I shut down my first startup in 2016 so I guess it’s too late to write about it but I thought I’ll write it for myself for the sake of closure. I ran software startups so my thoughts are mostly relevant to that field.
- If you are a non-tech founder, finding a tech cofounder should be the first step of your startup journey. "Learn to code" seems to be a common suggestion these days. I've tried it and failed so I understand that it's not an option for everyone. It’s impossible to succeed without a tech cofounder. You might have read a few stories where non-tech cofounders succeeded but those stories are an exception. If you don’t have a tech cofounder, your startup will die sooner or later. You may ask whether I have any suggestions on how to find a tech co-founder. I don't have any mantra. Just know and understand that this is one of the most important steps for your startup so start hunting and don't stop till you have found one.
- Plan how will your startup earn money. Plans will fail or change, for sure, but plan anyways. Having worked on several free products, I’ll strongly suggest not to work on free (ad/affiliate based) products.
- A few days/weeks of initial research before finalizing an idea could save you months/years. Also, think about these questions.
- Everything that you are trying to do/achieve will take a LOT longer than you planned. Most probably, you'll burn all your savings.
- Startup in summary: (1) Deliver features/functionality daily/weekly. (2) Get users. If you do these 2 things with the fastest possible iterations (execute/deliver, get and analyze feedback, learn, improve and repeat) you have a chance at survival.
- Write short-term as well as long-term plan. Short-term plans will tell you what to do this week/month and the long-term plan will tell you how fast/slow are you moving and are you heading in the right direction.
- While writing this I realized that there are 100s of moving parts in a startup and it's impossible to write a holistic blog post or even a book about startup lessons. So I'll keep it very short.
Let's go back to the year 2014. By then, I have been thinking about doing a startup for at least 5-10 years but couldn’t start due to various excuses. In 2014, I was forced to take the leap when I had to quit my job. One fine day, I found myself 100% free with no shield of excuses. Now, I had to do a startup.
I didn’t have an idea for a startup. I thought of a few ideas, did very perfunctory research, and shortlisted a hyperlocal book-sharing app idea. My argument for the startup idea was that book readers are buying books from Amazon or other online stores and once a book is read it is practically a burden (wrt storage and maintenance). Most readers primarily read popular books (top 200 in any genre) so it’s highly probable that someone in your neighborhood (or office/school/college) already owns that book, has read it, and would be more than happy to lend it to you. When you borrow and lend books, you meet with book readers who are interested in the same genre/author/field of books so you get to meet like-minded people as well. The idea was named Lenro (a blend of words LENd and borROw)
Once the idea was finalized, I started on my app-building journey. I used to be a developer but then moved to test automation. I could still code but didn't know enough to build a scalable webapp. I didn’t know anyone in my circle who could make the app for me. So with basic coding skills in my arsenal, I decided that I'll learn PHP and build the webapp on my own.
I tried to learn PHP for around 2-3 months but couldn’t make much headway. I realized that I will end up spending a lot of time learning the programming language and even then I might not be able to build the app 100% myself. I thought of finding a freelancer or a freelancing company that can help me build the app. I found a freelancer through a friend. I didn’t have any experience in working with freelancers so I just went with my guts+trust feeling. That guy ate my 6 weeks. I gave him the benefit of doubt for the first 2-3 weeks and then he continually keeps coming up with excuses. I fired him after 6 weeks. A friend of mine was running a small WordPress development company and he suggested that he can get the app done with some folks in his company even though folks in his company are primarily WordPress developers. I thanked him and packed my bags to go and stay with him in another part of India. I stayed at his house for 3-4 weeks but folks in his company didn’t prove to be capable enough to build the app. I packed my bags and headed back to my hometown. After that, I tried several freelancers and small web development companies but fell on my face every time and wasted several months. I was so scarred by this working with freelancers process that I wrote a blog post on how to work with freelancers.
After trying several freelancers and a few IT services companies, I found someone online and approached him to be my cofounder. I found out that he is running his website development company so he was more interested in getting work for his newly founded company and not interested in being a cofounder.
I started working with his organization. He charged a lot. Far more than other web dev companies and freelancers but he delivered. It took a few weeks and we got the first version of the website up and running. Finally!!
Now came the time to get the users. I was not aware of online marketing, SEO, etc at this point in time. I started reading a few articles and got a hang of things. I started spreading the word by going to several forums and directly/indirectly/spamming-ly started promoting Lenro. Goodreads was a very popular book readers' platform at that time so I, along with a few interns, was very active on that platform. I realized the importance of content from the SEO perspective so started a blog as well. Getting blog content done is another big process in itself. Finding the freelance content writers, vetting them, getting the work done from them, posting the content on the blog, and then doing content marketing for the published blog post. I also tried a lot of offline activities like getting a promotional book stall at the Delhi book fair, attending various book club meetings, etc. Either by luck or by the power of idea or by my little online marketing knowledge, I started getting some traffic to the website.
With all these marketing efforts, a few hundred people started visiting the website daily and a few dozen people started exchanging the books every week on the website. We also got featured in India’s top daily newspaper and also on a national TV news channel. Both times our website crashed!
After getting some users I started thinking about how am I going to earn money. The question that I should have thought about even before starting working on the startup, I was thinking after spending millions of Indian rupees on the startup. What a moron!!
It dawned on me that there is no easy way to monetize a free low-traffic product. I tried affiliate marketing but as the traffic on the website was low, the income from it was not much. Also, earing via affiliates was against our foundational premise of "get free books and meet like-minded people". I never liked online ads and also the traffic was very low so I didn’t bother trying online ads. Some folks suggested converting Lenro to a used-books-selling platform but again it was against our foundational premise and there were already a few established competitors in that space so I didn’t try that.
When I couldn’t find a way to earn revenue from the website (either by building a paid feature or scaling the traffic to millions of users per month to survive on the ad/affiliate revenue model), I decided to close the startup. In my final half-hearted attempt, I even thought of raising funding but then realized that I don't have a revenue stream so didn’t bother trying to raise funds.
So it was time to close the startup. That time was very painful. I started with a lot of dreams, burnt my entire hard-earned savings of the past few years and now it was time to close up. Even when I was sure that the startup won't work out it took me months to finalize the decision to stop working on the startup and move on (maybe because I didn't know what was next for me).