Derek Flanzraich is a good friend – we started off as blogging collaborators, writing about how to land startup jobs out of college, and now have followed parallel paths into entrepreneurship. Derek’s NYC-based startup, Greatist, is the fastest growth health and fitness site on the planet, with over 1 million (count ’em) uniques a month less than a year after launch.
In this honest conversation we had in late August 2012, he shares the hardest thing about doing a startup, how to really get six pack abs, the most important quality to creating sharable content and much more. Stay tuned at the end for a very special opportunity you won’t want to miss.
Jason = Grey background Derek = White background
Let’s start from the top: what brings you into SF?
I’m here for the Health Innovation Summit hosted by Rock Health. We’re demoing Greatist and honestly it’s a chance to meet new folks and catch up with people. I haven’t been to SF in a while to see the city I like so much. We’ll set up a booth and just chat people up – any chance I can reach a relevant audience with Greatist, I jump at it. Rock Health is well respected as an seed accelerator for digital health startups. We’re good friends with many of the companies that have gone through the program and we also did an infographic on how The Future of Health is Your Smartphone.
Now, I know you recently went on an adventure to get six pack abs and wrote about it on Greatist as a series called Six Pack Abs in Six Weeks: The #Absperiment. Will you A) show me your abs now and B) summarize what you learned from the experience?
You are not the first person to ask this question [about my abs]. They are gone. It took me 6 weeks to get them, 1.5 weeks to lose them.
And that was a choice. I mean I couldn’t stop eating for a week after so maybe it was something in between … but anyway, the ultimate takeaway was that you can get six pack abs but the sacrifice that you have to make to accomplish that goal in a short period of time may not be worth it and may not be lasting. I came to the conclusion that I don’t necessarily want six pack abs, I just want to be healthy, happy and fit.
One other thing I realized was that I usually eat a lot more than I need to. [During the #absperiment] I basically cut my calories in half and honestly wasn’t that hungry. Now, I no longer order, for instance, double meat at Chipotle, because I realize I’m going to be full anyway.
For readers who want details how Derek did it, you can scroll to the bottom (I’m also throwing in a free picture of “Six Pack Derek”. Now personal experiments aside, what kind of content do you think really stands out? What are the most popular articles to read on Greatist?
The most popular articles are really comprehensive, exhaustive lists that people can refer back to. We have some amazing user engagements for a content site. A lot of that is because we have pages that people bookmark and come back to. Continue reading…
I went out for drinks one evening at a bar in San Francisco which was pitching a free “mobile crafting workshop” — and it was awesome. There was fabric, stuffing, sewing materials and space-themed cutouts and tons of grown adults acting like 8 year olds in arts & crafts.
When I met the woman behind it all, Amelia Strader, and heard her story, I knew she would make for an awesome kick ass interview. She operates Gogo Craft, a mobile crafting workshop/business, as her main occupation and puts on events for venues, parties and other types of gatherings. She was a wonderful crafting teacher and I love how she’s built this business.
Let’s dig in!
1) You’ve been knitting and sewing from a very young age! What are some of your favorite memories of crafting as a kid?
My favorite memory is of my early attempts at trying to make my own designs. I was about 10 years old and really into tap dancing, so I was eager to make some sparkly dance costumes. I never wanted to buy patterns, I wanted to make my own. So I would have my younger sister lie down and I would draw an outline of her on my fabric, and cut it out in the shape of a skirt or top and sew it together. Of course my poor sister had to wear the crazy outfits I made so my parents could show them off to friends and family.
2) You got a BFA in Fashion Design and then worked in the industry. What was the coolest parts about that? What did you learn from 8 years in the “biz”?
The coolest part was seeing a garment that I had helped to develop either for sale in a store or being worn by a stranger on the street. I learned so many valuable things working in the garment industry that I use in my own business everyday. As a technical designer I had to alter patterns and create instructions that factories would then use in order to make the garments. So I honed my skills as a pattern maker and learned how to describe making a garment in easy to follow words and images. I use this all the time to create the patterns and tutorials that go along with each of my GoGo Craft workshops.
3) How did you get to the idea of Gogo Craft? I know these stories can go in twists and turns – can you walk us through some of the experiences and thoughts you had when dreaming up this business?
It all started in 2008, when I got laid off from my job in the garment industry. Of course it was a bummer, but I was actually relieved. The job I had wasn’t very creative, and I wasn’t sure it was the right career path for me — a really difficult and scary thing to admit to myself. At first, unsure of what else I wanted to do, I started teaching some knitting classes, in order to make a little extra cash while looking for another job.
At the same time a few of my sewing projects were featured at a monthly craft workshop that I helped to create and organize, called Craft Bar with Etsy Labs, at the Museum of Craft and Folk Art in SF. By doing the knitting classes and organizing these workshops I remembered how much I really loved creating and teaching. As I was coming to this realization, I was offered a tech design job at Old Navy with a good salary and benefits, but accepting the position would have meant I would not be able to teach anymore. So in 2010 I decided to throw caution to the wind. I turned the job down and started GoGo Craft, a mobile craft workshop in the Bay Area.
