Everyone I talk to these days has a similar story in how they got started in technology. My case is not very different. At the age of 4, instead of playing with toys for kids, I played with a computer that was bigger than I was. I truly had an accelerated path towards finding my calling in life.
By the time I had turned 15, I was fully certified as an MCSE, CCNA, and held a number of certifications (that I’m extremely grateful for).
But it wasn’t until the early 2000’s, when I was working as an IT Manager, that I started my first real business.
Fast forward to 2010, two years after having started Webbynode, having worked for multiple fortune 500 companies, having built up companies well in the 7 figures. My business partner and I, supposedly seasoned hi-tech entrepreneurs – decided to tackle a new challenge. It was supposed to be as big as Github. We called it StackFu.
I won’t get into much detail about it, but we applied for the all popular YCombinator startup program, the feedback was good but we were declined.
We worked on getting the product ready for about 4-5 months. We did all the marketing work we were supposed to do, had articles lined up with major tech news pages, had good responses for HackerNews, etc.
But when we launched it, no one even cared to sign up to be a beta tester. We cut our losses and moved on.
Don’t build what you “WANT” to build
The problem starts with the way we described the solution, “We were working on a brand new concept of working with servers”. That phrase is completely useless. Who cares about what we desire to create? Ps. I wish I had met Amy Hoy back then, she would have yelled “You desire! You desire. You unmitigated ass.”
Don’t consider yourself so ‘innovative’ that you go into ‘stealth’ mode
Going into a stealth or secret mode, forced you to go down the rabbit hole of going-with-your-gut ideas. This rabbit hole can be pretty deep, and it’s much easier to get out if you have someone who at least knows what you’re up to, and is able to give you feedback. We should have put our ear to the ground, spoken to our target audience, gotten to know them deeply, way before a single line of code was ever written.
We were too technical and had too many resources (so it was easy to over build). When you have a solid technical team, it’s VERY EASY to make BIG mistakes. It’s like giving a Gillette to a monkey; somebody’s bound to get hurt. I’m not saying having a technical team is BAD. Not in the least. I know people who would give an arm and a leg for the team we have put together.
But, you see, you have a fully loaded cannon, and it is very hard to manage. Put it this way. If we had less technical strengths, we would have done a lot more work ahead. We probably would have changed our market right away (and our brand/name too), if we had seen an opportunity in other areas (developers/sys admins are hard to sell to). So having so much gun power, pushes you to take rash actions, and avoid doing the boring work of validating your ideas, market, etc.
We didn’t validate at all
Nope. Not. At. All. Well, the fact that we called it StackFu, I think speaks for itself. But if you also consider that we went full on stealth, and released it to the world on a Hackernews post.
https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=1748623 (1319 days ago!) If you read the comments, it’s not very pretty. A user by the name of “pilif” put the final nail to the coffin. Had we done this type of landing page validation, we would have had a lot more insights into what our users were thinking of, their fears, etc. That would have allowed us to market it in a different way.
I created a tool that I wanted to use
In the end, I WAS the unmitigated ass. I convinced our team to build this great tool for ME! (Which by the way was truly amazing, just look at the screencasts, to this day I love the way it works). Yes, the intentions were to create a viable business out of it; but in hindsight, it was pushed by me wanting to have this problem sorted out for ME, selfishly thinking everyone out there would also want this problem solved.
It wasn’t solving a burning pain
Well, some people DID want this problem solved. It’s a fun ‘utility’ to have, that allows you to simplify a rather boring and bleak process. But in the end, it’s not making your needle move. It has absolutely no effect on the bottom-line of your business. You could probably do everything Stackfu does, just with a few open source tools, and running some commands via SSH. This is an area that I have become passionate about. Understanding whether your product / service has the perceived business value it should. If not, then it’s just another unimportant tool to have.
Focused on technology and not business
See what I said earlier about “ME” liking it? That’s the unmitigated ass speaking once more. I led our absolutely amazing technical team, into many months of hard technical work. We could have saved a lot of time, or maybe even better – we would have made a multi-million dollar business out of it (Oh well!) – if we had done our homework and solved the right problem. While this was an absolute failure, I can say it was a huge learning experience for us. This was probably our first big FAIL as a products company, but it was probably the biggest learning experience we’ve had.
Truth is, no body killed my startup other than myself. I hope my lessons learned through this process will help you in your own adventures.