Stacking The StartUp Deck And Other Lessons From LeBron James

It’s bordering on old news now but the second biggest thing in sports last week had nothing to do with the World Cup. LeBron James, the best basketball player and one of the best athletes on the planet made a low-key (by his standards) announcement that he’ll be returning to his hometown of Cleveland to play out his immediate basketball future.

The announcement got widely written up, even when the timing coincided with the end of the World Cup. One article that caught my attention about James’ announcement didn’t come from ESPN or Grantland – rather the Wall Street Journal wrote an interesting article centered around one important point – great teams need great culture, not just talent.

The LeBron years at the Heat are now somewhat overshadowed not by the 2 championships they did win, but by the two they did not. It goes to show that when you load your stage with rockstars, it can still underperform. Seems it took LeBron four seasons at Miami to figure this out. In the most recent NBA final series, Miami Heat were completely outplayed and outclassed by a superior, more cohesive and better drilled San Antonio Spurs.

What happened to the Miami Heat can happen in early stage companies too. Startups want to stack their decks and load up on talent to build and scale a great product. They want the best possible team they can find to fill out their early roster. It looks good to potential investors who want to see evidence of a capable, gritty and well thought out team before they’ll commit to the cause.

Sometimes all that talent comes at a price. Early startups are often solely focused on building and scaling a product and give little thought on how to people manage, what kind of culture they want and dedicating the resources to do so. Founders and startup CEOs are usually good at fund-raising or product building and can be underprepared or underskilled to deal with the business of managing and containing (the often considerable) egos that go with a rockstar team. It’s the missing link that deck stacking ignores – how each of these rockstars is actually going to work together.

Otherwise capable young entrepreneurs frequently expose their lack of people management skills or ignorance towards the importance of building a culture and early. We see the really bad examples play out in the form of harassment and other kinds of claims. Think about the recent revelations surrounding the SnapChat guy or what’s happening in the ranks of Tinder right now.

At the very least, early startups need to consider not only brute talent in their early employees but hiring on personality, diversity and emotional maturity as well. Stacking the deck in your favor is no longer enough. The challenge for lots of growing startups is to not make the same mistake that the best athlete on the planet did – ignoring culture in the face of great talent.


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The Importance of Side Projects

Last week the two Google founders, Larry Page and Sergey Brin, sat down for a rare interview at the KV CEO Summit.

If you have any kind of interest in Google (and if you’re in tech then you should), it’s critical watching.

Billed as a fireside chat, Larry and Sergey touch on a number of interesting topics including self-driving cars, their interest in machine learning, their co-founder relationship and also, Google’s interest in healthcare (at around the 29 minute mark).

What’s interesting is their comments on why Google hasn’t dived deeper into anything healthcare related. Larry and Sergey recognize the barriers that regulation pose for healthcare entrepreneurs in the US market. Larry singles out HIPAA (the US government regulations on privacy protection of identifiable healthcare information) as the main culprit. He’s right. The balance between protecting patient privacy and allowing access personal info and medical data has not yet been struck.

It then begs the question – if Larry Page describes health tech is ‘a difficult area’ and doesn’t want to touch it, are we brave (or crazy) for wanting to? Larry is one of the most prominent tech minds in the world and current CEO of Google. He has virtually unlimited resources, endless influence and the power to tackle whatever he wants. And yet to him, healthcare disruption is hard. What chance do the rest of us all have?

I say plenty. Aside from a few cool projects, if Google says thanks but no thanks to health, doesn’t mean we all have to. Especially because most health entrepreneurs want to disrupt on a much smaller but impactful scale. And frankly it energizes me to think that if the two Google founders find health tech hard, then good on me for tackling and trying to improve it. It frames the overall challenge of my job and reinforces that anyone trying to disrupt health care right now is tackling something big and meaningful and hard.

