Why do you do what you do? The ExchangeMyPhone story

As many of you know, I’m the Creative Director of a business called ExchangeMyPhone. Jeremy is the CEO. The business buys old phones from people throughout America and gives them a second life. We founded ExchangeMyPhone together back in May 2011. Today we have a team of fantastic people working with us and we have big dreams for where we want to take the business moving forward. But how did it all begin? Why did we decide to start a phone buyback business?

It is not easy to pinpoint the genesis for anything. Jeremy had always been interested in reuse (he grew up in the bookshelves of his father’s used book business) and he’s been entrepreneurial for as long as he has been walking.

ExchangeMyPhone - the early years

When I first met Jeremy, he told me how he saw tech reuse as the way forward. Everyone we knew had a drawer full of our cell phones that they didn’t know what to do with. He saw a solution and was excited to take all that he had learnt from the family business and put it to good use in a new field. I was pulled magnetically into his orbit.

In many ways, that was the catalyst that started ExchangeMyPhone, but there was something far more personal that kept us growing the business and kept us moving forward when times were tough.

On either side of the Atlantic, we had grown up hating the phone. On the phone our stutters were up against some pretty powerful odds. On the phone all our communication rested on our voices, and sometimes that wasn’t easy. We faced hang ups and were accused of being prank callers as we blocked on our names and sent hot, desperate breaths down the line.

When we met, we were changing the way we saw our stutters and we wanted to change the way we saw the dreaded phone. ExchangeMyPhone became a way for us to celebrate phones and turn them into vehicles for good.

Not only could customers keep their old phones out of the landfill, but they could be paid for something they no longer wanted or needed. We could turn trash into treasure and find a new home for each old cell phone.

But we wanted those old phones to do more, to really make a positive difference, so we launched our ‘checkout for charity’ option. Anyone who sold their phone through ExchangeMyPhone could choose to keep the money or donate their payout to any of the 765,000 registered non-profits in America.

Today, the phones that we once hated are being transformed into donations for charities across the country, they are arriving in new homes and making new faces smile, they are giving people a little money in their pocket to be spent on something wonderful and they are being kept out of the landfill.

What makes someone a great boss? Stories from ExchangeMyPhone

Jeremy and I have just hired our first full-time employee. It is a very exciting time for ExchangeMyPhone and a big moment for us to reflect on the types of bosses we want to be.

boss at ExchangeMyPhone

We have had two part-time employees at ExchangeMyPhone and lots of contractors for almost a year. They are all amazing, and we are pretty sure that they don’t hate us, but how can we be the best we can be?

Over my life I have had wonderful employers and not-so wonderful ones. I have worked in offices and newsrooms and restaurants, and the traits that have made someone inspire me to work for them (or not) have easily spanned all those industries.

Most of us have answered to a boss at someone point in our lives, so what one word would you use to describe your perfect employer?

I have been brainstorming and these are the best that I have come up with so far:

  1. Encouraging
  2. Clear
  3. Approachable
  4. Focused
  5. Organised
  6. Forward-thinking
  7. Receptive
  8. Motivating
  9. Capable
  10. Trustworthy

I’m still thinking and I would love your input.

In the meantime, I’m off to start cooking lunch because I definitely think that a good boss should make their team some yummy treats to keep them going in the middle of the day!

Creating your Dream Life: What are you willing to give up?

Do you have a dream? Maybe you want to open a restaurant, or start a business, or become a painter, or start a family, or write a great novel. Whatever your dream might be, I suspect that it may take a bit of sacrifice to get there. Maybe sacrifice is too serious a word. If not sacrifice, then a few decisions. What are you willing to say no to in order to say yes to your dreams?

I remember a conversation that Jeremy and I had, early on, when we were sitting in our first Brooklyn sublet, eating soft boiled eggs on the floor. We had no furniture, no jobs, no money and we were two weeks away from being homeless. It was all a bit Withnail and I and a tad depressing. We had big plans but we had yet to sell a book or launch a business.

