How to knock a business pitch out of the park

Crrrack. The ball whistles through the air landing far over the fence, and the crowd goes wild… Well, it didn’t happen exactly like that, but I think a couple people at least clapped.  Last Thursday, I successfully pitched three months worth of brainstorming and work on Fantom ‘fit to a panel of entrepreneurs and investors as the final piece of the entrepreneurial journalism course. It was intimidating to sit up in front of strangers (especially ones who have all been very successful) and present to them an idea, my baby, delicately placed on the chopping block.

I knew my material well, so that part didn’t scare me. But these presentations are about so much more than your concept. They want you know know the market size, your target customer, and exactly how you plan to launch your product. In my case that meant answering questions like: Where am I going to get an initial stock of photos for people to tag and identify? How am I going to build an app? What will it look like and how will it be used? And maybe most importantly, how much will it cost?

I tackled these problems one by one and kept hearing the wise words of Gauri Manglik, the intelligent young co-founder behind Fondu, in my head: “the reason I succeeded was probably because I didn’t realize how much I didn’t know”. The more I plotted out exactly what I needed to do, the more I thought, “sure, I could do this!” Ignorance really is bliss.

When the time came to do the presentation, I really did find myself asking what I had been so worried about. It came together, I got some really good pointers and ideas on where to take Fantom ‘fit from here. The key thing I learned is that you don’t have to have all the answers, having the right questions can be just as valuable.

Q&A with Denise Oliveira, founder of Prequels

Denise Oliveira has always been a proactive self-starter. Whether it’s creating a new product or testing the waters of a new industry, she always enjoys a challenge. She founded Prequels, a company that allows people to have their story told, designed in a unique layout and then given as a gift at events.

For now she has focused on weddings, where couples and their families are interviewed separately and then the stories are compiled with photos in an arrangement guests can take home with them. She’s also got big plans to expand. 

After growing up in Brazil, where couples she knew stayed together a long time before they got married and their families became intertwined, she moved to the US and realized at the weddings she attended, the families and friends barely knew each other. It gave her the idea to help people tell their stories so these events could feel more intimate. 

How did you come up with the name?

I wanted the sense that when you get to these milestones in life it’s sort of a culmination of what came before it. The wedding is more than a party, it’s the celebration of a relationship that’s been built. Or when you retire, it’s not just an event, it’s the culmination of a career. So that’s where Prequels came from, it’s about thinking about what came before.

Who was your first guinea pig?

We’ve had a few. We had a couple Micah and Aidan. Micah is studying to be a Protestant minister he’s going to Union Theological Seminary and Aidan studied in the graduateacting program at the New School and before that had a career in the circus- a very dynamic couple who have come from different walks of life and have created this amazing bond.

Who is your team?

I am the lead person and I have a partner who has a creative writing degree. He will do some of the interviews and its great to have another person to bounce ideas off of. We try to look at it from the other persons point of view and in that way we weave everything together.

How many clients have you had so far?

We’ve shared four on the website. I just got an email from someone in Missouri who wants to give it as a gift to her nephew, which is something we’re encouraging. This is a great gift for a grandparent to give to a couple or for bridesmaids to get together and give together to the couple.

What have been some of the hurdles in starting a business?

For now there haven’t been many surprises, it has been pretty much what we’ve expected. One thing that we didn’t really expect but hasn’t been a hurdle, is how many drafts you go through to get the product the way you want it. The design is really special and it took longer than I thought. You look at the computer but once you get it professionally printed the colors look slightly different so you go back and redo it. A font might look great online but once you print it it’s a little funky.

You also give the stories back to the customers.

Yes. We want them to read it over and make sure they’re comfortable with it. We use our discretion to leave out certain things they might tell us that we feel might be best left out, but we let them read it over to make sure that they agree that it’s an expression and reflection of who they are.

Do they give you a lot of edits?

The edits have been minor, very minor.

Are you going to expand into other areas?

Yes, we haven’t yet. But I’ve started the preliminary work to expand into baby announcements. Also retirements, graduations, sweet sixteen. Wherever there is a story to be told.

What is the best part of being your own boss?