4) We first met at a GoGo Craft event you had going in the King Kong Bar (a popup bar inside Escape from New York Pizza). Is that a typical “gig”? What other types of gigs do you throw? How does it usually work?
I can’t say that I have a typical gig. The cool thing about GoGo Craft gigs is that they have taken me to all different kinds of events and spaces around the Bay Area. I’ve taught workshops at Treasure Island Music Festival and at the California Academy of Sciences. My event locations have also included birthday parties, street fairs, holiday fairs, retail spaces, and libraries. GoGo Craft provides the project, supplies, and expert instructor, the customer provides the space.
5) What is your favorite part about running this business? And what is the hardest part?
Favorite part of the biz is that I’m getting paid to do something that I love. I still can’t get over how cool it is that I get paid to teach people how to make SpaceCraft plushies at a bar or teach a group of kids how to make superhero masks. The hardest part is dividing my time between my job working at the Museum of Craft and Folk Art, running GoGo Craft solo, and maintaining my personal life . I’ve learned to be very organized in order to balance all three, but there are crazy weeks that I just have to bite the bullet and put my nose to the grindstone.
6) What are your favorite hacks (aka neat tricks) you can pass along to people who want to craft better?
My favorite piece of advice to share with beginning crafters is that you don’t need expensive materials and tools to make something cool. Some of my favorite projects are upcycling (re-using) ordinary household items like paper towel rolls, old magazines, cardboard boxes, and old sweaters. I just made a small puppet stage from a cereal box, markers, scissors, and a glue stick. Using ordinary materials doesn’t put a big dent in your wallet and is much less intimidating to beginning crafters.
7) How can we get in touch if we want to learn more?
Hey guys, I’ve got another great interview lined up – this time with Mari Asp, one of the strongest women alive. Born in Norway, she now trains with the Marine Corp in Pendelton Beach near San Diego and is a 5 time national champion and holds the world record in bench press for her weight class (330 lbs lifted at 123 lbs). Wow – I’m very glad to have her on the blog. Here’s what I learned:
how she structures her workouts day by day
the person who inspired her to return to competition after a series of serious injuries
the one thing she’s secretly afraid of
what it’s like to train & compete with the Marines Corps
I loved this interview – hope you do too!
1) In your email to me, you said you’ve done 3 sports for 2 countries. It seems like you do powerlifting now, so tell me more about gymnastics and fitness and Norway. How did you get your start in sports? What did you like about gymnastics and fitness?
At the age of 5 my parents took me to gymnastics, since I already knew how to do cartwheels – it was something I picked up on my own just playing around. I was a very active kid, sitting still was difficult so gymnastics was perfect. I loved it from day 1 and still do to this day. Gymnastics is the sport closest to my heart. It’s a tough sport, with a high volume of intense training that requires talent, patients, and lots of guts. Knowing the difficulty of it all, I have the highest level of respect for those who chose to do this beautiful sport of ours.
2) Is doing sports different in Norway vs USA?
Doing sports as a kid in Norway vs USA is a bit different. Unlike in the US, Norway doesn’t have sport teams at school. There are no high school or college teams. In Norway we have sport clubs where you are a member – training for a specific sport is done after school hours at the facility of the sports club. One of the clubs I was doing gymnastics for was Oslo Gymnastics club. When Norway is a small country with only 4.7 million people, many kids grow up in places far from a big city and it is limited with sport clubs to choose from. A sport like gymnastics that requires having a facility with all the equipment etc is far in between. A sport like soccer, on the other hand you will find pretty much everywhere.
3) You can bench 330 and hold the world record! That’s awesome. And crazy. What got you interested in lifting?
I was on the Norwegian National Team for Gymnastics since I was 13 but decided to retire 4 years later due to injuries. The following day of my retirement, a friend of mine from school who was training at an Olympic and powerlifting club and told me I to come with him and try lifting weights.
I did, and I bench-pressed 110 lbs that day, my first time ever lifting weights. 3 months later I won the junior national powerlifting championship. Today at 36, I am still doing it, thanks to the gymnastics training that gave me the skills, strength and ability to train hard and never give up.
Mari Asp in 2008. Her final lift is a world record!
Today I bring you a very motivated and prolific student / social entrepreneur: Ted Gonder. This one’s a bit long but I can assure you that A) I’ve already cut it down a bit and 2) it’s worth it. Here’s a quick peek at what you’ll learn:
The surprising lessons he learned from becoming an Eagle Scout
The movie that triggered his inner social entrepreneur
Where the idea for Moneythink came from and why it works
The best advice he’s ever gotten for living a balanced life
The four things he does every day to keep his energy and productivity high
1) You were an Eagle Scout – I know that earning this honor is a huge commitment and quite difficult. What did you learn from reaching the top rank in the Boy Scouts?
