent decades working with entrepreneurs and startup companies.
They were very upfront that this was not going to be an easy session and to be prepared to be ripped apart.
Immediately, there began an inward battle of voices.
“Uh oh, came a voice. You better grow some thick skin and fast.”
“Oh stop,” another voice chimed in. “You can take it. You are used to being on the fringe, and you are doing something you believe in. You will be fine.”
We each went around the table and gave a brief pitch of our business.
And then, the presenters proceeded to rip us apart.
I gave my pitch last, so my entire being was on edge. Butterflies had nothing on what I was feeling in my stomach.
I tried incorporating new information into my pitch that I hadn’t used before by sharing my background and why I was qualified. The response I had received each time I demonstrated my product. The kinds of products I was offering.
I did not share specific financial projections or even mention that I had three paying customers, though all of this was in my notes of things to touch on. Three minutes goes by fast.
And then I ended my pitch and looked at the presenters.
The beginning of the feedback was very positive.
One presenter told me that I had done a good job and that I had sold him within the first 45 seconds.
It pretty much devolved from there.
He continued, “I don’t like what you are doing. Stop making jokes. Take your business seriously. The more you talk about why your product is important and continue to go on and on and on, the less I want to buy it.”
The other presenter suggested that I create a character for my pitches. This character is confident and knows just what to say to investors.
I liked this idea.
“State that you are an artist,” she said. “You are doing your art, and your product speaks to people. You are finding a way to make your passion for storytelling through song your profession.
Take myself seriously.
Speak with confidence, even if I do not feel confident.
Include business elements that demonstrate a viable business model. Show that I am already experiencing the beginnings of financial success with people who are approaching you to pay for your product.
My business is not just a pipe dream. It is real, and I am doing it.
My fellow Sandboxers gave me hugs and tips after and offered to coach me before the final pitch so that I would be sure to include business specifics and not focus too much on the products.
They told me I was loved.
I know that I am entering a competitive, thankless, and often loveless business world.
I know what I need to work on.
And I am trying.
I just need to try harder.
To survive in this world, I need to separate critique about my presentation style from critique about me as a person (i.e, I need to get way less sensitive and fast).
Speak like you are a Fortune 500 Company, but don’t quit your day job just yet
Don’t call us, we’ll call you.
It’s not you, it’s me.
These clichés were ringing in the back of my mind during one of our recent evening classes at the Sandbox.
There were two gentlemen seated at the front of the room. They were entrerpreneurs with startup businesses in the Boston area. They each introduced themselves and described their individual paths to success.
These were the first two speakers we were meeting from outside the Sandbox community, so naturally I was intrigued.
Who were these two men?
My interest was also piqued by the fact that they were also the first two presenters to offer themselves to us without any fancy equipment or accoutrements.
I am not against PowerPoint or whiteboards or tangible objects being used during presentations. I have begun using an instrument as part of my own business pitch and product demonstration.
However, as an interpreter, I prefer the power of engaging with my audience through direction interaction. I want the audience to connect to me and listen to what I have to say. I want to hear what they have to say. The fewer distractions, the better.
So here we were, all sitting around the table at 5:30pm, most of us having worked a full day already.
Our presenters, Josh and Brendan, sat informally in two chairs before us.
They looked normal. No business suits, no bravado, no air of arrogance. It could just have easily have been one of us Sandboxers sitting up there (and maybe, someday soon it will be).
One at a time, they introduced themselves and told us about their path to creating startup companies.
Their stories were humble. Their presentation style was informal. I was in love and inspired!
Being a successful presenter is a skill. I find that my own presentation style derives from awareness of the style that I respond to best. A person who gets up and presents themselves as the topmost expert, superhuman entrepreneur is less likely to get my vote or attention and even less likely to inspire confidence in me that I can be a successful entrepreneur.
I also do not respond well to intimidation and fear tactics.
This does not mean that I need or want to be coddled or have my hand held and be told, everything will be all right. I am not that sensitive or naïve.
I just want people to be real, open, and honest. If they can be friendly and offer constructive feedback in a way that does not completely fire up my inner critic and make me want to jump off a bridge with all of the other failing startup companies, I consider that a plus.
