Jay Mulakala recalls one particularly hard-hitting conversation with a potential investor.
“He told us straight up, ‘Your pitch sucked,’” says Mulakala.
Mulakala and Andy Putch knew they had a tough road ahead of them when they founded their software company FreeSkies. After all, the two of them had just graduated from the University of Illinois and moved to San Francisco. They were now competing with other companies with years of experience.
“He was very blunt,” the WeWork Golden Gate member says, “but he gave us some very good advice, like making sure to captivate the audience in the first sentence and answer the obvious questions without getting too much into the tech.”
After listening to all the comments and criticism from investors, they joined together with an app developer and launched CoPilot, which captures high-quality aerial photos and videos on drones. The app hit the App Store earlier this month.
The friends might not have “street cred,” but they’ve done enough research on drones to get them a seat in front of investors. They’re noticeably young, and they’ve had an internship or two under their belt. And for them, it’s not so much about leveraging their experiences as it is about learning how to pitch.
They remember walking into an angel investor competition and noticing that something didn’t feel right. They were up against seasoned entrepreneurs who had grinded for decades.
“I’ve competed in several business competitions in the past where we were put against PhDs, seasoned veterans, and other professionals,” Mulakala says. “We realized that we were at a disadvantage when it came to competing against them, but it was important for us to be confident and assert ourselves in the industry we have studied inside and out.”
Mulakala and Putch knew that drones were a fairly new industry to many investors, but they didn’t realize age would also cause funders to give pause. Some, observing that they were recent graduates, turned them away.
“Several investors in the group came and spoke to us after the conference and gave us some great advice for future investors, but ultimately invested with the founders that had a track record and experience,” Mulakala says.
Another hurdle they faced was the timing of their app’s release. About two weeks before the launch of CoPilot, they had about 1,000 people on the mailing list who were eagerly awaiting the product. Everything was in place, or so they thought. On the day of the launch, the app wasn’t in the App Store.
It turned out CoPilot was still pending approval by DJI, a Chinese drone manufacturing company that FreeSkies partnered with to program its unmanned aerial vehicles. Then it happened—a barrage of angry emails.
“We’ve talked to our potential customers over the summer, who have been waiting months for this,” Mulakala says. “So we got a bunch of angry responses from users when it didn’t launch the day it was advertised to. We quickly notified everyone about the delay in getting approval from Apple and sent out emails daily and posted updates on our social media sites to keep people in the loop. ”
One potential customer wasn’t angry. Instead, he sent an encouraging note to the co-founders.
“He understood the barrage of emails we would be getting because of the delay and that he was supporting us throughout this process,” Mulakala says. “It was a wonderful email.”
They were finally able to launch, and have gotten good feedback. Altogether, they’ve raised $45,000 in pre-seed funding, and now they’re well on their way to pitching potential investors and building out user experiences on their new app.
When Yemi Adewunmi co-founded Civic Eagle, a company that provides legislative tracking software for policy professionals, in 2015, it was conceived as a mobile app for citizens to gather information about their representatives and debate policy issues. But Adewunmi and her partner, Damola Ogundipe (he’s CEO and she’s the chief product officer), struggled; after more than a year on the market, and even with a presidential election looming, the app had only a few thousand downloads.
“We totally underestimated how hard it would be to create what was essentially a social network,” Adewunmi says. “It was hard to raise money and usership, and we were like, ‘Let’s go back to the drawing board.’”
They decided to repackage their idea as a business-to-business platform, serving companies and nonprofits that need to closely follow legislation. One customer is a Minnesota-based organization called Voices for Racial Justice, which uses the tool to track bills on criminal-justice reform. “We were like, ‘We should target people who are already invested in politics and are open to innovation,’” Adewumni, a WeWork Labs member at WeWork Navy Yard in Washington, D.C., says. “Failing is important. It allowed us to pivot in a better way.”
In fall 2017, they pitched the new version at “Google for Entrepreneurs Exchange: Black Founders,” a weeklong immersion program for African-American entrepreneurs. Arlan Hamilton of Backstage Capital signed on as their first investor, and shortly after, they were accepted into two accelerator programs. By January 2018, Adewumni says, the business had kicked off. “Now we’re much more settled—we have 12 clients and a couple more investors.”
