5 Lessons Learned in 2013

Giving the Prime Minister a Shirt

In 2013 I spent 210 days in Europe. Lived in 2 countries. Visited 8 countries, 5 of them for the first time. Had 3 different jobs. Founded 1 company. Raised €25.000. Spoke at 2 conferences, 3 meetups, 2 accelerators. Made friends from 19 different countries. Flew my dog 8000 miles. Went to 1 hackathon, came in 2nd. Took a spontaneous trip to Slovenia. Skied the alps once. Participated in Oktoberfest. Moved across the world, and then came back home.

2013 was a rollercoaster of a ride. I got the chance to do many things I’ve always wanted to, and for that I’m thankful. There was also a lot of hard lessons to be learned along the way, making it a pretty stressful and by no means easy year. Worth it though? Yes. Keeping the same tradition as last year, here’s 5 of the biggest lessons I’ve learned along the way.

1. Trust your gut

I have always given things a fighting chance to work out. Jobs, relationships. I am a fixer by nature, and I try to fix broken things. I keep telling myself “but it might get better and then you’ll want to be here so try your best to figure out what can be mended.” I do like the concept of giving things a fighting chance, but somewhere along the way, I started giving things a chance for too long. I stopped listening to my gut.

In Italy, I formed a company with three other people. One left at the very beginning and we were down to three of us. Soon, problems started arising with one of the cofounders. Big problems that just couldn’t be shoved under a rug. I stuck around for about 4 months after the warning signs emerged, hoping things would get better, trying to make them so. My subconscious was telling me it never would, but I thought in my head, if we could just fix this relationship, we could make a successful business and keep going. It came to a point where I had to make a decision to finally trust my gut or keep fixing. I chose to leave. The next morning, I felt like a load of weight had been finally lifted from my shoulders. I started to feel better too, less stressed and more healthy. I started hanging out with a lot of other people in the program, and made many friends I intend on visiting and working with in the future. Everything finally got better.

Your body can tell you a lot that your mind can’t. Have you ever made a decision but felt sick to your stomach? I have. Something inside you is telling you that it’s the wrong decision. Don’t ignore it. I spent too much time listening to my head this year. Next year, I’m going to listen more to what my gut tells me.

2. The grass may be greener on the other side, but its not your grass

I always wanted to live in Italy. It’s a more relaxing life there. There’s thousands of years worth of history that we don’t have here. In these cases it is better than the US, but we always want what we don’t have. Living in Italy was a great opportunity. I learned a lot about people. About cultures. About bureaucracy. I would never have been exposed to these things had I stayed in NYC. But, I also learned a lot of what we have right here is better. I’m thankful I can come home to that.

When you work in startups, like me, the US provides you with so many more opportunities than many countries in Europe. The bureaucracy I witnessed there was astounding. You’d go broke just trying to incorporate a company in Italy. Most of the people I worked with were trying to come here. I wish our immigration laws would let them. There’s a slew of talented people who could be creating jobs with their startups in this country. For me, I learned this is the right place to be when I start a company.

I by no means want to stop traveling. In fact, I want to travel more. There are still places I want to see, cultures I want to experience. I want to live somewhere else for a while too, experience that city, it’s highs and lows. Berlin is looking pretty good. But I will not take for granted the excellent opportunities we have in the US when it comes to smoother processes, salaries, and starting companies.

3. You don’t have to settle

For the first time in my life, I’m not 100% sure what I will be doing next. I’m fortunate to have many opportunities, and I want to be sure I pick the best one before I dive in with both feet. 2 years ago (hell, last January) not having a full time job lined up would have scared me to death. I couldn’t fathom leaving one company without knowing where I would be next. When I was no longer happy at OpenSky, I started looking for my next opportunity. At first I couldn’t find anything I liked. I had a list of things that were very important to me, but none of the companies I interviewed with fit the bill. After a few months of searching, countless interviews, and many offers turned down, I was offered a job at Conductor. I had reservations about the company culture and the size, but for the most part it looked like a really good fit and I was tired of searching. I took the offer and started quickly after, excited to get to work. After only a month though, I could tell it was the wrong place for me. The culture and the size turned out to be quite different from the environments in which I thrive. It just wasn’t a match. When the opportunity to go to Italy arose, I jumped at a chance to build something of my own.