From my years as an interpreter, I have found that the more I am able to present myself as a person just like the people in the audience I am speaking to, the better I am able to connect with my audience. This is, consequently, the way I feel a connection when I am a member of an audience listening to a speaker.
I found this session helpful and inspiring in part because our presenters were very real and open.
The following represents some of the wisdom they shared:
- People buy my products because it imbues them with a sense of self-worth.
- You cannot be friends with everyone in the business world.
- We are inconsequential. There are big companies out there.
- It is very helpful to have a business partner.
- It is important to split things 50/50 with your partner.
- Don’t expect to make an income as a startup for a long time.
- Expect long days and to be very tired.
- Create healthy boundaries (healthy for you) with regard to checking emails, returning calls, etc.
- In the beginning, you might bend over backwards, but as soon as possible, try to hire someone or divide tasks with your partner
- A startup company owner wears a lot of hats.
- Don’t give away that you are the founder or co-founder if you think people might take advantage of you.
- Everyone will try to take advantage of you.
- Seek out the advice of people whose opinions you trust and who have a variety of backgrounds.
- Make an effort to talk to other startup companies, similar in size, etc. to ask questions.
- It is important not to take yourself too seriously, but pretend from the get go that you are a Fortune 500. Conduct yourself as a professional because people will respond to whatever you tell them you are.
- And recognize that you are always learning.
- Co-working space is a great idea!
- It helps to have people to talk to, flesh out ideas, help each other share knowledge.
- It helps to have a strong support network during the first few years.
There was a brief moment when they started to talk about SEOs and SEMs and I heard a voice starting to scream in my head (this realm of business is way out of my knowledge zone).
The presentation became instantly more interesting for me when I asked a question that drew everyone from the class into an engaging dialogue.
The question: Should I quit my day job? And if so, when?
As you might imagine, this was a topic of great interest for the presenters and my fellow classmates. Many perspectives were shared, warnings, and words of hope. No final decisions were made for anyone in the room who was reflecting on that very issue.
It was clear that there were similar tactics that people had taken for trying to figure out if and when to make that leap of faith, for leap of faith it would be regardless of all the calculating and considerations.
One presenter said that he had done many calculations with the idea, “If I sell this much, then I can quit my job.”
But what if the product wound up falling flat after initial success?
What if x happened?
And what if y?
There were many risks involved, especially when friends and family were included in the number of people who would be affected by these choices.
One message rang loud and clear. Do not quit your day job until you are ready, really ready. And ready for one person might be something entirely different for another. Being ready is something we must each figure out on own.
I appreciated their honesty and admittance that they don’t have all the answers. Yes, they have made the calculations and projections for possible financial futures, but they are still fearful of risks. They have people who depend on them—business partners, employees, family.
I have my cats and my self to feed, which is not quite commensurate to having a newborn child but is all I have to compare to. It is my world and my family.
As usual after a Sandbox session, I left feeling inspired, humbled, and full of ideas.
E is for Entrepreneurship, not for Easy
Life does not stop when you become an entrepreneur, and I nearly let life keep me from getting to the Sandbox session this past Thursday night.
Class was in Lawrence, and I was having a not so great day. I was moody. I had been sick on and off for the past month and hadn’t slept the night before because I couldn’t breathe through my nose. I had been having trouble breathing for most of the day.
The faucet in my bathtub wouldn’t turn off and was pouring a not so gentle stream of scalding hot water down the drain, and the natural resource, extreme conservationist in me had been literally screaming with hour and gallon of water wasted.
Our class was taking place in a Lawrence mill, and our instructor had advised us to leave early. I left early and promptly gouged my finger on the iron gate when I tried to yank it open and discovered it was stuck in partially frozen snowmelt.
I got into my car, programmed my GPS, and received the message, “acquiring satellites.” I could wait for my GPS to function as it was meant to function, which I knew from experience might never happen. I did not want to guess at which back roads to take and risk getting completely lost and succumbing to complete and total potential panic.
Instead, I pursued the path I knew would eventually lead to Lawrence and spent the next 40 minutes in the parking lot formerly known at I-495 North. It took 15 minutes just to get from the Lowell connector exit along the on-ramp before even getting onto the highway.