Below, Adewunmi shares a diary of a recent workweek.
6:30 a.m. First alarm goes off.
7 a.m. Second alarm goes off, and I get my day started. Roll out of bed and make coffee while listening to my favorite morning podcasts: NPR’s “Up First” and “The Daily” from the New York Times.
8 a.m. Review my agenda for the day and make a list of my top tasks in my Productivity Planner. Check my dev team’s Airtable, which we use to manage product and engineering tasks, to see if any questions or updates await me. (Half my dev team is in Nigeria, so it’s already the afternoon for them.)
8:30-9:45 a.m. Walk to Orangetheory Fitness, about half a mile from my apartment. I’ve been a member for almost six months, and it’s been a game-changer for me. Working out has not only been great for my health, but it’s also helped me destress and build confidence. It’s become my favorite form of self-care as an entrepreneur.
10-11 a.m. Make breakfast, shower, and dress, and commute to WeWork.
11:30 a.m. Weekly stand-up meeting with the exec team. As cliché as it sounds, we don’t really have major disagreements. We understand that no one knows the right answer all the time, and all we can do is test and learn, test and learn.
1 p.m. Meet with my Techstars managing director. Techstars is like the Ivy League of accelerator programs—really hard to get into. WeWork had one of the managing directors do a coffee-table talk with us, and Damola and I applied for a cohort called Anywhere—it’s a virtual mentorship-driven program that helps set you up for success, whether it’s for fundraising or product development or user acquisition. We got into the three-month program, which started in February.
Today, Damola and I have a weekly one-on-one video call to discuss goal setting, OKRs (objectives and key results), and KPIs (key performance indicators) for the next three to six months.
2 p.m. Call with a Techstars mentor about content-marketing strategies. During the first few weeks of Techstars, our cohort (Civic Eagle and nine other startups) went through “Mentor Madness,” a series of roughly 60 20-minute meetings with experienced founders, VCs, and experts, over the course of eight days. My team scheduled followup meetings with these mentors throughout this week.
3 p.m. Take a break to meet with a fellow WeWork Labs member and jam/vent about what we’ve been working on and things that are top of mind for us. It can be hard to find people who can relate to the founder’s journey, so it’s important for me to carve out this time.
4 p.m. Finally able to start working on my tasks for the day: Write a spec for a new notifications feature; draft survey questions for an inbound-marketing push; and update the job description for an open engineering role.
6:30 p.m. Run a quick errand and head home.
7:30 p.m. Another video call with my business partner and a Techstar mentor.
8:45 p.m. Dinner.
10:30 p.m. Send emails, check Productivity Planner for tomorrow.
11 p.m. Bed.
7 a.m. Roll out of bed. I have the same routine every morning, and it’s been shaped over the past few years. As an entrepreneur, you get to make your own schedule—but to have a routine that you expect every day is really important.
8 a.m. Check my calendar, Productivity Planner, and dev-team task manager.
8:30-9:45 Work out at Orangetheory, return home, eat breakfast, and get showered and dressed.
11 a.m. Today I’m working from home. I kick the day off with a meeting with my business partner to discuss lead-gen strategy. One of our objectives is to increase our sales pipeline so we can increase our revenue.
12 p.m. Check and send emails.
2 p.m. Walk to a nearby coffee shop to catch up with a friend.
3 p.m. Back home. Have a good conversation with another founder in my Techstars cohort. I’m in a mode where I can’t quite focus on my main tasks for the day. Being a founder, you have to balance working and networking. You need to be responsive and help people when they need help (because when you need help, they can help you). But that means some days you’re not doing any head-down work.
5 p.m. Video call with my Techstars cohort and managing director.
6 p.m. Another mentor meeting.
7 p.m. Work on the Aspen Tech fellowship application.
10:30 p.m. Bed.
7 a.m. The usual morning routine.
12 p.m. Lunch with other WeWork Labs members.
1 p.m. Product strategy meeting with my CEO, CTO, and one of our full-time developers. This was a strategic deep-dive into our product/software goals and our engineering-team processes.
2:30 p.m. Techstars homework. Today I’m watching videos about customer research, discovery, and empathy interviews ahead of our group session on these subjects.