There are two more things that strike me about this interview. Firstly, the extent of Larry’s voice disorder (that would be the speech pathologist in me coming out) and secondly, the importance of side projects. Larry refers to Sergey’s driver-less car undertaking as his side project. I’m a big fan of side projects. It doesn’t matter what it is, the whole point is that you have one. More than hobbies, they offer the chance to build something – an avenue for learning, indulging curiosity, discovering passion and finding enrichment outside of your immediate professional role.

What’s your side project? Should be obvious what mine is. It’s no where near as fancy or spectacular as inventing a car that drives itself but it makes sense to me. I get to write about what I love and just last week my side project advanced another notch when I secured a contributing writer role one of the the most popular indie music blogs on the planet. Sergey can have his driver-less cars, I have your indie music experience to influence instead.


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Why The Ballerina Project Is So Good For Ballet

It feels like I’m the last person on the planet to discover the Ballerina Project.

For reasons I cannot tell you, I only just discovered this well-known blog a few weeks ago after a non-dance friend happened to mention it.

Ballerina Project is a photography blog about ballerinas. It is the work of photographer Dane Shitagi who started the project 12 years ago when he walked into a dance studio in Manhattan, curious and wanting to photograph some ballerinas. He has over the years refined his approach and has amassed over 1000 images of ballerinas. He has absolutely no dance training and yet he has the most popular dance-inspired blog going around.

What I adore about the Ballerina Project is that it takes ballerinas out of their usual environment and into ones you would never imagine. Rarely are they photographed in the environment you would expect – on the stage. It’s not about tutus, buns or tights. We see ballerinas in modern clothing, hair down and messy, relaxed, no tights and not confined to the barre or the inside of a dance studio.

Instead we see them in lots of urban settings, like streets, subways, draped over poles, on fences.

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A ballerina next to a New York subway

And also in extraordinary scenarios like in fields, in windows sills, on the beach and against waterfalls.

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Inside a window sill

There is always a coordination and symmetry between the stunning backdrop, the ballerina’s pose and her outfit. Often it looks like the ballerina is blending into her environment.

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This image looks downtown towards the Freedom Tower in Manhattan

The blog heavily features ballerinas set against backdrops in New York City. No surprises then that those images are among my favourites.

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Central Park loveliness

I also especially like the images that show off the ballerina’s feet and lower legs. A ballerina’s lower leg muscles are among their most defined and striking. They fully deserve to be shown off. It’s true that a ballerina’s feet needn’t always be mangled and yucky from years of wearing pointe shoes.

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The Ballerina Project has wider implications for ballet and dance in general. Dance is enjoying a resurgence in popularity, especially in New York City. Blogs like the Ballerina Project help to broaden the appeal of the artform and to bring ballet to the attention of a new generation of audiences. This is exactly what ballet needs – an injection of new audience blood and to widen the net beyond the long-standing notion of ballet being always about tutus and Tchaikovsky and stiff tradition.

The big ballet houses are recognising the need to broaden their appeal and are taking up the challenge to reign in the younger and more digitally engaged audience. Justin Peck, a soloist with the New York City Ballet has been given free reign of late pursue what he’s fast emerging to be – a ballet dancer and a ballet choreographer, producing exciting works with a very modern dance aesthetic.

As good as it is, I would like to see the Ballerina Project branch out to include male dancers as well. It wouldn’t technically be a ballerina project then, but mixing it up with male dancers is a logical extension. Another obvious expansion is the addition of the short dancer videos. I have noticed more and more of these popping up on the Ballerina Project’s Instagram account.

If I could change anything about the Ballerina Project, I would keep its equal celebration of two art forms – photography and ballet while taking full advantage of the extent of the photographic collection. This would minimise the use of repeat images I often notice in its Instagram feed.



The Night I Kissed Lana Del Rey

Lana’s new album Ultraviolence is out today and I thought I’d share with you all a blog post that I wrote last year about the time I met her.