The creative license. The space to really dream and to realize that these ideas can be implemented. That said, its definitely been important to partner with people who give feedback. There’s definitely been a lot of exchange with graphic designers and brides and other writers because I also don’t want to be isolated. It shouldn’t be what I think will work it should be what couples want.

Do you do the graphic design yourself?

We partner with a professional designer. For the ones we’ve done, we designed the templates. Going forward couples can use exactly what we have, make a few changes or come up with a whole new look depending on the feel of their ceremony.

What’s the worst part of being your own boss?

I’ve always had incredible bosses, I’ve been really fortunate in every job I’ve had. I’ve had wonderful mentorships, my bosses have become friends. I’ve always had access to their wisdom. So I’d say, the disadvantage of having the immediate access to these sources of inspiration and wisdom. It takes a little more effort to get to the them.

Introducing: Fantom ‘fit

Last week I launched Fantom ‘fit, a website for the project I’ve been working on all semester as part of an entrepreneurial journalism class with Adam Penenberg.

The idea is based on a reoccurring problem. I’m inspired by high fashion glossies just like the next design-obsessed woman, but I’m living on a Campbell’s-soup-grad-school-budget. When I see something I actually want to buy, it’s not in a magazine, it’s on the street.

The problem is there are only two ways to figure out what it is. You can ask. But you might be too embarrassed or (especially in New York) people won’t want to tell you where they scored their unique clothes because they don’t want you biting their style. The second option is to search online, but that’s usually a big time suck, personally I rarely find what I’m looking for.

It turns out I wasn’t the only one with this problem. The team from the Lean Start-up Machine had us test our customer assumptions out on the street and of the over 20 people we asked, every single one of them had this problem.

The solution I developed is now functioning as a Twitter account and a blog, both called Fantom ‘fit, where followers can tweet or email photos of items they see out on the streets that they want to purchase for themselves. I RT and post the photo on the blog to see if anyone else can identify it while I get to work doing my own research. If no one can find it in a week (users can also debate in the comments section and give tips on whether they think it’s vintage or one-of-a-kind) , the post will be updated with alternative and similar items.

Here’s how it works:

How Fantom Fit works on Twitter

See. It’s like magic minus the messy fairy dust.  The skirt, available at Urban Outfitters, was found thanks to a savvy Twitter follower. I had done my own searching, punching in every linguistic variation of “midi teal cheetah print skirt” the English language had to offer, only to turn up tens of thousands of results, none of them correct. Once again, the human eye triumphs over computers! This sort of image labeling is how Google Images improved their labeling system and now scientists are even using it to identify solar storm data.

I’m hard at work to expand this into a website with a forum and galleries. I’m going to build a web app to make the service convenient and portable. Eventually, users will get rewards for identifying objects in photos that can be redeemed in an online shop or at retailers worldwide. My hope is that users will be able to rack up points and build a reputation and connect with other stylists and fashion-savvy street-style spotters from around the globe.

Right now you can help me in several ways. Check out the website and let me know what you think. This baby is still, well, a baby. All feedback is welcome. I am a team of one right now, making it all the easier to pivot if need be. Also, please follow Fantom ‘fit on Twitter and send in your photos! The more followers it has, the better the chances the photos people are tweeting will be identified. I promise, this account WILL NOT spam you. Lastly, please tell anyone you think might be interested in this project. Tweet about it, post it on your Facebook. This site is especially geared toward fashion-lovers, photographers, bloggers, stylists, designers… anyone who has a keen eye for fashion and style.

An Evening with the Atavist

The Atavist
Last week I went to “An Evening with the Atavist” hosted by NYU at 20 Cooper Square. The room was filled mostly with bespectacled and bearded literary reportage students, and I was there with a fellow comrade from the magazine program. I’d heard a few good things about the Atavist, and it never hurts to crash another program’s free dinner. On top of the free food and wine (or perhaps because of it), it turned into inspiring evening with a panel of journalists from the Atavist, including Evan Ratliff, co-founder, Alissa Quart, editor, and Matthew Power, contributing writer of Issue No. 9, Island of Secrets. Continue reading