entrepreneurship, innovation

At the end of the day, regardless of how much I get paid at my job, it has to be creative. 

As a friend, Caterina personifies one of the things I love about Montreal – a “latin” anglo who speaks the languages of French and Arts. A West Island girl with an eye for nice things and an appetite for novelty, Caterina recently transitioned from the retail industry to the app/start up world by founding Breather,  along with her equally ridiculously talented friend Julien Smith. Breather will allow people like you and me to unlock carefully crafted creative living rooms and working spaces anywhere in the world through our smartphones. Oh, and it raised $1.5 million seed funding within its first year and just won the 2013 Canadian Innovation Exchange Award. Caterina is also the Creative Director for the SWAP Team, a North-American non-profit social enterprise that organizes clothing swaps for charity.

Here’s her take on my questions she was kind enough to answer over a Sunday tea on Park Avenue.

1. Age, name & occupation

Caterina Rizzi Co-Founder, 34, Head of Product & Experience at Breather

2. What was your dream job as a kid?

I am an only child, my mother kept everything, and early drawings showed I was doing colour theory without even knowing it as a kid, and for a brief time I wanted to be a vet too. I used to write bio profiles for myself, like the ones you’d read on the back of a book. Dream jobs varied, but it was always artistic. When I started working I said “I  make things pretty” and now I say “I curate things”. It was never a decision, I was born like this. I was able to explore all this thanks to my mother’s support.

Half of the people tell us “this is the dumbest idea I’ve heard” and they come back a week later saying we had the best idea ever.

3. Where do you get your support or motivation from?

Half of the people tell us “this is the dumbest idea I’ve heard” and they come back a week later saying we had the best idea ever. Part of the excitement for me with Breather is that I just really wanted to work with Julien (co-founder) because we work so well together. Everybody at Breather has +10 years of experience, and while part of my work is similar to a retail launching operation which I what I used to do, everything else about Breather is new for me, making it that much more interesting.

4. What sparked your motivation or need to start your own thing?

I’ve been told for years that I should have my own company, but I didn’t want to . All I really want to do is paint or prototype but I have this leader personality that I can’t hide from. So I embraced  it – I never planned to own a company – it’s been a year and I’m still surprised.

At my previous jobs, I would look at the wasted potential, see untapped areas of improvement, and I would feel limited. At the end of the day, regardless of how much I get paid, it has to be creative.

This is also what got me involved in SWAP Team as creative director for the past 19 months. Everybody wants to be there and works real hard, all on a non-profit basis – it’s a great cause and that’s what boosts me. Money has never influenced me and it has never dictated my choices. I need uncharted territories, to figure it out for myself, I need to try something new. And as for Breather, we have an amazing team and it makes going to work really enjoyable.

5. What were you the most excited about when you started off?

I loved the idea of creating something from scratch – I LOVE prototyping, researching, traveling, taking things in, building mood boards.

Now I also get excited about creating and making. I love making something so it is exactly what I need – I create experiences, not just copy an idea or an object and hope that it will translate into the expected simulation. Breather is about inspiring and creating the right space, you need it to be truthful.

6. What did you wish you knew before starting all this?

We made a lot of good choices – maybe we were lucky, but you still need to pace your energy, a little at a time. Julien changed the concept 2 months in and I told him “do you realize we’ve changed everything and we barely started?” – but he was definitely right. Now we have to slow down, pat ourselves on the back, especially now that we have a team we want to keep engaged. We keep thinking we haven’t done anything so we need to stop and smell the roses to take it in and acknowledge how things are going.

Now we have to slow down, pat ourselves on the back, especially now that we have a team we want to keep engaged. 

7. Describe a day in your life as you’d like it to be in 3 years.

I’ve actually written this out – I read this book about changing your life the way you want it to be, the author asking you to write down your ideal day. For me, it would be one third of the day working on a thing i’m passionate about, the 2nd third about revenue making and the 3rd one about cooking and reading. I’m not a couch potato, on the contrary I’m quite active, even if I won the lottery I’d still keep busy and help people, you need to keep you mind sharp aaaand I need a lot of stimulation!

8. What would you like to know about other innovators who answer this survey?

I would like to know what their process is – where do they get their inspiration, how did you get to that ? How did the great idea came about? I read about Steve Wozniak in the book “Quiet: the power of introverts” and how he would arrive early at work to work on his idea and transform it into something real.

9. What would be the one thing you’d like your eulogy to say? 

I would like to hear people say that I was kind to others, that I liked to help people. I hope I’m accurately portrayed – that they remember the good things about me. You want to be remembered well, hopefully my family and the people I know will have some good memories and that I did indeed have a positive impact on them.

Breather just celebrated their one year anniversary, the launch of their app and their new Mil-End office space, complete with Caterina’s prototyping room. 

Spring 2014 update on this post:

Caterina has just finished opening up a space in New York City. Read more about Breather in Elle Decor and Refinery 29 which just voted Breather as a Top 10 NYC Apps.

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caterina rizzi, on app launching and creativity

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entrepreneurship, fundraising, start up

alistair croll, mover and shaker extraordinaire

“ there’s simply so much to do, see, taste and try that any day spent not discovering or debating something feels like squandering.

