Kjerstin Erickson

Founder and CEO of Simbi, building infrastructures that help humans live closer to their potential

THIS CHAT HAPPENED ON December 14, 2015

Discussion

KJ Erickson@kjer · CEO
Hi - I’m KJ Erickson, founder and CEO of Simbi. I’ve lived through a few different incarnations in my 32 trips around the sun, but they’re all connected by a single thread: building infrastructures that help humans live closer to their potential. I founded FORGE in 2003 to build educational and entrepreneurial infrastructure in African refugee camps. After 9 years, I switched course and opened a local yoga studio. There I discovered the power of barter/trade to transform lives and bring people together, and have since been building what we at Simbi call the Symbiotic Economy. It’s a marketplace for cashless exchange, powered by our own internal credit system. Ask me anything!
Lejla Bajgoric@lejlahunts · Intern, Product Hunt
Thanks for being here Kjerstin! It seems like Simbi is all about exchanging services and making the most of what you're great at to help others. I'm a 20-year-old college student, and I think like many others, I sometimes find it difficult to tune into what exactly it is that I'm great at -- my core competence, my greatest strengths. What advice would you give to people in positions like my own?
KJ Erickson@kjer · CEO
@lejlahunts Hey Lejla -- first of all, you're on the right track by even ASKING this question. What beauty and vulnerability. For me, I learned what I was good at by simultaneously learning what I sucked at. Basically, I just threw myself into as much as I possibly could and discovered where I sunk and where I swam. I'd recommend that for you, too -- just try as many things as possible, and pay attention to how you feel as you're doing them. Your learning will start accelerating and your confidence will grow. One last thing: I don't believe people need 'core competences'. I'm pretty sure I don't have one. So maybe let go of that holy grail. Just look for what you like, where you're drawn, and you'll find yourself on a fascinating path of discovery. Good luck!
Ryan Hoover@rrhoover · Founder, Product Hunt
Hi, Kjerstin! Simbi is super interesting. What's your biggest surprise since starting the company?
KJ Erickson@kjer · CEO
@rrhoover Hi Ryan! I <3 what you're doing here so much. My biggest surprise since starting Simbi is the number of our members who have commented "This was my idea! I've been wanting to start the same thing!" or "I've been waiting for this exact platform to come along!". There has been such a hunger for it from a certain group of people, it feels amazing to tap into that. But also full of pressure, because there are more expectations to be met. I suppose that's one of the most interesting things about this company. It is NOT a new idea, in fact it's an ancient one. But it hasn't yet been brought to the digital era in a thoughtful, modern way. So that's our job.
Ben Tossell@bentossell · newCo
What are some of you favourite books?
KJ Erickson@kjer · CEO
@bentossell For business: - The Hard Thing About Hard Things (duh) - Hot Seat: The Startup CEO Guidebook - Founders at Work For life: - A Thousand Splendid Suns - A Long Walk to Freedom - Anything by Isabelle Allende Would love to hear yours!
Ben Tossell@bentossell · newCo
@kjer i love the hard thing about hard things... I also really love smartcuts by shane snow. the ice man - mafia book :)
Emily Hodgins@ems_hodge · Community and Marketing, Product Hunt
@kjer Thanks so much for joining us today! During your career to date, what is the best piece of advice you've ever been given? Flip side - what's the worst?
KJ Erickson@kjer · CEO
@ems_hodge Ahh, the advice question! Here goes: BEST: Play to your strengths. Balance out your weaknesses through your team, not by trying to change who you are. WORST: You are young and female, so you need to be extra cautious to look professional. ^^ I started my first venture at age 20, and I believed that nobody would take me seriously if I dressed and looked like myself. So I censored myself, wore the most hideous clothes to the office every day (wide leg dress pants, button-down shirts, proper pointy heels) in an attempt to be taken more seriously. I even dyed my hair a horrid mousy brown! It was all BS. People could still see how young and how blonde I was. Now you can usually find me in yoga pants with boots, way more comfortable in my own skin. That honestly gets me farther than anyone I managed to convince that I was "professional" at age 20. We talk on our team a lot about how professionalism is about how you manage your emotions in the context of a mission and a team. Not who you got to design your fancy suit.
