The Entrepreneurs I Met in Uganda and Kenya

December 30, 2010

(If you haven’t yet read my last post on investing in Africa you can read it here)

The Journey to East Africa

I left my parents’ home in Bradenton, Florida on Sunday afternoon and after a 30 hour journey through Tampa, snowy-D.C. and Istanbul, Turkey I arrived at 2:15am Tuesday at Entebbe International Airport in Uganda. I was so happy to be back in Africa for the third time.

I got through immigration and customs and by 3am came out of the arrivals area at Entebbe to meet Roey Rosenblith and Abu Musuzza, two solar lighting entrepreneurs in Uganda who run VillageEnergy. They very graciously picked me up at such an early hour in the morning.

Roey and Abu have been working for a year and a half now on bringing affordable solar lighting to the 80% of homes without electricity in Uganda. They began their sales back in September 2010 after a year of R&D and production and are now rapidly building out their distribution model for their $60 home solar lighting systems.

I had invested in VillageEnergy back in January 2010 through a personal investment fund the Humanity Fund. There was much to discuss!

We jumped in Abu’s Corolla at the airport carpark and began the hour drive back to their apartment in Kampala. On the way I got an update on Village Energy’s operations. We arrived a little after four back at their place. After a quick demonstration of the VillageEnergy solar lighting system and a heated cinnamon bun (definitely not the first thing I expected to eat in Uganda), I crawled under the malaria net and fell asleep by 5am. We had a busy day ahead!

Tuesday – Kampala, Uganda

I rose at 9am and after a shower and some fresh chapatti and Kenyan tea the three of us went to the Kabira Club for a buffet breakfast.

There at the Kabira Club I met with tech entrepreneurs in a series of meetings Roey had set up.

Here’s are the entrepreneurs I met with  in Uganda.

  1. Roey Rosenblith and Abu Musuza from VillageEnergy
  2. Charles from Wifi Cloud who is starting a wimax phone routers business in Kampala
  3. Saidi Bakenya from One2Net is setting up a digital internet connection service over the TV spectrum
  4. Peter Kimuli from Carnelian who is building a micro hydro power plan in west Uganda
  5. Peter Benhur Nyeko from Benconolly Pess Ltd, who is in the bus and generator business
  6. Charles Kalema, who run a garbage and disposal business with 24 employees
  7. Dennis from Dmark Mobile, a mobile apps company with 23 employees
  8. Revence Kalibwani, a mobile app developer

Around 4:30pm we went to the Village Energy sales center to meet with their employees Aggie, Alex, Alex, and Charles. We then went to dinner at a local hotel to get feedback from the team on how to improve Village Energy.

At eight we visited Olga, a VillageEnergy customer who lives in area without electricity and has 3 VE units installed.

We capped off the night with drinks at 9:30pm at Cayenne in Kampala with Roey and Abu and their friends Simon, Jennifer, and Dennis. Dennis runs Dmark Mobile, a mobile apps company with 23 employees.

Wedneday & Thursday – Nairobi, Kenya

On Wednesday I woke up at 8am. Roey, Abu, and I drove to Entebbe to have breakfast with Revence Kalibwani, a mobile app developer. Then we went to the airport and I was off to Nairobi on Air Uganda.

Yesterday and today In Nairobi I met with:

  1. David Kuria from Iko Toilet, has 50 environmentally friendly pay toilets throughout Kenya. Has raised funds from the Acumen Fund and works with my friend Amon Anderson at Acumen.
  2. Elizabeth Myyuiyi from EcoBank Kenya to discuss SME loans and credit. Secured loans are going here for 14% per year and group guaranteed microfinance loans are at 25-30%. (Though the annual inflation here is about 9% so the real interest rates on these loans are lower).
  3. Gaita Waimuchii of NetBlue Africa, a web marketing agency, and a 21 employee travel booking company in Nairobi
  4. Ben Lyon and Dylan Higgins of KopoKopo, mobile money backend integrator, API connector between MFIs and multiple platform mobile money solutions. Ben is from FrontlineSMS and Dylan is from They’re received investment from FirstLight Ventures and Presumed Abundance to date.
  5. Jessica Colaco from iHub Nairobi, tech incubator
  6. Wiclif Otieno from Kito International, non-profit that employs street-youth in Kenya
  7. Morgan Simon, founder of Toniic Impact Investors Network

During these discussions a number of other Kenyan and East African tech firms were mentioned that I’ll have to check out.

I’ll be posting next a report and video from my time this afternoon at the iHub, the tech incubator and innovation hub here in Nairobi.

Asante Sana,

Tuesday – Kampala, UgandaIf

A Tour Inside the iContact Durham Offices (And Zappos and Google)

September 10, 2010

iContact will be moving to a new office building in Morrisville, North Carolina next month.

We moved to Durham from a two-room office Chapel Hill in December 2004 when we had 11 employees and were called Broadwick. We actually fit the entire office in one U-Haul truck when we moved!

Now six years on, we’ll be taking 240 employees to Morrisville and have space to grow to 550.

I took an hour today to take a few photos of our current office and put them together with a few older photos from our 2009 decoration contest to create a tour off our current office space. I hope you’ll get a bit of a sense for our fun, creative, and energetic culture as you take a look. We’re not quite Zappos or Google yet in terms of the creativity of our physical environment (see below), but we’re working on it.

For the sake of preserving a bit of our unique culture and sharing what it is like inside the iContact physical environment, here is a tour of our current iContact Space via Scribd. Enjoy!

