Female Founder profile: Jenn Vargas

When I was in San Francisco and Silicon Valley last year, one of the highlights of my trip was meeting the extraordinarily talented Jenn Vargas. Jenn is the founder of 101in365 and after graduating from Cornell University in 2009 has worked at two of the hottest web 2.0 companies going – Flickr and Etsy as a product manager. She’s particularly inspirational as a smart, entrepreneurial women in tech and was one of the members of the Women2 Founder Labs in Fall/Autumn 2010.

I’m proud to call Jenn a friend and professional contact, but have been wanting to find out more about her startup journey for a while. Not to mention her thoughts on getting things done and productivity. She took some time out of Brooklyn life to answer my questions:

What is 101in365 and how did it come about?

101in365 is a community and tool to help you develop, track, and accomplish your goals in 365 days or less. At the end of 2008, my college roommate and I decided to each make a list of 101 goals we wanted to accomplish in 2009. I’d made similar lists before (I’ve had a bucket list on my site since 2007), but it was a really interesting exercise coming up with 101 things for a single year and then have someone else to keep me on track. I kept that list on my blog and manually updated it for that entire year. Once 2010 rolled along I decided to automate it for myself. Things just kind of happened from there!

Why 101?

You know, I have NO IDEA. We just settled on 101. I like to think it came out of the “101 ways to be better at X” books/lists that are out there but I honestly think it was just a number that we arbitrarily chose. The serendipitous part is that when you do the math it comes out to 2 goals per weekend with 1 weekend off! That’s actually pretty manageable!

How is the social web aiding personal growth and development?

I think the social web really exposes people to a lot of influences (both positive and negative) that they might not have been exposed to otherwise – new things to learn, new methods for doing X or Y, special-interest communities – and these ideas spread like wildfire when you add in the power of YouTube, Twitter, etc. for getting a message out. Compound that with people’s natural tendency to want to brag about their accomplishments and having the same platforms (YouTube, Twitter, Facebook, etc.) at their disposal to do so and you have an almost perfect ecosystem of material and platform to help people continue to grow and learn.

Can you be creative while being productive?

I don’t think they are at all mutually exclusive. Sometimes creativity defines productivity. Everyone has their own methods for accomplishing things and when there are more things to do in a day than there is time to do them, you have to get creative. If we’re talking about creativity in the “artsy” sense – producing paintings, writing and all that – then who’s to say that’s not being productive. I personally try to combine the two and require a creative outlet from the “daily grind” to maintain sanity.

How does one stay focused on their goals in the age of opportunity and distraction?

Make a list! Obvious answer aside, I really do think it’s important to take the time to sit down and spell out what it is that you want to accomplish in a given period of time – a day, week, month, year – so that you can clear that from your mind and go about your business. Once they’re out of your head and stored somewhere else, you don’t have to worry about being distracted and forgetting what it is you wanted to do. How many times do you find yourself in the kitchen going “Crap! What did I come in here for?!” I don’t want my life to be victim to my distractions! It’s good to have something to go back and refer to. As for opportunity, that’s the best time to have goals. Opportunities may not always align with your immediate goals, but having so many opportunities at your disposal may actually help you reach your goals in ways you didn’t expect!

Is goal setting and planning still relevant in an ever-changing world?

Absolutely! I think the types of goals that we set and the plans we make have changed and will continue to change, but it all comes down to our innate desire for self-actualisation. (Wow… maybe those psych classes in college did pay off a bit!) I can’t really see a time where people don’t define themselves by what they’ve accomplished, at least to some degree. Not to mention the sense of security of knowing what you want to do and that you have a plan in place to do it despite the ever-changing world around you. I think now, more than ever, goal setting and planning is not only relevant, but necessary.

What’s your killer tip for procrastinators?

This is a tough one because I’m a HUGE procrastinator. I thrive on putting way too much pressure on myself and waiting until just before a deadline to do something. I’ve tried so many things to get me out of procrastinating, and I’ve found that the only thing that works is doing something that you really and truly love. At least for me, the reason I put something off to the last minute is because I probably dread doing it. The more I focus on doing the things I love, the less I find myself procrastinating. There will invariably be something that you have to do that you don’t want to do (taxes and doctors appointments come to mind), but if you think of it as “the sooner I get this done the sooner I can get back to doing what I love,” you’ll give yourself some incentive to get that pesky task out of the way.

Do you subscribe to the GTD methodology?

I do and I don’t. I subscribe to the methodology that I need to get things done, but I’m not a by-the-book GTD’er. I used to be a bit obsessed with following along with the latest “killer tips” coming from Lifehacker, ZenHabits, 43Folders, and all those productivity gurus, but I realised I was spending more time reading up on this stuff than I was actually doing anything. I’m a firm believer in doing what works for you.

What do you do when you’re not working on your startup?

101in365 has yet to take over my working life. I’m currently a product manager at Etsy in Brooklyn, NY and work on 101in365 on the evenings and weekends. And when I’m not working I’m probably out taking photos or cooking something (and then taking photos of that)!

What’s it like being a young female developer and entrepreneur?

It’s interesting. I’ve found that I’ve had to work harder at being taken seriously. People end up being surprised by the fact that I built 101in365 myself. I’ve actually had a conversation where a seasoned entrepreneur suggested I only focus on the female demographic for 101in365. Because I’m a girl. And I should position it as “by girls for girls.” It’s that sort of attitude that frustrates me most. Despite that, though, I don’t like to define myself as a female developer/entrepreneur. I’m a developer/entrepreneur who happens to be female. I don’t want special privileges or considerations because I’m a girl. I’d be perfectly satisfied with everyone acknowledging that you don’t have to be a young guy to start something cool on the internet (or anywhere else for that matter!) and then we can all move on.

What happens if you don’t achieve what you set out to in 2011?

I never accomplish everything on my list. It’s just an inevitability. Life happens sometimes. I treat my own list as more of a guideline, a list of things I want to strive toward in that given year. Based on two past lists I’ve learned that I usually have a 50-60% completion average which isn’t bad at all, in my opinion! There are always some things that I want to accomplish more than others so I’ll likely put more time and effort into those things, but at the end of the day, I’m still accomplishing at least -some- of my goals. If I’m happy with what I’ve done that’s all that matters. Then it’s time to leave that in the past and focus on the 2012!

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