This time I’m not settling for anything less than “Hell Yes!” I want to find something to work on that keeps me up at night. For now, I am consulting on UX Design, Product Strategy, and Lean Methodologies, something I really love doing (so reach out to me if you want to chat!). I’ve been advising various startups and teaching classes and workshops. By doing the things I love, I’m confident I’ll find something I really want to be a part of instead of settling for something less.

4. Surround yourself with people who make you better

Ever have a friend that always said they would hang out and never followed through? How about a coworker who always put down your ideas? I’ve had quite a few in both categories. This year I learned to cut them loose.

I met a lot of different people this year. Some awesome, some not so awesome. I met people who made me want to stay up until 4am trying to hack things together. I had my first brush with men who could not stand to have a woman CEO. I made some friends who’d let you invite yourself over for dinner on a bad day without warning. I saw firsthand people who would do anything to be perceived as important. There’s a lot of people in the world, and who you choose to associate with has a huge effect on your happiness and productivity. I spent quite some time this year on people who brought me down. They chided my ideas. They ignored my calls. They didn’t support me.

Near the end of the year, I started making some changes and cutting out these people. Turns out, once you get rid of those toxic people, you have room to surround yourself with people who make you better.

5. Let go of your things

I lived for 6 months out of 2 suitcases I brought to Italy with me. When I got there I bought a hair dryer, a toothbrush, and necessarily toiletries. Oh and a fan, because it was DAMN hot in August. Wish I bought that sooner. I didn’t wear some of those clothes because, well, startup life. Also, I only had 2 pairs of shoes once it got cold, but if I had one more pair I probably would have been set.

I opened up my storage when I got home and felt like someone from Hoarders… and it’s really just a small storage! But now all the things I own seem to weigh me down. Why do I keep all those college t-shirts from slope day? Every time I thought about moving in the past I always had some excuse to tie me down. My apartment is too awesome, and I love living with my roommates. I have too many things and I’ve been moving the past 9 years. I REALLY need a tortilla press and 7 coffee makers, so obviously I should just stay here. All these things ended up being a huge burden while I was away, even with a lot of help from some very special people. There were arguments, payments on storage, and just a ton of stress. If I didn’t own so many things, where could I go? Where could I move to if I wasn’t worrying about them?

I’m taking a look at everything I own this year and reducing the clutter. I’m keeping my Cole Haan boots though and by god I will wear them all over NYC, even if I want to sit down, rub my feet, and cry a bit every 5 blocks.

So here’s to 2014. Travel often, work on things you love, and spend time with people who matter.

Support Systems

When I left New York for Italy, I thought of all the things that could be potential problems being so far from home. Could I buy the things I normally get here? How do I set up a new cell phone? What are the customs in Italy I should know before I get there?

One thing I really took for granted was the time difference between New York and Italy. It’s 6 hours. When my friends and I were discussing me leaving, we all said “Oh no big deal, it’s 6 months and we chat online all the time anyway.” It’s true, we’re a multitasking group who keeps in touch pretty easily through gchat. But now that we’re 6 hours apart, when my friends are just getting ready to chat after work, I’m about 2 hours into sleep. I wake up to pings on my facebook chat that say “hey!” left unanswered for 7 hours with no one on the other side when I awake. Pretty depressing way to wake up.

The friends problem sucks, but the worst is really not being able to talk to my mom. My mom is my biggest champion, my all ears, the person I rely on the most. I tell her everything from insignificant details to huge problems that I face and she talks me through it all. I call her everyday at home, sometimes multiple times, just to tell her about my day and see how hers is going. Now when I wake up, it’s 3 am her time, and when I go to sleep she is still at work. We connect every once in a while to chat for a little when she’s on lunch, but when she can actually take the time to talk after work, it’s 2am my time. Sometimes I get a skype call from her then, and I drowsily talk to her for an hour before I can’t keep my eyes open.

Don’t get me wrong. I appreciate the opportunities I have here, and I am really enjoying the experience (hopefully more upbeat posts soon!). But this has been the hardest part of moving to Italy, and it’s made me pretty homesick. It’s also helped me realize just how important it is to have a solid support system, full of people who care about you as much as you care about them. With all the technology we have in the world today, keeping in touch should be so simple. But so far there’s nothing that can fix time. Time’s a bitch.