I called my sweetie, hoping to hear a familiar, comforting voice in the phone to remind me that life was worth living.
I was surrounded by cars. Head lights and break lights lit up the early night.
I hated life.
I hated Lowell.
I hated Massachusetts.
I would never be able to get my business going. I was doomed to sit in this car on the 495 on ramp forever!
I was nowhere near Lawrence, and the clock was ticking.
I expected the tears to start at any second.
But they didn’t.
I kept breathing, slowly, and not through my nose.
I tried telling myself that Lowell was not to blame.
My phone rang. It was a friend.
Just hearing her voice on the other end of the phone, I could feel my muscles relaxing.
The cars around me were not filled with human monsters, all hell bent on keeping me from getting to my destination.
“Am I the worst person in the world? Am I just awful to be around?” I asked her.
“No, of course not,” she assured me. I wasn’t convinced. I was a monster. And I was frenetic and crazy. Massachusetts made me CRAZY! I had to get out of this state…NOW!
“I could tell you were cranky today,” came the reassuring, calming voice.
“Did I project my crankiness onto you? “I was horrified at the thought. Did I have no self control? I really was a monster.
“No, not at all. I just wanted to give you your space.”
“Because I do that to my sweetie sometimes. I don’t mean to, but I do.” my squirrel-like chatter continued. Words just kept coming, quickly. Damn this state for making me move so fast all of the time.
“We all do,” she said. How amazing she was and so understanding.
I still wasn’t convinced that she really did not think I was crazy, but I was also exhausted from my rage against the world.
Entrepreneurship is not easy, especially when there is life, health, and love in the mix.
Passion for my product line is a great place to start, but it will not cover the cost of running a business or allow me to leave my day job any time in the near future.
Patience is the secret, as well as dedication, determination, and hard work.
When I finally made it to the Lawrence Mill for guest presenter and Sandbox superstar Brenna of 99DegreesCustom, I began to relax.
And I was so thankful that I stayed the course.
Each class in the Sandbox is invaluable.
From Brenna, we heard real, raw, and gritty details of starting a business.
Some of her words echoed other presenters.
“In the beginning, prepare to be exhausted. It is money or time, and you have to choose time in order to start making money.”
Check. If I had thought I might start getting sleep after the sandbox accelerator program, I had better prepare for a longer haul of sleep deprivation.
Listening to Brenna, I felt simultaneously inspired and hopeless.
What I loved about Brenna was her complete and total honesty, at times brutal honesty. She was dynamic and real. Every word that came from her was full of passion, emotion, and wisdom, and we ate it up.
“Talk to as many people as you can because you never know when one connection will be that one connection you need to get your business going,” she told us.
She spoke of figuring out the social value for your business because it will be important to communicate this value in every conversation we engage in, formal and informal.
“Your values will become the touchstone that you use to make business decisions. They will guide your conversations with customers, investors, etc. It is important to figure out your values early on, so they can guide how you grow as a business. You can be the kind of entrepreneur that you want to be. Build your values into every decision you make so that every step of the way, you build a culture around a core set of values.”
Guest speaker Raj from the Desphande Foundation, which oversees the Sandbox, joined in the dialogue, offering invaluable, sage advice.
“The first step of entrepreneurship is to know yourself. What are your inner values that drive you? Once you know that, and you can put it down, it will shape your future and the direction you take.”
My favorite take home message of the night came from Raj, who told us:
“Lots of people will tell you that entrepreneurs are lucky, but I will tell you that entrepreneurs make their own luck.”
At the end of the night, David chimed in with words that brought it all back to the tangible:
“Each of your businesses has a social impact, and that can really resonate with people. Keep practicing and honing your pitch so you get to the heart of the social impact of your business.”
I left inspired once more. There is always that voice in the back of my time, telling me that I might fail, but the voice is generally subdued after a session at the Sandbox.
Each day is a new day, and I am an entrepreneur. I make my own luck. And I will succeed!
I spent the better part of the day and week before reflecting and revising my pitch outline. A challenge with selling songwriting products is finding ways to describe something that can be rather abstract and difficult to explain in words alone.
Setup from 4-5pm, Entrepreneur Meetup from 5-6:30pm, Pitches from 6:30-8pm.
A long day of butterflies for many of us in the class!
