As an investor, founder, CEO and business book author, I write about startups, design, how to build a good business, and I like to muse about culture in any form.

Watching an idea get born, startup-style…

Screen Shot 2013-03-17 at 7.51.46 PM

This is the “shop by Personal Values” results screen on Daily Grommet today.

I’ve been doing a lot of speaking with young founders at places like the Harvard i-Lab, Startup Institute, TechStars and Mass Challenge.  People always want to know how we get our ideas.  They want to know about design thinking.  I can clearly articulate how I thought of Daily Grommet, but the day-to-day ideas are harder to capture.  So for kicks, I thought I would share one idea we are baking real-time at Grommet.

Many ideas start with a “what do you think?” email.   Here is one I sent on Saturday to four Grommet people:

Email text is repeated below.

Email text is repeated below.

Hi guys,

Last night I was watching the Sheryl Sandberg interview with Nora O’Donnell on 60 Minutes.  It was related to Sheryl’s controversial new book “Lean In”, which is a bit of a manifesto to help women claim their power.  Nora asked the killer question:  “What do you say to people who object that talking about this topic is easy for you?”  Sheryl:  “That’s exactly why I am talking about this.  Because it is easy for me.”  It was the best moment of the piece and a brilliant response.

It got me thinking.  Why don’t women act on their own power to influence business?  Why do we wait for men (who control companies and boards) to anoint us?  If we only organized ourselves to overtly support the companies with female founders and boards we could change things very quickly.  Ie. if we had a social and economic movement.   Sheryl is attacking this issue from the perspective of career management.  But why is there no parallel consumer movement?  This kind of stuff is just relegated to more non-profit watchdog groups.

And then it hit me.  At Grommet we can take this on.  We have both power, community and a voice.  We articulate values all the time about companies who have a social enterprise aspect, or sustainable values, or who are manufacturing in the US.  But we never overtly support companies who have founders who represent underdog populations.  I started thinking about women as underdogs, but extended my thought to founders under 25.  Young founders lack networks and access to capital.  And I thought about founders over 65.   Their problem is similar to women:  people don’t believe they can pull off a difficult startup.

What is the net-net?  What can we do?  I believe we already do half the job we should …by having these founders telling their own stories on our site.  In that way people can subconsciously absorb new images of company founders:  high school kids, women, retirees etc. and we can expand their understanding of who really founds companies and builds new products.

But I got to thinking about our new website under development and how it has very clear and very prominent “values icons” and shopping search organization that tell people quickly if a company’s product is a global find, a handcraft, a social enterprise, sustainable etc.  I suggest we add three new icons to quickly communicate the founder story.  Ie. an icon for a woman founder, an icon for founders under 25 and an icon for a founder over 65.  I’d also like to make our site searchable by these values, just like we do for other values.  I know that might be harder to pull off…since we don’t currently organize our data on that “founder demographics” dimension.


This is the library of icons we developed to put on our new site, to give a quick indicator of a key “value” any given Grommet could hold. They will have roll-over tool tips for explanation of their meaning. They mean: Made in USA, Global Find, Green, Sustainable, Social Enterprise, Handcraft. I am proposing addition(s) to characterize the founders of a Grommet company.

Many people do care about these things, and if they don’t care we have a role and responsibility to make them aware.

I hope that within the lifetime of Grommet the “female founder” focus will become totally unnecessary, but the age-related ones will likely endure.  We should get in front of this.

What do you think?  Are icons and search categories enough and the right place to focus?  (Assuming our content continues to support this.)


Aimee's reply

Aimee’s reply

First reply, from our VP of Business Development Aimee Anderson (within minutes of my email).  We are pretty rapid-fire, even on weekends.  She deepens my sense of the potential of this idea with her reply. :

I like this concept very much!

Did you all see the Grid interview? The team behind this idea are all current MassArt students. Colin, the CEO tells Joanne about how he is is excited for Pitch bc as design students they have the domain knowledge, but don’t have the same access to executive support that others might have.

This event will give Colin & team a great opportunity to get feedback from people they might normally have access to.  Our site could do same thing everyday! Very cool!


Second reply, also from Aimee:

One more thing on this…
I really like when I see people in these categories (disadvantaged by age/sex), play up this difference. Colin, from Grid really struck me. And I always love to see women in business who are strong, but also play up their femininity.

One of my early jobs was at Fidelity. One of my tasks was helping to organize the SVP and above monthly meeting. That group is about 250 at Fidelity (or at least is was in 2000). In that group, there were about 10 women. And they all wore black pants suits to that monthly meeting, which was so average. There was one exception, and I wish I could remember her name, but she ALWAYS wore a red dress to this meeting, and I always smiled when I greeted her.