I recently spotted posters for Lana’s new album around Greenwich Village in Manhattan

What’s also interesting about this blog post has nothing to do with kissing or Lana Del Rey. When I read this again, it serves as a sharp reminder at how different my life is now. Two years ago I was unemployed, rudderless and calling turtles on the Great Barrier Reef my friends. Contrast that to right now – I am typing this from the 12th floor roof deck of my apartment building. It’s a warm early summer’s evening and I’m looking out over the West Village in Manhattan. I can’t help but reflect and think to myself –  wow Sarah, you did the whole reinvent your life thing pretty darn spectacularly well.

I haven’t wrapped my ears around her new album yet (I’ve penciled it in as a must do come the weekend) but I note that early reviews are mostly positive.

Good deal. Today’s music scene needs more interesting and unique sounds and right now there’s no one else like her. But enough about singing my own or Lana’s praises and let’s jump right into the fun part – the story about the night I met her..

Yep. It’s true.

I kissed Lana Del Rey.

On the cheek, but we can leave that little detail aside for a moment while I tell you the story of how this played out.

Bit of backstory first.. who could forget that god awful Saturday Night Live performance Lana gave back in January 2012? And all the shlack she rightfully copped for her very ordinary performance that night?

Lana laid low for a few months after that.

Sorted herself out, honed her live act and probably spent time coming to grips with the massive worldwide and overnight success she found herself immersed in at the time.

Lana re-emerged in July that year to resurrect her career and her reputation as a live performer at an unknown one-day music festival for her very first Australian performance.

And I was there, of course.

Spin Off is an annual festival held only in Adelaide, Australia. It is billed as a spin off from the much larger and well-known Australian music festival that happens every July called Splendour In The Grass. I have never been to Splendour. It’s my number one Aussie unfulfilled festival crush.

It’s July 2012 and what was I doing back then? Oh yes. Unemployed and pretty lost with the world, I’d been up in far north Queensland scuba diving on the Great Barrier Reef while escaping the winter that blankets in the southern parts of Australia at that time of year. This was a pretty amazing time in my life. I had spent many weeks under the water and slowly feeling better about life in general, while keeping company with giant resident turtles called Brian and schools of butterfly fish.

I was technically living in Adelaide at this time. At least some of my stuff was. But I was really living between 3 cities. I had stuff in my hometown of Melbourne, some in my adopted city of Adelaide and some where I was spending all my time, Cairns. I flew back to Adelaide from Cairns just to attend this event. The next day and I was back on a plane flying north again, desperate to get back to the warmth and the reef.

So here I am. Spinning off in the front row. I’m not really sure how I got there. I started at the back of the audience and as the crowds thinned in between sets, I crept ever closer towards the stage and next thing I knew, I am front row centre stage left for Lana’s set.

Immediately in front of me is an elbow-high barrier that I’m trying not to let the surging crowd push me in to. Beyond the barrier, there’s about a metre gap where press and photographers are standing between me and the stage. I’ve heard that these guys are allowed to stay for the first song only, then they’ve been ordered to clear out. Good riddance.

‘Lana! Lana! Lana!’ screamed the anticipating crowd.

Adelaide generally has a difficult time attracting quality music acts. It’s no where near as large or has the same pull as Sydney or Melbourne. I couldn’t believe that an act of such international notoriety as Lana Del Rey was turning up to perform on a cold winter’s day and under the roof of what the Adelaide showgrounds really is.. a giant tin shed.

‘Lana! Lana!’.

She emerges from the wings and steps onto the stage. In a baby jade lace dress with matching jade ribboned headband. Her frock is belted and cinched at the waist. It’s short. Check out the pics I took.

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She’s standing right in front of me. I can hear her voice when she sings and I don’t need the aid of the microphone. On stage and she’s so close to me, I can even see the hair on her legs.

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In the middle of Video Games, Lana starts making her way off the stage, down these makeshift steps and into the gap where those photographers were standing a few songs ago.

