While most people think of tech startups as chaotic, and risky getting mine off the ground felt leisurely compared to Broadway!
In January of 2016, I was scheduling photo shoots for Liev Schreiber and Janet McTeer, the stars of my latest Broadway production, Les Liaisons Dangereuses, which was set to open in October.
(Fun fact: The day this provocative photo was shot was the first time Liev and Janet ever met!). My days were a whirlwind of cast auditions, costume and set design, budgeting, show press, and ticket pricing. The show was a success—but it was also my last as lead producer. Because by the time Les Liaisons wrapped in January of 2017, I had already launched my new tech startup company, What Should We Do, personalized recommendations and culture covering online and app-based service in NYC (and we've since expanded to L.A. and Chicago!).
The worlds of theater production and tech startup might seem galaxies apart, but the truth is I couldn't have had better preparation for my new venture than putting on plays and musicals. Each one of the 26 shows I've produced in my career was a startup! Beginning with just an idea—sometimes in the form of a manuscript and sometimes not even that much—my team and I would bring it to life by finding a space, hiring the cast and crew, and getting the word out to potential audiences. Every production presented new challenges that had to be solved quickly.
So while most people think of tech startups as chaotic, risky, and distressingly fast-paced, getting WSWD off the ground felt leisurely compared to Broadway!
That's not to say it has been easy, of course. Having never worked in tech or publishing, I had a lot to learn. To bring my idea to life, I kept these four lessons in mind every day.
Believe in your vision. I was really worried about being taken seriously. I didn't know the difference between an API and a CMS, and yet here I was wanting to build both of them. But I knew I had a good idea for WSWD. One of my lifelong missions has been to make arts and culture accessible to all (which is why I'm the chair of the Board of Trustees at the Public Theater; their motto is "Theater of, by, and for all people"). There is so much incredible art in New York City—art that goes way beyond expensive theater tickets or old-master painting exhibitions—but not everyone knows how or where to experience it. As someone who has lived in and loved NYC my whole life, I really wanted to help people find and enjoy all the cultural wonders of the city, no matter how much money they had. That's what we do at WSWD: Connect locals and visitors to incredible art, performances, food, and experiences at every price level.
Whenever I felt insecure about my qualifications or my lack of understanding about the specifics, I would remind myself of my vision. You can figure anything out when you love and believe in your idea. And, yes, I now know what an application programming service and a content management system are, thank you very much.
Build a great team. The first thing I would do as theater producer on a new show was hire a director. Together with her, we'd assemble the rest of the team: stage managers; a technical director; designers; a choreographer; PR people; and many others. I never pretended to know how to light a stage, but I knew the importance of hiring an experienced lighting designer. So when I decided to move forward with WSWD, I knew I couldn't do it without a great team on my side. That's the thing about trying something new: You don't have to know how to do everything; you just have to know when to accept help. I hired a fantastic team of web and app developers, editors, business development experts. I reached out to my network of artists, curators, critics, and tastemakers to create WSWD's team of local experts who could keep us up-to-date on the best performances, restaurants, and events in the city.
Then, trust the team you've built. It's one thing to build a team, though, and another to trust them enough to change the course of your business. No one should try to alter your vision, but sometimes the path to get there is different than you expected. In WSWD's early days, for example, I was reluctant to have a heavy emphasis on traditional theater because I was ready to be done with that world. I wanted to highlight quirky, avant-garde, and immersive performances and adventurous places to eat before and after. We do offer that—immersive theater is one of the most popular categories on our site and app—but my editors convinced me not to shy away from my experience and expertise on Broadway. Today, theater companies are some of our best partners and users can trust us to point them in the direction of truly great shows.
Always be making connections. I've talked and written many times before about my goal of meeting at least one new person every day, something I've done since I was just starting out in the theater scene over 25 years ago. And I don't just mean, "Hi, nice to meet you." I make it a point to sit down and chat with people, whether it's my barista, a fellow entrepreneur, a performer, a writer, my kids' friends…anyone! Everyone has a story to tell and everyone has a fresh perspective; these casual and often impromptu "meetings" have always been mutually beneficial.
Also, you never know when a connection will be made. When I would tell people about my new business, they would say, "Oh, you should meet my sister! She's an app developer!" or "I know a food writer who would be great for WSWD!" You may not become best friends or professional partners with all of the people you meet, but creating a large and diverse network of connections is indispensable to any business.