Looking for some inspiration for the physical environment we want to create in our new space in Morrisville, I also put together a deck of pictures from Zappos office and Google’s office that I figured would be worth also sharing…

The Zappos Offices – Las Vegas, NV

Zappos Offices – Las Vegas, NV

Google Offices – Worldwide

The 10 Most Important Business Lessons I’ve Learned

August 27, 2010

Here are the most important business lessons I’ve learned building iContact from 2 to 220 employees over the last eight years.

  1. Just get started, have a bias toward action, and don’t get stuck in analysis paralysis.
  2. To grow your sales, it is critical to calculate the lifetime value of an average customer, calculate what you’re currently paying to acquire an average customer (total monthly ad spend divided by customers acquired in that month), determine the maximum you’re willing to pay to acquire an average customer, and scale your marketing scientifically by testing relentlessly and finding the channels in which you can acquire customers for less than your maximum acceptable customer acquisition cost and then growing spend within those channels.
  3. Never raise more equity capital than 1x your current annualized revenue (monthly revenue x 12). If you raise too much money too soon you’ll give up too much ownership and control of your company and be tempted to spend the money in ways that aren’t carefully controlled. Wait to raise a large round until you have proven mathematically than $X amount of additional spending with generate $Y amount of additional revenue. (once you figure out #2 this is easy).
  4. If you choose to raise money, raise it from investors you like and get along with well. You’ll have to hang out with these people for the next 3-7 years, make sure you enjoy spending time with them.
  5. After the first year or two, your success is determined by the people you hire, not by you. Stop trying to do everything yourself. Scale yourself by hiring people more experienced than you in their field as soon as you can afford to.
  6. Every member of the team should have a significant portion of their compensation based on the company’s success and their department’s success, quantified and communicated clearly in advance.
  7. Your job as CEO is not to micromanage/tell your team members what to do, but rather to hire experienced people who can do their jobs better than you could, collaboratively set numerical goals, and hold your direct reports accountable for their performance individually and as a team.
  8. Once you get past the start-up phase when you’re responsible for everything, the five parts of a CEOs role are 1) Set strategy and vision 2) Manage the senior team 3) Communicate with stakeholders 4) Oversee resource allocation and 5) Build the Culture.
  9. It is possible to become more socially and environmentally responsible and increase your financial returns at the same time
  10. If you create a great culture (a fun work environment filled with people who are high performers and who care about their work and their impact on the world) you will be able to attract and retain better people who will be much more engaged and productive and create a much more financially successful company.

I’ll be writing more about building a great company culture in the next post.

What lessons have you learned over the years in business? What do you think about these lessons?

iContact, Nourish, and Life Update

June 2, 2010

I’ve been super focused the last six weeks on iContact and Nourish since making it back from Skoll World Forum and the Icelandic volcano.

iContact Update

The baby that Aaron and I started way back in 2003 is now 7 years old (see our company picture below).

We’ve hired 45 new team members so far in 2010. iContact has now passed 200 employees and 63,000 customers and are at a $37M annualized revenue run-rate. Here we come $100M.

We’re working to build a ‘great global company, based here in North Carolina, for our customers, employees, and community.’ Our 2020 mission is to be the largest global provider of email marketing software and services to the Small Business and Mid-Sized Business market.

Recently iContact has come out with and announced:

iContact’s Social Responsibility

In May, Matt Kopac  joined iContact, helping us with our social and environmental responsibility work. Matt is helping iContact become a B Corporation (for-benefit corporation), create a system to quantify our social and environmental impact, and prepare for writing our 2010 Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) Report. Matt is comes to us from Yale University where he finished in MBA in 2009. Matt has worked in the Peace Corps in Benin and for VisionSpring in El Salvidor.

Making iContact a  Triple Bottom Line (TBL) Company

A triple bottom line company is a company that focuses on its financial results, social results, and environmental results. This three-pronged measurement system also goes by the moniker of “Profit, People, Planet.” iContact already measures and report on our financial results religiously.

We are now setting up a system to measure our social results and our environmental results. My hope is that iContact can become a global example of a socially responsible triple-bottom line venture-backed technology company. My strong belief is that by measuring and focusing on social impact and environmental impact, financial results are actually improved and not the other way around. We are just at the beginning of this process.

We’ve got even more exciting things to share that we will announce by the end of July including our first acquisition and something so wonderful I can’t even allude to it…

Nourish Updates

Besides a few days in May at the DC Summit Series and trying to write articles and posts when I can, I’ve been very focused on two things professionally–iContact and Nourish International. I’m the Board Chair this year for Nourish so I was part of a committee to select Nourish’s next Executive Director Ryan Richards, who started on the job last week here in Chapel Hill.

Ryan comes to Nourish from NYU’s Wagner School and has worked with ReadingVillage, StartingBloc, Ashoka, and Asturias Academy previously. Ryan is taking the role from James Dillard, who as ED grew the organization from 8 to 22 college chapters.

Nourish is focused on training US college students to become global citizens. Nourish teaches entrepreneurial skills to college students who then run small businesses and ventures on their campuses, make a profit, and then invest those profits in community-based organizations in the developing world (thirteen countries so far including in  India, Bolivia, Mexico, and Uganda) who work to implement community-led sustainable economic development projects.

