My first steps in entrepreneurship, aka school of hard knocks


Shared-Practice (2010-2013) was a resource, network and event calendar for the Chicago design community. I co-founded the company with the talented and wonderful Felicia Ferrone, two weeks after graduating from SAIC's Masters in Design. Felicia and I had met while I was in still in school, she was a guest during one of my critiques (and is one of the most respected designers working in Chicago). I was very fortunate to work alongside her, and I still consider her a close friend. We both feel that the best thing coming out of S-P was the time we spent getting to know each other.

Shared-Practice was the convergence of two missions: a centralized event calendar for design events and an online user-generated database of manufacturing resources. Felicia was passionate about the event calendar concept, as there was no consolidated calendar for Chicagoland Design/Architecture lectures/events. We were both in the "design scene" and would often miss events because we were "one person away" from hearing about it. Our centralized calendar enabled members to browser events or post their events and share them with colleagues.

After working alongside amazing fabricators (on some tight deadline projects) I realized how valuable good resources can be to a designer. More over, I felt there was a problem in the common practice of designers hoarding their manufacturing/fabrication resources. Designers were treating manufacturing resources as a competitive advantage... which is shortsighted. A designers talent is in the ability to generate something evocative, smart and innovative regardless of circumstance. I saw this over-protective behavior as something that damaged everyone involved. Opening your resources to others generates trust and provides fabricators/manufactures with more business. When you link people together you get something tangible back. I still believe that sharing is the core of community building. Our hope was that through sharing events and resources we could bolster our small Chicago design scene.

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So why didn't it work? I think a core issue was we didn't truly understand the difference between a pipeline and platform business model. We had a platform business that we expected to become self-sufficient. We didn't build the system from the ground up with strong social networking features. Another platform BuiltIn Chicago launched a month after Shared-Practice. At the time they were using a horribly ugly Ning Network, which (while indeed ugly) provided robust social networking functionality. While S-P signups accrued quickly and steadily, the golden goose of engagement was never realized.

Shortly after we went offline I discovered the Lean Startup Methodology in three great books: The Lean Startup, Running Lean and The Entrepreneurs Guide to Customer Development. In hindsight our "build-measure-learn" cycle was not based on growth metrics, which as a platform business we absolutely needed.

Another issue, which became larger as our membership and data grew, we were jam-packed with features/offerings. The site had a host of resources (manufacturing, business, etc), different calendars, user profiles, forums, job-board and a blog. Through various INC. articles and ReWork, Jason Fried of Basecamp, taught me about focusing on the essential. "Featuritis" (my word) did more harm than good.

It's easy to see what one would change in retrospect. All business case studies seem so obvious... history has a way of making "the right decision" crystal clear ( i.e checkout this story of the early days of PayPal!). One thing I'll definitely be bringing with me is that all core business decisions are multifaceted and challenging. This is why frameworks like Lean Startup are so helpful: build, measure, learn and then repeat. I'm also greatful for all the different skills/tools I pickup during this time... most of which I'm still using today (looking at you HTML/CSS)!