I think I might need to pull out a red dress for Tues 🙂


Third reply, from our Design Director Anna Boyadjieva:

Hi there,

I agree that these are great things to highlight and share with people and that supporting these under-represented groups makes sense with what we do and who we are. I have been thinking a lot about this idea and am wondering if there is a way to do this with 1 single icon – something to the effect of under-represented groups. I fear that since we already have 6 icons, we can easily double these and that we’re perhaps getting too granular? Meaning, if we do under 25, women, and over 65, what will the handicapped community feel about this? or what about minorities? I worry that by including only some, we unintentionally “ostracize” others, though perhaps i am being too PC about this. But still, if we’re doing some, should we not do all? Those groups are typically under-represented in this field as well, i am sure. That’s why i was thinking maybe 1 icon with a more granular description in the video etc. If this is something we highlight in the engagement part of the grommets, we have more room to speak to it there as well. The search would be affected slightly by this, but it still makes sense to me.

My 2 cents 🙂


Fourth reply, from our Marketing Director Sandrine Mangia-Park:

I also didn’t reply earlier because I wanted to think a bit more about this.

 I applaud and support fully the idea of supporting woman, young entrepreneurs, etc.   I like the idea of highlighting this part of their stories but I have a few reservations with the icons proposal.

As Anna highlighted I am also afraid of the granularity of those icons;  What is included and excluded under this definition  What is  the definition? If we start such a thing we will need to add more minorities, “underdogs” icons. I am not a PC person but it did cross my mind as soon as I read it.

Also, the story behind each Grommet is key to us. It is one the reason why Discovery decides if a product is or not a Grommet. Being a woman, a young entrepreneurs is part of their stories but should it become an necessary  element of the product? Is it what mainly describes it?

When it comes to the woman angle, I have a lot of trouble expressing intelligently what  my thoughts are on it but when I read your email it made me think of something I experienced in the poker world. A few years ago, tournament ‘s directors introduced women-only tournaments. These tournaments were judged easier than the ones open to all, because men were not playing in it. Their buy-in were smaller and so was the merits of winning it. While these tournaments helped to make poker more popular among  women, they didn’t help women to prove they could be as good as men. It is indeed not directly related to the ambition you described, but I could not help thinking that we should not have to put as  a product attribute made and thought by a woman to have it a better chance to compete vs. others products.

I might completely wrong and I should keep thinking about it but I thought I would share my initials reactions.


Fifth reply from me:

Hey guys,

Liking how you are advancing this idea.  It matters a lot to me that Anna and Sandrine both immediately thought of “who are we excluding?”  That is the best justification of a single icon and sort criteria.  More flexible. But I do wonder if a person searching on our site sees all these “underdog” founders as the same thing?  It is really different to be a 20 year old male founder vs. a 40 year old woman etc.   And is it just plain wimpy to create a bucket “underdog” category?  

I think I see a mutual interest in a commitment to this idea and agreement that relying on the video/story is not sufficient.  I would be OK with a single icon if we really think space is an issue.  I am not sure it is.  Most Grommets will only require one or two. June can tell us the data on that front, to help us decide.  

In some ways, though, it is kinda cool to just have a category called “Underdog Founder.”  Intriguing and bold in its own way.  Do you think our founders would object to being called underdog?  Not answerable I know…but worth thinking about?  Maybe “Underdog Hero?”   “Underdog role model?”  OK now it gets too sanctimonious.

Anyway, June can you pull out that data you surfaced before, about the array of icons that will be deployed?


Sixth reply from June Hsiao, our Product Manager:
I have the same concerns about who we are including/excluding with our ‘values’ icons.   

As with Sandrine,  it’s taking a while for me to process and think about how we can ‘lean in’.   Jules, you asked if “icons and search categories enough and the right place to focus?”.   I think those things are the easy part, and in some sense window-dressing to the hard work of finding and promoting underdog entrepreneurs. [I’m not keen on the term ‘underdog’ but I don’t have a better word for them.]    

Are underdog entrepreneurs brand defining? Should that be a focus/criteria for Discovery?   Would we accomplish more by highlighting them in our blog, and social sharing sites?   As I’m typing this,  I wonder why we need to label this group,  i.e. why say ‘female artist’ when you can say ‘artist’?    Is it to ‘claim’ our role in their success?   Pardon my rambling.   I know I raised a lot of questions to your simple suggestion but  I think it’s worth the conversation.

p.s.  I’ll get some data on our current ‘value’ grommets.

Seventh reply from me:

Hi guys,

I contend we already do the hard work of finding a promoting underdog entrepreneurs.  I just want to make them easier to find and support with this suggestion. So not at all window dressing…in my mind.  We always give a longer look at entrepreneurs in these categories because it is part of our own value set to do so.  So our Discovery team would not need to change anything they already do.  People really like our current ability to sort Grommets by values, and I suspect they would like this different cut at “values” just as much.  

