Leila fell into entrepreneurship from a young age.
When I was a young girl, I asked my dad if I could get a job.
He said, “You’re too young; you need to be thirteen to have a permit.”
To, at least, go to work, there was a bikini shop near my house and I kept talking to the owner.
I said, “One day you will give me a job.”
She replied, “Sure when you’re 13.”
“I can try bathing suits on for you and that can be my job to see how they fit.”
She caved and Leila started at her first job
She remembers thinking, ‘‘This is great. I’m only 13 and I got my first paycheck.’
Her mind wouldn’t stop.
While she was in the bikini shop, she kept finding flaws in the processes.
“You should put this on the mannequin.”
“Your entryway is too dark.”
There was always something.
Then when she was in high school, she would take clothes that she’d bought and change the pieces on it. Her friends would ask me where I got it.
Instead of telling them where she got it, she’d say, “You can buy it from me.”
That spark of entrepreneurship turned into a clothing store she’d eventually sell.
It was then when she learned how to operate a business.
Then a pivotal moment happened in her early entrepreneurial career.
When she came back from college, the camp that she went to as a kid was going under and she was devastated. So she started a program to keep the camp alive.
The kids would get picked up by a school bus and go on a field trip every day. And that way they kept the older kids coming to the camp and the younger kids in the camp. The camp survived. It was the first time she’d helped a business not fail and didn’t have equity in it.
That was the beginning of her saying, “Wait a minute.”
It was at this time, Leila knew the next venture would be entirely in her hands.
All it took was patience for the right idea.
How did you come up with Sphynx?
Like many successful companies, Sphynx was founded on a problem that wouldn’t go away. In fact, Leila would experience the problem for years before she had enough of it.
When I was younger, I was on the dance and cheerleading team. I would constantly realize I had missed spots shaving. When you’re younger, you’re just learning how to shave so I’d go to the gym carrying a razor around with me.
The problem resurfaced when I got older.
I used to do marketing for Nike, Microsoft, and Red Bull. I would travel the world for them. I’d be at snowboarding competitions where you don’t think you need to shave, but then you go out afterward.
You’re taking off all these layers of clothes because they make it 110 degrees in the bar so you’re profusely sweating. Now all your ski clothes are on a chair somewhere. And then I was like, “oh I didn’t think to shave.”
Then when I was working at a toy company, I was presenting to Target in a meeting. I remember mid-meeting, I realized the buyers were staring at my underarms instead of at me. I was like, “oh my gosh,” I don’t remember the last time I shaved.
It went from being in high school learning how to shave to missing spots because I was traveling, then forgot because I had a demanding professional career.
This problem kept following me.
I had to solve it.
What hurdles did you face early in your journey?
With consumer products, there’s extra difficulty in making it successful. It’s not just about building an e-commerce store. You need fulfillment, distributors, and much more. Leila realized she came into battle with less than what she needed but used her tenacity and resourcefulness to make it through.
“It took me a year and a half in development to create Sphynx, an on-the-go razor set. I was still working full-time. So I would come home at night and work on it until 3:00 am, especially since China is in a different time zone. I had just gotten married, too, and my husband would say, ‘You need to come to bed.’ I’d reply, ‘No, China just woke up.’
I had never worked with China. I had so many bumps in the road because I had so many middlemen since I didn’t learn Chinese. I was plugging away for six months after I quit my job. Then it took another year because I didn’t find any good factories. Then I found the one.
When I finally got the prototypes, I gave 30 out to 30 of my top friends. The prototypes cost anywhere between 100 to 300 dollars.
I’d send emails asking for feedback every week as I was reiterating the product. One friend calls me, ‘Leila, I’m so sorry, but I don’t have your prototype anymore and I can’t give you feedback.’
‘What what do you mean? You know my prototype costs 300 bucks’
‘I just started at my new job, my boss took it off my desk and I don’t have the heart to ask for it back.’“
How did you first gain traction?
The success of Sphynx might’ve been the best April Fool’s prank. Sometimes the unexpected happens and at that moment, Leila had two choose between fight or flight.
“On April first, I get an email from the company, Ulta:
‘Hey, we’d love to meet you. We got a hold of your product.’
I thought ‘Who is this genius who found someone who works there and told them to email me. It’s an April Fool’s prank.’
But it wasn’t.
Turns out her boss fell in love with it and gave it to the buyer and said, “You have to get this thing. It’s the best, hot new product coming out soon.”
That’s when it hit me –
I still had to get the prototype stage done. They wanted it in three months and it takes six months to manufacture in China. I looked at my husband, ‘Listen, I need your help. You do operations. I will do design and product development. Let’s make this happen.’ I quit my job, then went full-time into entrepreneurship.
At the time, I was at a toy company. Dolls were a dying breed because technology is advancing so fast. I took what I learned from the camp because we were scrappy. I tell the kids to go home and bring a water bottle back to camp tomorrow. Then we’d put water, olive oil, and food coloring in the water bottle and it would turn into a lava lamp.
I did the same thing with toys. My job was to come up with concepts for toys and how to market them. So we launched it. We were supposed to be in the Impulse section. It’s the section when you’re at CVS and you see at the front there’s nuts, candy, and chapstick.
I also attended a lot of trade shows. I also did something that you can’t do anymore which is run Facebook ads to influencers if they listed themselves as a Public Figure.
So they would find me instead of me finding them. I started getting a lot of press and influencers talking about us. Then I went to a trade show where I won the Beauty innovation of the Year award.
All these brands came to meet with me and order the product. It blew up overnight and I was not ready for it. I ran out of inventory. Packaging wasn’t closing correctly and there were so many struggles along the way, We only had an intern at the time. And we were in a thousand stores by the end of that show. Good problems.”
What major hurdles did you face in building a lifestyle brand?