Nourish’s Board of Directors now includes…

  • Pallavi Garg, UT- Austin
  • Jud Bowman, CEO of PocketGear
  • Neil Bagchi, Bagchi Law
  • Buck Goldstein, UNC Entrepreneur-in-Residence
  • Jim Kitchen, TUI Travel
  • Lee Buck, LaunchBox Digital
  • Joel Thomas, UNC-Kenan Flagler
  • Chris Bingham, RileyLife Industries
  • Marcia Angle, Intrahealth
  • Ryan Allis, iContact
  • Ryan Richards, Executive Director

If you’d like to learn more about Nourish International, make a financial contribution, or get involved you can visit the Nourish web site or contact Exec. Director Ryan Richards at ryan[at]

Life Update

The past few months I’ve been living in Chapel Hill and traveling a lot for work to wonderful places like San Francisco, Boston, Chicago, D.C., and New York. Our ‘house of entrepreneurs and social entrepreneurs’ has grown. We have welcomed Zach and Ryan to our house recently and are up to 6 roommates (Phil, Ryan, Ryan, Joe, Zach, Andy) with Riley the Dog running around. Somehow we keep a good system going.

I’ve not had time to host an Entrepreneur & Social Entrepreneur Meetup for a few months but hope to bring them back in the Fall. I’m hoping to be able to head to Kampala to visit Roey with VillageEnergy in October as well as see Kigali and Zanzibar for the first time.

My girlfriend Jess has graduated from UNC with a degree in Peace, War, and Defense and is now working on both finding a job in the socially responsible investing or international relations field as well as writing a business plan for a new venture called Borderless Books and volunteering for Jim Thomas’ AfricaRising.

If you know of anyone looking for a brilliant UNC grad and social entrepreneur who’s worked in Tanzania, Guatemala, and Uganda to work for their non-profit organization or company, email Jess at jess.shorland[at]!

My parents Pauline and Park moved back to Bradenton, Florida in December. They have now sold their house in Carrboro, NC and this weekend will be the big family furniture move to my house.

Off to do a reference check call…


iContact's Social Responsibility 

In May, Matt Kopac has joined iContact as a 20 hour per week consultant, helping iContact on our social and environmental responsibility work. Matt will help iContact become a B Corporation (for-benefit corporation), create a system to quantify our social and environmental impact, and prepare for writing our 2010 Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) Report for the Board of Directors. Matt is comes to us from Yale University where he finished in MBA in 2009. Matt has worked in the Peace Corps in Benin and for VisionSpring in El Salvidor. He works in a cube outside Cindy Hays' office. Say hi to Matt (picture below) when you see him! 

What Does a Triple Bottom Line (TBL) Mean? 

A triple bottom line company is a company that focuses on its financial results, social results, and environmental results. This three-pronged measurement system also goes by the moniker of "Profit, People, Planet." We already measure and report on our financial results religiously. Part of the work Matt will be doing is setting up a system to measure our social results and our environmental results. My hope is that iContact can become a global example of a socially responsible triple-bottom line venture-backed technology company. My strong belief is that by measuring and focusing on social impact and environmental impact, financial results are actually improved and not the other way around. We are just at the beginning of this process.

To the Dominican Republic I Go

April 20, 2010

Weddings have been missed. Births have been missed. Babies have been conceived that otherwise would not have been. Lifelong friendships have formed. Serendipitous first romantic connections have blossomed in Hyde Park. Lovers have connected via Skype and Gmail video chat.

Yes, there will be a movie. And no, I still do not know how to pronounce that darn volcano’s name. No one does.

UK Airspace Closed Since Thursday

It’s 5pm GMT on Tuesday 20th of April 2010. I’m writing on a Eurostar train from London to Paris that will soon go under the ocean. I’m trying to get back to work at iContact in Durham, NC and to a loving girlfriend Jess in Chapel Hill.

UK airspace has been closed since Thursday mid-day. My flight home on Sunday was canceled. I had been stuck in London for three days, prior to deciding to stop waiting and head south.

A Plan to Escape

By Monday at noon I had a plan. I had booked a Hertz rental car at London Heathrow and would pick up Nathaniel Whittemore of and two other friends from the Skoll World Forum who were stranded here and drive down for a Friday flight in Madrid. The rental was expensive, but it was something that felt both adventurous and productive, two words that are too rarely aligned.

But then, in the hotel lobby the news came on saying the UK airspace would open. The newsflash scroller said airspace would open at 1800 hours. The lobby erupted with cheers.

My new 42 year old friend, fellow American business-traveler gone-astray Chris, and I jumped in a cab across the street to Heathrow Terminal 3 thinking we might as well go jump in line. He had been stuck since Thursday was trying somehow, someway to meet up with his wife, 9 year old son, and 7 year old daughter who left Boston today for his annual family vacation.

By the time we got back to the hotel with hopes dashed the newsflash scroller had corrected itself, by adding the word ‘tomorrow.’ But alas, there was hope for an opened Heathrow.

So I canceled the rental car and took take my chances staying put. I didn’t really want to learn how to drive on the left side of the road in the UK, anyway. Or for that matter, learn how to drive on the right side of the road in France and Spain with a right-sided steering wheel, regardless of the amount of liability insurance. Back to Plan C it was.

Excitement Until the Fiery Volcano Recast its Ash

After a serendipitous dinner with a new friend and Skoll delegate Darlene from Ikatu, who is setting up for-profit socially responsible businesses in Ghana to scalably employ disadvantaged youth after eighteen years at QVC, I prepared for bed excited at the possibility of going home.

Last night at midnight. I had a confirmed seat on a flight from Heathrow direct to Raleigh leaving tonight (Tuesday) at 8pm and had received the cherished official American Airlines text message telling me so. All was looking promising.

I forwent the mini-van to Madrid option that an entrepreneurial Skoll delegate had arranged to depart from our hotel at 5am and the Skoll Foundation canceled their rented coach service to Madrid intended to rescue their foundation members and stranded guests. All was looking rosy, and most went to bed happy.

