How We Got Here: The Raw and Revealing Story Behind Focusmate

the focusmate story

I was working late on a Sunday evening last summer when Alex’s name came up on my caller ID.

My body tensed up.

I knew I had procrastinated long enough and couldn’t put the conversation off any longer.

Alex and I became friends in 3rd grade, played youth soccer together, and drank our first adult beverages together in his attic (Mike’s hard lemonade absconded from his parents’ party).

Though I considered Alex one of my closest friends, an unspoken rift had grown between us ever since I skipped his bachelor party.

At the time, rather than be honest about my situation, I wrote him a vague, business-like email explaining that the trip wasn’t “in my budget.”

How did things go so wrong, I wondered?

In our childhood friend circle, I was the one who was considered successful — the one who attended Duke, who landed a coveted Oliver Wyman consulting job, and who turned down a Wharton MBA scholarship to pursue the entrepreneurial dream.

I was supposed to be the one changing the world, not struggling to make ends meet.

And I was too ashamed to admit it.

***

Since first venturing off the traditional corporate path in 2010, I’d battled a creeping anxiety, a worry that I wouldn’t ever be able to pay my bills, support a family, or just build a life I was proud of.

Along the way, I kept to myself the depth of a struggle that became more intense as I watched peers post great achievements on Facebook and LinkedIn.the focusmate story
At times, it felt like I’d wasted years fighting to hold myself accountable for finishing the work that would translate my drive into a sustainable, substantial business.

My anxiety eroded my confidence, and warped my perspective; I started focusing too much on making a buck, and struggled to make healthy, strategic decisions.

Worst of all, I isolated myself more and more from many of the friends whose honest feedback I needed most.

***

Breakthrough #1 came when I was invited by a friend to watch a life coach training program in progress.

I was shocked when a conversation between a senior trainer and a coachee suddenly escalated into a toe-to-toe confrontation.

I watched in awe as the trainer brought equal parts love and wrecking ball, helping this individual see his self-destructive behavior accurately and honestly, likely for the first time in his life.

I was hooked, and as I reflected on the experience I realized my passion for behavioral change could fuel a vibrant business that aligned with my values: professional coaching for entrepreneurs and growth company executives.

I set aside my floundering blog, my side hustles, and started down the path of becoming a coach.

While I achieved and sustained some success as a coach, the journey wasn’t without without some scorched earth and scars. I’ll talk more about that chapter of my journey in a future post.

Breakthrough #2 came in late 2015 — the “aha moment” that changed everything.

My friend Jake, a former consulting colleague, reached out for support in reducing distractions and focusing on finishing a crucial investor presentation.

As we brainstormed solutions, we agreed that even checking in multiple times a day wouldn’t likely prevent procrastination.

We were talking on Skype at the time, and decided to see whether leaving the video window open while working could substitute for in-person co-working.

To bump up the accountability even more, we agreed to specify each task to the other as we worked.

And, it was magic. We both got in the zone right away, and stayed in a productive “flow” state for the entire time. I was thrilled; Jake, a self-styled procrastinator, was over the moon.

As a result, we scheduled these virtual coworking sessions on an almost-daily basis, until Jake’s presentation was successfully completed.

Almost by accident, I had discovered the life-changing solution I had needed during my own struggles as a freelancer and a solo entrepreneur.

***

As I stepped back and reflected on why this solution worked so well, it seemed to be a combination of:

Jake’s awareness and motivation: he cared more about performance than maintaining a facade.

My investment in Jake’s welfare and commitment to his success: I was willing and able to help now.

My ability to provide hands on accountability without compromising my own goals: while I was helping Jake, he was also helping me.

Applying peer accountability to tightly-defined tasks, on an ultra-short timeline of just 1–2 hours.

The problem was that, both of us being busy professionals, we quickly maxed out our ability to sync up. We couldn’t be there for one another every time the other wanted support.