God damn. She’s walking right towards me.

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If the crowd around me wasn’t crushing me before, it certainly is now.

Soon enough I am confronted with the image of Lana Del Rey standing right in front of me.

Eye to eye and I didn’t quite know what to do.

In the rush of this moment, I grabbed her hand that wasn’t holding a microphone and gently pulled her towards me. I reached in and kissed her on her right cheek. I saw her ear and her headband up close. She felt warm and it felt crazy and she didn’t resist me. I pulled away and she was beaming. Rarely does she smile in any image you see of her. I let go of her hand as she sashayed her way back up and onto the stage.


I have to say, Lana Del Rey is seriously one of the most beautiful women I have ever seen. Not one to notice this kind of stuff but I can appreciate a very stunning woman when I am looking at one. Those sultry, 1960s housewife-turned-vixen eyes. That oversized and expressive mouth. All that hair. All those curves. She is stunningly and nostalgically beautiful.

Here’s something else I can tell you. Lana can sing.

I thought her performance that night was smashing, and not just because she was 3 feet away from me. It was such an improvement on her SNL debacle.

And that’s probably exactly what Lana wanted. A small and safe live audience that was as far away from anything related to Saturday Night Live as she could possibly get. It’s like she got out a globe, found New York City, spun the world around to find its exact polar opposite and her finger landed on Adelaide.

Did I wash my hand or cheek after she touched it? Yeah, I did. But..

I kissed Lana Del Rey. Have you?



The Case For A Hands On CEO

I’m fascinated with the role of CEO.

Buck stops with them. Leader of the pack. Direction setter. All that stuff. In particular I’m fascinated with the similarities and differences between CEOs of large companies and those in startups. And secretly I often wonder if I have what it takes to be a CEO myself one day.

What I see frequently in the startup scene in New York is a glut of young, educated professionals who reject a corporate life (or it rejects them). Needing something to do with their time and with the promise of maybe building the next Uber or WhatsApp, they come up with an idea, start a company and give themselves to incredulous title of CEO.

And so if it’s relatively easy to give yourself this title, I’m always interested when I see behavior that stands out from the startup pack.

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There’s somewhat of an unwritten law in startups – when you’re a startup, you support other startups. When I make decisions about other businesses I want to engage to help the one I work for, I will always look at startups first.

I started early engagement with another startup over a service they offered that I needed. By early engagement, I mean that I took full advantage of their 2 week trial. Only I ran into problems. Their product wasn’t doing what I wanted it to.

I hit up their support site. Flubbed around for a bit and ended up emailing their customer support team. Thinking I’ll deal with this later in the week when they would get around to getting back to me, I got the shock of my life when an email response came 10 minutes later.

And it wasn’t a canned ‘thanks and we’ll get back to you’ automated response. It was a detailed message from the company’s CEO.

Color me impressed.

What’s a CEO of a small startup (<10 employees) doing dealing with me, one of their (trial) customers? I’m willing to bet this CEO doesn’t deal with customers all the time, but he dedicates a certain chunk of his week to get into the coalface. He gets to understand who his customer’s are, their needs and their pain points. All this can only assist him to build a better product and offering. It’s a very smart strategy.

There’s a lot to be said for early companies who get in the face of their early adopters. As this excellent Wall Street Journal blog post points out, when your product or service is new, you have to engage and deal with each and every individual customer and convince them to sign up. That’s called getting traction. But dealing with customers can be painful. It’s time consuming. You have to really listen! They tell you stuff you don’t want to hear and can make you realize your product or offering isn’t as spectacularly wonderful as you thought it was.

What did I do after this CEO dealt with my enquiry? I thanked him for his promptness in sorting out my issue and promptly signed us up for a full paying account. I then found him on LinkedIn and in my connection request I told him I thought it was cool that he was the CEO and he was dealing directly with customers. And guess what? Less than 10 minutes later, he accepted my LinkedIn connection request.