But then, around 1am news spread on Twitter via the creatively coined #ashtag hastag that the volcano had started erupting again. By the 3am NATS update suddenly instead of preparing opening up Tuesday the situation was “dynamic and variable” which seemed to be governmental double-speak for “you’re probably screwed.”

And so the volcano started erupting again in the middle of the night, keeping London shut down for the sixth straight day.

Send in the Navy

British airspace, closed since Thursday, did open for a brief respite this morning in the North of the United Kingdom where a few lucky passengers slipped out. Plenty of planes coming from mainland Europe were flying overhead today as UK airspace was open for planes that flew above 20,000 feet. Unfortunately NATS did not allow planes on the ground to take off.

While the British government had sent in the HMS Albion to rescue stranded British tourists, partly due to political pressure stemming from an upcoming election that remains a toss up, they didn’t seem to be able to do much to get folks out of the UK.

The Queen Mary 2 cruise ship back to New York was fully booked up, the trains were full, the ferries were full, and the French train workers were on strike. Wonderful.

And thus I woke up, for the third morning in a row in a hotel adjoining Heathrow, anxiously awaiting news from the London Volcanic Ash Advisory Service (yes, really) and NATS as to whether they would allow London airports to open.

By noon the answer was a clear no.

Decision Time

After receiving the dreaded flight canceled text message, it was decision time.

And so, rather than waiting for an indefinite period of time, at least until Thursday, for a flight from Heathrow, here I am on a Eurostar train to Paris (the coach seats were all taken so here I am in first class anything for the first time in my life and hopefully the last).

Tomorrow, I have a flight booked to the Dominican Republic and then on to Miami Wednesday night and to RDU Thursday. Today, Paris is open. Tomorrow, we shall see. C’est la vie.

If Paris does not work out, then there is always a bus to Madrid. I have a backup refundable flight booked Friday from Madrid direct to Miami. It may prove difficult to get to Madrid from Paris with the French train workers on strike, but I’ll find a way.

I’m currently working on Plan F, hoping it sticks. I don’t think I’ve ever had a Plan F before, for anything.

Plan A: London to Raleigh by plane leaving Sunday

Plan B: London to Raleigh by plane leaving Monday

Plan C: London to Raleigh by plane leaving Tuesday

Plan D: London to Madrid (in rental car) to Raleigh (by plane) via Ecuador and New York, leaving Thursday

Plan E: London to Madrid (in mini-van) to Raleigh (by plane) via Miami, leaving Friday

Plan F: London to Paris (on the Eurostar train) to Raleigh (by plane) via Dominican Republic and Miami, leaving Wednesday

Plan G: London to Paris (on the Eurostar train) to Madrid (by bus) to Raleigh (by plane), via Miami, leaving Friday

Who would have thought going to Punta Cana in the Dominican Republic via Paris would ever be the best option home to NC from London?!

I am sharing a Holiday Inn room tonight by Paris Charles de Gaulle airport with my new friend and fellow traveler from Boston, Chris, who is trying his best to get back to his family as soon as he can.

I’m enjoying the adventure and getting lots of work done.

Who We Should Not Forget As We Tell This Story

As the stories of the inconvenienced well-off are told, we musn’t forget those who are truly suffering tonight.

People like me, business travelers with an EA, who can afford hotels, are doing just fine and can relax and enjoy. I am not in the majority, however. Most here are tourists and families who are stuck and cannot easily afford the $2000 or $3000 extra cost per person to get home per person in any reasonable time frame.

I particularly have sympathy in this uniquely ambiguous situation for those who have truly been hurt financially or otherwise by this situation.

From the family sleeping in the Heathrow arrivals section, waiting now six days for their connecting flight, who cannot afford the jacked-up hotel rates (what was once 29 pounds is now 79, what was once 139 pounds is now 200) to the Kenyan farmer who now has nothing but wilted flowers or a rotten crop that must be tossed or turned into cow-feed, families have been economically devastated due to the decision to close the airspace, some say unnecessarily.

There is a tremendous economic story here, and tremendous economic pressure to open up the air.

Further, I hope that the attention this volcanic incident is getting, with  primarily middle-class and weathly Westerners “stranded” in nice hotels and having an extended European vacation (even if it is an expensive and unplanned one), will not detract from the ongoing much greater crisis in Haiti where there are 750,000 real human refugees who still to this day, 100 days on, are lacking shelter, clean water, and medical care.

As this story unfolds, I hope the global media does not lose touch with the much greater human story happening to folks who may not have as much resources. In our story, we should at least arc back to the other major natural activities of 2010 in this watershed year for strange natural behavior.

When You’re Stuck in a Trap Eat Cheese

The best line of the week was from Peter Greenberg at CBS speaking at TEDxVolcano, “When your stuck in a trap, eat the cheese.”

‘Tis the adventure of globalized commerce disrupted by a fiery Mother Nature.

So here I am in France. The train is now temporarily stuck due to a “problem on the tracks.” Perhaps some brie is called for.

UPDATE 12:53am: I made it to the hotel in Paris by the airport. UK airspace opened as of 9:34pm GMT Tuesday. The flight from Paris to the Dominican Republic is looking good for tomorrow. After waiting in line to see if we could get on an earlier flight and the only option being an outrageous $8000 business class ticket to Miami in the morning. We’re getting up at 6:30am to attempt to fly standby on anything to the U.S.

Volcano Causing Entrepreneurs to Be, Well, Entrepreneurial

April 18, 2010

I’m stuck in London for a few days due to the Eyjafjallajokull volcano eruption in Iceland.