With egg dripping off his toast soldiers, Jeremy asked me to list all the things that I really wanted (or wanted to do) that I was willing to give up:

  • Long stints of travel
  • A predictable life
  • A safe, healthy bank account
  • Saving for a house
  • Some beautiful possessions
  • A good work, life balance
  • An apartment with doors
  • Plenty of time outdoors

On another sheet of paper we wrote down the things that we refused to give up:

  • Each other
  • Seeing our friends
  • Closeness to our family
  • Good food
  • Writing and the success of the business

Our list has changed since then, it has grown and evolved with us. But it was helpful to have to keep us on track early on.

So what do you want and, perhaps more importantly, what will you give up to have it?

dream life quote

Freelance Routine: What’s your perfect day?

I have been thinking about making a routine ever since I read this piece on the writer Jodi Piccoult:

“She is devoted to her routine. Five-thirty a.m.: Walk with a friend. Eight a.m.: Start writing at the computer, typing so much and so hard as to wear out several keyboards over the years. Write until 4 in the afternoon. That’s the schedule, five days a week.”

freelance routine5:30am-4pm, I’m impressed, inspired and completely intimidated. I don’t think I have seen what 5:30 looks like since I last barreled out of the house to catch an early morning flight.

My schedule is far less organized. We have two people who work for us so we have a basic 9-6 with an hour break for communal lunch in the middle. But it is all too easy to be sitting at my computer until midnight and forget that weekends are a time when sane people do fun things like farmers markets and brunches.

The joy of having your own business or writing or freelancing, is that you make your own schedule. Or that’s what people say. I think it can be a lot harder than it seems.

I may not have it as together at Mrs Piccoult, but I have some thoughts of what makes a good schedule:

1. Getting up and getting dressed before 8am

2. Doing some form of exercise (be it running, yoga, dog walking or simply walking to the bakery 3 blocks away)

3. Doing what you love for most of the day

4. Doing the things that you love less and not letting them drag you down

5. Seeing friends

6. Meeting strangers

7. Making a plan and sticking to it

8. Keeping your inbox under control

9. Fully completing at least one full project every day

10. Keeping weekends free for things that make you laugh

What about you? What schedule do you think would make you happiest?

Book deal: An ode to Lady Luck

6 months ago I was despairing. I should have been celebrating. Jeremy and I had just launched www.ExchangeMyPhone.com, we were still high on paint fumes (having rolled 7 gallons of eggshell white all over our Brooklyn flat) and were paying our bills.

We had moved to New York with no jobs and no savings and we had survived our first winter. I was proud of us.

And yet my latest rejection from a literary agent was staining my desk. Memoirs were no longer vogue, she wrote. Stuttering wasn’t a subject that had mass appeal. Good luck elsewhere.

I added the last rejection letter to my pile. I knew what she was really saying. I couldn’t write. I couldn’t be an author. I’d never get a book deal. My dreams were foolish.

writing: good luckFortunately when Lady Luck thinks she has trampled on your soul enough times she decides to give you a break. Yesterday I danced around my office, drank a celebratory Manhattan and ate some amazing homemade pasta with friends. I had just received my signed contract from Simon and Schuster.

It took me three years to get my book deal. I’m not sure whether that is a long time or a short time. It felt long. It felt hopeless towards the end. When I left England in October 2008 to research my book I had no idea what a challenge I was setting myself up for.

Writing was no joy ride. I faced far too much rejection, mockingly blank pages, a year of horrendous work and a very sad looking bank account.

Is it worth it? Definitely. I met Jeremy, I met hundreds of people from all over the country, I travelled, I lived in Chicago, I moved to New York and finally, at the end of it all, I ended up with an amazing editor, a highly respected publisher and a lovely agent.

I still have a long way to go. I have to finish the writing, I have to prove myself to everyone who has put their trust in me, and I have to get the piecemeal manuscript on my laptop into a real life book. But, with this book deal, I’m one step further along than I was.

I have no advice, sadly. It seems like there is no one clear path. It is not like becoming a lawyer, or an accountant, or a banker. There’s no clear ladder to scramble up with a pot of gold at the end. You do it because you have to, because nothing else will do, because you have some latent faith that, at some point, maybe, you will see your dreams come true.