Ben Tossell@bentossell · newCo
What is something you used to believe that you no longer do?
KJ Erickson@kjer · CEO
@bentossell This question reminds me of the Alice and Wonderland quote: "Alice laughed. 'There's no use trying,' she said. 'One can't believe impossible things.' I daresay you haven't had much practice,' said the Queen. 'When I was your age, I always did it for half-an-hour a day. Why, sometimes I've believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast. There goes the shawl again!” /// I'm definitely the Queen here. I've believed so many impossible things it'd be impossible to recount them all. Let me choose one that I think is interesting... // I used to believe that my gender didn't matter. Looking back, that seems patently ridiculous. But I was raised by a tomboy in a family of boys and I was tougher than almost any guy I knew. So why would it matter? Now I'm not so foolish. I know and see that my gender matters in countless ways, some for the better and some for the worse. It impacts a lot about my entrepreneurial life. But I'm actually glad that I didn't see that until I was 23 or so...the ignorance helped to put me on the right path.
neeharika sinha@neeeharika · Google, Threadchannel
Hi @kjer great to meet you here. i am curious to learn more about your daily reads/ podcasts you listen to ? Any tip for first time entrepreneur?
KJ Erickson@kjer · CEO
@neeeharika Hi Neeharika! It's funny -- these days, I usually recommend that entrepreneurs read LESS. There is just too much out there, it's easy to get lost in other people's opinions and what other people say you need to do. Not only do you end up with less time to DO it, I firmly believe that too much content starts to interfere with our gut instincts. As entrepreneurs, our instincts are our lifeblood! So rule #1: don't let other people's opinions cut you off from your own instinctual knowledge about what is best for your business. That said, I respect how much the content that's out there can help us through problems, give us tactical advice, and let us know we're not alone. I prefer to follow people rather than aggregators, and have been following people like Brad Feld, Fred Wilson, and Mark Suster for years. When you find a blogger whose content resonates with you, stick with them over time. It helps your brain be able to sort out "that's how Brad is, that's his opinion" from "THIS IS THE ONE AND ONLY TRUTH AND I MUST ABIDE BY IT NOW" Hope that helps.
Harry Stebbings@harrystebbings · Podcast Host @ The Twenty Minute VC
Hi @Kjer thanks so much for joining us today. Would love to hear how you plan to establish a strong initial network of core users for Simbi considering it is a network solely reliant on others around you? How are you planning to create that network effect? Can't wait to hear your answers!
KJ Erickson@kjer · CEO
@harrystebbings Harry - totally critical question. Simbi is completely dependent on network effects, which makes it a) very hard, and b) totally awesome, if we can get it right. Our strategy has been to grow locally in our two beta markets ("Simbi Cities") of the Bay Area and Portland. We don't stop people from joining from outside those areas, but we do warn them that they won't find density and they will need to rely on virtual services.
KJ Erickson@kjer · CEO
@kjer @harrystebbings As a followup, one strategy that we are NOT pursuing is to verticalize the services offered. This is controversial, as practically every investor I've ever met with has tried to push it down my throat. But it's not what our members want, it's not what they are actually doing, so we haven't gone there. Simbi is open to all types of services, from lawyers to housecleaners, bike mechanics to psychics. It's the diversity and the interplay of these offerings that makes it exciting.
tennisballboy@tennisballboy5 · Jeejli
@kjer Would you say your pursuits in business's are similar and there is a common theme to the ventures of your life or have you been pulled in many different directions helping people in africa, to starting a yoga studio to now Simbi.
