Wherever you go, there you are.

Fashion Mash Fate

It's been a while since I've talked about Fashion Mash, the website project that occupied several years of our life. It's with mixed emotion that I can now report its eventual fate: we sold Fashion Mash to Apply Marketing, who manage, among other things, the OpenFashion website.

Of course I'm thrilled that we managed to find a new home for the site, and for the more than 800 users who stuck with us since our launch back in 2007. I have no doubt that Apply Marketing will be able to help the site realize its full potential. I'm certain that the sale was the right thing for the site and for us, and I wish the new owners the best of luck in moving Fashion Mash forward.

As confident as I am in the choice to sell and in the new owners we found, I'm equally disheartened about the events that led to this eventual outcome. It had become painfully clear over the last year or so that we (mezamashii and I) no longer had the time, energy, or resources necessary to give the site all that it deserved. I've spent a lot of time thinking about what went wrong and what went right with this project, as it is an invaluable learning experience that we hope will enable us to lay the foundations of success for our future projects.

From the very beginning of this project we did a lot to stack the deck against ourselves without realizing just how important some of these factors would end up being. The timing and choice to open Heliostorm and begin the Fashion Mash project was precipitated in part by a major life event. Now this is not that uncommon, and I have no doubt that an unforeseen kick in the pants has been the last bit of necessary motivation to get many would-be-entrepreneurs started down their own paths.

In our case, however, it was not something "simple" like a downsizing job loss. Instead our catalyst was that the children we had been parenting in foster care for nearly two years, and working to adopt, ultimately went on to live with a blood relative in something of a last-minute change of heart beyond our control. While we were happy that the kids found their "forever family" with a blood relative (something we feel is extremely important), it was still emotionally devastating for us. There's no question that the grief we experienced over this event was a hindrance to our early progress on this project, and it certainly impacted our rational decision making processes.

Had this been our only obstacle, I suppose we might still have made good on our efforts. But at the time we were "in for a penny, in for a pound", and decided that this was a good time for several other pending life changes as well. So we liquidated our assets, sold our house, and moved. Not just to a new place or a new city, but to a new country. With our U-Haul packed and itemized, we headed north across the border into Canada, winding up in my birth city, Edmonton. In retrospect this was certainly the right decision for our family as a whole, but it was not necessarily the best decision for starting our business.

This choice had a lot of unanticipated knock-on effects for starting our company and beginning the Fashion Mash project. First were some of the direct effects, such as the practical problems with starting and running a business in a country where the legal, social, and cultural foundations surrounding employment and business are very different from those with which we were familiar. While Canada and the US are oft compared and the differences minimized, I can assure you that the similarities are superficial only. Under the hood there are a LOT of important differences, and many of the practical things we had learned from our years working in the US had to be re-evaluated.

Another direct effect was that we had shortened our runway. While attending a local entrepreneurial course at the Anderson Career Training Institute, an excellent analogy which I found particularly endearing was presented to us. The startup phase of a new business was compared to a plane taking off. Your starting capital, resources, energy, opportunities, and initial conditions are your runway. If you can't get your business airborne (self-sufficient) by the end of your runway, disaster is the probable outcome. By moving to Canada in general and Edmonton in particular, we effectively doubled our cost of living and about halved the length of our runway.

The foreshortening of our resources was not the only unexpected limitation we encountered financially. A word of advice for those looking to hop the border -- your credit history does not immigrate with you. And you probably aren't a student any more. The practical implications this has for starting a new business are profound. Our first credit card was a $300 secured card; we were not able to graduate up to an unsecured credit line (with a paltry $1000 limit) for a YEAR. I won't even go into the farcical details surrounding the Catch-22 of trying to sign a rental lease when you don't have a bank account, and getting a bank account when you don't have an address. (It's hilarious now, of course, but in the deep February winter, living out of the Jasper ave. HoJo with 3 cats, it wasn't quite as funny).

The last direct effect was that my wife was unable to work legally in Canada for pretty much the entire life of our company and the project. Which isn't to say that she didn't do an insane amount of work for us, but the roles she could take on were often limited by the fact that she could not legally be a director or even employee of the company. Unfortunately her immigration was not pushed through until long after we had floundered off the end of our runway and changed focus in our life. Of course the immigration process itself is something we probably could have done much more efficiently too, but that is a topic for another day.

Beyond these direct, practical obstacles, there were also some fuzzy factors that made things difficult as well. By moving to a new country we had effectively cut ourselves off from all of the support of our family and friends. We had distanced ourselves from all of our business and professional contacts and the networks we had established over the years. Though we made significant effort to set down roots and network in our new home, the simple fact is that these things take a lot of time. This was further hampered by some of the cultural and social differences we had not accounted for. As a result of this, our runway was not only shorter than it could have been, but far bumpier as well.

And yet, for all of these mistakes, I think we still could have made it, but for what I believe to be our most fatal choice. Fashion Mash was not the only project we wanted to execute under the Heliostorm banner. We were constantly thinking about what we would get to next, and not spending enough time thinking about what we were doing right now. Even more importantly, Fashion Mash was not even our favourite project idea, and our choice to implement it instead of our other ideas had more to do with our perceptions of marketability and feasibility than with an essential passion for the concept. And I'm convinced that this lack of passion, more than anything else, led to the site's eventual fate under our stewardship. At every turn it sapped our energy and killed our momentum, even when we managed to fight through the many other obstacles and produce a compelling product with avid and interested early adopters.

Though I have focused on many of the negatives, there were also a lot of things I think we executed very well with this project. And the failures are certainly educational, and I think invaluable for our future goals. Already my wife has leveraged the lessons learned with her follow-up business; a successful family daycare that has been running self-sufficiently for more than a year.

If we'd had the necessary passion we could have fought through anything to finish our takeoff roll. With a longer, smoother runway we might have pulled it off regardless. But together these two factors conspired to bring our first entrepreneurial project to a dignified but less than spectacular close. I've no doubt, however, that I'll be back in the pilot's seat.


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