Leila learned the hard way that if you don’t define your brand, then someone else will do it for you. Today, she puts her foot down when it comes to distribution and marketing so people know Sphynx is a lifestyle product.
“We ended up in the razor aisle, which was my worst nightmare. I didn’t want to be in the razor aisle because I didn’t want people to position this product in that category.
It’s not a replacement for your home razor because the whole point is it’s for your purse. It’s for the touch-ups on the go. It has the water and the razor so you can do the whole process.
Another obstacle appeared when I got booked for QVC in Christmas. They called me a week before and said, “Hey, we’d love to have you earlier. So I went on to QVC. Unfortunately. There was a terrorist attack in Turkey that day and it was hard to go on air.
Then they told me, ‘Okay your product will be for grandmothers who are in wheelchairs and can’t shave in the shower.’ I thought, ‘My product is not built for that skin type. It has nothing with that demographic because they don’t even care to shave on the go.’
After that, I decided not to go back to QVC.
I got a lot of orders that day, but it wasn’t the right market. All the stores that contacted me afterward wouldn’t be selling where I wanted. And I didn’t want to dilute the brand.
After that, I was really particular about the stores I went into. I was thoughtful about anyone who wants to sell our product. I wanted to be a lifestyle brand.
Now we’re in about three thousand retailers. It’s on my vision board to get into Target. It’s huge but it’s also scary as hell because you have to be prepared to get into Target.”
What internal problems did you need to solve to scale?
Leila is super mom, super businesswoman, and a super wife all at the same time. No one said it would be easy – and it wasn’t. She’s worked hard to optimize her time while still finding room for creative expression to delight her customers.
“The team is ten people as of today. We had three new hires this morning. Since I don’t have time to work out, there is now a treadmill in my office.
I also just had a baby so it’s been really crazy.
In the beginning, we were fast to hire and then when they weren’t culture fits or the skillset wasn’t quite there. We taking more steps backward than forward. Today, we have a strict hiring process where everyone has a chance to interview the person who’s coming in.
We want to do our own distribution in-house because our product is only $15. It’s costing us way too much. I also wanted to experience the touch and feel of whatever was going out so I could see what consumers are getting.
Sometimes we throw confetti in there as a little treat. We try to keep it fun around here. We’re really focusing on making sure everything that we develop next is disruptive in design and product. Whatever it may be, so when you see it on shelves, we want it to wow you and make you wonder what it is.”
What’s next for you guys?
Leila is expanding by focusing on company culture and innovating in the lifestyle space.
“My favorite part is building within. I love when I get the chance to promote someone from the team; it’s really the best feeling. And our team is growing. We moved into our own warehouse in Los Angeles. Regarding Sphynx, we have three to six new products coming out by the end of the year. So we’re doing a lot of product development and expanding our website.
These big companies use a Band-Aid approach to solve the problem of women on-the-go. So we’re scaling the product but we’re also looking into developing more products. I don’t envision the brand as a razor company. I envision it as a brand for the woman on the go with portable and convenient products for our lifestyle.”
Today, Sphynx is one piece of the on-the-go lifestyle market for women.
Leila has the passion and drive to take the rest of it. With larger companies snoozing, her goal is to ensure women are more empowered than yesterday to experience freedom.
With all the graphs pointing in the right direction, it’s exciting to see where she’ll go.
Do you ever wonder how some founders can come up with endless ideas?
Yet, other founders can only come up with a couple.
I wanted to learn how to become creative.
I never had the right idea to help my company grow.
Or, at least, enough ideas to choose among.
I had worked for five startups that had failed and had zero to show for it.
If I could figure out how to overcome the creative hurdle, then I could break this pattern. Motivated, I studied the creative process by reading countless books on psychology and then practicing.
The result is I’ve come up with hundreds of original ideas to help companies grow. I’m even the CEO and co-founder of one of the fastest growing companies in Los Angeles. All because I can rely on the most important intangible skill, creativity.
During the process of figuring out what makes a founder creative, I learned six ways you can add fuel to your creative spark:
1. Develop Your Deep Ts
Creativity doesn’t happen on the surface level. It happens deep beneath the ground. It’s where your expertise lies. It’s the T in the T-Shaped model.
But there’s a catch – unless you’re in the top .01 percent of your field, then you need two deep Ts. Yes, two skills you’re highly proficient in to be creative.
The reason is creativity happens when you combine ideas. If you can combine them from deep expertise in two verticals, then the chances the idea is original increases exponentially. For example, if you combine your knowledge of programming with content creation, then you might come up with a brilliant software idea.
If you had surface level knowledge of both areas, then you might come up with what you think is an original idea. Then you share the idea with an expert and they’ll probably say, “Yeah, that’s an old idea. It doesn’t work.” That result is fine because it shows you that you have much more room to learn.
2. Become an Expert
If you’re not an expert, then you need to know the steps to become one. The good news is this is the easy part. The hard part is the execution.
To become an expert, follow this four-step model:
1. Find an expert to mentor you
Use LinkedIn, Facebook, and email to reach out. Mentorship is a big time commitment on their part so asking right away will deter them. Start by giving them value no matter how small, then ask for coffee. Get them to become your friend before you ask for them to become a mentor.
2. Deconstruct the skills that will deliver 80 percent of results
Ask experts, then research on Google and YouTube what those few core important skills are to get results.
3. Stop multitasking
You’re learning one skill, not a hundred of them.
4. Practice until you can recognize your mistakes
Did someone say practice?
Yes, you have to show up every day if you want to be good at anything.
World-recognized learning expert, Josh Kaufman, explains that all you need is enough information to self-correct. That means you need the ability to recognize your own mistakes, and then make adjustments when this inevitably occurs. Over time, you become mistake free.
Rinse and repeat, and you’ll eventually get to your desired level of proficiency.
3. Don’t Be Hard on Yourself
Most people quit soon after they start.