KJ Erickson@kjer · CEO
@tennisballboy5 Thanks for this question, it's something I've asked myself a lot. I am definitely designed to be curious, to want to try out and explore new things, and I'm lucky to have been able to do that in my career so far. I've applied the lessons (and the mistakes) of what I've done previously to what I've done next. FORGE, the NGO I ran in my 20s, built schools and libraries, internet cafes and health centers. For tens of thousands of refugees living in squalid camps, we gave them a chance at a better life. And yet, it never felt like enough. We were a bandaid on a much larger problem. No matter how much the organization did, it wasn’t fundamentally changing a system that left people poor, dependent, and disempowered. We were also completely dependent on philanthropic capital, which is not my definition of sustainable. I decided that there must be another way. The yoga studio was a reaction to my growing understanding that development work could never get ahead of the problem until the whole world shifted it's thinking, grew it's compassion, and laid the foundation for real peace. That has to start within, right? Yoga, consciousness and meditation were a huge part of my personal growth process, and I wanted to pursue bringing that to a wider audience. But ultimately, I care about abundance. So, when the yoga studio was making a pittance every month and it was tough to pay the bills, we started 'trading' yoga classes for things we needed or wanted: massage, dog walking, housecleaning, chiropractic, handyman services, the list goes on. We effectively quintupled on our 'income' through trades. That's when the lightbulb went off in my head. People don't need more money to reach their potential, they just need ways to realize the value of the skills and talents they already have. Imagine the abundance that is possible by diversifying the sources through which we can provide for our needs. So, what's the underlying theme here? I suppose it's what I wrote in my byline: "helping humans live closer to their potential." And throwing a lot of shit against the wall to figure out what sticks!
tennisballboy@tennisballboy5 · Jeejli
@kjer @tennisballboy5 well Im officialy hyped for Simbi thanks. Ill be checking it out in the future
QueenLear@queenleariv · ConnectionAgent-Co-Founder @ButtonPoetry
Hi @kjer, I greatly admire the mission of Simbi. Thank you for your thoughts! From what I see the platform is focused on individuals and has a bit of that volunteer philanthropic vibe rather solely a business trade service. In some of my experiences it seems that people like to 'do good' in groups. Such as going to volunteer with a friend or participating in a service project through work for Volunteer Time Off days. Do you have thoughts around building the infrastructure around individuals or opening it up to groups?
KJ Erickson@kjer · CEO
@queenleariv Thanks for the question! I like the way you're thinking about 'doing good' as being, at it's best, a social activity. I think there's a lot of opportunity for volunteerism to better tap into that core motivation. Simbi itself isn't so much about volunteering as it's about reciprocity. However, we've found that our members love what they do so much, that they usually take a ton of joy by giving it into the world. Thus, that is one of the common motivations you see playing out in our little Symbiotic Economy. We encourage this, because giving is clearly good for the world. But we are most focused on the reciprocity part -- how can your act of service, even when done with altruistic intentions -- also bring value back to you? That's the Symbiotic Sweet Spot :)
QueenLear@queenleariv · ConnectionAgent-Co-Founder @ButtonPoetry
@kjer The focus on reciprocity makes perfect sense. I was thinking this was the case but knowing your philanthropic background I wasn't certain. But my true curiosity is about individuals vs. groups. A team might be able to offer a service in more depth in some cases than an individual. Is anyone in the network operating as a spokesperson for a group rather than just themselves as the main contributor or do you have people trying to sign-up under business names rather than individual names? As the product evolves do you see a feature for grouping being developed? Or does that fall into the Bigger Businesses Bigger Barriers monologue?
KJ Erickson@kjer · CEO
@queenleariv Love that idea! I'm a big believer in the mantra that "your users will teach you how to use your product." Right now, even without custom features, groups could absolutely start using simbi. I haven't seen that yet beyond small businesses represented by an owner/sole proprietors. But when/if it happens, we'll be paying attention. And we'll build the tools that our members need most.
Nicole Nelson@nico_623 · Product Manager
What do you think is in store for Africa in the future?
KJ Erickson@kjer · CEO
@nico_623 For the most part, really good things! There are two incredible things happening in Africa right now: 1) Mobile is everywhere, and the implications for education and entrepreneurship are just starting to be realized. 2) They're leapfrogging the grid! It's incredible -- many countries in Africa has a negative electrification rate. More people are being born off-grid than power companies are connecting each year. Solar is on a fast-path to take over the continent, bringing power that changes lives. There are still many many decades of work to be done, but I'm feeling more hopeful now than I ever did before.