Startups are often called an “adventure.” For the past 18 months, we’ve been on a journey to build something that people want. We’ve gotten close, had some successes, but haven’t broken through in the ways we hoped.
In this post, I wanted I share a few things I’ve learned about myself and startups that I thought would also be helpful for others.
How very logical decisions can lead to being stuck in first gear.
January 2015 – Started Transpose – website personalization for B2B marketers.
My co-founder and I had spent the previous 5 years in marketing technology. We saw personalization working for B2C and ecommerce marketers. With our background in B2B, we had an insight that B2B marketers should also be personalizing the content and products they present visitors on their website.
March 2015 – Launched the MVP for Transpose with a few friendly users.
A handful of friends signed up for Transpose. One user saw very strong results with a simple use case. We were encouraged. But, we also struggled with getting people that didn’t have a prior relationship with us to use the product. We figured we could solve that as the product grew and we developed case studies from early users.
April 2015 – Accepted into the Summer 2015 Y Combinator batch.
Wow! We were absolutely thrilled to be accepted into YC. We entered with some promising early results from Transpose and were ready to scale.
July 4, 2015 – Realized that we were not going to hit our demo day goals with Transpose.
After talking with hundreds of marketers, we realized no one (well, two people) wanted to use our product. We tested using Transpose in a few different ways, but nothing really resonated with us or customers.
Personally, this was an awful feeling. We didn’t feel like we were building something that people wanted or would make a difference. We wanted to believe in our vision, but the data overwhelmingly told us that people didn’t want what we were building.
Do we pivot or persevere? Ultimately, we didn’t believe strongly enough in our product or vision to persevere.
July 10, 2015 – Based on our experience with running webinars, we decided to try something completely new and disrupt the webinar industry on top of WebRTC.
With a few weeks remaining to the YC demo day, we sprinted to demonstrate some level of traction.
I wouldn’t say that this new focus felt like a mission for us; it felt like a problem that we understood well enough to take a stab at solving. With demo day approaching, we didn’t analyze the opportunity too deeply. We sprinted for growth.
September to December, 2015 – Data indicates that people are frustrated with products like WebEx, but they also aren’t willing to quickly switch webinar providers. Time to iterate, iterate, iterate.
After speaking with a possible technology partner, we identified an opportunity to use our video technology for customer support. While not a game-changer, we thought this could be a way to start generating some revenue.
At this point, almost a year in to our startup, we were anxious to generate any type of revenue.
April 2016 – With the product being used by a handful of customers, but still not generating significant revenue, we launched a mobile version.
A few key customers were consistently asking for a mobile version, and they were even offering to pay in advance for it. We didn’t have a ton of experience with mobile, but customers seemed excited and we saw the value this type of product could provide.
We knew we had some interesting technology and were circling around solving an interesting problem. With customers reacting so strongly to a mobile add-on, we figured this could be a major gap in the market that we could fill.
August 2016 – With only a few customers using the new mobile product, we again realized that people just don’t really want what we are building.
We launched the mobile product and quickly encountered several sales objections that we didn’t expect, including objections from the customers that asked us to build the product. These objections came from the teams that were responsible for implementing the product. (Not the buyers.) This was a major lesson learned: sales is really the only litmus test for understanding if customers *really* want your product.
At the end of the day, we have several dozens customers using the Breakout Room product. While these customers are happy, and we will continue to help these customers be successful and support these products, we aren’t seeing the growth worthy of a startup with investors.
- You have to be able to see the future, and a mission is essential. If you don’t have an opinion of what the future will look like, your strategy will tussle in the wind without a clear direction. Without a mission to change the world in some way, you’ll struggle to recruit customers, partners and employees. You have to believe in something and be prepared to defend your point of view.
- Interviews, sign ups and letters of intent are worthless. People don’t want to hurt your feelings, and their “feedback” will take you down the wrong path. The only things that matter: What do you steadfastly believe in, and are people paying you to solve their problem?
- You won’t know. Are you on the right track? Are you headed down a dead end? It’s impossible to know. No startup ever makes a dent in the world by giving up. But, many companies die a slow death without realizing it. You have to believe in something and be comfortable sinking with the ship.
How does it feel?
At this point, we’re 18-months into this startup journey. We’re incredibly frustrated and stressed that we haven’t had the success we anticipated. We feel indebted to our investors and worry every day that we won’t produce a return for them. We thought it would be simple. Build a product, iterate on customer feedback, and grow. Turns out it isn’t that simple.
While we focus on being very, very frugal with our expenses, we’ve still spent a lot of money, both from our angel investments and personally. For our families, they’ve remained incredibly supportive, but my co-founder and I have both spent a significant amount of our personal savings, and time is running short.
What is the future that you believe in? What is a pain that you’ve personally felt? Do you have the energy to take one more run at this? How will you feel if you run out of money?
These are the questions we’ve asked ourselves repeatedly over the last few weeks.
We’ve spent a lot of time in self-reflection to sharpen our belief in the future of the world, even though it doesn’t logically fit into our background of B2B software.
We’re going to make a dent in the transportation industry.
Renting a moving truck or van is incredibly painful. Ever been to a Uhaul or Enterprise car rental store?
In fact, Uhaul’s business model is built around advertising the lowest price possible for their rentals and then upselling you on gas, mileage, insurance, boxes, tape and anything else they can get a penny for. Not to mention, it’s a complete hassle to wait in line, worry about refueling when you’ve only driven 10 miles, figure out if you need insurance, and so on.
We’re challenging that status quo. We believe that this is wrong, and there’s a different way that should exist.
What exactly is our mission? Why do this? We’ll share more details soon.
This is our future
Change the future, or go down trying. We’re more proud of our new mission than of any of the other products we’ve built, because it’s something that we want. Not something that makes sense in a spreadsheet.
With artificial intelligence and battery technology rapidly transforming the automotive industry, we believe Fetch can make a dent in the universe over the next decade.
A small way of saying thanks
There have been an incredible number of customers, investors, colleagues, friends and (especially) family members that have supported us during this crazy journey. Without their support, we’d have most likely given up long ago.
Whatever the outcome, we hope our effort is deserving of their faith. If it is, we won’t have any regrets.