I’m looking outside my hotel window at a calm Heathrow airport. It’s filled with parked planes, but nothing and no one is moving. All of the UK and much of European airspace is closed.

Here’s a concerning part–the last time the Eyjafjallajokull volcano erupted in 1821 the eruption lasted for two years. Oh my! This volcano could affect European air travel for quite some time. The International Air Transport Association (IATA) has said airlines are losing about £130m per day in revenues.

Fortunately the forecast is calling for a storm toward the end of this week that should make it safe to fly again, at least for a time.

I’ve looked into taking the 7 day Southampton to New York cruise home (people are actually considering this!) or getting a ferry to Bilbao, Spain and then a train to Lisbon, which is currently open for most flights, but it would take at least three days to even get to Lisbon from London at the moment as the ferry services are mostly booked up.

So I’m going to get comfortable and get some work done. It looks like iContact’s European headquarters will be opening tomorrow :-) .

In the meantime I’m attending TEDxVolcano tonight in London which looks fun! A few hundred entrepreneurial attendees of the Skoll World Forum on Social Entrepreneurship and OxfordJam remain stranded as volcano refugees–so Nathaniel Whittemore has in 24 hours organized this event to bring us back together in true entrepreneurial fashion.

Also entrepreneurial is a ‘rescue mission’ set up by a local TV host here who is taking Britons stranded in France back to the UK by boat.

Some here are suggesting the UK, French, and US militaries need to get some transatlantic boat services running to get people stranded on both sides of the oceans home and back to work and their families. A lot of people here would take a guaranteed 7 day return at this point.

Anyone have any creative ideas on how to get back to North Carolina?

How I Aligned What I Love With What I Do & Scaled Myself

February 3, 2010

This post will require a certain degree of vulnerability. Sometimes we build a hard shell around us when we’re going through difficult times. This is a story of personal growth.

A year ago I was sitting late at night in my Durham office at iContact wondering if I’d become a corporate sellout.

Was I trading in some of my most productive years of life to build a company I was no longer passionate about?

I had gone from being an entrepreneur to a manager. I was 24 and we had 150 employees and $20M in sales. I was dealing with purchase order forms and paid time off policies. We had achieved all the goals we had ever set out for ourselves. Where was the entrepreneurial passion?

We had gone from #20 to #2 in the market in five years and I had no idea how we’d get to #1. I thought it might be the time to start thinking about finding my replacement.

Even though we were still growing very quickly, we weren’t quite growing at the same percentages as we were before and for the first time in our company’s history we were going to have a year in which we would not double sales.

My confidence was wavering. I had made some big mistakes:

  • I had waited too long to launch a stock option plan for the whole company.
  • I hadn’t hired a CMO soon enough.
  • I hadn’t built the right ecosystem of mentors that could help me get to the next level as a CEO.
  • I had focused too much on the surrogate-family side of our culture and not enough on the performance-focused side that was needed.
  • I hadn’t created values that people believed in and used every day. I could recall just four of our ten values without looking.
  • I had waited too long to start a formal manager training program.
  • I hadn’t truly aligned my passion for social responsibility into the ethos of the corporation.
  • I hadn’t created any effective mechanism for communicating strategic direction to the company and we had a lot of confusion as to what our focus was and operating choices were being made with different assumptions as to direction.

And these were just the mistakes I knew about!

Was I Right for the Job?

As I sat there in May 2009 I wrote in my journal “I’m not sure I’m the right person anymore to lead the company into this next stage of growth. We need to make some changes to keep the growth and hit our goals. Scary to think about. Terrible to have lost some of my confidence.” I wrote an email to our CFO on May 20th thinking about succession planning for me.

I wasn’t sure whether we should try to get acquired or keep the faith that we’d get to the $60M-$70M in annual revenue needed to go public and stay on track for the 2012 IPO. At certain points I lost the faith.

Finally in July we got the CMO we wanted. And things were looking way up by the end of the summer when we got an investment term sheet with a nine figure PMV. Wow!

But then came October. In the same week my business partner got cancer (he is now doing well!), my mom started having worsening chronic arm pain (she is now doing better), and a company that was looking to acquire us told us they weren’t going forward. I guess they say that difficult times are the foundry from which greatness is cast. But it’s sure not fun being the molten iron!

Through that baptismal fire I came to a critical understanding of self and what I needed to do to align what I love with what I do–something I’ve been preaching atop the mountain for five years in speeches but only half-heartedly living. It helped me discover my authentic self. It helped me find my Csikszentmihalyian flow.

Motivated More Than Ever

So I sit here tonight in my home in Chapel Hill motivated more than ever. iContact is now at a $34M revenue run-rate and growing that by more than $1M each month. We will hire more than 50 new team members in 2010. We had our first ever post-investment EBITDA positive month in December(!!!). We’re well on our way to fulfilling our dream of “building a great sustainable company in NC for our customers, employees, and community.” And we’ve got a plan to go from #2 to #1. We have a plan to win.

I no longer question whether I’m a corporate sellout putting in my time. I’m aligned, I’m focused. I’m learning. I’m surrounded by amazing people every day who know how to do what they do so much better than I ever could.

What I Changed?