We each had 3 minutes to present our selves and our businesses to the audience.
Business mentors from the Sandbox community, including our own committee members who have been guiding us through the program with resources and ideas to help us accelerate our companies, friends, family, and folk from around the Merrimack Valley who came by to listen, learn, and share their own wisdom.
My state of being?
Nervous! I have experience speaking in front of an audience and engaging with people one-on-one, but there is more riding on each pitch and conversation when the audience is made up of business experts and each person I talk with could be a potential customer or customer referral.
I need and want to sound like I know what I am talking about and have done my homework. And the odds are against me, as my family CPA has reminded me. The majority of startup companies fail.
Prepping for the presentation, I wrote down many different business elements to include. Introduce myself. Introduce my company. Explain the method of songwriting I use to write music. Offer a brief product demonstration. Talk about customer segments and possible products, testing price offerings and piloting new products. Then The Ask at the end to request guidance and/or assistance from the audience.
All in three minutes or less!
From 4-5pm, I set up my table. I made a slide on my computer with an image of my ukulele and the words “Give the Gift of Music” and “Story-to-Song LLC.” I had been agonizing over how to represent my business with a single photograph. I did not want to use a photography of myself and appear narcissistic. But I also did not want to put a photograph of me working on a song with another person without their approval.
I draped cloth from my world travels on the table and tried arranging the many printouts I had brought, business cards, and CDs in a way that was visually pleasing. I learned that it is time to create a brochure where I can capture everything in one place!
Meetup time from 5-6pm. I was glad I set my ukulele on the table because it became a point of conversation, something tangible to talk about with people who stopped to chat. In between talking with folks, I jotted down notes on my pitch outline. Speaking with people about my products and the songwriting method was helping me learn simpler and clearer ways of talking about everything.
Our fearless instructor sat with the timer and called out the presenter and presenter-on-deck. My stomach lurched with each announcement.
I watched and listened, sent my heart to everyone and virtual hugs to those who seemed especially nervous.
And then, it was my turn.
I picked up my ukulele, lifted the strap over my shoulder, and stood in front of a group of people, some strangers, some friends. I felt in my heart that they all wanted me to succeed.
I took a risk and decided to play a slightly longer song than at the previous two pitches. I wanted to share a song that was from a real person’s story rather than a song about a place. It was my hope that it might speak the to audience.
Everyone applauded after the song, and I tried my best to dive back into the presentation, but I was gonged long before I got to pricing models and The Ask.
There was time allotted for two questions from the audience. One person raised their hand and said that I should keep the song as part of my pitch. Others echoed this sentiment later in the evening.
Much of the evening was a blur. I jotted down notes and ideas from people in the room, gave away and added business cards to my growing collection.
I was so elated from singing and being up in front of people, talking about something I love doing with all of my being that I could hardly feel disappointed. This does not mean that I was filled with confidence. My hands were literally shaking!
But I did my best at that moment in time. Next time will be different. It may be better. It may be worse. But I will learn from the experience, of this I am certain.
Words of support and encouragement following the pitches were welcome. I have a very strong inner critic, but I am learning to accept ego boosters where and whenever I can. Constructive feedback is especially helpful. What about my pitch was great? Should I do the same thing again or something different? I was especially thankful for the suggestions of how to improve and what to include next time.
I do not have a business background. Much of what I am learning in the Accelerator program is new and often out of my comfort zone. I am not comfortable making small talk. I do not like calling strangers on the phone. But if I think of all of these things has opportunities to talk about something I love, it helps me jump in and do it.
I love songwriting and music, but do not possess perfect pitch. I can repeat notes exactly as I hear them, but I have to practice and work at finding them on a musical instrument so I can put a name to the note.
My business idea may be different from my fellow Sandboxers, but there was definitely a sentiment of solidarity among us before, during, and after. Hugs were exchanged, knuckle bumps, words of love and support, and emails for the next many hours of the night and into the next day.
I have said it before, and I will say it again. Community is a wonderful way to boost your spirits and to help you keep going through the good, the bad, and the butterflies.
Thank you, Merrimack Valley Sandbox, fellow Sandboxers, mentors, and everyone in between, for your love and support as I find a way to make my passion my profession.