The major barrier to skill acquisition isn’t intellectual; it’s emotional.
Whenever you start learning something new, you get frustrated because you feel inadequate. It’s easy to lose hope. And nobody wants to feel like they’re no good at doing something. They key is to recognize that feeling, then do it anyway.
That’s what the best leaders do.
They feel the fear, then still take action.
It’s not that they’re more confident, it’s that they internally process the idea of fear better.
4. Get it out of Your Head
In 2013, Science published a study by economist Sendhil Mullainathan of Harvard University and psychologist Eldar Shafir of Princeton University describing how reminding people with a low income of their financial trouble reduced their capacity to think logically and solve problems in novel situations.
A subsequent study found that Indian sugarcane farmers performed much better on the same cognitive performance test after receiving the once-a-year payment for their produce, temporarily resolving their monetary concerns.
The learning lesson?
If one’s mind is constantly occupied with urgent problems, such as paying bills, there will not be much capacity left to come up with long-term solutions or creative ideas.
In other words, your mind only has a certain amount of capacity to carry thoughts. Your job is to constantly open up this capacity by externalizing your thoughts whether through writing, video, or audio. As long as you’re not distracted by thoughts at the forefront of your mind, then you’ll own your creativity.
5. Store it in a Compartment
If you’re externalizing your thoughts, it’s best to organize them to the best of your ability. That means writing books, using your Google Drive or Dropbox storage, and even creating how-to lessons and uploading them to YouTube. Here’s a peek into my Google Drive. There are over a 100 guides in here about marketing. That’s 100 tutorials I no longer have to keep in my mind. And that’s exactly why I can keep coming up with new ones.
If you’re not a writer, then record yourself on video documenting your creative ideas. This only helps to an extent when removing the idea from your head. The next step is executing it to see if it works. If it does, you’ll now have room to come up with more creative ideas to improve it. If it doesn’t, then come up with new ideas to chase.
6. Find a Partner
Not all of us have time to learn a new skill or document all our processes. Sometimes we need a little help. When I co-founded my company, BAMF Media, I partnered with Houston Golden, the former director of growth for an agency. Here’s a picture below when we opened up business for the first time.
I didn’t understand much about founding and scaling an agency. I knew a lot more about marketing, writing, and building an audience. So I found someone who’d already helped build an agency. This way, when we founded the company, we had two deep Ts that we could rely on for creative ideas.
Take a Leap of Faith
Chasing creativity requires an abundance mindset. You need to get all your bad ideas out to come up with good ones. It doesn’t always work out in your favor, but if you try enough times, then it will.
The secret: trust in the process.
Know that creativity only comes once you’ve documented and executed on your already existing ideas and problems. If you can stand on the plate and keep batting, then you’ll hit that home run.
Take your swing.
Nicole didn’t intend to be an entrepreneur. She was working day and night and took a break in Paris with her best friend of three years. They were on the cobblestones with no husbands, no kids, and wanting to take a photo because “this will never happen again.”
They did what everybody does. They took selfies, but the photos weren’t perfect to represent this magical moment. So they connected with a local friend of hers. She gave the friend her iPhone and said: “can you take some candid shots of us from a distance?”
She didn’t want a posing and cheesy photo in front of the Eiffel Tower. She wanted something that captured the spirit of the moment like walking down the cobblestones, drinking coffee.
Twenty minutes later, when she looked at her phone, she had goosebumps. The photographer had captured the spirit of her trip. It was the best souvenir. In this small moment, the idea for Flytographer was born.
When did you realize you could turn your idea into a business?
The first step in starting a company is finding an idea that won’t go away. Nicole had that idea. She just needed the courage to take the jump. That would start with one small test to prove out her idea.
“I thought ‘When I travel again, how do I do this?’ I went back to Canada after that trip to my job at Microsoft and could not stop thinking about this idea. I would think about it 20 times a day. But the thought of jumping into a startup was overwhelming. Still, the idea wouldn’t go away for nine months.
I realized I had to do something about this because I couldn’t get this idea out of my head. I’d regret it the for the rest of my life if I didn’t do something. So I was turning forty in September and I gave myself that artificial deadline.
The next step is I went on Craigslist Photographers and found one who seemed legit. I had a friend traveling to Paris and I said, ‘Hey, do you mind if I have photographer hang out with you for half an hour to take candid photos?’
‘Sure no problem.’
That was the first test.
Were there any obstacles when founding your company?
When Nicole stepped into entrepreneurship, there wasn’t a roadmap. She’d have to invent it along the way. To help, she kept her job which gave her time to prepare before she made the jump.
“One of the pieces that is important in our team values is what we call candor. It’s important to be honest and direct. If you don’t get straight to the point, then all the passive-aggressive craziness can distract everybody.
You socialize with people whether it’s your friends, your family, and co-workers. So you get a lot of mixed feedback like ‘yeah, that’s a great idea.’
Then there are people who think you’re crazy.
‘Why would you quit your safe, awesome job for something risky?’
The first struggle was just clearing all that conversation clutter to go with my gut. The second thing was I didn’t know what I was doing. I’m not a photographer. I don’t know a lot about photography either. I didn’t know how to build a website. I didn’t know how to do accounting. There are so many things that I needed to figure out.
It’s hard because you’re trying to figure out everything while you’re working full-time.”
How did you start getting traction for Flytographer?
Sometimes it takes pure hustle to get that first green light. For Nicole, that meant participating on relevant blogs for months. She did that until it earned her the credibility and traffic to turn her corporate office dream into a reality.
“For early marketing, I spent two hours a day dropping comments on relevant blog posts. Then one of my comments was read by a writer at NBC.
She wanted to interview me. The next day, I’m on the homepage of NBC. It was funny because I’m right next to the photos and articles of Prince Harry and Angelina Jolie.
This was only two months into my business.