Scouting was a huge part of my childhood, but as I got into middle school, I started holding it closer to the chest. If the cool kids at school learned I was a Boy Scout, I thought, I’d be the laughing stalk of the school. My insecurity about what others thought of me increased my ambition to achieve the honor of Eagle Scout as fast as possible.
I hopped on the fast track to Eagle, going to every merit badge workshop, camping trip, and local event there was until I had fulfilled the necessary requirements to earn the rank of Eagle. By age 14, I had achieved my goal. This was right before I entered high school, where other commitments drew me away from the activity of Scouting.
It was not until later in high school and college did I understand how large of a service opportunity I missed by rushing through things with achievement-oriented tunnel vision.
That said, I have no regrets. Scouting shaped me as a person, hurling me into a variety of uncomfortable wilderness situations few young people have the opportunity to experience in this ever-increasingly technologized world. I’m grateful for that and honored to be part of the Eagle community.
Today I’m excited to share an interview with Michael Khalili, who is the creator of an awesome brand-new service called Skim That which summarizes the top articles on Hacker News. He’s been iterating on the product with a private email list over the past month or so and now is releasing it to the public.
Readers of this site know that I’m really into HN – it’s an aggregation of links to important news, interesting ideas, valuable advice, personal stories and hard data, all with a tech/startup bent. It’s also a community of smart folks and a wonderful traffic source should you hit front page.
I’ve been getting the Skim That emails for a while and when Michael said he was launching the site to the public I thought it’d be cool to interview him and support his project. In this interview you’ll learn:
How he’s intimately connected to the founder of Mixergy.
What caused him to start reading Hacker News
How Skim That differs from his earlier projects
How he got 130 subscribers in 90 minutes
When he knew it was time to launch
I hope you enjoy it!
Can you tell us a little bit about yourself?
I’m Michael Khalili, 32 living in LA. I’m a web entrepreneur and been a coder from the age of 16. I started my first business when I was 18 with my brother, Andrew Warner, during the first dot com boom. We built a large subscription email business (word of the day, joke of the day, trivia, gossip, etc) and several greeting card websites. After that, I took several years off to recharge my batteries. I returned to the community about 4 years ago and experimented with different website ideas.
What is Skim That?
My latest project is SkimThat.com where my team of writers create summaries of popular articles found on Hacker News. Eventually this will expand to Digg, Reddit and main stream news sources. It’s important to note that the summary isn’t a tease of the article, it’s the content brought down the main point. My goal is to give you the relevant information from the story in a dry and direct manner similar to a news crawl. If the reader is interested in the topic, they can click through for the full article.
Each summary includes a link to the source article, link to the HN comments and the size, in percent, the summary is relative to the source article. You can see from the example below, we were able to cut the information down to 7% of what the source article was and still make the same point. Here’s the source http://www.nytimes.com/2011/05/18/technology/18talent.html.
How did you come up with the idea for Skim That?
The idea for Skim That came from reading verbose articles. Often times I would have to skip the first or second paragraph because they were reiterating and elaborating what the title already said. Other times there’d be too many examples when proving a point. Those things are great for a casual reader but I just want the TLDR version. At times it felt a game of “Where’s Waldo” as I skimmed through the writing. The tipping point came when I was interested in the HN comments but couldn’t enjoy them until I read the whole article.
When did you start reading Hacker News? What did you like about it?
I started reading HN early 2009 when Andrew insisted I check it out. I was reluctant at first because I thought it was just another news aggregator. The articles were of definite interest to me but what really surprised me was the community. It’s a perfect size, just large enough to get a good response for a topic but not too big that it’s flooded with noise. There are also a ton of industry people giving great feedback and quality information.
Tell us about how you iterated on earlier versions of Skim That before the release
My past projects were based around code I’d write using asp.net. I’d spend months building out the entire site, then release it. With Skim That, I went the MVP route and posted a Show HN article http://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=2407388 I was on the front page for about an hour and a half and got about 130 subscribers. The list grew to over 200 after my sister tweeted about it to fans of her comedy podcast. That gave me a good mix of industry and casual readers.
This time the development work didn’t come from the build out of the site – WordPress install, a nice design and some configuring. The real work was figuring out the style of the summaries. For 6 weeks I sent 15 emails with sample summaries to my subscribers and asked for feedback. Sometimes I’d ask specific questions like “How do you feel about the level of detail?” Other times it was just a request for general comments. The feedback helped me hone the writing style. Eventually the only feedback was praise and I knew it was time to launch.
Is there anything else you want our readers to know or do?
As a child, my writing and spelling was atrocious. Seriously, it was horrendous. I even had to take a remedial writing class when I was 17. It’s funny to think back to that time now that I’m an editor.