3 p.m. Session with my Techstars cohort.
4 p.m. Call with my business partner. We do a virtual whiteboarding exercise to come up with a game plan for generating new sales leads.
10:30 p.m. Finish and submit the Aspen Tech fellowship application.
12 a.m. Bed.
7 a.m. Same morning routine, including a workout. Working from home today.
12 p.m. Call with our engineers.
1 p.m. Research lead-generation, draft email campaigns, and check in with my business partner.
3 p.m. Call with a marketing expert as part of Techstars.
3:30 p.m. Eat lunch while listening to the audiobook of Bad Blood by John Carreyrou. For a while, I was skeptical of Audible, but then I realized that it works for certain types of books. Bad Blood almost sounds like a podcast, a true-crime story. I don’t think I would have wanted to read pages and pages of medical and blood jargon.
4:30 p.m. Check email and do more work on lead-gen.
7 p.m. Draft a design for an email newsletter we’re going to start sending to customers.
8 p.m. Dinner, Hulu, light work.
10 p.m. Bed.
7 a.m. It’s Friday and I’m taking my time, listening to my morning news podcasts in bed. On Fridays, my favorite tech-policy podcast,“Pivot,” releases a new episode. I also listen to “The Vergecast,” a technews podcast.
9 a.m. Listen to one of my favorite pop-culture podcasts,“The Read,” while I continue designing the customer newsletter from last night.
10 a.m. Listen to Bad Blood while getting a pedicure.
12:30 p.m. Head home for my weekly Techstars all-hands meeting, which we use to probe each other’s businesses and offer support. Each team reviews the OKRs and KPIs they’ll be tracking for the upcoming week. It’s a great learning experience.
2 p.m. Work on designing a new landing page and the email newsletter.
5 p.m. My last mentor meeting of the week. Hurray!
7 p.m. Dinner, wine, and The Umbrella Academy on Netflix. I’ve had an unusual number of meetings this week, and it’s been challenging to keep up with all the useful information that I’m learning, but it’s incredibly rare to be able to have access to such a group of experienced professionals. I don’t take it for granted.
Welcome to “How to Thrive at Work,” a series by Thrive Global and WeWork‘s Creator about how to enhance your productivity, well-being, and happiness in the workplace.
We’re told again and again that change is good—but when it comes to change at work, it doesn’t always feel that way.
Whether change is expected (a move to new office space) or a surprise (corporate merger), it’s easy to focus in on the potential negatives. You could get laid off, lose your five-minute commute, or suddenly find yourself uncomfortable at a job where you were quite comfortable, thanks very much. Having strong workplace connections can help see you through the change, but any stress is likely to affect all areas of your life.
Employees experiencing recent or current change were more than twice as likely to report chronic work stress compared with employees who reported no recent, current, or anticipated change (55 percent vs. 22 percent)—and more than four times as likely to report experiencing physical health symptoms at work (34 percent vs. 8 percent), according to results from the American Psychological Association’s (APA) 2017 Work and Well-Being Survey.
“Good change, bad change—we know from psychological research, it’s stressful no matter what,” says David Ballard, director of applied psychology for the APA. “Half of the U.S. workforce [has] been affected by change in the past year, and those who have were more than twice as likely to report day-to-day stress. They experienced physical symptoms at work including headaches, muscle stiffness, back and joint aches. They ate or smoked more during the workday than they typically did.”
Sounds awful—and yet change is not only inevitable, it’s essential. It’s impossible to innovate, grow, and stay competitive without it. It’s worth making small tweaks to your daily habits to foster that growth. Because the employees who can ride out the change—thrive during it, really—are the ones who will emerge most successful.
Ready to meet that next challenge head-on, managing yourself, your team, or your entire company through anticipated or sudden change? These expert strategies will help everyone come out on the other side feeling included, energized, and ready for what comes next.
If you’re on the receiving end of change:
Manage your own reaction. First, be honest with yourself about what you’re thinking and feeling. Panicked? Anxious? Acknowledge it, rather than bury it. Second, express those feelings to someone who will listen without judgment. “Often the process of expression will help us feel more understood and calm,” says Alan Wolfelt, founder of the Center for Loss and Life Transition, even if that other person isn’t “solving” anything. And third, after we have mourned our feelings about the losses of change (it’s healthy to grieve a comfortable job or convenient commute), we can work to find our best path forward by asking ourselves what the best outcomes of these changes.
