Saturday, October 18, 2008

Extreme Bootstrapping Part 2 - Divorce, Bankrupt, Homeless or All of the Above?

Could a high tech homeless immersion save a marriage, a family, and a business while also helping others? This is the question that loomed before me in August, 2007 given a December 31, 2007 divorce ultimatum if things did not turn around financially for my TRACEe start-up.

A Decision With Only One Choice - Part 1 of the Extreme Bootstrapping blog post introduced my personal life/business predicament; quit my fledgling start-up and return to being an unfulfilled cog in the corporate machine while watching my family life deteriorate, or, push ahead and be an agent of change for the potential good of family and society. I really had no choice; I felt destined to endure an extended period of homelessness on the streets of Austin. My business, technical and personal/spiritual circumstances made it so. This was in spite of having to borrow $5K per month from our retirement fund to keep us from selling our home and disrupting our kids' school/friend status quo.

Clarity of Purpose = Energy + Productivity - That's exactly what I experienced upon embracing the streaming homeless immersion mission. It was no longer necessary to fragment my physical and mental attentions across multiple immiscible avenues of pursuit to take TRACEe to the next level. I could now laser focus on planning and executing the immersion.
Hopeful Homeless Immersion Outcomes - During the Immersion, my only street companions were to be the poorest of the poor and anywhere from a handful to a hoard of internet viewers/chatters from across the globe. My laptop and cell phone, equipped with mobile, live streaming video, GPS location tracking and interactive chat would serve as an electronic security blanket. My objectives? In addition to simply surviving, they were as follows:
  1. Generate personal social-networking profiles of Austin-based homeless to put a face on their individual and collective struggles and explore new social justice mechanisms for lifting them out of poverty

  2. Collaborate with and help increase Mobile Loaves & Fishes (MLF) homeless outreach ministry website traffic while also populating Oaktreeidea.com's (OTI) social network community

  3. Develop alpha release of TRACEe 'life trace' products & services aimed at reversing homelessness and poverty

  4. Expand TRACEe business partnerships

  5. Test and validate leading edge technologies with potential to help minimize project costs and increase web traffic: bio diesel, photovoltaics and crowd sourcing

  6. Generate raw audio/video/chat/location records of street life with live, follow-on research and publishing potential

  7. Serve as a role model, unifier and provider for my family

  8. Seek a God-driven direction for post-immersion product and company growth

Marriage Counseling; a Great Business Arbitrator? - My next step? Delicately approach and obtain buy-in of the homeless immersion by my beloved wife - not a pleasant task given that she blamed me for the current financial predicament, or should I say curse, that was upon us. Her disdain was quite understandable and palpable as it was rooted in a promise she had made to herself as a young adult being raised in a tumultuous entrepreneurial household; never to submit her children to the same financial hardships and insecurities she had endured. Her anxiety naturally spilled over to our two kids resulting in 'yours truly' being the bane of their collective existence.

Eventually, tensions reached the point of engaging a marriage counselor which, in an unexpected twist of fate, provided the perfect private forum for presenting the immersion case to my wife. It was an environment where she would be inclined to listen and reflect in the midst of an impartial, yet compassionate observer and mutual advisor. Furthermore, this venue was time-boxed at 1 hour per week enabled planning, adjusting and external mentorship in between sessions – I couldn't have asked for a better platform! Our timely counseling sessions resulted in tentative agreement that included a compromise to reduce the immersion duration from 6 months to a more palatable 40 days. Streaming Street Retreats - It must have been divine intervention that spurred MLF to conduct an unprecedented three mini homeless street retreats in successive months of Sept., Oct., and Nov. - a perfect street and technology 'boot camp' opportunity that I could not pass up! Participating in a total of four street retreats in 2007 not only served to prepare me for the street environment, but also to initiate several meaningful relationships with specific homeless that became instrumental in developing and proving the value of social networking for the homeless.

Enter Avon Owens, a rotund, docile homeless man with a million-dollar smile whom I met on the first retreat. One day Avon found himself on the streets when locks were changed on the house he shared with his bother following a disagreement. He had been surviving on the streets for three years at the time we met. Since then we have been meeting once per week for lunch at a different Austin original restaurant while video-streaming the event to the internet. Avon likes to call it our 'project' as seen in this hilarious clip where he finds himself alone for a brief moment in the car with a live webcam attached to my cowboy hat and an internet-connected laptop displaying the stream & live chat.... With Avon as my homeless companion, I conducted the last two retreats using live 24/7 streaming video strapped to my backpack. These interactions with Avon have built a lasting relationship while serving as a testing/proving groud for the immersion technology. Furthermore, FOX ran a special news segment on how the technology was being applied to helping Avon overcome homelessness! Today Avon is off the streets, living very comfortably in a mobile home with a steady income due in large part to the social networking dynamic that was created.

Needless to say, lots of planning and R&D focused on mobile streaming technology for the street environment occurred as the days drew closer and closer to year end. Long story short, the "sky did not fall" when my wife's Dec 31, 2007 ultimatum came and went…Thank you Lord! Honestly, up until Jan 1, 2008 I did not know which way the cards would fall. I did know, however, that God was directing the outcome so I had nothing to fear.

So, by early 2008 the project plan was framed out to occur in three phases of 40 days each according to the schedule below.

  • Feb 6, 2008 to March 15 - 40 Day Pre-immersion (Lenten) Prep Phase
  • March 16 to April 25 - 40 Day Immersion Phase, commenced during Holy Week
  • April 26 to June 2, 2008 - 40 Day Post-immersion Follow-up Phase

Video streaming occurred within each phase and is available for viewing at the alpha site http://www.homelesscoach.org/.