So what did I do? Three things (and I’m still working on fully implementing them)…

  1. I worked to align my long term life mission with what I do everyday today. My life mission, the one that’s been on my bedroom wall since May 2007, is to “be a leader of our generation as we work to end extreme poverty in our lifetimes.” While I was learning a lot about leadership and management and being paid to do it, I was somewhat unclear how building a SaaS company aligned fully with a passionate desire to end extreme poverty in the developing world over the next fifty years. The incessant question in my head was whether I’d be better off finding my replacement and either applying to the Kennedy School of Government or moving to Africa to invest in entrepreneurs there. I learned a lot about the integrated 1/1/1 corporate philanthropy model of and wanted to see if we could do that at iContact. On January 8th, 2010 we launched an expanded CSR model, what we call the 4-1s Corporate Social Responsibility Model, at iContact in which we take 1% of equity, 1% of product, 1% of employee time, and 1% of payroll and invest it in local and global non-profit organizations. Since we’ve expanded this CSR program I’ve been able to see the tangible and immediate connection between my passion for social responsibility and what I do going to work every day. In 2009 iContact contributed $109,000 to 63 different 501(c)(3)s and in 2010 we’ll reach $150,000. But it’s not just money anymore. Now, each of our employees has the opportunity to be paid to take 1% of their time (2.5 days off from work) each year to do community service during business hours, which we’re tracking through VolunteerForce. While we’ve got lots of work to do to improve it, the model has real impact and tangible value for us and the community and it’s significantly helped me to a much greater degree see the meaning behind what we do everyday. I love it!
  2. We changed our company values at iContact. I realized in July of last year that we had ten “Corporate Values” but I could only remember four without reading the sheet. At an EO entrepreneurial exec ed program at MIT in June I learned you should never have more values than you can remember and that to be worthy of being a company value you’d have to be willing to let someone go if they didn’t live up to it. Our values fit neither requirement. In December at our two day Senior Leadership Team (SLT) offsite in Chapel Hill we came up with WOWME. WOWME stands for 1) Wow the Customer 2) Operate with Urgency 3) Without Mediocrity 4) Make a Positive Wake and 5) Engage as an Owner. We launched these values last month at iContact and now every SLT member knows them by heart and we’re working toward all managers using them during every performance and coaching discussion. We will hire and fire by these values, live up to them, and hold each other accountable to them. They’ve even inspired me to pick up my game and get it in gear. I love it!
  3. I let go of control. The best thing I’ve ever done for the growth of iContact is let go of control (and I’m still working on this skill). We have a six person Senior Leadership Team at iContact that can all do their jobs much much better than I can. We now have a thirteen person Leadership Team underneath them all of whom have more business experience than I do. When I realized that my job was not to ensure they did their jobs the right way but rather to enable them to do their jobs and hold them accountable for the results, my world shifted. I’m still learning in this area, but this single realization is enabling me to scale. I now focus on 1) people 2) strategy 3) culture 4) investment. Each time we get to a new stage in our company’s growth ($100k, $1M, $5M, $10M, $25M) I have to reinvent myself and my job description. I love it!

And here are some other life changes that are less critical to helping me align what I do with what I love, but are still fun to share…

  1. I made an equity investment in an African company. On January 4th I became a 10% owner of Village Energy Ltd. of Kampala Uganda. For four years I’ve been personally making contributions to non-profit organizations focused on ending global poverty. My philosophy has changed on economic development over the past year. Today I believe that while effectively monitored bilateral aid is an important component of ending extreme poverty and emergency humanitarian aid is morally and critically necessary in many locations, an investment in a local entrepreneur in Africa will have much greater long term impact in terms of job creation, tax revenue base, and constituent-focused democratic institution building. I was very excited to invest in Village Energy which is bringing a $60 solar panel powered LED lighting solution to rural village homes through a microfinance and franchise distribution model for $3-$4 per month per home. The product is a substitute good for kerosene which often costs $5 to $6 per month, causes lung inhalation problems and often burns down the thatch houses. I hope this $15,000 investment turns out to have much greater social impact than a $15,000 contribution. There is SO much opportunity to invest in Africa and so many entrepreneurs and companies poised for growth. And there is a huge gap between the countless MFIs that loan out $50 to $1000 and the Acumen Fund which invests $50k to $250k. Ten years from now I dream of running a socially responsible venture capital firm on the African continent. The challenge will be finding a scalable model of investing $5000 to $50,000 at a time. I think it can be done. I know the pipeline is there.
  2. We started a new entrepreneurial division of Virante. Virante is a 11 person company downstairs in the iContact building that I started as “Virante Design & Development” in 2000 that is now run by CEO Malcolm Young. I won’t say much about this early stage effort now because the team is still acquiring all the related domain names and IP, but it’s a socially responsible ecommerce play that I’m extremely excited about. Fortunately we’ve already got the team to make it happen and it won’t take much time. With the help of the Virante team and a 17 year old intern Aneesh that comes in each Wednesday they’re making it happen. Here I must quote my new New York friend Kim Scheinberg, “Starting a company is like having a baby. By far the most enjoyable part is the idea conception phase.”
  3. I followed my passion for writing and started the next book. This post is the beginning of book #2. My plan–one 5 page blog post per week that by the end of 2010 will be a ready to become a book. The title–”Dare Mighty Things: How Entrepreneurs & Social Entrepreneurs Are Changing the World.”

I have had two wristbands on my wrist since November. The first one says “Make Poverty History.” The second, “$100M in 2012.”

Thank you to everyone who has supported me through this endeavor and to all who are with us in this journey.

Here we go…


Thoughts, comments, suggestions??? Feedback is the breakfast of champions!

2009 By The Numbers

December 26, 2009

In 2009 I’ve slowed down a bit from 2008 and focused on iContact and Nourish International. I had to reduce some commitments to be able to do that and left three other non-profit Boards. After my mom hurt her arm and two of my friends were diagnosed with cancer in October I slowed down a bit at the end of the year and didn’t hold any Entrepreneur or Social Entrepreneur meetups the last three months. They’ll be back in January.