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The Masters and Apprentices of Bushwick

I spent some of my past weekend with friends at Bushwick Open Studios.

For 3 days a year, the thriving artistic community around the Brooklyn hood of Bushwick throws open its doors to the public for a glimpse at the artists and their art.

I have a strong affinity for Bushwick, because I used to live there. It’s where I began my New York journey. It’s real Brooklyn, not the gentrified Williamsburg version that is more like East Manhattan than true Brooklyn.

One of the strong themes of the day was ‘gentrification‘. It’s somewhat of a swear word in Bushwick, where locals are determined to keep their neighbourhood as real and gritty as it’s ever been. They fear that by letting hipsters (or worse, tourists) overrun the place, it will get turned into the next Williamsburg. Bushwick locals feel a sense of embracing their new up-and-coming neighbourhood status while rejecting it at the same time. They like the attention, the increased property values, cooler restaurants and bar options popping up, but resist the higher rents and the Manhattanites that all of the sudden decide Bushwick is cool and want in on the fun.


It says ‘Gentrification In Progress’

After viewing various iterations of art all day, including a strange fruit-infused movement performance and drinking beer in the name of art on some stranger’s shaggy carpeted lounge room, one of the group announced, ‘I’m not a big fan of the art here’.

He made the point that it looked directionless. That hundreds of years ago, great artists trained as apprentices under a great master. Does that kind of thing happen any more?

I’m no art historian or authority on art, but is the whole point of modern art its lack of confines that might come with a master and apprentice model? That artists these days aren’t necessarily learning a trade, as one might of hundreds of years ago as a sculptor or a painter?

One of the ways I can relate to a master and their apprentice is through ballet. If you want to be a halfway decent classical ballet dancer, you have no choice but to subscribe to the master and apprentice model. I train under two of the finest ballet teachers in the city, both were exceptional professional ballerinas in their day. I’m reliant on them to tell me, show me (and often physically correct me) into the correct alignment and technique.

In any case, it’s amazing how I can link ballet back to just about anything, even a day wandering around Bushwick looking at art. Here are some more fun pics I took from that afternoon.


Scary roof top guy

Scary roof top guy

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One of the more interesting selfies I’ve taken

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Stop! No factory access

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Gary, Steve and I in a shiny room

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This is a tower of gay pornos. Yep.

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Cash on the nail. I debated about including this pic. Note it’s next to the gay porno tower. Maybe that makes it okay?

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1st floor, warehouse door

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This was my favourite piece in this room. I enjoyed explaining to my friend Nick why I thought so.

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Master artist in training

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I love the colours here. The car and the walls in the distance all match nicely.

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Am I Bushwick bred too?


Bushwick’s version of the moon door? It’s a hole in the floor with a tv set in it.

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Is the full face mask for protection, or anonymity?

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Sunset over Manhattan

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Why Your Digital Health Platform Needs An App

Think apps in digital health are a bit old school, a bit naff?

Think again.

Apple have just announced their long-awaited foray into digital health. And it’s coming in the form on an app called HealthKit.

Apple have traditionally shied away from health-related anything. Instead they have offered up access to its platform and over the years some strong leaders in the health and fitness tracking app business have appeared – think Jawbone, FitBit and RunKeeper.

Screen Shot 2014-06-02 at 2.47.50 PMHealthKit sees Apple finally diving into the digital health space with an app offering that will allow users to track health and fitness metrics and combine this data with other third-party apps. The end effect will give HealthKit the potential to become a one-stop-shop to track multiple health and fitness metrics across an endless array of areas.

Bottom line – apps aren’t dead in digital health. If anything, the announcement today by Apple has cemented their importance.

What appeals to me the most about today’s announcement is that ultimately it’s the consumer that’s going to reap the benefits. Ultimately they’re the ones who will get to satisfy their need to easily monitor, aggregate and track their health and fitness data.