How it all started
It has been two years since I first began creating Project Simpatico.
That's pretty slow for a startup. In all honesty, the slog has involved much more about coming to grips with what I don’t know and finding the right people to take fill those roles than almost anything else.
Good intentions + being proactive most certainly do not automatically equal a successful business.
I originally came up with the idea for this company about four years ago, while driving out to the beach to go surfing in Ghana. I had spent years working abroad as an international humanitarian and development worker, but was interested in progressing on. The friend I was traveling with was involved in determining motivations and trends for economic decision-making in local markets. We started talking about what values motivate people to make their purchasing decisions and would people alter these purchasing decisions if they could see their proximate effects.This became the initial premise for Project Simpatico.
how could we facilitate value-based consumerism?
Much of my career involved working with local communities to empower themselves, especially in extremely challenging circumstances. I came to recognize that some of the largest barriers to meaningful empowerment are a lack of trustworthy information, which causes an inability to make informed decisions, which causes a lack of hope. Without even realizing it, people who lose hope often become conditioned to accept situations that are well below their personal standards. I wanted to create a tool that empowers people by providing them with information that makes it easier for them to make decisions in their day-to-day lives that are more aligned with their ideal values.
When I returned to the US in 2014/2015, I met up with a friend whom I had not seen in years. We had been colleagues while working on projects to counter human trafficking. She was now working at the Impact Hub in Seattle and looking for her next adventure. I told her about an idea to create a startup that empowers people. She thought it sounded interesting and decided to join me.
As a founder with limited funding, what I needed more than anything was someone to validate that my idea wasn’t crazy.
My founder partner did just that. She also compensated for my introverted nature in public settings as she was very outgoing. Myers-Briggs has me pegged as an INFP (Introvert - iNtuitive - Feeling - Perceiving). It’s a wonderful personality type for walking a dog through the forest, but isn’t so great for schmoozing at networking events.
Regardless of this compatibility, we quickly realized that neither of us had any idea what we were doing. I had spent years overseeing millions of dollars in development programming, managing teams, and developing complex strategies for everything from countering violent extremism in the Sahel to figuring out how to better provide legal services to survivors of gender based violence in Uganda. She had a social work and non-profit management background. None of this, however, had anything to do with developing a startup business. We were both woefully ill equipped for the job at hand.
I started meeting with just about anyone who was willing to speak with me on developing a startup. This generally involved buying other people a lot of coffee and sandwiches. The majority of the conversations were pretty depressing. The most frequent advice was simply “don’t,” or “don’t even try.” Most of the people we spoke with had backgrounds in the field and most of them were floundering. We were told that people with little to no business or IT experience have little chance of success.
Despite the lack of encouragement and the certainty of doom, we continued to conduct marketing surveys and develop mockups of our website and app. Our survey information told us that we would need to pivot. It was kind of expected, as every piece of literature we looked at seemed to say pivoting was inevitable. After our initial pivot, we subsequently pivoted three more times. It was about sixth months in when we finally felt we had a mockup of a product ready to begin testing our concept.
Around the same time, my business partner decided she needed decent health insurance because of some changes going on in her family. Needless to say, our bootstrapped startup did not have a budget for health insurance, so she took a very good job with excellent benefits. I basically put everything on hold as our momentum dwindled.
This was my first real founders’ crisis.
I was completely dejected and figured that this was it: the end of Project Simpatico. Luckily, before my partner left, she convinced me to bring on a consultant to help the startup move forward without her. It was then at the end of 2015 that Sara LeHoullier joined the team. Sara had been a former Peace Corps volunteer in Madagascar with a development background. She provided the energy that kept the startup existing. Even though she was a marketing specialist, I told her that a big part of her job was to keep morale up. This she does in spades with a personality bubbling with WOO!
At the beginning of 2016 in contradiction to startup best practice principles, I decided to begin coding the website for Project Simpatico. I felt like the startup needed to show some sort of progress, something tangible, even if it was an unwarranted risk. If we didn’t do something quickly any momentum would be lost. I met with programmers in the Seattle area about the project, but quickly came to the conclusion that there was no possible way I could afford them for this website. I was told by more than one that they would be willing to code up to when my money ran out, but I was not guaranteed any sort of useable product. So instead, I looked to hire programmers from India.
After identifying and interviewing a number of potential candidates, I eventually selected a woman programmer from the northwest corner of India in a heavily militarized area near the Pakistan border. I have heard that being a woman coder in the US can be challenging for numerous reasons, so my reasoning was that based on the generalized reputation of the region concerning sexism and patriarchy, she would be a borderline superhero.
I quickly realized that I was not very good at providing direction to our programmer. The main problem is that programmers tend to do exactly what you tell them them to do. This isn’t actually a good thing when you don’t precisely know exactly what you want. I had mockups, flow charts, and lots of good ideas, but none of this was sufficient for the task. Our programmer was wonderful: polite, on time, thoughtful, and never condescending, even though I often thought it would have been well deserved.
Over the next ten months, I traveled frequently between the US and Ghana. From 7:30 am to 6 pm, I worked my international development day job. Evenings and mornings were for Project Simpatico. I thought my number one job at this point was still to learn what I didn’t know: website design, UX theory, big data, product information, marketing, etc. In addition to not knowing how to provide direction to our programmer, I also didn’t know how to really provide direction to Sara. I honestly didn’t even know if Sara’s deliverables were getting us closer to where we needed to be to have a viable company.
Eventually, Sara became so busy with her day job that she stopped having sufficient time to work on Project Simpatico. She advised me to consider bringing on her friend from her days in the Peace Corps, Wendy McCall, to work on social media. I agreed because (1) it made sense and (2) I didn’t want to give into the idea that the startup was a failure, quite yet.
Sara also agreed to change her role with Project Simpatico as a consultant to a founding member in order to help right the ship. One of her first acts in her new capacity was to advise that we began testing our website. I agreed immediately, and we found a website/app tester to begin testing the website. However, about two weeks before the initial testing, I made the decision that the website was still too buggy and unready for testing. I had asked the programmer to make so many changes and additions over the previous six months that the website was bloated and non-functional.
Towards the end of 2016, Sara advised me that we needed to bring on a startup operations guru to provide us with guidance and a roadmap to making Project Simpatico a functional startup with real revenue earning potential. Through Sara’s connections, we found Sam Tackeff. Over the next few months, Sam provided us with guidance, not just on how to turn Project Simpatico into a functional company, but also on figuring out what we really wanted to accomplish both professionally and personally through the startup.
Earlier this month, Sara, Wendy, and I met for a week-long retreat at Sara’s house in the forest to determine the direction of Project Simpatico.
We talked, and talked and talked. We drew on whiteboards, we got clear on our goals, vision, strategy, learning agenda, and the future of our company. We had a lot of material to examine missteps and determine how better to approach our company’s future. We committed to using industry best practices like lean startup principles and innovation accounting and bringing on new team members to fill gaps where we lack expertise, ability, or time. We also set up standard operating procedures that ensure support and assistance to each team members from the other members of the team.
We are dedicated to making Project Simpatico a women and minority-owned company, working to empower people and make the world a better place.
We welcome you to follow this blog as our company progresses and evolves - and there are so many ways for us to co-create this amazing online space.