Mentor Spotlight: Trish Fontanilla

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In this week’s spotlight is Trish Fontanilla, the Community Manager at Vsnap. Not only is Trish a returning mentor, she is actually mentoring two teams this year! She is mentoring a local Boston team from the Advanced Math and Science Academy, and another team from Valley Christian School and Dougherty Vally HS in San Jose, CA. Since last year, Trish has shown her dedication in many ways for example, when she organized a field trip in the fall to MassChallenge, a startup accelerator at the Boston waterfront, and where Vsnap is currently located.

TRISH’S INTERVIEW WITH US:

Tell us about your background. Where did you grow up? What was your school experience like? What did you study in college? Include anything else you’d like to share about your youth.
I grew up in a small town in New Jersey where I was a bit of an odd duck. My father was a chemist and an inventor, so like him, I was constantly coming up with different “inventions” or ways to approach things. Mostly to get myself out of trouble. My quirky sense of self and behavior didn’t make me the most popular girl in school, but by the time I was in 8th grade, I had honed my awkwardness and turned it into comedy. I even scored the title of Class Clown that year. I then went on to an all girls high school that my parents picked for me. My freshman year I was slightly rebellious, but when I realized they weren’t going to transfer me, I started to join clubs instead of complaining about them. By my senior year, I was president of my class. In 2002, I moved to Boston to attend Emerson College. I originally got in as a Media Studies major, but dropped it the first day of school. To get inspired, I joined the majority of the clubs on campus. I was a camerawoman for the nightly news, did stage crew for a theatre group, wrote for one of the literary magazines, led volunteer projects with the service club, was a DJ for the on-campus radio station, jumped in as an orientation leader, and much more. Class-wise, while I was figuring out what I wanted to do, I had an amazing advisor who made sure I was covering all my core requirements. Because of her, I completed most of my requirements by the end of my sophomore year. It was then that I settled on Writing Literature and Publishing as a major. And when I graduated in the fall of 2005, I also had minors in Psychology and Performance Studies.

What was it like studying writing in college? What did you like most about your classes?
It was pretty amazing. I took every writing class under the sun: magazine, sketch comedy, sitcom, playwrighting, poetry, fiction, and screenwriting. What I liked most is actually what I hated most: workshops. During most workshops, people got to comment on what you wrote and you weren’t allowed to say anything until the end. It was incredible. Excruciating, but incredible. It taught me to always put out my best work. It’s easier to defend when you know you’ve done your best. Also, no matter what you do or where you go, the ability to convey your message via text is invaluable. And on the flip side, being able to give constructive criticism is also an great quality to have.

How did you get your job now? What do you like the most about it? What do you do at work besides code?

It’s a bit of a crazy story. You can read the whole version here: https://bit.ly/sye5zv But the cliff’s notes are: In May of 2011, I was leaving Boston after 9 years because I was looking for a job I could be passionate about and I just hadn’t found it here. Mid-May I went to an amazing networking event so that I could say bye to friends and pick up some last minute freelancing work. My now boss saw me tweeting about it and we met up at the event. 2 days later and less than a half hour into our discussion he offered me a job as employee #2 at Vsnap. Turns out he had been talking to mutual friends and people within the community about my me/work. It took me a week to say yes. I was totally scared and had never worked at a startup full time, plus it would be just me and him to start. But helping to build a company has been exhilarating. Most days I wake up in the morning excited to go to work. And it’s been 2 years of that so far.

My title is community manager, which is generally creating content, managing all the social media channels, demoing at events, customer service, some PR/marketing, community building, and arguably being the face of the company. But being a startup, I’ve learned a lot about product, user interface, QA, reporting bugs, documenting features, and more. If I wasn’t at Vsnap, I may not be a mentor for Technovation, because a lot of community managers don’t have a chance to get as close to the product as I have.

What do you do outside of work?

My passions are volunteering, music, and community. I’m a volunteer leader for Boston Cares and have worked with about 50 non-profits in Boston since I moved here. I love music and go to shows when I can. Last year I did Ladies Rock Campaign, which throws a group of women together to create a band, learn instruments and perform the music they write all within a weekend. It’s a benefit for Girls Rock Campaign, which is a week long version of LRC, focusing on empowering girls, building confidence, and fostering collaboration. It’s like the musical version of Technovation. I also get involved with the startup community as much as possible. I think the key to being a great community manager, is being an awesome community member. I’ve also been on the events committee for Wonder Women of Boston and the Asian American Women in Leadership Conference.

You are mentoring two teams this year— one in Boston and one in SF. Can you tell us how this is going, what you are learning, and what you feel are the advantages of each?

Last year, I had the chance to meet with my team every week. While I loved seeing the girls and getting to know them, sometimes it took some time to focus. This year, mentoring both teams virtually has allowed us to focus and use our time together more efficiently. Although it does cut out some of the bonding time because of that focus. I think the perfect scenario would be a mixture of both in-person and virtual mentoring.