Stay tuned for "Extreme Bootstrapping Part 3 - Homeless or Bust" which will cover the 40-Day Pre-Immersion Phase outlined below and describe the lead up to "Saving Lives of the Homeless with the Click of a Mouse".

Planning

  • Define the daily routine
  • Map out who to see and/or where to visit
  • Flesh out the "Street Shepherds" schedule
  • Dovetail with the annual MLF street retreat
  • Secure business sponsorships

Marketing

  • Secure media and documentary film participation
  • Schedule and execute streaming video events

Fundraising

  • Engage in fundraising campaign
  • Submit funding proposals

Technology prep

  • Design/test the technology configuration
  • Procure, develop, test technology elements

Spiritual and physical preparation

  • Bible study & reflection
  • Diet & exercise routine

Saturday, September 20, 2008

Extreme Bootstrapping – Part 1

I’m a na├»ve idealist, how ‘bout you?

In late 2005, my motivations were many to quit a six figure, 25-year, high tech career and launch TRACEe, a venture dedicated to applying technology to tracing lives for good; the good of the individual, society and essentially for eternity. Among the most significant of these motives were to release pent up entrepreneurial energy, to engage in work that kept me closer to home in hopes of shoring up family relationships that had begun to unravel and to produce results with more meaning and direct benefit to society. Little did I know these motivations would draw me into the “underbelly of Austin” narrowly escaping bullets, knives and a family catastrophe…

In early 2006, I thought I was bootstrapping when I joined Bootstrap Austin. But, attending Bootstrap Austin networking meetings does not a bootstrapper make. Submitting a proposal for a Homeland Security SBIR grant doesn’t either.

Which makes me wonder.. What constitutes real bootstrapping? Does applying for 20 patent claims make you a bootstrapper? How about stumbling on a technology partner willing to lend software for demonstrating your proof of concept – ala “demo, sell, build.”? Or leveraging UTA and St. Edwards University internship program resources to validate the business model and design elements of the offering? Or becoming a distribution partner for companies whose products are components within your intended offering? Or freelance consulting in areas aligned with your company direction? Or formulating an advisory board by promising a future equity stake? Or selling the company soul to the Austin Technology Center and affiliated VCs hoping to secure “free office space and business mentoring services”? Or volunteering your time to community events hoping to make the right contacts? It turns out that all of these fall short of what I discovered to be real bootstrapping.

Don’t get me wrong, many of the aforementioned activities should and are commonly part of a bootstrapper’s journey, however, real bootstrapping for me emerged only when faced with an imminent catastrophe in my life…the breakup of my family; my wife of 20 years, 16 year-old daughter and 11 year-old son..

It cut deep to learn that appreciation for the prior 20 years of providing a steady, high standard of living for my family was short-lived as evidenced by my wife’s June 2007 ultimatum to “get a real job by year end or divorce will follow.” Frankly, this was not unexpected as my wife and our financial situation had been under considerable strain since TRACEe began. What broadsided me, however, was when she relayed my daughter’s perspective; “Mom, when are you going to divorce Dad?”… POW – a heart punch! You never expect your own child to want you out of their life especially when you’ve spent the last 16 years loving and nurturing her to young adulthood.

So, what was I to do? Give up on TRACEe and go back to the corporate world fraught with meaningless churn, greed and travel so that my family could return to having all the comforts they had grown accustomed to but at the inevitable expense of a broken family anyway? Or, continue the TRACEe venture that felt like the right path to be on relative to my life, my family and society?

After a few days of contemplation, prayer, counsel with friends & fellow bootstrappers and a coincidental read of “The Dip” by Seth Godin, the answer was clear: push on, go where most are unwilling to go; survive the ‘dip!”. Afterall, how could my friends, family and a person with the moral stature of my wife fault me for doing otherwise? So, push on it was.. But how? What could possibly position TRACEe as a viable growth (or at least sustenance) business within a six month window and hold my family together?

That’s when the creative entrepreneurial mind coupled with personal spiritual influences kicked in. Without actually realizing it, my subconscious mind, heart and soul were formulating a survival plan. One which surfaced at a most unexpected time – while applying a fresh coat of white paint to our back door on a hot, sunny August day. On that day, at that moment, as that brush stroke spread its film of latex down, with bitter sweet emotion, I surrendered to the core concept of my survival plan – to become homeless via a six month immersion on the streets of Austin, my only companions being the poorest of the poor, my laptop and my cell phone both equipped with mobile, live streaming video, GPS and chat capability… The goals were (1) to explore social networking for the homeless via live interactive streaming of their stories to a global internet audience, (2) drive TRACEe technology development, assets and business partnerships, (3) garner TRACEe recognition and marketing lift, (4) generate a modest cash flow and last but not least (5) keep the family in tact. Why not since I was likely to be homeless come December anyway? To quote a friend; “That idea is so crazy, it just might work!”

Somehow this plan incorporated elements of my entire life as if it weren’t actually a plan but a destined roadmap… It leveraged many significant personal, family, educational, work and spiritual experiences whose purpose was now being revealed in tHis “Master” plan.. One that had a clear lead up and a promising aftermath for family, company and society assuming I survived…

So, let the real bootstrapping begin…

Please stay tuned for future posts covering how it all played out. Alternatively, please feel free to explore and decipher aspects of it sooner by visiting archived immersion video at my latest alpha site http://www.homelesscoach.org/. Note, the homeless immersion activity is concentrated within the date range of 3/16/08 to 4/25/08 which can be accessed by clicking the “archive” button that launches a date-based search dialog.