That gave me a huge boost in confidence which led to social proof and photographers applying.
The problem – the business is seasonal. It was only after six months, did I start seeing customers come back and hearing from them either personally or through referrals.
‘Hey, I heard about it from my friend in Paris last month.’
At that moment, I had the sense that I had picked the right market.
The third thing was feedback from testimonial forms. That was something that I engineered from the start. Just the words they were saying – that’s when I knew we had product-market fit because people were overjoyed with the value that they got from the service.”
How did you build out your team?
For early-stage startups, you have many problems that need to be solved. Nicole realized this and it meant she needed people who could come in and wear multiple hats with an execution mindset.
“I am a marketing and product person. Those are the areas that I am passionate about. I don’t have the technical chops. I knew I needed to bring on a director of engineering to drive the technical side.
I also don’t have the financial chops. I needed someone to help in that capacity. Those are the two key parts. We just started bringing on marketing talent because we realized that we want to scale the business.
I know I’m the product manager that drives the roadmap, but I need to step back and allow other people to drive forward marketing.
The biggest thing about hiring people is finding people who are doers and problem solvers. You don’t have a roadmap on how this works and how their role works. It drives me crazy when someone doesn’t have that as part of their DNA.
That’s why our first five hires were people who could wear many hats. Now that we’re 20 people, we’re focused on getting those seasoned experts on board.
One of the pieces that is most important in our team values is what we call candor. It’s important to be honest and direct. If you don’t get straight to the point, then all the passive-aggressive craziness can distract everybody.
I’m a big fan of being direct.
Everyone’s got each other’s back, but we need to get through the hard conversations.
When building out the team, the hardest step was the first year and a half of my business. I didn’t have a team. I had no developers. The business was on Squarespace. The site was hooked up to a CRM database and some webhooks.
I was this wizard behind the curtain. It helped me understand exactly what I needed to develop in order to service the market. Then I hired a developer and the business took off.”
What marketing strategies worked best?
For Nicole’s business, she found that the idea of finding one growth hack to build your business on wasn’t a realistic expectation. She needed to put in the time and sweat equity with the right mindset.
“There’s no a silver bullet. What I realized is that constant steady growth is testing different channels to see what works. For us, the biggest source of traffic has been organic search. We’ve had a lot of focus on content generation from the start and SEO optimizing content keywords and communicating with the right partners so that we get a lot of deep links to our content.
30% of our business comes every month through organic search. One of the things that a lot of companies don’t do is invest in content marketing early on because they’re short-sighted.
Evergreen content is a low-cost acquisition channel. You’re not interrupting people. They’re coming to you because you’re being helpful. We started creating content early on, making sure all the keywords were in there, and that our content connected to each other.
We’d ask these questions:
‘Do these rank well?’
‘How do we get links to these different content partners?’
Then constantly serve them up.
We have more than a million beautiful photos all over the world of travelers.
There’s nobody else that has anything close to what we have.
We’re across every continent, age, and race. It’s real people with their stories attached to it. Attaching that content to our customer has been a huge part of our growth strategy.
Our North Star metric is the number of shots per day. Every morning we look at traffic, repeat customers, but at the top of the pile is average shoots a month.”
Did you hit any inflection points in your business?
Even if your business has traction, it doesn’t mean it will survive. There are many thousands of problems that can arise. They almost always do when you least expect them. Great founders persevere through these moments.
“We had challenges with people because we were paying photographers via Paypal initially. Then at one point, PayPal shut our account down. We got flagged because we needed the birthday for the customers. It was a weird situation.
I wasn’t going to give them the birthday of our customers. Luckily, I built up enough trust with the photographers over prior years that it gave us time to find another payment provider. It took us three and a half weeks.
I thought this would end my business if I couldn’t figure it out.
I couldn’t contact a customer from a month ago and say,
‘Hey, I need your birthday.’
I was transparent with my community and said,
‘Hey guys, this is happening. It means you don’t get paid until we figure this out and I hope you’re with me.’
What’s your advice for entrepreneurs just getting started?
Nicole has some real, down-to-earth advice. There’s no sugarcoating here.
“No one knows exactly what they’re doing. Just try to test things, have conversations with your potential target audience, and start to understand the problem that you can solve for them.
The third thing is only doing it if you really love what you’re building because if you don’t really love what you’re building, then there are so many highs and lows of entrepreneurial journey that you won’t make. It’s hard. And I’ve had kids – that’s really hard. This is harder.”
What’s your favorite part about your business?
At the base of any great business is a community. Without community, there’s no momentum, true fans, or people who will have your back when your business takes a bad turn. That’s why Nicole made a community the centerpiece of her business.
“Flytographer supports artists around the world. In December, we saw the top 25% of our photographers make over $1,500 a month shooting a couple times a week. Because of our service, they can pay their mortgage and live a better life.
It’s repeatable business for them, too. The community is big, so we’ve been investing in that from the start. We have annual meetups once a year, everyone flies in and hangs out for a week in Paris. We spend time together doing workshops, lecturers, photo ops, and drinking.
During these events, we get a lot of product feedback. It’s also incredible to foster these friendships in person. It’s created this place where we have a friend in every city all around the world.
Today, we’re working with over 450 photographers. Fun fact, we’ve had over 10,000 apply. We only hire a photographer with a great portfolio and a fantastic personality.“
Where’s the next take-off point?
As a bootstrapped entrepreneur, Nicole has put in the years of effort required to build something great from scratch. She’s put herself through countless learnings all because she found a problem worth solving.
She noted that they are trying a couple of innovative next steps to grow their business (soon-to-be-released). To help, she is hiring more of the right people for her team.
Keep in mind, the Flytographer team is still in their early stages.
You could say they haven’t even left the airport in terms of potential.
Stay tuned to see where they fly next.
In the last several years, I’ve hosted over one hundred events for entrepreneurs.