I still ended up racking up some good frequent flyer miles riding in 72 planes in 2009 (down from 74 in 2008) and spoke to about 5700 people this year (down from 8500 in 2008). I very much enjoy public speaking. Most recently I’ve been speaking about how to change the world through business and social entrepreneurship.

I am becoming more and more interested in investing in entrepreneurs in Africa that bring electricity, water, and internet to rural villages in sustainable manners. I hope to complete my first such small investment in January in VillageEnergy a company out of Kampala, Uganda run by a former roommate of mine Roey Rosenblith–who actually was on the Detroit plane that was attacked on Christmas day yesterday. As he wrote me tonight, “I just started to really realize what a gift it is to be alive.” In a year in which so many people close to me had life and death experiences this is a fitting quote to remember.

Congratulations to the team at Virante for hitting its first $1M in sales year and the team at iContact for ‘finishing the marathon’ and growing revenue more than 80% year over year to beat our revenue plan of $26.2M for year!

Per my commitment, I’ve got my running shoes laced and am on track for my training schedule to run a half-marathon in March and a full on April 24th.

Here’s 2009 by the numbers:

  • 6 Billion Emails Sent by iContact Customers
  • $27M in sales at iContact
  • $4.5M in additional capital raised
  • 4.4M unique visitors to
  • $1M in sales at Virante
  • 557,000 iContact users
  • $90,000+ contributed by iContact to non-profit organizations in 2009
  • 59,000 customers at iContact
  • 5790 people spoken in front of
  • 600 Entrepreneur & Social Entrepreneur Meetup Attendees
  • 190 employees at iContact
  • 80 daily Senior Leadership Team huddles
  • 72 plane rides (30 actual trips, avg 2.5 trips per month)
  • 50 weekly Senior Leadership Team meetings
  • 50 new hires at iContact
  • 29 cities visited
  • 20 miles run (10 in the last week!)
  • 19 U.S. States Visited
  • 18 Speaking engagements
  • 16 non-profit Board Meetings
  • 12 monthly all-day Senior Leadership Team Meetings
  • 11 Corporate Overview Sessions
  • 10 Entrepreneur & Social Entrepreneur Meetups in Chapel Hill
  • 9 countries visited (China, India, U.S., Uganda, Kenya, Spain, Italy, France, England)
  • 9 New Monthly Company iNews videos produced –
  • 8 iContact Board Meetings
  • 7 Conferences Attended
  • 6 VC term sheets received
  • 5 Company Offsites
  • 4 continents visited
  • 3 friends diagnosed with cancer
  • 2 Summit Series Attended
  • 2 Spontaneous company parades –
  • 2 Small Private Company Investments (EvoApp and Unblab)
  • 1 Renaissance Weekend Attended

In 2010 iContact’s theme is to Deliver Wow to Our Customers. It is going to be a great year. We have so much to accomplish and go after!

Here’s to doing something wonderful with infectious enthusiasm.

Happy almost New Year from Anna Maria Island, Florida!


Life Update: March Whirlwhind + The Summit Series Aspen

April 15, 2009

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I’m in the Chicago O’Hare hotel tonight. I’m so very excited to have 3-4 hours to read and write. I leave in the morning for Aspen to attend The Summit Series, an event that is bringing together 120 of the top entrepreneurs and social entrepreneurs in the country. I can already tell from the attendee list I just received that it will be a worthwhile three days on both the business and social justice side.

The last four weeks have been non-stop. It’s been passion-filled entrepreneuring and social entrepreneuring. Love it.

At the beginning of March I had the opportunity to speak at Yale University at the StartingBloc Greater NY Institute. I spoke on “A Vision for Our World in 50 Years.”

In mid-March I spoke at the Montgomery Tech Conference in Santa Monica to present iContact and meet with investors and saw Tim Draper of DFJ do an excellent rendition of The Riskmaster. I spoke at Southeast Venture Conference in Atlanta the next day to present an update on iContact to investors.

On March 6 I had the chance to visit The White House in D.C. to attend a Summit of Young Entrepreneurs and heard Macon Phillips, Yosi Sargant, David Washington, Michael Strautmanis, Jason Furman, Martha Coven, Greg Nelson, and Heather Zichal of the Obama Administration present on what they were working on to make an impact in the areas of the economy, budget, healthcare, energy, the environment, and transparency.

March 20, I hosted Entrepreneur & Social Entrepreneur Meetup #27 at my house in Chapel Hill where Nate Seaman of Bike and Build (he’s biking across the USA this summer to build and raise funds for low-income housing), Gene Nichol of the UNC Center for Poverty, Work, and Opportunity, Dan Moore from Triangle Gives Back, and Michael Kelso from the startup Briteroots presented for 7 minutes each.

The peace activist inside of me was stimulated on March 26 when Betty Bigombe spoke at UNC’s FedEx Global Center on what she learned negotiating peace in Uganda between the Museveni Government in the South and the LRA in the North.

At the end of the month I attended StartingBloc’s NYC Institute at NYU Wagner and Columbia Business School. I heard presentations by the passionate Robert Egger of DC Central Kitchen, Ami Dar of, and environmental activist Majora Carter of Sustainable South Bronx.

Finally on March 30th, I was inspired to build schools in developing countries as a way toward lasting peace and security when Greg Mortenson of Three Cups of Tea fame spoke at UNC. He has built dozens of schools in Afghanistan and Pakistan.