To solve this problem, I created a Facebook group called “Procrastination Blasters”, invited a handful of friends and coaching clients, and posted invitations in several forums on productivity, self-discipline, and procrastination.

That’s when we encountered the first big question:

Could a group of strangers be transformed into a viable community of accountability partners?

The first time I agreed to partner up with a total stranger, I was nearly paralyzed by fear.

My fears were quickly allayed when I met Laurie, an entrepreneur, who was super smart and fun to work with.

And despite my initial hesitation, we had an instant kinship: a shared desire to achieve our goals, and had an unspoken appreciation for the vulnerability we knew was necessary for the other to show up.

And so, one brave connection at a time, a community began to form.

***

In parallel, I began researching productivity and collaboration tools.

Surely, I thought, there must already be a platform or solution to organize and manage this new community of virtual accountability partners.

Yet, despite the huge number of productivity and team communication apps I investigated, I kept running into the same limitations:

  • Scheduling tools capable only of booking on one person’s calendar, but not able to coordinate pairings amongst a group;
  • Intermittent accountability, via written updates shared over chat, but never hands-on, live social connection and reinforcement;
  • Expensive, asymmetric support like professional accountability coaches and masterminds; and
  • Online courses, which lacked the personalization and intimacy that made it safe to give and get help, without shame.

The situation became clear: if the community I envisioned was to come to fruition, the onus was on me to build a new solution.

After a few weeks of sleepless nights, as I tried talking myself out of this idea, I made the leap to set aside my coaching business and pursue this project full time.

I still remember the tightness in my chest when I hit ‘Confirm’ on the $1,400 investment to acquire the domain focusmate.com.

The corresponding thought bubble was: “You’re a moron!”

Quickly, though, it was replaced by the exhilaration of realizing what Focusmate can become, as the community grows and we are able to invest in our platform:

  • Providing 100% availability, i.e. self-discipline on-demand
  • Supporting you across devices, so you can use it on your phone while you declutter your garage or organize family photos
  • Personalizing your experience so you can work with a partner whose goals and interests align with your own, whether that’s learning to code, writing a novel, searching for a job, or studying for the GRE
  • Providing deeper support, like noticing when your mouse, keyboard or eye movements suggest that you’ve become distracted, or text messaging you at times when you’re likely to need a boost
  • Becoming the commons where you can come to take a break, do a few minutes of stretching, and get some motivation, without worry you’ll get caught up in cat videos, politics, or coworkers’ vacation photos

These are just a few of the ideas we’ve come up with, in large part thanks to the steady stream of ideas contributed and refined by you, our tribe.

***

Focusmate is no longer an idea or a dream. It’s a living, breathing community that’s just starting to show its potential.

The Focusmate team is working tirelessly to improve every day, and we’ve just posted our first edition of Focusmate News on the blog. You’ll start seeing more of these updates monthly.

In the coming months, I’ll also dive down into some more specific chapters of my own journey, and I look forward to hearing more of your own, too.

To our tribe: Thank you for your ongoing enthusiasm and support — we couldn’t have come this far without you. Keep spreading the word, and letting us know how we can improve.

To those of you learning about us for the first time: You can visit our homepage to learn more and sign up, and follow us on Facebook here.

— Taylor

P.S. If you are a coach or mastermind leader, I’d love to talk with you about ways Focusmate could better help your own tribe. After Focusmate began taking shape, I realized how much value it provided for me and for my clients, e.g.:

  • It’s a place to send clients between coaching sessions, to help them follow through on their goals, or to “graduate” to after coaching
  • It’s something to offer that doesn’t require additional, expensive coaching hours, especially when more coaching isn’t the right solution
  • It’s accessible for those who are struggling financially, which is one of the biggest reasons people want to hire coaches, but can’t
  • It allows coaches to focus on more substantive issues that drive longer-term results and relationships, driving the same or better client outcomes with less client hours and cost
  • It’s accessible to people who aren’t ready yet to invest in coaching, if, for example, they’re just setting out as an entrepreneur, freelancer or side hustler
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