Everyone has a Story: What’s the best storytelling technique?

I went to a class last night at General Assembly called ‘How to tell your startup story’. I was interested for our company ExchangeMyPhone but also as a memoirist. What is the perfect storytelling technique? Does that even exist?

storytelling here

Photo courtesy of Mike Grenville

Obviously we all have the story of our lives. We have all lived a certain number of years, we have a journey to tell people about.

The tricky part is figuring out which story, of the many stories we have, is worth telling. Specifically which parts are interesting?

According to Jerome from Narativ, the answer to which story is pretty simple. You have to find out which ones are relevant to your end goal and to your audience. And the only way to find that out is by testing them out and practicing over and over again. You have to see what different stories work well with different listeners. Some of your stories may bore people to tears, others may sit them on the edge of their seat desperate to hear what you will say next.

At the crux of the class was the idea that there is no one perfect story, that our stories should change depending on who we are telling them to. We should essentially hang our stories from our figurative belt and draw upon them as needed.

However, although we may have an arsenal of stories at our disposal, the format should remain the same for each one. Each piece should have a beginning, a turning point and an end.

Was storytelling really that simple? It had to be more complicated than that. Surely.

And it was. We got into body language and dialogue and details and relevance. But it all came back to the methodology. What happened? What was the obstacle? How did you find a solution?

It is a handy tool for anyone who has ever experienced writer’s block. Work out where you are heading, why you are telling the story and what your goal is. Then take away all the opinions and conjecture and just tell us what happened. If it is your story, no-one can argue with it. Once you have told us what happened, raise the stakes. The bigger the obstacle, the bigger the tension, and the more of our attention you have. Set up key moments in the story when things shift and move us towards the ending.

With that, I’m back to writing for the afternoon but I’d love to hear your stories.

If you had to write three sentences (a beginning, a turning point and an ending) what would your story look like?

Startup Life: The start of some big dreams

startup dreams

‘You know that old mobile we have, the one can now only receive calls?’ I nodded my head absent-mindedly from the passenger seat. I knew it well. The cell phone in question was from 10 years ago, it had been bedazzled and was now clinging to a few of the forlorn original sparkles. It had a couple keys missing and the ‘abc’ key had gone on strike 2 years ago making every text an exercise with a thesaurus. It was my mum’s old cell phone that she often ‘kindly’ lent me when I stayed in England.  ‘I think it’s time to chuck it in the bin’.

I turned to look at her, my mouth slightly ajar. Then, realizing what she had said, she laughed at her slip of the tongue. Oh the old days. The days when we didn’t recycle anything. When we threw our useless electronics in the rubbish with no thought of landfills or toxic metals or any of that other boring stuff.

But the old days were not so old and the reason that she caught herself so quickly was that she knew all about the dangers of cell phone waste. She knew more than most people. She had heard all about it for over a year.

From Chicago to New York, Jeremy and I had been working on creating a phone recycling startup. Somewhere that people could get paid for recycling their old, broken and generally useless phones.

And finally, after a lot of hair pulling and all-nighters, we have launched the site and www.ExchangeMyPhone.com is now a living breathing business. Jeremy is the founder, the mastermind, and I’m the Creative Director. Basically I do the fun writing stuff and Jeremy does the hard work.

Now all mum has to do is go to the website and we’ll pay for her to ship her old brick to us so we can safely recycle it. Or she could just had it to me…but I do like getting post. If she ever wants to get rid of her fancy blackberry we could even pay her for it.


Every part of the website has been thought over, and it is not perfect but we are ready to start telling people about it. So emails are being sent out and two people who stutter are picking up the phone every day. Business cards are arriving in the post and our office is getting more crowded by the minute. It is all very exciting and somewhat petrifying.

Now we just have to let people know about it. Mum’s comment is by no means unusual. Millions and millions of phones are thrown in the rubbish bin every year. So we are trying to let people know that they have a different option. They can easily recycle their phones and get paid for doing good.

If you have any brilliantly creative ideas for getting the word out send them my way. The crazier the better!