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.

Silencing the devil on your shoulder

Do you ever have those days when you feel utterly overwhelmed? Those mornings when all you want to do is crawl under the covers, hibernate, eat cake and forget about all the things that you should be doing, all the things that you don’t think you can do.

Most of us have been there. When I was there, it was obvious that the best course of action was a long nap followed by staring out the window.


Luckily, my other half had more sense than I did. He was the one who boiled the kettle and put pen and paper in my hand.

“Just write everything down. List all the impossible things you want to accomplish. Write down all the negative thoughts that are running around your head.”

He asked for 5 minutes of my time, just 5 minutes to sit and write.

And it worked. Because when you write down the negative rubbish that’s holding you back, it doesn’t seem quite so daunting. In fact it all seems fairly manageable.

to-do list

Now we’ve done it more times than I can count. It has become second nature. Whether we are working on the business, or planning our year ahead, or making a list of everything we want to learn and accomplish, we write it down.

I tend to forget about the lists as soon as I have made them. For me, it is the creation, the brain dump, that sets me free.

The boy is different, he holds on to them. He files them safely away. And I’m so glad he does because these lists of ours, these words scribbled on napkins and grocery lists and sheets of notepads, are part of our history.

They teach us that we will always be striving, that there will always be things to worry about. There will never be some dull, serene moment when we have reached perfection.

And yet they also remind us that we are capable, that we have achieved more than we ever thought we could.

What would you put on your list?

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?

Startup Life: The perils of working from home

I love running our startup from home. I was never a big fan of office life. I went mute by the water cooler, longed to be outside in rainy London and went brain dead every morning that I had to plan what to wear. There was something unnatural to me about the sunny open plan office that I last worked in. I dreamed of a cramped home office.

writing at home

Today my dream has come true. I work from home, along with Jeremy and the rest of our team. We have lunch together every day and banter conversations down the halls of our little flat. I couldn’t ask for anything better. And yet it does have its perils.

It is hard to look professional with towels hanging from the clothing line outside the kitchen window.

The temptation to work in trackie bums is, at times, too great to resist.

I have forgotten how to walk in high heals.

Business calls compete with the impressive shuddering of our washing machine.

Midnight has become a normal time to stop working.

Without office intrigue to keep me busy, work chat has kidnapped my banter.

Still, I’m not complaining. Working from home suits me. I’m just confused, I’m not sure where my home begins and my office ends. I’ve escaped the 9 to 5 and entered the 9 to midnight. Someday soon we may have to move into a ‘real’ office but I’m reluctant. My home may be covered in brown box ‘installations’ but my commute is pretty impressive and every day feels a little bit like a stolen holiday. I’m not too keen to give it up.

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.

Stay hungry and don’t be afraid to be different

Steve Jobs - think differentLate last night I learnt that Steve Jobs had died. At the age of 56. The man who told students at Stanford University that “you’re time is limited so don’t waste it living someone’s else life” finally met the one destination that none of us can out run.

Jobs himself said that “death is the best invention of life.” He argued that death was life’s change agent, that it cleared out the old to make way for the new. I doubt that I’m alone in believing that his death was an exception to his own rule. He was a man that lived his life as if each day were his last and he was always new, always inventing, always recreating. He never got old and nor did his ideas.

I co-run a cell phone recycling startup so I am a tech junkie. I am also a Mac advocate. My first ever computer was a bondi blue iMac back in 1999. It was beautiful. Something I wanted to have in my life even before I knew I wanted it. It made school work less boring, with Apple everything seemed just that little bit more fun and creative.

Apple products have followed me, marking the stages of my school, college and career. More importantly, Steve Jobs has inspired me. He taught me to be bold, to trust in my gut and to take the risk to do something that I love. Steve, and people like him, made me feel just a little less crazy about giving up everything to start anew. About deciding to write, deciding to launch a business, deciding to move to New York with no job and just my dreams to pay the rent. In Steve’s words I learnt to embrace “the lightness of being a beginner.”

Steve Jobs thought in a different way than everyone else. He was crazy enough to believe that he could change the world. And he did.

What do you want to be when you grow up?

A writer.

The answer was always a writer.

Today is a sort national holiday for writers worldwide. It is Bloomsday and a fine day to reflect on a career that has always held a fascination for me.

As a child, I envisioned an older version of myself in a house in the hills of Italy, writing my ink-stained manuscripts by day and cooking meals with friends every night. Small details never hindered my imagination. My lack of fluency in Italian was never an issue to my invented friends, I was never lonely, money rarely entered my thoughts. I certainly never had to deal with any sort of rejection.

In reality, making it as a writer is very different. It is not always easy, it can be painful, it is full of rejection and I am often racked by self-doubt. It is not the idyll that I had in my mind’s eye.

And yet I have to admit, with James Joyce on my mind, that writing is wonderful. When the blank page gives way to words that flow or sentences speak beyond their distinct outlines. When an article comes together, when a chapter of my book sits proudly on my desk, or when I feel I have eloquently described my chaotic inner monologue. Writing is a drug. An addiction that drives you through the low points and pummels you towards something worthwhile.

Today I am a writer, a public speaker and the Creative Director of a young business (www.ExchangeMyPhone.com). I could have never dreamed up that long-winded title as a naïve adolescent. I would have never imagined that my dream to be a writer would have taken me around America, would have introduced me to a new world, would have landed me in New York starting a business with someone I love.

My real life, and my hybrid career, works. In reality, the house in Italy would be lonely. I would miss the chatter of the big city, the amazing friends and family I have here, the buzzing potential of the start-up world.

In the immortally cool words of the Rolling Stones…

Rolling stones - writing dreams

Teaching public speaking and secretly loving it

I taught my second class on public speaking last week. I tweeted about it and mentioned it on my facebook but I rarely brought it up in the real ‘offline’ world. I know I should just get over myself but, despite all my chat of being entirely comfortable with my speech, I still feel awkward telling people that I teach public speaking.


As a general rule, most people who do hear about it are fiercely supportive. Betraying none of the skepticism that I assume they quietly harbor.

And yet there are some people who openly frown when I tell them, whose face seems to question if I realize that I stutter. They ask me what will happen if I block on every word? They prod and poke…am I not nervous? I answer them honestly…yes. I’m petrified. I call my sanity in to question hours before each class begins.

However, my nerves do make me relate to my students…perhaps more deeply than is convenient. I understand any fears that they might have. I have walked in their shoes.

Ultimately, I believe that nerves are normal for all of us. Once the moment comes and we do get up there to speak, it is never as terrifying as we had dreamed up. In fact it is oddly wonderful.

As much as I kvetch about the class beforehand, once I am there, looking at their faces, I realize that my fears are ungrounded. That I love teaching. I love sharing ideas and potentially helping others. I love speaking and stuttering and not worrying about being perfect. I love feeling that I am making an audible mark, however small, in the world.

More than that, I love the people I meet. I love the fact that working with Skillshare intimately ties me into the pulsing heart of the New York startup scene. The students in my class are uniformly impressive. They are entrepreneurs and app creators and management consultants and teachers. They are young and ambitious and looking to improve.

The New York startup scene, particularly the tech scene, has a momentum in the city that can sweep you up. Most of the people are working for startups or creating them. It is intimidating and supportive all at once. There’s a network to tap into, a creative flow of ideas.

However much fear I feel in the days running up to the class, it is worth it. More than worth it.  It is my lifeline to the city and an introduction to strangers I would never otherwise meet.