What do you know now that you wish you had known as a teenager?
It’s okay to have a non-linear life. I’m a first generation Filipino American. My parents came here in the ‘60s, but had relatively straightforward career paths. I thought that I would have it all figured out by the time I graduated college. I didn’t, and that’s okay. I love my current job, and I tap into different lessons and skills I learned in all the different jobs and industries I’ve worked in. I took a lot of risks and I wouldn’t have done it any other way.

If you could teach one “lesson” to all the girls participating in Technovation this year (something additional to the curriculum we currently have), what would it be? What do you feel is most important for girls to learn as they develop a high tech product?

Be passionate about what you’re working on. No matter how many competitors you may have, your team and the execution will differentiate you. People may be able to replicate your ideas or features, but they won’t be able to replicate the enthusiasm you can bring to the product or the community that will rally behind you because of it.

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Rinse and Repeat: How to Start a Business

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Think about an app or gadget you love to use. Is it Instagram? Is it Snapchat? Your smart phone? Whatever it is, at some point it did not exist. At some point someone out there decided that there was something missing in the world or they wanted to make the world a better place. An entrepreneur is someone who feels this way and makes something to create the world they want to see. When this something makes money, it is a business. If it does not make money, then it’s just a hobby. You do not have to have an MBA or a PhD to start a business. Anyone, no matter how young or old, can be an entrepreneur. You just need to have ideas, perseverance, and an iterative framework to test your ideas until you find one that makes money, in other words, creates revenue.

“An entrepreneur is someone who… makes something to create the world they want to see.”

My first entrepreneurship experience was when I was a little girl of 7 years old. We had a bird farm. I would train my father’s parakeets to stand on a finger and be pet by a human. When my father sold the parakeet I would get a cut of the sales price. My idea was that people want their pet parakeets to be nice and affectionate. A parakeet that was not trained would not sell for as much as one that was. In this way I was able to test out my idea and make some money. Now it’s your turn!

The steps below will guide you in starting a business:

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Ideation

Ideation is the process of creating ideas. At this point no idea is good or bad. Do not worry if your idea does not seem like the most incredible idea ever. It does not have to be unique to become a business. Facebook was not the first social network. Think of MySpace. Generally the first place to begin creating ideas is to “scratch your own itch.” This is a phrase that means if you already have the problem or know the problem very well, you are probably the best person to come up with ideas to fix it. If nothing jumps out at you, just pick a problem area and analyze it. For instance, what is your morning routine when you get up and go to school? Is there anything that could make it a better experience? Once you identify an idea or set of ideas, then you want validate you then have a solution that will work for more than just yourself or a small circle of friends. This is one of the first steps in defining the business model for your idea. We will discuss the business model next. Remember, this is an iterative process. No entrepreneur ended up being successful with the first idea he or she had. The goal is to validate your idea, learn, modify it, and validate again until you have a profitable business model.

“No entrepreneur ended up being successful with the first idea he or she had. The goal is to validate your idea, learn, modify it, and validate again until you have a profitable business model.”

Business Model

It is time to fill in the blanks that will take your idea from a dream to a revenue producing product or service. A business model is similar to a detective story. There is a set of questions that you must answer to solve the case and this will take some investigation. Below is a table, which will help you understand the questions to ask so you can formulate a business model for your product. Notice I am not calling it an idea any more. It’s time for that idea to mature into a tangible product. Just like a growing child, this product will have to learn through trial and error until it can stand up by itself. Failing is expected and fine as long as you learn from it and then try again with the new learnings. It is a fun experience to get out there and test your product. The steps below are not a junior way of starting a business. These are the questions every entrepreneur must answer.

“A business model is similar to a detective story. There is a set of questions that you must answer to solve the case and this will take some investigation.”

Let’s get started! You’re now an entrepreneur!

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Value Proposition

The value proposition is key to building your product. In simplest terms, the value proposition can be stated in one sentence. It’s like playing Mad Libs.

____[insert product/service name]___ WILL HELP ____[insert customer description]____ TO____ [insert the problem being solved]____ _____[insert secret sauce]____

Example:

A self-driving car will help mothers with many children be able to make sure every child will always have a ride even if she is busy with another child.

At the beginning, a value proposition statement is just a hypothesis, which needs to be validated. Talk to who you think is the target customer. This will validate if your hypothesis is a real life problem that people want fixed. In the case above, a good group of people to ask about this value proposition would be mothers who have multiple children and even children who have multiple siblings. You are looking to see how much pain this problem causes and if your solution really resonates with them. Then ask how much they would expect to pay for such a product or service.

