What’s the story behind the name “Chimani”?
Chimani is actually from Zimbabwe’s Chimanimani Mountains National Park. I participated in an Outward Bound program while living in Zimbabwe and I registered the domain name in the early 90s because I thought it would be a cool name for a company. When I got the idea for Chimani it was too perfect—I had the domain already purchased and the name was based on a national park. I guess in a way, that’s my ultimate goal—to bring Chimani to Chimani.
Was there a specific moment that you decided to found Chimani?
Yes—it literally happened on top of a mountain. I was hiking in Maine—in Acadia National Park—in 2008. I remember I had the first generation iPhone and it was a rainy/snowy spring day and I wanted more information about the park and the weather. I turned to use my phone, but since I was on top of the mountain, I had no reception or way to connect. That’s when it clicked for me.
What was your life like before Chimani?
I went to school for international development and I spent many years living and working abroad. I lived in Nepal, Zimbabwe, Sub-Saharan Africa and South East Asia for the first ten years after graduating college. The company I worked for, SatelLife, focused on building the first email network—what we called HealthNet—for healthcare workers in hard to reach communities. My job was to train medical librarians around the world on how to connect to our satellite and send basic emails to get basic health information.
I’m lucky that I’ve had a lot of unique experiences, but I’ve never worked in the startup world. I did have one entrepreneurial opportunity, but it didn’t go far. While at Boston University’s School of Public Health, I worked with Ed Carfagno, an Academy Award-winning director, who at the time was working on digital short films that could be streamed online and that would basically embed a PSA announcement within the narrative of the film. This was in the pre-YouTube era, so we were working on RealMedia, the streaming platform at the time. We were sort of ahead of the curve—I didn’t have the skillset at the time to raise capital or see this opportunity through. This was probably a missed opportunity, especially now that we see Netflix spend millions on original content.
While at BU I also worked on a project that was eventually spun out into its own startup. It was one of the first websites to help people quit smoking—QuitNet.com. I stayed with the university during the spin out, which with hindsight, I realize I should have gone with them. I did have some stock options and was able to buy my Volkswagen Jetta from the project.
What were the biggest challenges you faced when rolling out this idea?
Off the bat, I knew any interaction with the government was going to be met with some skepticism. I had worked on projects with UN contracts and I had interned at the National Park Service. I kind of expected what the response would be and what I would have to work through to convince people to get on board with Chimani.
Luckily, my past experience working with government also helped inform my pitch, and I took the “better to ask for forgiveness” approach. For example, the first mobile app I developed in 2010 was for Acadia National Park. I decided not to reach out to the Park Service while I was developing the app, but I instead had a conversation with them immediately after the release. They were quite forthcoming in admitting that if I had reached out before, they would have never talked to me, but now that the product was out there, they had to work with me.
Were there any skills you wish you had when founding your company?
I would have preferred to have more technical depth and knowledge. I had only worked as a technology manager, so I helped the teams who actually developed the product. I wish I took the time to build the basic functioning version or MVP of the product before bringing it to the team to take over. I would have liked that foundational knowledge. Now, if there’s a problem, I have a great team, but I know they could run circles around me—I just don't have that knowledge.
Is there anything surprising you’ve learned about yourself through this process?
I’ve learned how damn persistent I am! If I had to do it over, there’d be one hundred things I’d do differently. There’s just so much to learn on so many different levels.
I’m wired to always trust people, so I’m always seeing things with a glass-half-full perspective. This has been a good thing, but has also presented its share of challenges. For instance, we had this massive imploding of the team and company that was triggered by one of our key team members. I had to learn that any relationships I have with my team have to be business relationships, down to the details. When I first started the company, I didn’t push to clarify this, but now I know it’s important to separate.
We don’t often talk to startups in Maine—how does your location impact your business?
Maine is not the ideal place to have a startup. In the beginning, I struggled to quickly access capital—and more importantly, smart capital.
Maine is technically two hours from Boston. It’s not geographically far, but in the startup world, I might as well be based in Kansas or somewhere. Maine also has a certain reputation about it. It’s limited in people and business activities and isn’t really thought of as a place for startups. I needed access to capital to see if this idea was going to work or not, and I couldn’t do that as fast as possible from Maine. Since everything was so undercapitalized, I couldn’t move as quickly.