Get involved. Whether you’re the change leader or just the ride-along, engagement is a shared responsibility, Ballard says. Employees are more likely to trust their employers during times of change when they feel involved in decision-making and when there is effective communication and transparency, he says.
And you don’t always have to wait to be asked. “Make your voice heard. Be part of decisions and activities, and be motivated and driven to participate in that process,” he says. “Raise issues when needed so concerns can be addressed.”
Find the silver linings. Once you know change is imminent—you can’t dodge it—start systematically looking for opportunities that might emerge because of it, advises John Kotter, author of Our Iceberg Is Melting: Changing and Succeeding Under Any Conditions. “Emotionally our minds typically go to the hazards first because that’s just the way our brains are structured,” he says. “What we need to do is go beyond that and search for those opportunities, which, if we are smart, we can often exploit.”
Faced with an underqualified new boss? Picking up the slack will not only help you develop your skill set, it will earn loyalty from your manager. Dreading a company reorg that will put you in a different department with new responsibilities? Think the impressive new keywords you can add to your LinkedIn profile.
“Opportunities come along with challenges,” says Ballard. “If anything in life is ever going to get better, things have to change. When you can learn from change—even difficult change—and come out on other side not just having navigating and survived, but having developed new skills, you can apply those lessons in life to be more successful and happier.”
If you’re leading the change:
Communicate your mission. Managers and workplace leaders have an extra responsibility to make sure workers adapt well to both surprise (a recession, for example) and anticipated change (like a merger or takeover), says Ballard. “If you want to function effectively as an organization, then as an employer, you need to create an environment where change isn’t going to wind up disrupting employees’ lives and end up hurting the business in the long run,” he says. “Even if you are changing in a positive direction, you want everyone aligned—because if you inadvertently wind up creating higher levels of stress and distrust, it can backfire on the changes you’re promoting.” It’s impossible to get your startup to pivot on a dime when half the team doesn’t understand why it’s even necessary—and how their roles will evolve.
You can’t over-broadcast the benefits that will come with change. Nectar Sleep founder Craig Schmeizer is leading his company through an office move, from WeWork 524 Broadway in New York to a company facility that will be operated by WeWork. “There is some work around getting people to understand how great the space is, that it’s in a great area of town,” he says. “And there will also be follow-through as employees get in there, making sure energy level is high, hosting parties, gatherings, and highlighting new ways of using the space.”
Liz Welch, senior director of people operations at Sonos, which is a member at Seattle’s WeWork Holyoke Building, says there is a bias to share more, rather than less, information. “We are more likely to share information earlier and in a less complete state, simply because we believe people should know as early as possible about things that can affect them,” she says. “We’ll tell teams, ‘Here’s what I know, here’s what I don’t know, and here’s when you will know more.’”
Recognize that people react differently to change. Welch has found that people react to change on a continuum—and there is no right or wrong way. “There are people who have a great bounce, who adjust quickly,” she explains. “They’re innately excited about change and can quickly translate it into opportunity, innovation, and optimism.” And then there are those who like the status quo. “Many people get a sinking feeling in their stomach—that gut feeling that says, ‘I don’t know, this is kinda scary, I don’t really like it.’” In between? The rest of us. “Most people have some misgivings about almost any change, even if on the face of it’s a great one,” she says.
To navigate any change effectively, it’s not only important to know your own reaction to change, but also those of the people on your team. “Leaders who are architects of change need to be attentive to all the people along that continuum and not leave anyone behind,” she says.
Don’t dismiss those slower to adapt. “It’s easy for anyone to judge people who move more slowly toward the acceptance end of the continuum and think they look like whiners,” Welch says. “But those people bring tremendous strength that correlates to a strong dislike of ambiguity or change. They can be deeply convicted, they can be deeply loyal—both good things. You never want to lose people just because they took longer to adjust to change,” she says. “Better to adapt yourself as an organization around those people, rather than get them to hustle up or lose them.”
