Posts in ruminations
Sophomore Slump

Or, the Honeymoon is over.

Some people talk about the Honeymoon phase. Or bad second night performances. I like to call it the Sophomore Slump.

When you are facing a new challenge, new relationship, or new idea, you're engaged. You can be energized by the adventure of it all. This happens in new romantic relationships. It happens on opening nights, when you are still not quite sure you can pull it off.

During the freshman year of college, you try hard, partly because you're not sure you can do it. And then, once you succeed that first year, you back off. And you face the Sophomore Slump. Grades might slip, you might socialize more than you study.

This also happens in new nonprofits and businesses. For the first three, maybe five, years you can run an organization on passion and heart. But those are quick burning fuels. They burn hot, but not for long. And most organizations hit a point a few years in where they have to switch their thinking--they have to go from sprinting to long distance.

And often nonprofits struggle with this transition. Partly, specific types of staff and volunteers thrive in groups in that honeymoon phase. They tend to be passionate people who are good in an emergency or flying by the seat of their pants. But they might not be so great as the organization ages.

Once they hit this transition, nonprofits need different skill sets. They need people on the team who are strategic thinkers. Staff who can put down the fire hose and start thinking about how to build a more fire resistant structure. People who can stop worrying about where next month's rent is coming from and think about building an endowment to pay for future rent.

This is one of the points in a nonprofit's journey that working with Storybook Foundry can be very fruitful. Through conversations and document review, we can help organizations tease out the language they are already using and the rules they are already following. They've just never stopped to think about it. Once this information is collected and organized, nonprofits who are transitioning to becoming more sustainable have the beginning of grant applications, websites, appeals, marketing materials and more. They can hire a social media intern and quickly bring them up to speed. Organizations can contract in a grant writer or a website designer and be able to communicate with them easily, decreasing their cost.

But this process also has a benefit to the intellectual health of the organization. Taking a short pause to think about language and communication, to organization information they most likely already have, moves nonprofit staff from being reactive to being proactive. And that, after all, is what the transition out of the Sophomore Slump is all about.

Kitchen Gadgets and Hair Care

Last week, we shared a story about how rejection can clarify your brand integrity.  (If you missed it, you can read it here).  We got lots of nice feedback on the piece, including

[This story] spoke to me, as the sole independent contractor at a very small nonprofit, very specifically. I feel like our size of nonprofit is incredibly overlooked. Us scrappy part-time/strictly-volunteer organizers that are used to googling our ways to solutions that larger orgs would hire someone to do.

--Katie Myers, Center Stage Jackson.  

We loved to hear we’re supporting our friends in their important work, but we owe a bigger thanks for a single word that Katie used earlier in her email.

She referred to our tools.  And, we’ve been saying products.  
And her word is soooooo much better.

Here at Storybook Foundry we enjoy semantics, so we are going to indulge in a short journey into the words tool and product.  (If you aren’t into the philosophy of words, you can skip to the end. We won’t be offended.)

skin care product.jpg

When thinking of the word product, a couple things come to mind.  
Hair and skin care products—particularly hair gel and mousse.  
Also, mathematics. Product is another way to talk about multiplication.

Do math and hair styling relate to what Storybook Foundry is attempting?  

mathmatical prodcut.jpg

Well, the idea of multiplying is good. We like the idea that our clients take what we have and take what they have and multiply them together into something much greater.  

But hair styling?  That doesn’t sit so well, because styling is just temporary.  It’s not long lasting change or improvement.

If we think about products in a business sense, often they are things you buy and then use as they are.  They are static and finished things. Products are the end result of a process, not part of one.

what does the word tool bring to mind?  

Seems we have to acknowledge that ‘tool’ is sometimes used to refer to jerks.  But that’s not the most common way it’s used in the business world. So, we acknowledge it and move on.

kitchen tools.jpg

Tools are things that make accomplishing something much, much easier.  Our founder, Ara, does a lot of baking, but without all the fancy tools--like mixers, pastry cutters, or even specialized pans. Things work out, but mixing bread dough by hand takes a lot longer (and a lot more tired muscles) than using an electric mixer and dough hooks.

We’ve all had to ‘Macgyver’ things and make do without the right tools.  But we also all know how much easier it is with them. Ever use a pneumatic ratchet instead of taking your lug nuts off by hand?  

But tools also don’t have to be complicated.  We often overlook the simplest tools we use every day.  A pencil is a tool. So is a broom and a comb.

Katie is right.  We’ve made tools.

We’ve created templates that are simple to use, allowing nonprofits and small businesses accomplish larger projects.  They aren’t a product because they aren’t static. And even after an organization has completed them, they shouldn't get put on the shelf.  They go on to get folded into larger projects and used over and over again.

(We tried to figure out where we even got the word ‘product.’  Best we can sort, it’s because that’s the word that Squarespace uses to describe things you sell. And we failed to take our own advice and think about our words.)

Thanks to Katie for helping us figure out another word that’s one to avoid.  And providing a great example for us to use to share the process of identifying and thinking through Words to Avoid and Words to Use Instead.  


What you aren't is part of who you are

When we were in the early stages of putting together Storybook Foundry, I met with everyone I could think of to get feedback from those who might use our products and services.  I got great feedback: “that’s so needed” was a phrase I heard over and over.

Then, I had coffee with someone who now is a VP of a multimillion dollar nonprofit.  He brings varied experiences to his current position and is one of those ‘gets things done’ people.  I was excited to hear his ideas about markets, efforts, and products that I hadn’t dreamed up yet.

But that’s not how the conversation went.  

I explained what the Storybook was--a collection of templates that were easy to use that allowed nonprofits to get everyone on the same ‘page.’  That unlike other consulting, there was an option for nonprofit leaders to do the majority of the heavy lifting themselves.

His response:  “I’d just pay a marketing firm a couple thousand dollars to do that.  I don’t have the time or interest in doing it myself.”

While I’m sure he meant to be helpful, it about killed me to hear that.  

Because I heard, “This idea is crap.  No one is going to want it.”

It didn’t help that at this moment in the process, we had hit other roadblocks and it felt like the business would never get off the ground. I’ll be honest, we almost threw in the towel.

But now this conversation is an important part of the Storybook Foundry story.  A turning point, even. This moment of criticism has become a sentiment that has helped Storybook Foundry hone its mission.

The reply to “I would just hire a marketing firm for a couple thousand dollars” is:

“You’re right.  YOU would do that.  But there are so many organizations out there that are running on shoe strings.  Organizations with only several part time staff, that rely on board members to write press releases and annual appeals because they don’t have a marketing or development department.  And there aren’t nearly enough things out there to help these scrappy nonprofits compete with organizations that have more at their disposal. And THAT is where Storybook Foundry comes in.”

I now know I was talking to the wrong audience.  Our clients aren’t multimillion dollar organizations.  Our clients are organizations with $50,000-$250,000 budgets.  Our clients are nonprofits that are scraping together $2,000 for a development consultant that want to get the most out of their investment.  Our clients are those who don’t have a marketing firm on retainer.

I now know that what felt like a blow was actually an affirmation we were on the right track.  

What have you learned your organization isn't and how has that helped you define what you are? Share your thoughts in the comments below.

And if you haven’t thought much about it, give our Words to Avoid template process a try.