Last month I was at a Montreal Girl Geeks for a presentation on open data by Lisa Green, major Creative Commons contributor and current Director of LA-based Common Crawl. After that, some of us went out for drinks to continue the conversations started during the Q&A session. IT  and marketing people, open data champions, keen observers, we had interesting conversations on all sorts of topics related to their backgrounds, but each person I spoke with told me that I HAD to read up on or meet Alistair Croll.

After a couple of misspellings and some basic googling, I quickly found out why. Entrepreneur, author, consultant, blogger, event planner, critical thinker, it looked like he was the kind of guy who thought outside the box, celebrated it, and even got the box people to listen to him.

So I had to see for myself I could get to know him better. By the time I read his somewhat intimidating bio I was pretty sure my email inviting him to respond to my little survey would be swimming somewhere in his inbox, drowned in between internship resumes and  Linkedin connection requests.

To my surprise however I actually got a response, and a very insightful one at that! Ladies and gentlemen, I am very proud to present you my first survey response, by Alistair Croll. If you’d like to know a little more about him the man, take your pick:

For those who think Facebook makes only educated guesses as to what your sponsored feed content should sport, please take a minute to read his post here.

For those of you who are well versed in Analytics and the need for game changing strategies, you’ll find plenty here.

And for those who’d like to know about the inspiration behind the man, I’ll let you read on :)

1. Your full name, age and occupation

Alistair Croll;  43. I’m an author, analyst, entrepreneur, and event organizer.
 

2. What was your dream job as a kid?

I didn’t have one, really. But I loved writing code and watching others use it; I was running a BBS (a precursor to web forums) on my Apple //e computer at 13, and the feedback loops—I’d change something, users would change how they interacted—was fascinating.
 

3. Where do you get your support or motivation from?

My wife is an incredible force in my life, though she’d be the first to deny it. I’m also lucky enough to have a circle of friends and mentors I’ve worked with over the years who point me at interesting things. My biggest motivation is curiosity; we’re here for seventy or so years, and there’s simply so much to do, see, taste and try that any day spent not discovering or debating something feels like squandering.

 

“It’s easy to say, “don’t build something nobody needs.” But people didn’t know they needed a Walkman, or a Dodge Caravan.”

 

4. What sparked your motivation or need to start your own thing?

In the late nineties, my longtime friend and co-conspirator Eric Packman bugged me to launch something (which became Networkshop, an analyst firm.) Then another friend, Thanos Moschopoulos, prodded us into turning it into a managed service provider (MSP) called Coradiant. And Ian Rae cajoled us into turning what Coradiant was doing into an appliance called TrueSight. So what sparked me was other people.
These days, I’m more focused on what the world will be like in ten years. Paul Graham said that founders see the world as it will be and then build what’s missing. That’s the hard part—seeing what’s missing, and how people will use it. It’s simple to look at an iPhone or an Android today and say, “of course that’s how we take pictures, make calls, and manage our calendar.” It wasn’t so obvious ten years ago.
 

5. What were you the most excited about when you started off?

Any new venture has that “first day of school” feeling of clean binders and fresh pens. It’s easy to get swayed by that, and there’s certainly something cathartic about a clean slate. But if you’re starting something you know about, you spend a lot of time trying to separate your own cognitive biases from what the market really needs.
What excites me the most is when I’m talking to people and I start to see patterns emerge. My Lean Analytics co-author Ben Yoskovitz and I are busy working on a workshop about Lean Analytics for Intrapreneurs. The first couple of phone calls with innovators at big companies were interesting—but by the sixth or seventh, I started seeing the “red threads” that tied them all together.
That feeling of the market or problem revealing itself to you if you’re willing to dig, to be various, is thrilling.

“ I’d like to know I added more value to humanity than I took. Not sure what the metric for that is.”

 

6. What did you wish you knew before starting all this?

Well, in Coradiant’s case, the answer is obvious: I’d have built TrueSight first, without the MSP business that got us there. That drained a lot of funding, patience, and energy from us. I have a general aversion to businesses that require humans to deliver services these days; Marc Andreesen says software is eating the world, and I think he’s right.
The big lesson, though, is balance. It’s easy to say, “don’t build something nobody needs.” But people didn’t know they needed a Walkman, or a Dodge Caravan. Those products tested horribly, but met a need people had. It’s tempting to be a nay-sayer, and only build things the world needs today. It’s also uninspiring. On the other hand, it’s reckless to build something on faith—but most great startups began there.
Ultimately, I learned that balancing data-driven tactics and a ruthless honesty with a big vision and a leap of faith is incredibly hard to do well.
 

7. Describe a day in your life as you’d like it to be in 3 years.

That depends. If I’m building something new, which I may well be, I’d like to be talking to customers and diving deep into the minutiae of a product release, and fielding plaintive emails from people I’ve never met begging to try my new product.
On the other hand, if I’m still writing, running conferences, and trying to predict where humanity will intersect with technology, then I’d like to be drinking decent wine with smart people late at night.
Either way, I hope it will include a decent amount of time helping my daughter to find the same skeptical curiosity and awestruck enthusiasm with which I see the world.

8. What would you like to know about other innovators who answer this survey?

I think there is a critical metric or number in every startup that became the most important number in the company. I’d like to know what that was, and how they knew they’d found the mystical “product-market fit” when the market just pulls the product out of you.
 

9. What would be the one thing you’d like your eulogy to say?

That I finally finished something.
Seriously, though: Tim O’Reilly has a great statement about adding more value to a system than you take away. I’d like to know I added more value to humanity than I took. Not sure what the metric for that is.
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