Not surprisingly, a whole lot of Seth Rogen’s formative childhood moments happened at his local cineplex. Rogen grew up seeing comedies like There’s Something About Mary and the South Park movie in theaters, and vividly remembers them as uproarious—and communal—experiences. He wants his audiences to experience a similar kind of shared (and hilarious) journey when they watch his movies. And despite the success of straight-to-streaming movies like Netflix’s Roma, Rogen thinks that’s hard to do if you’re watching them at home.
“I personally want to make movies for theaters because it’s how I grew up seeing movies, and it’s how I understand how to make our comedies function—in a room full of people,” Rogen said Sunday during Variety and NATO’s SXSW Filmmakers Panel at WeWork 600 Congress Ave in Austin. He joined a conversation with Charlize Theron—the two co-starred and co-produced romantic comedy Long Shot—and director Jonathan Levine, moderated by Variety New York bureau chief Ramin Setoodehal.
While Theron said she believes all of the new platforms for movie-watching are promising, and is glad for the freedom it has opened up for more diverse filmmakers, “there’s a magical thing that happens when you’re in a room with a bunch of strangers,” she said “Comedy is such a shared experience.”
Long Shot follows Theron, a powerful woman running for president who impulsively hires a free-spirited journalist (Rogen) as her speechwriter; chemistry and comedy ensue. The film’s three collaborators shared how they worked together to successfully bring that vision to life, creating a movie the Daily Beast has already called “irresistibly charming.”
They infused humor with emotion. There’s almost a formula for a perfect Rogen comedy: The story has to have the right amount of weight to it, and it must be grounded in enough reality that the viewer feels real compassion for the characters muddling through ridiculous, riotous situations. “It’s easy to be funny,” said Levine. “But it’s much harder to keep in mind that you have to be kind or thoughtful or romantic or emotional. The funny stuff with [Rogen and Theron] is supereasy. Keeping an eye on emotion was really my only job.”
They seized a moment. “Regardless of your ideology, you would have to say politics are different now,” said Rogen. In the original script, Theron’s character was more in the “Aaron Sorkin mode” of a traditional presidential figure, explains Levine. But the filmmakers quickly decided they couldn’t make a movie about modern politics “without addressing the crazy [stuff] that goes on every day” lately. So they revised the script. “Reality made it very easy for us to push the envelope, to be more playful, more satirical,” Levin explained.
And Rogen says that while many outsiders saw the idea of making a comedy set in the current political climate as a huge mountain to climb, they saw it as an opportunity. “It was an exciting opportunity to make a movie—and I think we’re the first big movie—that acknowledges the world we’re living in and takes place in that world.”
They focused on listening—and learning. Finding a balance between making viewers laugh and truly care about the leading characters wasn’t something Theron had much experience with before Long Shot. Recognizing that—and seeing the project as “a front-row seat at the best acting/filmmaking workshop you can imagine”—helped her gain new and valuable perspectives. “I really came on this project with my head down, my mouth closed, and my ears open,” Theron said. “I learned more on this movie than anything I’ve ever done.”
They relied on instinct. “Everybody was really open to not being set in their ways and feeling like there’s one way to go about this,” said Theron. Trusting one another’s instincts also meant they were able to bring each scene to its best place. During production, she, Rogen, and Levine said they could feel it when a joke truly landed. But that open feedback loop helped, too. “We look at each other and trust each other to say, ‘What do you think?’” said Theron. “And maybe there were some times where I didn’t feel something and Jonathan would say, ‘Trust me, it really works,’ and he was pretty much always right.”
Meetings. The word alone can conjure feelings of dread, anxiety, and existential despair.
Often, that’s for good reason. Many of them feature dull presentations, insufferable leaders droning on for too long, and daydreams of looming lunch options. Time is wasted, spirits drained, productivity and presence zapped.
Yet our desire for the mediocre meeting, even in the digital age, continues to soar. By some estimates, there are 55 million meetings a day taking place just in the United States.
“Meetings can be stages for leaders to truly lead, share their visions, be authentic, and inspire and engage their team,” Rogelberg writes. “At the same time, meetings are a form of localized democracy where ideas and innovation can emerge through employee interaction—even the smallest voices have the opportunity to be heard and to be given life and influence.”
If that quote’s got you thinking, “if only,” try these suggestions from Rogelberg that promise to take your team from meeting meh to fruitful collaboration—and maybe even fun.