I’ve spoken at another twenty startup and tech events often as a keynote speaker.
I still remember my first talk.
I was shaking.
I sped through the entire presentation that what was supposed to be forty minutes and turned it into fifteen. By the end, I could barely breathe.
I said the words and phrases “like,” “um,” “you know” a hundred times.
Yet, in the end I didn’t feel embarrassed.
I felt relieved.
I had done it, given my first talk and made it out alive.
Once I realized the downside of giving a bad talk wasn’t as awful as I’d thought, I made a choice to get better fast.
Along the way to becoming a keynote speaker, I learned these twelve valuable tips:
1. Host Events Before You Speak at Them
Without any speaking experience, no one wanted me on their stage. Not wanting to have the lack of experience hold me back, I created my own events. I founded a Meetup Group and a Facebook Group that supported local talks for founders. I then self-appointed myself as the host.
At the time, it felt like a risky move because I had zero hosting experience. Still, I knew just getting on stage even as a host would help me become a better speaker. After hosting many speakers, it not only improved my speaking ability but gave me insight into crowd reactions from each person that spoke on stage. By the time I had finished hosting one hundred events, I wasn’t even comparable to the young man who’d shaken uncontrollably in his first talk.
I was comfortable in front of audiences with hundreds of people, could make them laugh, and entertain them for a couple of hours.
2. Think About the Audience
One of the first pieces of feedback I got on speaking was from keynote speaker and Facebook marketer, Dennis Yu. He told me that if you think about yourself, you lose. Because the only thoughts that happen when you’re focused on yourself are self-conscious ones. You become worried about what you’re saying, what the crowd thinks about you, and how you look. Instead, if you focus purely on getting the audience their desired result, you’ll get yours, a brilliant presentation.
That’s why when I speak, I think about how I can get the crowd involved whether through questions, transferring energy, excitement, and laughter.
3. Own the Stage
Don’t be the person who stands behind the podium their entire talk. It makes you look self-conscious. Standing behind a podium is like putting your hands in your pockets. It says, “I’m too nervous to own the stage.” Often people who stand behind the podium read directly from their laptops as well. That’s a double-negative because it shows you didn’t take the time to memorize your presentation.
The idea behind presenting is not to have the audience focus on the screen, but on you. The screen is there to support you, not the other way around.
Rather than stand behind the podium, use the entire stage to your advantage. That means walking across the stage with enthusiasm while looking at different sections in the crowd. Feel free to be animated by moving your hands as you speak.
This shows your passion for everything you’re saying. If you feel hesitant, then remember that there’s a reason they give you a stage to walk on and not a chair to sit on.
4. Tell a Story
By the end of most presentations, you’re often asking, “What did I just learn?” The reason is speakers tend to cover many different points that don’t tie together well. There’s no storyline. There’s no beginning, middle, and end. Sometimes zero climax.
If you want your talk to be memorable, then you need a story that explains your points in a way that makes sense. Each one should be related to the one before. Keep in mind, even though you may want to include a hundred different stats and “cool” ideas on the presentation slides, the audience will only remember one. Don’t be the person with more than ten words on any slide like the guy who created this slide.
If you tell a story, it’s far easier to get one main idea across without having the audience forget what they learned every twenty seconds.
That brings me to my next point.
5. Stick to One Main Idea
Each slide of your presentation is not meant to impress the audience with a new idea. Think of a presentation as a journey to help better explain ONE idea. Don’t spread yourself wide; dive deep. Think about how many speakers a conference attendee often listens to – sometimes fifteen or even thirty if it’s a two-day event. They won’t remember what you said unless you dive deep.
6. Be respectful of Your Time Slot
The fastest way to not get invited back to a conference is to go past your time slot. If they have you booked for twenty minutes, don’t think twenty-two minutes is fine. It pushes the entire agenda they worked on for – possibly – an entire year out-of-place all thanks to you wanting a little more light on your ego.
7. Make Friends With the Organizers
Event organizers put in countless hours to make their event possible. Their work is often not appreciated as much as it should be. Their hours are completely irregular, they get little sleep, and are so tired that when they get to the main event day, they need to down several Red Bulls to push through.
The best thing you can do is send several notes of appreciation to a few people on the staff and the main organizers before and after the event. In fact, I open every talk appreciating the work they put into making it all possible. It’s a couple easy steps to getting invited back next year.
8. Let Your Excitement Guide You
When you feel the nervousness of jumping up on stage, don’t try to cool yourself. Roll with it. Let it guide you. After all, the audience doesn’t want to hear someone with a monotone voice. They want to hear someone with excitement in every word. And you’re going to need a whole lot of it if you want to transfer it to the audience.
9. Take Comedy Classes
If you want to be comfortable on stage practice by putting yourself in the most uncomfortable position, performing comedy. One of the main differences between an experienced speaker and a novice is their ability to swing the emotions of the audience. That means everything from excitement to laughter. If you can throw a couple of jokes into your presentation, people will think you’re a pro.
10. Get the Audience Involved
You’re often not the first speaker. The audience has heard several. This means they’re tired and need to get energized to pay attention. An easy way to do this is to get them involved with low-barrier questions. An example would be saying a phrase like this, “How many of you are founders? If you’re one, then raise your hand.”
It’s low-barrier because it’s easy to raise your hand. Depending on the audience, you might need to do this several times. To take it to the next level, you can call out people based on whether they raised their hand. If someone identifies themselves as a founder, then ask them what type of startup they have. This can give you material for your talk and shows your willingness to speak off the cuff making you look like a pro.
11. Roll With the Punches
Not every audience will laugh at your jokes or understand your ideas. I often get completely different reactions in European countries than I do in the United States. That’s okay. It happens. Don’t let it get you down. There’s only one thing you can do – that’s improve, adjust, and stay nimble. Whatever you do, don’t lose an ounce of confidence.
