MY VC MIXER EXPERIENCE
Previously, on wlpll, I shared my expectations, hopes, and fears of a venture capital mixer I’d been invited to on LinkedIn. Today, I’d like to explain why attending this event showed me I’ve been delusional about blogging for almost six years.
Before I go any further with this piece, here’s big lesson I learned that night at the VC mixer:
A blog is not a business. A business has something for sale.
Now, let me tell you about the VC mixer. This was Tallwave’s first open house in Phoenix. We’ll get into what Tallwave does in a minute, for now, let’s just say they’re involved in far more than venture capital. I arrived about 10 minutes into the opening meet & greet session. There were about 20 or so people already mingling near a break room, next to a wall featuring a giant, Margaret Meade quote:
Never underestimate the power of a few committed people to change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.
(Preach it, sister.)
Jerrod, who invited me, recognized me pretty quickly (at 11 months’ growth, my beard’s reputation precedes itself) and directed me to the finger food and drinks.
A rather hospitable chap (whom I think was a fellow attendee like myself) was volunteering as bartender and opened a Four Peaks Kiltlifter for me. We then discussed cars briefly; the art of meticulous restoration and assembly, and the time his friend in Telluride showed him the rundown house next door he’d converted into a garage for his collection.
I wasn’t even halfway through my beer when Jerrod offered to take a group of us on a tour of the Tallwave offices. They had numerous teleconference rooms setup, as well as multiple rooms in which companies they’re actively developing operate; think: small cubicle farms. After a quick loop, we were back in the main room, where I got to chat with a couple of my fellow, Phoenix-based startup operators.
First, I got to know Dabi, who runs a boutique marketing and software company. As he put it, they love digital and building things. It’s what he does for a living these days. Another gent walked over, I forget his name, but his company is Cerebrum Corporation. A few years old at this point, they develop software for anatomic pathology labs. Yeah. Dabi and I had to ask, too. Basically, their software helps laboratories specializing in tissue processing. Neat stuff.
Before three of us could run out of small talk, Jerrod began his presentation. Tallwave isn’t just Tallwave Commercialization Fund – a VC. They also offer a variety of paid services to small businesses, in addition to a few programs designed to help startups launch and scale.
Blueprint helps startups formalize and prototype their ideas.
Sandcastle is focused on building the actual business around the idea (brand, website, presence).
Springboard deals with marketing and promotion.
High Tide is a twice-annual event wherein they select a handful of startups to aggressively scale to the next level.
These are all sprint-based and cater to startups in a variety of situations en route to market fit.
As I sat in a high-top office chair under that inspiring quote, I watched Jerrod diagram the startup path and how Tallwave seeks to help new businesses scale with reduced cost, risk and time; think: “Lean Startup” by Eric Ries. He talked about the importance of product design, building an actual business, and getting it to market, in addition to highlighting when seed and series A funding typically takes place.
open for business
If I’d had a revelation listening to Jerrod explain the startup path to market fit, it fell on me like a ton of bricks during question and answers from the crowd of fellow startup operators. Everyone, it seemed, was already making a living running their companies. They were all selling something, thus generating revenue, enabling them to spend more time building their businesses.
One guy talked about how his company is developing technology which alerts you when something goes wrong with an appliance in your house, posing a fire hazard. Another mentioned how he and his partner flip houses and are working on resources to help anyone get into the game. Their goal? Making a million millionaires. This tied in well with the brothers who’ve built a suite of tools for landlords and renters.
A guy around the corner who I couldn’t see announced his company, which allows for simplified shopping from mobile devices by voice commands alone, had been picked up by the likes of Walmart, Nieman Marcus, and 40 other brands. And there was even a designer there whose company offers business level graphic design services for about $200 a month. He said he was late because he’d been having dinner with his family, but was excited they’re approaching their 100th customer.
open the flood gates
I couldn’t shake the realization that everyone here had actual products or services and was selling them. Gearbox has 100 email subscribers, but it’s a free subscription!
I can tell people I’m in “digital publishing” and driving toward building a “vertical education platform” all I want. The 90 minutes I spent at Tallwave reminded me I am really “just a blogger.”
Suddenly, every sarcastic “blogger” joke I’ve ever heard in a sitcom seemed to apply to me. The drive home was, as you might imagine, melancholy. There’s nothing wrong with accentuating the positive and treating my efforts as business related or entrepreneurial in design, but despite hearing it all time and again over the last six years, it only, truly, clicked for me when I was seeing and hearing it that room last night.
In the last five and a half years building Gearbox Magazine, I’ve learned a lot. I’ve learned a lot about what I value and what I want to do for the world. That learning is what prompted me to start this site, too. Maybe I’m spreading myself too thin. Maybe I’m not as focused – or committed – as I should be.
I don’t have a product. Therefore I don’t have a business. Thinking I can just publish altruism and somehow pay the bills with positive vibes is a delusion I’ve held for some time. This realization stings. A lot. There’s no shortage of regret in my mind right now, and I’ve even heard myself questioning if everything I’ve done online since 2009 hasn’t been a complete waste of time.
But I know this is a good thing. It means I’ve got a clear challenge in front of me. I need to think deeply about the problems I want to solve – for myself and others – and then come up with solutions to them. I want those solutions to be more than PowerPoint decks converted into PDFs (the vast majority of the time, anyway). I want them to be substantive.
I still believe making a difference should come before making a profit. One has to follow the other. I’m going to keep publishing Gearbox. Our first quarterly (and 14th ever) issue should be out sometime in April. It’s still not going to have any ads in it.
I still believe it’s possible to build a business around media which is valuable because of its content instead of its audience. So I’m going to keep on blogging. I’m going to proudly keep on blogging.
But I’m going to rise to the occasion and start looking to solve problems other than mobile user boredom.
Here’s that big lesson again, because as a long term blogger, I think it’s one of the most important things anyone starting a blog with self-employment dreams needs to learn as soon as possible.
A blog is not a business. A business has something to sell.
the work life parallel angle
Blogging is good documentation and documentation is a major part of work life parallel. I haven’t gone into it much yet, here, but I’m glad I haven’t, as this revelation significantly changes my perspective on the subject.
The experience of documenting our experiences and skills is critically important, be that for social proof or simply journaling to free up mental bandwidth. As I reflect on this experience more in the coming days and weeks, you can expect I’ll share my findings with you here.
In the meantime, if you’re looking to build a business around a blog, I’d love to hear how YOU’RE looking to do it.