If I could do it all over, from the get-go I would enter into an accelerator program so I could get out of this bubble and access the relationships I needed to raise the capital and get the MVP product as quickly as possible.
At which point did you make the jump from full-time employment to startup founder?
It was definitely a proud moment for me, and I was lucky that I had been working for about two years on the side building the product and gaining some momentum for the app. I had significant revenue coming in, so the financial comfort was there (which is something I know not all founders can lean on).
Looking back, I should have made the jump much sooner. This would have made the revenue come in sooner. I was caught up by this feeling of shock that 'Holy shit I’m doing this,' which made me a little slower out of the gate.
There’s definitely something comforting about having the full-time job and not having to worry about health insurance, regular paychecks, and other needs.
But I felt like the full-time job safe space was putting me on intellectual and mental autopilot.
To break out requires so much energy and strength. I get the superheroes theme because it really is like a blast off, with you flying out with your hands in front of you into the sky. It’s a real rush with real endorphins. And while it’s very empowering to break out of that safe work space, you have to figure it all out and manage payroll, insurance, and the foundation for the business and staff. That’s where the depression can meet the elation and cause a roller coaster of emotions.
What is your superpower?
Persistence. As a kid, I was dyslexic but was never diagnosed or identified, so reading and spelling was always a challenge. I grew up learning that I was wired a bit differently and having to overcome that.
I also realize I’m still not making things easy for myself. I want to live in Maine for my lifestyle and family, but I also want to be an entrepreneur. The easier road would be to move.
What’s your kryptonite?
Trustworthiness and my willingness to be glass half-full on people. This mostly comes up when hiring. I can sometimes be too quick to bring someone onboard without going through the proper vetting process. I’ll do an interview, like someone, and go with my gut versus taking a more analytical approach. Then, I spend a lot of time on that relationship to only realize that person might not have been the best fit for the role. I’m learning to stick to the process more.
What's your favorite life hack?
I’m a big advocate of the Getting Things Done methodology (GTD), based on the book by David Allen. I’ve been an advocate of this approach for a long time, and I fully embrace the zero inbox principle. That’s where my day starts—I completely zero out my inbox. If I can take care of something in two minutes, I do so. Otherwise, I move it to the appropriate folder and add it to my to do list.
I even use a tool to do this which was built by OmniGroup called OmniFocus. It helps list everything on your laptop and phone. My OmniFocus list is my ultimate to-do list, which is what I use to decide what absolutely has to get done each day.
I have to say—the GTD methodology is the only way I could have started my own company while still having a full time job. It mentally helped opened my bandwidth to handle more.
Do you have any unusual routines or habits?
I practice tai chi. I learned it in college and find that it helps me stay grounded throughout the day. This is super important when dealing with the highs and lows as an entrepreneur.
I’m also all about the outdoors and am constantly outside. I do a lot of hiking and skiing in particular. It’s one of the perks of living in Maine.
What’s the one book you recommend everyone read? Why?
I recently started an Audible book called Actionable Gamification – Beyond Points, Badges, and Leaderboards by Yu-kai Chou. I think it's the bible for gamification and a must-read for anyone who is thinking about how we use gamification in apps. This is something we are working on incorporating into Chimani, where as you visit points of interest in a National Park, you can check in, we confirm your check in using your phone’s GPS, and then we unlock a badge and points for you reaching that destination. It’s essentially a way of capturing and recording memories.
Any advice you’d give aspiring founders?
If you are a new founder, get into an accelerator program. Apply to all of them, even if you don’t live in that city. You can always go and participate in the program, gain the relationships you need, and then move quickly to launch your MVP and build your company from there.
I’m doing the reverse—I am nine years in my company and I’m trying to get into an accelerator. If I could go back, I would have tried to get into an accelerator from the start.
If you could give yourself one piece of advice 5 years ago, what would it be?
Move faster and don't be afraid to quit your day job. It took me three years to leave my job after launching Chimani and I should have jumped in earlier.