12. End on a Powerful Note
I’ve heard incredible presentations all the way through to the last sentence. Then it falls flat. They say something like this, “Well, that’s everything.” Don’t be this person. Be the person who ends on a sentence that vibrates through the audience with power and energy. Rule of thumb is if the audience can’t remember the last sentence you said, then it’s not the right one.
If you apply all these tips, you’re on your way to becoming a keynote speaker. Keep in mind, it takes time to develop the confidence. There’s only one way to do it, repetition. It’s time to start executing.
Jenna didn’t start her career as an entrepreneur.
She took a traditional route by studying finance in college.
After she graduated in 2011, there seemed to be only one path: working for banks, accounting firms, or consultancies.
That’s what she thought success looked like.
“So I got a job in New York City and worked in consulting on risk assessments and anti-money laundering. More specifically, I was working with big banks to assess their risk of compliance.”
She remembers thinking in her first week, “Oh my God this is what being an adult is going to be like. It’s horrible. Boring. Lots of time spent on Excel doing a lot of groundwork.”
When she realized that money wasn’t everything, she chased culture.
As she says, “There was a lot of soul-searching.”
She thought “You know what I want? A place that has a cool culture. What has cool cultures? I know, Tech startups.”
She notes no other research went into that. She got fixated on working in a tech startup, but when you go to school for finance and you’re one year out of college, you have no skills for a tech startup.
They don’t want you. You’re not a designer. You’re not a developer.
Still, she persisted.
And became the entrepreneur she dreamed about.
Today, she’s the founder of Green Blender. They’ve shipped over 3.5 million smoothies nationwide and have 100 employees.
In this piece, we sat down to interview her unique entrepreneurial story.
How did you make the jump into startup life?
Jenna like many other entrepreneurs started with a more technical background only to later shift to marketing. There, she’d find that the balance of technical and marketing skills made for a deadly combo. The intention to acquire these skills had everything to do with the purpose and culture of the company that would hire for them.
“You only know how to do Excel and that’s not what startups care about. I thought, ‘Okay, how can I make my resume better for a tech startup because that’s the Holy Grail of culture?’
I convinced my company to pay for Sequel classes. I said I’d use it to recode these risk assessments that we had to do which were giant, bloated Excel projects. It was a nightmare to update anything.
To this day, I still use Sequel. It’s a super powerful tool.
Still, I needed to get into a startup.
When you’re in finance and go to school for business, the mentality at the time was everything should be private. Your Twitter feed should be private. Your Facebook account should be private. You shouldn’t have an online personality.
When I jumped ship into the tech startup world, I saw people with hundreds of thousands of Twitter followers. They had these personalities online. They all had a side hustle and they were all doing online businesses and everyone was super plugged into the tech scene.
The startup that I got a job at was called Chartbeat. They do real-time data analytics for publishers. I convinced them that I should be a customer support agent. I got the role and immediately realized that I did not want to do customer support.”
Was the tech startup life what you thought it’d be?
When Jenna jumped into startup life, she experienced, like many do, that not every startup is right for you. Sometimes it takes several. Fortunate for her, she found that path fast.
“At the Chartbeat, we could see the entire internet traffic which enabled me to understand how people move around the internet. It was my crash course in tech startup and hacking things together. So I started using more of my skills to understand what are the goals of the company.
‘What do they hold most valuable?’
‘Who’s driving the decisions?’
Then I realized I wanted a culture that had more work-life balance. I want to be friends with the people I work with and hang out with them after work. I also realized that culture wasn’t everything and I wanted to care more about the product.
I was working on real-time data analytics, but at the end of the day, we were selling this idea of concurrence which is how many people are on your website at any given moment.
After a while, I felt like I was sitting on the internet trying to get more people to go to the Internet. It didn’t feel authentic. I wanted to spend my time doing something more meaningful.”
When did you first step into growth hacking?
Most growth hackers don’t even know they are one. When Jenna started her blog, she’d began to translate her technical skills into the world of marketing officially making herself a growth hacker.
“Because I got into the tech side of the internet, it opened my eyes that you can start your own business. I know that sounds straightforward, but people can run businesses and you’re a person and you can just do it if you have an idea. Just create a website and talk about it.
At Chartbeat, I started a blog about health and wellness called Urban Fitopia. That was in the early days of Tumblr and I became one of the fastest growing ones. This was around 2013.
That was my first foray into growth hacking.
The number one thing I learned in building an audience is consistency is king. You have to create content on a schedule, then publish it regardless of whether you think it’s perfect. You have to just put stuff out there and see what the response is.
Number two is building relationships. I met many awesome health and wellness bloggers online based in New York City, and then met them in person. This led to partnerships.
Then three would be don’t solve for your future problem, solve the problems at hand. You have to boil down what your steps are.
‘Do you want to grow your blog or do you want more followers?’
‘Do you want to sell a product?’
Stop worrying about what happens at scale or ‘how do I source 100,000 apples?’ or anything like that.
You have to say,
‘How do I get that first customer?’
‘Get the first five customers?’
‘Maintain those customers?'”
How did you solve for culture-product fit?
Unlike many employees, when Jenna lost purpose at her job, she picked up another one fast. This helped expedite her career and learnings faster than most people.
“When I was at Chartbeat, I got an itch to work on something that had more importance to people’s day-to-day lives. Because I started this fitness blog, I talked to many health companies on the internet. One of those companies, I started tweeting at and we started having conversations online. This company is now called ClassPass.
They’re a gym membership for boutique fitness studios. They offered me a job on Twitter. I became their first marketing hire. That’s when I went from real-time data analytics and being a product analyst to being a full-time marketer.
I got my crash course in online marketing.
‘How do you blend this idea of a tech company that’s online with a physical experience or real life experience?’
‘How do you get people to do what you want them to do?’
‘How do you grow in engagement?’
