Illustration of Derek Powazek by Adam Ellis

The Right Words in the Right Order

Or: I have some awesome job news.

You learn things when you start a company. When I cofounded 8020, I learned to ask the difficult questions. When I cofounded JPG Magazine with my wife, I learned how important it was for everyone to be in charge of something. And when I founded Cute-Fight, I learned … a lot.

Cute-Fight taught me that there’s a certain skill set required to raise venture capital, and it’s not one I really want. It taught me that I really do like managing people, especially when they’re as talented as that team. It taught me that running a startup is mostly about setting priorities and convincing people that they’re the right ones.

But most of all, running Cute-Fight reminded me of some things I already knew but had gotten lost somewhere along the way. It reminded me that I really love making products for specific communities, nurturing the garden, and seeing what blooms. And it reminded me that I really like writing.

At Cute-Fight, with the design, illustration, and engineering all in excellent hands, I did whatever was left over. And most of what was left over was writing. Writing the newsletter, responding to member emails, crafting every word that appeared on the website.

It’s funny that a guy with a journalism degree and 20 years of work in and around the publishing industry should have to rediscover his love of writing, but there you go. I think it just got buried under lofty terms like “experience design” and “content strategy” and “community management.” All those things, at their core, are about putting the right words in the right order.

So when it became clear that Cute-Fight was not going to pay my bills, and, worse, that I had gone into debt chasing the startup dream, I started looking for work with increasing desperation. I made some mistakes in this process. Mistakes I feel bad about now. Suffice to say, it was a rough time. But this is a story with a happy ending.

coffee

A couple years ago, Nik and Tony started a company called Tonx. The idea was simple: get the best coffee beans from all over the world, expertly roast them, and mail them to subscribers every two weeks.

I’d been a Tonx subscriber since the start, and Nik and Tony had become internet friends. Tonx was the first company to sponsor a Cute-Fight venue, and while we were working that out, I was impressed with how smart, generous, and passionate they were.

In a couple visits to San Francisco, Nik and Tony told me about their plans for the future of the company. It hit me in a flash: Tonx is a biweekly magazine published in bean form. What JPG Magazine was to photography, Tonx is to coffee.

“What you need,” I said excitedly, “is someone who can write and edit, with experience in publishing and community building.” They both smiled and asked me if I knew anyone like that. Only then did it sink in that they were offering me a job.

beans

I’ve been working as Tonx’s Editor in Chief for a couple months now, and it’s been a joy. It’s all the parts of what I loved about doing Cute-Fight – writing, community, product – with an amazing team of engineers, coffee pros, and a rapidly growing member base of devoted (and caffeinated) customers.

Coffee maintains a special place in creative culture. When I think back to my happiest moments, coffee was always nearby. It’s a daily morning ritual that I share with millions of other people. It’s a connective thread that ties our lives together. With such a hot, emotional product, there’s no end to the collaborative projects we could do.

tonxSo we’ve got plans. Big plans. I can’t go into detail yet, but if you know me and my work, you may have a general idea. You can see the humble beginnings in The Frequency, where we’re adding weekly travelogues, reviews, and photo essays – not just about coffee but coffee culture at large. They’re the right words, in the right order, as much as we can.

One of the most challenging things about being a startup CEO that nobody tells you is that, when it’s over, it’s terrifying to go back to being someone else’s employee, working on someone else’s vision. Once you sit in the big chair, every other chair feels too small.

My only advice for someone in that situation is this: use the experience to figure out which parts are required for your happiness and try to find that somewhere else. If you’re extremely lucky, you’ll find a team of talented people working on something awesome who need someone in exactly that role. I was that kind of lucky and I’m so incredibly grateful I can’t even describe it.

If you love coffee, sign up for Tonx. You won’t regret it. And I’ll be on the other end of that line with the rest of the team, working on some exciting stuff for you.

Ever forward!


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Hi, I’m Derek. I make awesome community-centric web stuff. I sometimes post things to Flickr and Twitter. I’m mostly harmless. More.





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