I do want to take a leadership role in our business…I feel a sense of responsibility given my exposure in mentoring other founders.  There is just no denying the handicaps people in these categories face.  The data is very, very compelling (crummy access to capital, insufficient media coverage, terrible board representation, 4% of Fortune 500 CEOs are women etc.) so this is is a real issue, not just one we perceive.

Word-smithing an alternative to “underdog”:  minority, under-represented, unconventional.  Not liking any of these.  June…do you have a suggestion?  Sometimes a clear word is better than a pretty one….but open to suggestions.

Eighth reply from Sandrine:

dark horse?

Ninth reply from Anna:

Dark Horse sounds badass, though it’s not a term I know off-hand – i had to look it up. that said, i am foreign so that could be why…

Disadvantaged – sounds too wellfarey….

Maybe it’s more of a positive spin – like “up and coming” or “newly minted” or “freshly-minted” or “newcomers”…or “new players”, etc. More of a stretch but i think the positive connotation starts the conversation on a better foot.


OK, back to me and this blog.   That above is an “insider view” of an idea that got born at Daily Grommet.  It could originate with anyone, but the process would be similar.  (Mix of Google apps, email, IM are the normal media.  Limited meetings.)  Elapsed time from idea to refinement:  45 hours from Saturday to Monday AM.  I will stop sharing our back-and-forth here, as the group brainstorm is now moving into word-smithing, rather than the core idea.  And we can get kind of anal about this stuff.  I won’t inflict that pain on the readers of this blog.

There is no committee or meeting needed to get this idea done and we don’t really have total consensus.  My co-founder Joanne would normally weigh in but she is on vacation.  She will trust us to do the right thing so we will keep moving.

We’ll get the data and make the call about whether to use a single icon or not.  We will pause to make sure this is a good use of time before making it happen.  (June and I will decide that, as we are the main arbiters of these kind of resources.) We’ll figure out how hard it will be to capture this new data in each Grommet profile to make them searchable by “underdog/dark horse” and make sure we predict the correct fields to add and capture.

If need be, I’ll play a bit of a “heavy” to get this done.  It’s thankfully more of an ops request than a software dev one, but this extra work comes on top of an extremely demanding time.  Why? Oh, just for kicks we are:

All of this is happening between now and May.  So, you can see why my adding this weekend idea into the mix might be a bit of a strain. But you can also see that no one on my team objected to the extra work.  They just want to get it right.  I love that.  That is how ideas happen at start-ups.

6 Responses to “Watching an idea get born, startup-style…”

  1. shoelady2

    Love it. Keep the conversation going. Love that you were inspired by Sandberg’s conversation on “leaning in” and that we who can need to throw our voice, our ideas into the mix of business conversations. I also love the staff responses. They reminded me of how painful and fruitless it was to be labelled by the federal government as a “women owned business” which, supposedly conferred all kinds of financially lucrative advantages on my then new and small company (not my current company). It did just the opposite, portraying me as dependent on welfare for a leg up and not totally up to competing on my own. It made me into a “victim of society”. I think there is a solution here to allow Daily Grommet to lean in, speak out and provide a forum for entreprenuers. Keep it warm and let it simmer to you get out from under the challenges you’ve laid out through May. The issues will be here still.

    • julespieri

      Thanks for the encouragement. I believe this issue is better attacked by business directly than by government, as your experience shows. As I hope the post communicated, I know we are already making a meaningful dent in this issue by showcasing a wide variety of entrepreneurs. But the big Ah-hah for me was to more overtly articulate this as a possible attribute of a company that we feature. We let it go unsaid before. We will still do that (in our video stories) but I want to support all that deep effort with some more tangible tools for our community to use (icons, search sort).

  2. pacificshaving

    Great post! Though I think underdog and first-time entrepreneur are synonymous, regardless of attributes including gender, age, prior (or no) work background, or even industry. The first time around, you are an underdog, no matter where you have come from prior to that. On more than one occasion, I had wished we were a women or minority-owned business, instead of one run by a 40-ish, man. I’ve come to learn that it doesn’t really matter. Just like everything else worthwhile, it takes commitment, hard work, blood, sweat and tears (not necessarily in that order). I think, perhaps unknowingly, Daily Grommet has already created the segment you are looking to define. Almost everyone at one point in their life as said, “I have a great idea for a business/product.” You guys shine light on the small percentage of people who follow that idea all the way through. And in doing that, encourage others to do the same. Perhaps icons for 1st/2nd/3rd/etc-time entrepreneur…

    • julespieri

      That first-time entrepreneur thing is too true! Thanks for pointing that out Stan… but as you also point out…a huge % of our Grommets come from that population. We will take chances on anyone who has executed a good idea well and don’t even consider their prior business experience unless it is directly relevant to their current project.

      I am curious why you thought being a woman or minority would be helpful…maybe I am missing something. For press? To get meetings? (I want to make a joke here…but will get in trouble with someone if I do!)


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