I loved my time there, but I wanted to be in the driver’s seat.”
How did you come up with the idea for Green Blender?
The best companies are never intentional. They happen because you’re playing with your passions. For Jenna that was health and wellness.
“I was thinking about health and wellness and my boyfriend at the time (we’re married now) was working at another tech startup. We were talking about how technology can help you improve your health. We got a blender and started making smoothies around the same time. Then one day he said, ‘We should just send people smoothie ingredients to people’s houses.’
The problem was obvious. Nine out of ten Americans don’t eat enough fruits and vegetables, not because there’s lack of information online or that you don’t know you should. It was convenience. That’s why we were seeing meal kits becoming popular.
People were becoming more comfortable receiving food in the mail. We did some research and found that 82% of US households own a blender. It’s the second most popular appliance in someone’s kitchen. Every ten years the whole country buys a new one.
The data said this would be a great opportunity.
Amir and I are firm believers of The Lean Startup mentality. So we created a landing page that had our value prop on it.
It said something like ‘Smoothies delivered. Sign up here.’ We had a simple optin for their email and zip code. We drove five hundred dollars of AdWords traffic to it.
Anytime someone tried to sign up, we would say ‘Sorry Green Blender isn’t in your area. Try back later.’
We were just trying to see if we could get someone’s email address and how much would that’d cost. We got around 150 emails on the list.
At the time, we were flying to Tahoe for a ski trip and I looked over at Amir and said, ‘Okay, let’s just get this done.’ In flight, we set up an LLC on LegalZoom and a business bank account.
We thought ‘Let’s send them an email and see if they buy.’ So we sent an email that said, ‘Great news Green Blender is in your area, sign up here to get smoothies delivered.’
Five or six people bought and then we were like, ‘Oh shit. We have to produce this idea.’
We went to the grocery store put boxes together and got on the subway and delivered them to people’s houses.”
How did you scale in the early days?
In startup early days, founders have to do the unscalable. There’s no way around it. You’re wearing multiple hats whether you like it or not. Many times you’re taking the most unconventional routes to get the work done.
“In the early days, you’re doing everything so you don’t have the luxury to hire somebody to work in your business so that you can work on your business.
Some of the things that we did were not scalable. We were shipping boxes out of our apartment for the first couple months and it was winter time. We had them in our second bedroom and we would turn off the heat in that second bedroom and open the window. That was our walk-in cooler for all this food.
Then we’d have around 15 contractors come and pack boxes with us. It felt like a drug operation. But we were pushing fruits and vegetables. We went and bought food at the grocery store and then packed them into boxes to understand what ingredients shipped well and learned about minimums and understanding what types of companies even sell food to grocery stores.
I remember Googling, ‘Where do grocery stores buy their food?’
I took pictures of trucks parked in front of Whole Foods and called the number on the truck and asked, ‘What do you guys do? Will you sell produce to me?’
The point is you don’t have to be an expert to get started. You just need to solve for the problems at hand and not worry about what happens when you’re shipping 10,000 boxes.
Because you have to get there first and to get there first.
However, you need to do it.”
What were the key learning lessons?
As a founder, even though you wear many hats, the goal is to take one off at a time. If you can’t free yourself up, then you can’t innovate, hire, and build the business you’re capable of.
“The number one thing that I can think of is delegation. It’s still the main issue I have today. It’s understanding when I should pass something off to somebody else and when I should hold it. An example of what I mean is for the first year and a half, I took all of the photography of all of the smoothie recipe pictures and would do it all at once in my backyard because that was where the lighting was best.
No matter what the weather was, I’d shoot, edit, and put the images online. Doing all that stuff took two days of work.
Then I was looking at a list of things that I need to do to improve Green Blender. One of the things was to get photography off my plate. It was an argument with myself about how important it was that I needed to do it because it’s the essence of the brand. Then when I finally got it off my plate it was a sigh of relief.
Today, our photographer does it one hundred times better than I ever have done it. She has more time to think about the actual recipes in the format of the photography. The learning lesson is nine times out of ten, someone else will do it way better than you.
That’s why it’s important to make sure that every week you spend some time thinking about where you spend all your time.
Being aware that sometimes people use ‘like this is what I do’ to hold onto these already solved processes as a form of procrastination for not having to solve hard problems that haven’t yet been solved in your business. That’s the point of you being the founder. You’re the one that is moving this agenda forward.
You’re running through brick walls and you’re trying to solve problems that have never been solved before. If those are the problems that you don’t have time to do then you need to get stuff off your plate or else your business will die.”
What motivates you to keep going?
Most startups fail because the founders can’t stay motivated. They burn out from failing too many times. On a long enough timeline, most startups can be successful through pivoting. However, few have the patience. That’s why many founders sell their company or just give up when people least expect it. To keep going, you have to be passionate about what you do.
“Part of the business that I like is that we’re helping people eat more fruits and vegetables and live a healthier life. It’s refreshing to come to work and solve these problems. It makes a lot of the hard decisions and sleepless nights worth it.
Subscription businesses are interesting because you have several clear levers that you need to improve. There are several metrics that you don’t have to find.
‘Should we make the UI easier?’
‘How do we improve lifetime value?’
‘Should we launch new products to do that?’
Having clear goals is really satisfying for me. So lifetime value, retention, customer acquisition and then your margins. The actual steps to improve them are not as clear but your end goal is always very clear.”
What does it take to run a company with your spouse?
One of the most admirable parts of Jenna’s story is her ability to run a company successfully with her spouse. It’s often a rarity that a marriage can work in and out of the office. Jenna breaks it down how it’s not magic; instead, there’s a reason it worked well for them.
“I have done a lot of thinking about what made it so successful to run a company with my spouse. Number one is that we have complementary skills. I do marketing acquisition, financial modeling, and he is a developer. He works on the product roadmap and operations.