How to get a Permesso di Soggiorno in Trento

  1. Get told at 12pm that you need to pick up papers and go to the office in North Trento before it closes at 3pm.
  2. Panic.
  3. Grab said papers and figure out how to get there. Look up bus route. Decide to take bus.
  4. Get talked out of bus decision by two friends who say that it’s faster if we bike.
  5. Agree to take said bike even though you haven’t ridden one in 10 years. Convince yourself that it will be a piece of cake.
  6. Get on bike. Panic.
  7. Wobble a lot and get scared of cars.
  8. After 10 minutes, acknowledge this was a terrible idea and you’ll never bike again.
  9. Follow one friend the wrong way onto a big ass hill. Say “Are you serious, we have to go up that thing?” Get laughed at.
  10. Get off bike and walk it up hill.
  11. Start to go down one way street as mercedes benzes start flying up the other way. Run into a few buildings. Straighten up. Finish down the hill.
  12. You start to feel a little sunburnt. Take your hand off the handlebars to check. Almost fall. Grab onto handle bars like your life depends on it… because it does.
  13. After 35 minutes of hell in 95 degree heat, end up on street somewhere near the office. Check google maps for address. Have google maps tell you it doesn’t exist.
  14. Ask a stranger for directions in Italian. Feel proud of yourself for not screwing up that many words. Find out the street has 2 names. Wonder who the fuck named the streets in Italy.
  15. Arrive at office. Get into elevator that more closely resembles a death trap.
  16. End up at front desk at 1:45pm. Find no one there. Go ask someone if they can help you. They say no and that everyone else is at lunch. Wonder if they are going to come back before 3pm.
  17. Someone finally shows up in office. Get a piece of paper and told you need to wait for the person to get back from lunch. Wander over to the vending machine. Admire all the flavors of croissants it carries.
  18. Get called into get your papers. Have lady look at your papers once and then not talk to you again. Sign your life away. Get your papers and realize they put your first name as your last name. Have her draw a diagram and tell you in Italian “well we’ll see if they accept it or not…”
  19. Bang head against wall.
  20. Figure out you need to mail these things somewhere else. Get confused because you were told this was a final document. Curse all of bureaucracy.
  21. Wait for friends.
  22. Get back on bike and take different route.
  23. Route is completely flat and you get home in 15 minutes, quick enough to get a kebab and admire your sunburn. Figure you might give this bike thing a shot another time.

I promise to write things more relevant soon. I could have also title this “Why Melissa should not bike ever”

Arrivederci NYC for Now!

In 3 days and about 5 hours, I decided to pack up my life and move to Trento, Italy for the next 6 months. It’s the most spontaneous thing I’ve ever done.

Surprisingly, I’m pretty calm about this. That makes me feel even more certain that it’s the right thing to do.

I’ll be participating in the new Techpeaks accelerator (techpeaks.eu), which brings people together from all over the world to create startups in Italy. The program really interested me because (in no particular order):

  1. It endorses and encourages lean methodologies. If you haven’t noticed by now, I’m a fan of that.
  2. It’s in Italy. I’ve been to Italy twice, and took Italian classes in college. I love the food, the culture, and of course, the wine. I never got a chance to practice my Italian skills, so I’m hoping to come back eloquently speaking the language of amore. I think learning different languages is important.
  3. I’m excited to work with people from all over the globe. Sometimes we New Yorkers get so wrapped up in our lives that we forget there are other cultures and other ways of living. We’re thought of as the “epicenter of the world”, whatever that means. The world’s a big place; I want to break out of my comfort zone, learn how other people work, and fully embrace new friends.
  4. I am ready to start learning and building. I learn from doing. I’ve always wanted to start my own company, and this is a perfect opportunity to work on something that I have been pondering for a while.

I’m approaching this as a learning experience. I don’t expect to come back with the next Facebook, but I think going through the program and meeting the people involved will be worth more than that. Hey, if we do come up with the next big thing, then that’s awesome. If not, at least I’ll have some great connections and I’ll be 50 pounds heavier (they appreciated that in Ancient Rome, just sayin’). I’m going to give it my all, but I’ve learned not to be crushed if your idea doesn’t work out.