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I have often heard the saying, "You were probably too young to remember this, but . . ." I can honestly say that I can recall quite a bit from my childhood even though I can't seem to recall what I had for breakfast yesterday. I remember a lot, including some things that I wish were fuzzy.
I know this sounds strange, but I remember my dad leaving. I was barely two years old, so obviously I was at an age when I could not fully comprehend what I was experiencing at the time, but I already knew I missed my dad and I wanted him to come home. Divorce is a topic I am very familiar with, both personally and professionally. There are countless people who seek counseling in various areas of their life and to me; that is just another day at the office. However, my story hits a different type of nerve for me. It is a story that I had processed in my own therapy, but this is the first time I am sharing it with the public, so (deep breath) . . . here we go.
As I mentioned before, my dad left when I was about eighteen months old. Just as I was trying to adapt to these changes as best as a toddler could, I met my dad's new "friend" and her kids. I remember she took my hand and walked me around where she worked. I am sure a lot was going on behind the scenes between my parents, but again I was too young to put things together at the time. Fast forward to age four or five, I was introduced to a new friend: anger! Oh, and nightmares. Plenty of them. One recurring nightmare was my dad leaving me. I would wake up screaming and crying, filled with a mixture of sadness, anger, shame, and guilt. My mom would come running into my room to comfort me as I sobbed against her shoulder.
Looking back now, I realized that the word that truly defined what I was feeling was powerless. My mom decided that she needed to do everything in her power to help me. So, she went to the bookstore and found several books that were supposed to help kids deal with their parents' divorce. She would read them to me, but they often told stories of children that I could not relate to, or they were often telling me how I should feel, rather than allowing me the space to access my own feelings. It was frustrating and overwhelming.
It is fascinating how quickly we can adapt. I started to get used to going back and forth between my two homes. However, it was only for a short period of time that I felt "okay." Fast forward again to around age ten. Just as I was starting to accept all the changes including separate homes, blended families, and different sets of rules, I had to endure a long and terrifying custody battle. I felt like my parents were playing tug of war with me in the middle! The anger that I thought had disappeared came back in full force and even brought additional feelings, including shame, grief, sadness, low self-esteem, people-pleasing tendencies, just to name a few. That voice I was working so hard on developing was silenced as I decided to just say or do what I thought would please my parents as well as others. I not only lost my voice, but I lost myself.
That's when my mom introduced me to a journal. What started out as doodling tiny drawings in a lined notebook became pages and pages filled with my innermost thoughts and feelings as I got older.
I also learned some interesting techniques from my mom. She created "games" for us to play including what we called "give me the bad stuff," which is where I would think of all the different things that were bothering me, shout, "I don't like this," while bundling them up into an invisible ball, and then handing them to my mom who would then pretend to throw them out the door or window.
My mom would tell me that I am just a kid, so I did not need to hold on to all this "yucky stuff" inside. It was the first time in a while that I felt like I had a voice. It was wonderful! I would also scream into or hit my pillow as if it were a punching bag. Pretty creative stuff, right? As my mom always says, "It takes a village," and boy was she right! I lucked out by having such an amazing support system at my elementary school.
My guidance counselor established a support group for children of divorced or divorcing parents, and it truly helped to normalize what I was feeling. I was able to speak to peers my own age going through the same things, which was helpful as many of my close friends could not relate to what I was experiencing. I was given safe, nonjudgmental outlets to express myself, and little by little I felt better.
So why am I sharing my story? Well, today as a therapist, I listen to other children's stories. Divorce is definitely not pretty, but it does not have to be so ugly! Whether the parents decide to "stay together for the children" or go their separate ways, children are getting pulled into the chaos. Sometimes, children will pretend they don't know what is going on or act as if they don't care, but trust me when I say it all leaves an impact.
My book, My Parents Are Getting a Divorce . . . I Wonder What Will Happen to Me, is an interactive workbook that was created by my mother and me during the terrifying custody battle that took place between my parents. I felt it was imperative that I assist as many children as possible to help them explore and uncover their innermost thoughts and feelings regarding their parents' divorce. Within the pages of the book, children are encouraged to write and draw as well as ask questions to get in touch with what is inside that needs to be healed.