We come together and talk about what we’ve decided and then go apart again and start running the operations or the marketing or whatever it is. If we were both marketers, then we’d have a lot more friction.
In the beginning, it was difficult to understand how each other worked. I’m an early morning person. I love to run before work. I like to get shit done early. I want to start my meetings on time. I’m very type A.
Amir is not so into waking up early.
He works late at night.
He’s a little more chill.
It’s important to discuss how you like to communicate when you’re at work. It’s a totally different environment than when you’re just hanging out at dinner.
Right now we’re doing smoothies which I like to say is the gateway drug to healthy living.
Where we’re going next is asking,
‘What else can we do to help people improve their health on the margin?’
We’re looking at where a blend fits into their daily routine.”
What is one of your most successful marketing strategies?
When Jenna started her company, she took a long-term vision. Unlike most entrepreneurs who aim for quick wins, she built a marketing foundation that could stand the test of time.
“At Chartbeat, I saw everyone’s traffic and how it changed.
Some websites had all their traffic come through Pinterest and some from search. This gave me insight into how powerful it is if you can rank with keywords. So we had a content strategy and a social strategy before we even had a single product.
We posted to Instagram to drive our social traffic, created content, and published thoughtful articles that would rank for certain keywords. SEO is one of those things that’s a slow burn. You can’t just say, ‘Now we have time for SEO. Let’s flip the switch and like spend $100,000 on it.’
That’s not how it works and you have to work on it every single day for four to ten years. There are hacks and stuff but the secret is to be consistent and thoughtful about what you post. Make sure it’s all tagged correctly. It has great rich content. That’s there are backlinks to all the images and everything is titled correctly.
Most of our traffic comes through organic search. That’s been helpful for us in prospecting. Then you can retarget all of that traffic and it only keeps growing the more content you put out.
You need to be nimble. What worked last year is not going to work this year and don’t cry about it. Assess your environment and figure out where the opportunities lie. You have to do that every single day. You can’t rely on the status quo.
We try to build a culture of learning and taking risks. It’s sometimes difficult because our product is cyclical where we send boxes every week. Every week we are doing the same thing but different because we’re always trying to improve.
We spend time researching where’s all the traffic is going.
Where’s everyone’s attention being spent.”
What’s next for you?
Being an entrepreneur is far from easy. In part, because you never settle.
“You’re never going to feel like you’ve made it.
That’s the nature of being a successful entrepreneur. You always have this anxiety You think ‘Oh my God, I need to grow faster or we need to be doing something different.’
It’s a good feeling to have.
It ensures that you don’t become obsolete.”
Today, Green Blender is helping hundreds of thousands of people become healthier.
As Jenna expresses, it’s more of a movement than anything to help people enjoy their lives.
Because when all is said and done, what we’re left with is our health.
She’s on a mission to ensure everyone knows that.
Most importantly, that they take action today.
I was the VP of marketing for a mobile app startup that failed.
I then interviewed at many companies in Silicon Valley to get another job in tech.
Four of these companies had around twenty people on their team.
Each of these four would become billion-dollar companies.
This list included companies like Marketo and Grammarly.
None of them hired me.
Without much luck, I ran out of savings and moved in with my Dad.
Having zero job prospects, I picked up the habits of reading and writing every day.
For two simple reasons:
- It’s all I could afford to better myself
- My Dad would kick me out if he saw me watching T.V. or playing video games
Over the next year, I read one-hundred-and-twenty books on business, psychology, and threw in a couple of fiction novels as well.
I wanted to believe I was smarter.
But I didn’t feel my brain cells firing.
It wasn’t until years later when I’d use much of what I’d learned.
It finally became relevant.
I read war stories about CEOs and founders.
I read about how you should lead a team to greatness.
I read about how to get investors to like your startup pitch.
Yet, I wasn’t a CEO, founder, leading a team, or even in the startup world.
I was an unemployed writer living with his parents.
Moreover, an unemployed writer preparing for when my dream came true rather than executing to get there. Big mistake.
What did help me?
All the grammar books I read during that time.
I could apply them right away.
I didn’t see the benefit correlation until I heard about just-in-time learning.
To boil it down, it means learning when you need it the most.
In other words, when you have the problem.
I came across this last week when I took a plane to speak at a conference.
At 45,00 feet in the air, I read the book, Good to Great, by author Jim Collins.
When I came back to the office a couple of days later, I took a few actions based on the book. This included changing how we hire by making culture fit a more important piece when critiquing candidates.
What I realized is this time the learnings were actionable.
The book, Good to Great, is all about how to become a better CEO.
And I’m currently a CEO so it gave me exactly what I needed.
That’s what I call “just-in-time reading.”
It’s reading when it’s relevant to you.
Most of us don’t do this because we like to prepare, prepare, and prepare some more.
But that doesn’t get us anywhere.
What we need to do is get to the problem, then find the solution.
But as humans, we’re wired to stay away from hard work.
We rather plan for it.
Delay the pain as long as possible.
The issue with this is the challenges we think we’ll face often don’t come to fruition.
Most of the time, they’re completely different than what we expect.
Even in obstacle course racing. When I ran a Toughest Mudder (25 miles with 50+ obstacles), I asked fellow racers how they prepare.
All the top racers said the same thing –
“The best way is to participate in the shorter races.”
They didn’t say run, climb stairs, or jump rope. They told me to do shorter versions of the same race. I thought they were crazy because it sounded painful. Yet, they were right.
Because in order to achieve a goal, it takes execution first.
Then figuring out how to get better afterward.
That’s why today, I apply “just-in-time reading.”
Because it’s easy to prepare for the big, bad wolf. But sometimes that wolf doesn’t come out of the cave. Instead, it’s a friendly dog rolling on its back for attention.
So if you want to read like successful people do –
Get to the problem first.
Then pick up the book.