Market Size

Now that you have evidence from speaking to various people that the problem exists and is worth solving, it is time to understand how many people have this problem or type of problem. If we continue the example from above the market size would potentially be all the mothers who have multiple children. The more specific you can get the more accurate your market size will actually be. Let’s say you’re first starting in the US. Then you will want to know how many mothers in the US have children who are not of driving age and do not have a car.

“The more specific you can get the more accurate your market size will actually be.”

Distribution Channels

This part of your business model defines how you will reach the target customer, whether they are a paying or non-paying customer. You will dive more into the price in the revenue streams section. Distribution channels also are the ways you will keep your customer using your product or service. Here are some examples of distribution channels for a self-driving car.

  • city community centers
  • malls
  • schools
  • website and mobile app for sign up and management car dealerships
  • Revenue Streams

 

There are several ways to make money. The challenge is to find the best way or ways, which will maximize what your product makes and is still more than the cost of producing and running your business. Finding the right revenue streams will need to be tested along with the rest of your business model. That will be done with your MVP (minimum viable product).

For many types of businesses, common revenue streams can be evaluated. For a self-driving car think about your customer and what her need may be and how frequent it may be. If a mother constantly finds herself double booked to pick up two children should the self-driving car be owned by the family or should the family rent or subscribe to using the self-driving car. Advertising in the car during a ride can be a source of revenue. The equivalent to in-app purchases could be added services that can be bought while in the car, for example Wi-Fi or watching a movie or show. These are all examples of revenue streams that do not just apply to self-driving cars, but other products such as apps.

Cost Structure

It will cost money to run a business. Identify fixed costs and variable costs. Fixed costs can be a one-time cost or a recurring cost that is the same. For instance, setting up the factory to make self-driving cars will cost you once. Creating new self-driving cars will cost you every time you make one, but the cost to make one is fixed. Variable costs can change overtime or at different quantities. One example of a variable cost is the cost to acquire a new customer. This is generally the cost of marketing, which can be periodic and vary in expense depending on how much needs to be done. Think of your costs when you have 10 customers, 100 customers, up to 1 million customers. A common mistake that entrepreneurs make is not taking into account that, as the business grows there are new costs that may spring up. The line “More money more problems.” can be very true, so think big and plan for the success of your product.

“A common mistake that entrepreneurs make is not taking into account that as the business grows there are new costs that may spring up.”

The MVP

Now that you have done your detective work to build a business model it is time to build your minimal viable product ,or MVP, to test out the different pieces of your business model. The MVP is the smallest representation of your product that will test the most risky parts of your business model. Usually this means starting with validating the value proposition. Prototype the experience you want for the customer. A prototype can be done quickly and inexpensively through paper prototypes, using power point, or there are several websites and apps which make it even easier to create an interactive prototype. For the MVP of a self-driving car, you do not have to actually build a car that does not need a human driver! You can simulate the experience by having a human driver who helps a mother pick up her other children when needed. Just by doing this or any other simple form of prototyping you will learn a ton and tweak your business model as you go.

“The MVP is the smallest representation of your product that will test the most risky parts of your business model.”

Rinse and Repeat as necessary

“I have not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.” – Thomas Edison

No entrepreneur gets it exactly right on the first try, which is why starting a business is an iterative process. Through each MVP you will learn something new and modify the business model and the MVP a bit. This is called “pivoting”, where the business model is modified when a hypothesis proves invalid. This does not mean that one failure results in a completely new vision. If that were the case, then a new business model would have to be built from scratch each time. Once you get through MVP1 and MVP2 and you see the amount of new information decrease, your business model will start to stabilize, which is a great sign that your business is working. You have reached the golden state for a startup called Product/Market Fit. This means you have customers signing up, paying or pre-ordering your product, and sticking around to use it over and over again.

Conclusion

Congratulations! If you have made it this far you have started your business. You are an entrepreneur! Life is grand, but do not think life is over. The opposite is true because the next stage of your company is growth and scaling. Getting the first early adopters is one thing, but capturing the attention of your next set of customers will be different. All in all, remember that you are not the first entrepreneur and there are many resources out there to help you at any stage of your company. I wish you the best of luck on this fun journey!

“…remember that you are not the first entrepreneur and there are many resources out there to help you at any stage of your company.”

Resources

One of the most comprehensive lists of entrepreneurship resources is from Steven Blank: http://steveblank.com/tools-and-blogs-for-entrepreneurs/

ABOUT THE AUTHOR:

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Jennifer Arguello is a Co-Founder of Latino Startup Alliance, a community of Latino tech entrepreneurs. She also serves on the national board of directors for the largest organization of Latinos in STEM in the United States, the Society of Hispanic Professional Engineers. A Silicon Valley native, she has been working in the tech field for over 12 years and is alumnus of Mozilla and Microsoft along with various startups. Jennifer holds a BS in Computer Science from UC San Diego. Follow her on Twitter at @engijen.