Go on a meeting diet. It’s likely that you already have too many meetings on your plate. If you’re a meeting scheduler, evaluate which are really necessary, who needs to be there, and whether the meeting should be recurring.
The average recurring gathering lasts up to eight instances, according to Teem, a workplace software and analytics company acquired by WeWork, and can easily become what Teem calls “zombie meetings”: sessions that people stop attending as the purpose of the meeting loses its relevance. Teem also tracks “ghost meetings,” the one in five meetings that, at their start time, are completely unattended.
“I think we’re all surprised by the behavioral aspects of these problems, that they’re all so prevalent,” Ken Myers, data-engineering manager with Teem, says.
If Teem’s research has just given you a name for the meetings others keep bailing on, take a critical look at your calendar and solicit feedback from your colleagues. Consider it a form of calendarKondo-ing.
For all the zombie meetings his company has slayed, says Meyers, the backlash has been almost nonexistent. “We were really fearful when we launched that it would be a problem, that we would wipe out a CEO’s calendar quickly,” he says. “But that has never really happened.”
Find the right space. Many offices prioritize large conference rooms that can accommodate a soccer team, but real demand is often for smaller spaces that facilitate conversations among three to five people. Avoid booking a large room, and you won’t feel compelled to fill it with (unnecessary) attendees.
Scuttle the 60-minute standard. It’s a default setting in Google Calendar and Outlook, not a hard-and-fast workplace rule. Ask whether meetings can be shortened, both of yourself and to attendees ahead of time. At the start, address the scope and needs of the meeting itself relative to the amount of time everyone should spend. As a meeting organizer, you can even end a meeting early.
Build in reading time. This trick, favored by Amazon, involves inviting attendees to read together, then begin a discussion immediately after completion. The thinking is that employees won’t stress out about doing their homework before a meeting, and this way everyone is literally on the same page. Amazon also emphasizes that these briefings or readings should be on the side of trim and concise, not War and Peace.
Be attendee-focused. Rogelberg points to a common disconnect between the person session leader and attendees. As he points out, “If you talk a lot, you are more likely to think the meeting experience was a good one.” Better meetings should be democratic, providing a chance for everyone to weigh in, and yield a positive consensus. If you’re leading a meeting, pay attention to how much you’re talking and solicit input from quieter team members who could offer insight. (In his interviews, Pulitzer-prize winning historian Robert Caro admits to writing “SU” in the margin of his notes, a reminder to himself to “SHUT UP.”)
Keep the conversation constructive. At the meeting’s start, establish ground rules for tone, where debate is invited but there’s comfort in disagreeing. And know that, perhaps more than anything else, your tone will set the stage for the conversation among colleagues.
Consider going screen free. If your employees are plugging away on laptops and smartphones, it’s likely you’ve already lost them.
Rethink the typical agenda. Rogelberg points to research that finds, much to the horror of many a Type-A planner, that meeting agendas may not necessarily increase productivity. What’s worse, sometimes people recycle their agendas for recurring meetings, creating a Groundhog’s Day nightmare for attendees.
Rogelberg says an agenda should be more of an event plan that is focused on “the details, the flow, the experience, and the approach.” Figure out who should be in a meeting and solicit ideas ahead of time. Order the topics, consider goals, and, if possible, prioritize employee-generated items.
Take a stand (or a stroll). A tactic favored by the Obama White House, Steve Jobs, and characters in nearly every Aaron Sorkin TV show, “standing” meetings are inherently shorter than sitting ones (just be mindful of accommodating colleagues with back problems or other physical needs).
Learn from sports and take a huddle. Another alternative is the “huddle.” No need to play coach and scream at your “players”—the huddle is about “team members communicating with one another, pulling together, learning together, and seeking ways to support each other,” says Rogelberg, and also to kickstart conversations and tasks that need to be handled beyond the group. One way to cultivate this: Rotate who is responsible for leading the huddle each day.
Make takeaways available to all. If people marginally related to the meeting aren’t in the meeting, have someone take minutes and share those with everyone. This creates transparency, while also saving time. Some workplaces even have the Google Doc of meeting notes on a projector so that everyone can see the work being done as it’s documented in real time.