I will be documenting my journey on this blog. After some rallying from some fellow Techpeakers (whom I already like) Oscar is coming with me, and will be securing a EU pet passport. He will need some fancier sweaters if he wants to fit in with all the Italian dogs.

Ciao for now!


5 Lessons Learned in 2012

 1. You can be the change you wish to see in the world

In January 2012, I lost my college roommate to cancer. It was a hell of the way to start off the new year. Kevin’s goal in life was, “to make a difference in the world.” With time running out, he was afraid he wouldn’t be able to accomplish that.

Kevin’s mom started a chain, asking for letters from all of Kevin’s friends telling him how he changed their lives so she could put them in a book. Hundreds of letters poured in, even from people Kevin didn’t know but who were inspired by his blog and his journey. It was obvious from looking at that book and looking around his funeral at the hundreds of people who traveled from all over the country to say goodbye: Kevin had accomplished his goal at only 23 years old.

Kevin taught me to be optimistic in the face of insurmountable odds. He taught me that anything is possible, and you can make the world a better place just being one person. I miss my friend.

2. Giving is better than receiving

When I was little, I was the worst gift giver. The. Worst. So I tried to make up for it at Christmas last year. I took my whole family to Puerto Rico for a week in March 2012 as their Christmas present. It was super expensive, but definitely worth it.

It was great to spend a week with my whole family.

Even if my dad complained the entire time about it being hot, and the beach was too sunny, and the rainforest was too mountain-y. Since he is still complaining about it, I know it was at least memorable.

Now I face the problem of trying to get Christmas presents that live up to that.

 3. Loving unconditionally is possible

As a newly single New Yorker, I was feeling kind of lonely after a few months. So in the course of a week in May, I decided I wanted a dog, and got one. Maryann, my new roommate, had just moved in and she approved the choice as long as he was hypoallergenic. I was looking at adoption sites, but my mom went on craigslist and saw this girl had to give up her newly adopted maltipoo puppy. He was just so damn cute in the picture. I was unsure about this transaction, but we went to see little Oscar.

Did you know love at first sight exists? I do now.

Oscar crawled right up into our laps and started playing with us. He was 5 months old, a giant ball of fur, 4 pounds. My heart melted. Another family was coming to see him after us. I made up all this crazy stuff about how she couldn’t possibly give a puppy to a family with a new born baby because the dog will bite the baby and he will be given up again (this is actually true). I seriously sabotaged this family. And I do not regret it one bit.

I completely and hopelessly love this little ball of fur, who is now 1 year old, 5 pounds, takes up my entire instagram feed, and really likes rolling on rugs.

4. Passion and direction are necessary for happiness

If you asked me a year ago what exactly I wanted to do, I wasn’t quite sure. Over the course of this year, I discovered I love startups and I love Product Management. Specifically, I love Lean Product Management and Design.

In March, I went to the Lean Startup Machine weekend. It was the most grueling 3 days ever, but in the end it was worth it. I met a ton of great people I still keep in touch with today. I discovered I was incredibly passionate about lean methodology. I went back to work and changed the way I operated my projects, making my team more successful.

If I had never gone to LSM, I would have never drank too much coconut water, got into ridiculous arguments about trial sized wine delivery services, learned about so many new startups, met amazing people, and found what I’m truly passionate about and started to teach it. Having that direction and knowing what I want to do is irreplaceable.

5. Doing things on your own is empowering

The 2011 me used to never take trips alone, go to the movies by myself, or go around the corner to a restaurant I really like and eat by myself. I’ve done all those things in 2012, and looking back on them they are some of my fondest memories. I still prefer doing things with friends, but I would rather go it alone than miss out on something I want to do.

This year I traveled to San Francisco and had a blast. I met some great people, learned new things in a conferences, and reconnected with old friends. I also had dinner with Alice Waters, nothing to sniff at. I really had a ball, equally on my own and with other people there.

There’s something to be said for being able to do exactly what you want to do when you want to do it. You stop missing out on things you want to do because no one will do them with you. In 2013, I’m looking forward to doing more things on my own, taking more risks, and traveling to new places. Although, I also hope I can encourage more people to get off the couch and do them with me.