Here are two memorable quotes from Mortensen’s talk:

“Fighting terrorism is based on fear. Promoting peace is based on hope” – Greg Mortensen
“The solution to terrorism is education, not bombs.” – Greg Mortensen

Other notable events in March were the Nourish International (side note: if you’re in Raleigh, Nourish is hosting a fundraiser on April 17 called Brew Local, Act Global at Mosaic Wine Lounge from 6pm to 8pm) and Leadership Triangle Board Meetings, an Entrepreneurs’ Organization Forum, and an EO Raleigh Recruiting Event and Jess Lipson and Brooks Bell’s house. EO Raleigh is working to bring together the largest group of successful entrepreneurs in the Triangle.

On the personal side of life, I fit in visit to the wonderful NC Museum of Art in Raleigh, three ultimate frisbee sessions at UNC’s Carmichael Fields, and celebrated with my mom for her 57th birthday.

In the book world, right now I’m reading An Assault on Reason by Al Gore, Three Cups of Tea by Mortesen, and Mastering the Rockefeller Habits by Verne Harnish.

At iContact, we’re up to 162 full-time employees, 159 of which are based in our Durham office. We hired six new team members last month and are continuing to hire in customer service, sales, and development. We passed the $2M in monthly sales milestone for the first time in March. Because we hit this stretch goal, I’ll be dressing up like Tina Turner (with wig, shaved legs, mini-skirt and all) on April 17th. I was able to extract a few commitments from other members of our Director team…

  • Chuck Hester will sing the UCLA fight song at the April company lunch, wearing a UCLA jersey
  • Ken O’Berry will dress up as Steve Perry, complete with tuxedo tails, and sing Don’t Stop, Believin’ at the April Company Lunch
  • Sarah Stealey will take a $25 gift card, go to Wal-Mart, buy an entire outfit (shoes included) and wear the outfit to work (and yes, the trip to Wal-Mart will be videotaped)
  • Cindy Hays, David Rasch & Brandon Milford will dye half their hair iContact Green and the other half iContact Blue
  • Eric Sternkopf will come to work on day in April dressed as his favorite artist, The Prodigy.
  • Tim Oakley will come to work on a day in April dressed as Michael Jackson.
  • Robert Plumley will auction off the right to put a cream pie in his face at the April company lunch to the highest bidder and donate the proceeds to The Shriners’ Hospital in Greenville
  • Kevin Fitzgerald, Aaron Houghton, Ralph Kasuba, and David Roth will rewrite the lyrics and perform a song parody video of “We are the World” – renamed “We are not SPAM” and put it on YouTube

Whew. What a month!

Beware: The Beijing Tea Ceremony Scam

February 10, 2009

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The fireworks are blasting outside my window as I write. I happened to have arrived in Beijing on the night of the Festival of the Lanterns, which involves hours upon hours of continuous fireworks all over the city. Today is the 15th day after the Chinese New Year on January 26, and thus the fireworks. Here’s a photo from my hotel window about 20 minutes ago.

On the way from Chicago this afternoon, instead of flying West like I expected we would, our plane flew North to the North Pole, and then South down to China. Here’s a photo of what the map looked like from the video monitor on the plane seat. What an interesting way to view the Northern Hemisphere.

So after flying over Canada, the North Pole, Siberia, Russia, and Mongolia I landed in Beijing at 4:30pm this afternoon. I got into my hotel around 5:30pm and although tired decided I’d go out. I decided to go see Tienanmen Square and the Forbidden City and walk around a bit.

Here’s where the scam begins.

Walking right in front of the Forbidden City, two English speaking Chinese students came up to me and asked if they could practice their English with me. Having seen plenty of pickpocketing during planned distractions throughout travels in Europe (especially in front of the Coliseum in Rome), I was very aware and was skeptical of what these two young girls were after. They were dressed conservatively, so it didn’t seem like they were trying to sell themselves.

I said sure to them practicing their English. They explained they were in Beijing for two weeks studying English and had decided to come out to see Tiananmen. They asked lots of questions and gave lots of compliments. After about fifteen minutes of talking and them explaining the Festival of the Lanterns and their backgrounds they frankly had gained my trust. Seemed like they were actually two 22 year old college students named Jing Li and Ling studying English. Since I didn’t have anything to do until the morning I said yes when they asked me to get tea with them.

We walked for about ten minutes and ended up at the Si Zhu Xiang Tea House at 15 Nan He Yan Street in the Dong Cheng District. We were led into a room where 10 very small sample teas (less than an ounce) were poured (without ever being provided a menu). When I got the bill for my tea, it was of course in Yuan. I foolishly didn’t know the exchange rate. So I paid the bill thinking to myself, OK 10 small tea samples adding up to about one full cup of tea, this can’t be more than US$20.

When I got back to the hotel, I checked the exchange rate and found out $1 was equal to 6.7 Yuan. They had charged me 2112 Yuan or in U.S. Dollars, $308.90 for the tea.

I then Googled the name of the place, Si Zhu Xiang Tea House and found that I wasn’t even close to being the first to get taken by the now infamous Beijing Tea Ceremony Scam. Those “friendly college students wanting to work on their English” are paid by the tea house. It seems that ‘entrepreneurship’ is alive and well here.

Yep, I was taken on my first night in Beijing. In the very first hour too. Here’s to Visa’s fraud protection.

And hey, I even got a picture with Jing Li in front of the Forbidden City. Here she is, the girl who scammed me with a victory sign…

At least I’ve got a good story now. :-) . Here’s to the Festival of the Lanterns and to “becoming a more experienced traveler.”

Tomorrow, the real work begins.

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