Of startup failure and a few valuable lessons learnt – Talk to your customers before writing a single line of code

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Of startup failure and a few valuable lessons learnt – Talk to your customers before writing a single line of code

[Editorial notes: Failure is part of entrepreneurial life and here is a guest article by ChefsNear.me cofounder, Sarfaraz Hassan on some of the important lessons learnt.]

15 Feb 2011-10 June 2012. 1 year, 3 months, 26 days is a long time, especially when spent building a startup from the ground up. My most exciting professional adventure to date came to an end last month when we, at Glomindz decided to pull the plug on ChefsNear.me, our attempt at building a web service for local home chefs to connect, meet and share meals with foodies near them. We failed, we failed hard but we enjoyed the roller coaster ride.

But We also deeply believe in the power of failure to teach and help us learn. In that spirit, we’re sharing publicly our ChefNear.me startup failure story and the lessons learned.

An idea is born

By January 2011, Glomindz was 6 months old, had served 2 clients and built a good team with 5 freshers. We were looking for a new projects to work on. We were confident about doing something bigger than building static websites or just another payroll software.

In my search for big ideas I came across the concept of “A social and economic system driven by network technologies that enable the sharing and exchange of all kinds of assets from spaces to skills to cars in ways and on a scale never possible before.” – Collaborative Consumption. To know more about how it’s changing the world, you can watch these TED videos here and here.

Inspired by these videos we wondered “If rooms can be shared(AirBnB), cars can be shared(RelayRide), items can be swapped (Swap.com) why not food? What if there was a ‘AirBnB for food’?”

Lesson learned: This was our first mistake. Do not search for ideas. Search for problem and then find an idea to solve it.

WagonR ThinkBig Challenge 2

I learned about WagonR’s initiative from my friend Tarana. She knew I would like it and thought I should participate.

After checking the site I thought it would be a great to share our idea with a larger audience and see if it’s worth pursuing. But before joining the contest, we set up a coming soon page and a facebook page and shared them with our friends. Some were excited while some were skeptical. We also ran an ad campaign on facebook to see if users are interested. Signup rates were higher than we expected. We chose to stay positive and take the challenge.

Though we weren’t expecting, we made it to the zonal round.

The zonal round was tough. Each of the 19 city winners had amazing ideas. Some like, Aparna Bhatnagar and Pushpendra Agrawal were already working on theirs for long, and others like me had just started up.

What helped me get past the East Zone round and reach the finals was perhaps the simplicity of the idea and the probability of building different business models around it.

Aparna Bhatnagar, won the finals, for her idea of a eco-friendly webstore Green and Good. She deserved it. It was great meeting her and other contestants working to change something in their own way.

Lesson learned:
1. Startup idea competitions are good. But winning or losing it says nothing about your idea.
2. Stay away from press. Do not create a hype before you have validated your idea. You’ll disappoint more users.

The MVP launch

The ThinkBig Challenge experience was great. As expected we received lots of interest from audience and advice from seasoned entrepreneurs and angel investors. Our team had already built the Minimum Viable Product before going to Delhi for zonal rounds. We knew it was ugly and buggy(and so was Facebook and Twitter at launch) but still went ahead with the launch on 6th June, 2011. We had to test our idea and validate it.

Lesson learned:Do not wait to build a perfect product. There isn’t any. Launch. This is what we did and it helped us realized our mistake sooner !

The MVP Test

The MVP received 200+ signups in 3 weeks but the users were not visible to each other. This was a design goof-up and I own this mistake. I had forgotten about the user visibility on a social networking site! We stopped all our promotional activity and started to fix this design issue. But then we discovered 2 more practical problems offline.

We organised a party using the site and invited few friends over a lunch. Our chef, my sister-in-law. Watching and helping her with cooking i realized the effort needed to cook up a delicious lunch. Will someone make that much effort to cook for a stranger? Probably not.

I was wrong. There are few if not many who will. Soyuz Sharma, from Guwahati, was the first user(unrelated to us) to post a dish on our site. Excited, me and my friend Mithu, booked 2 seats and went for the meal. It took us 45mins and several phone calls to find Soyuz’s house. Will a foodie go through that much trouble for a meal? Probably not.

Our hypothesis failed. We had to pivot(a moment where startups change or die).

Lesson learned:
1. “Everyone” or “Anyone” will never be your customer. Find that “Someone” who will buy.
2. You might have a good idea but it may not be practical. Test it yourself and ask if you gonna use it.

The Pivot

For couple of weeks we were clueless what to do next. We had to chose from the 10 types of startup pivot. We had to find a new customer-segment. We had to find chefs who were already doing something similar to our vision. A simple google search led us to many housewives who conduct cooking classes at their home. They also take baking and catering orders for personal and corporate events.

We wanted to promote these chefs and give them a easy to use user interface to schedule their classes and setup their stores online.

Based on couple of short telephonic conversations, we built another prototype.

With our previous MVP experience, we decided not to build the whole product but show it to our target customers and ask if it will help. I moved back to Bangalore in February 2012 so that I could meet them personally. Over the next 3 months, I met several chefs and also attended a cooking class to understand how they work.

Good things, I learned about customer development, sales and how to make cupcakes. Bad thing, I realized we were building a wrong product once again. Promotion isn’t their problem, they are already famous. Easy to use interface isn’t their problem, a simple blog post is enough. Though they liked the concept, their needs were different. They had a complete different set of problems.

Lesson learned:
1. The first time you fail doesn’t mean it’s over. change and adapt based on your lessons. But do it fast. We took too long.
2. Talk to your customers before writing a single line of code.
3. If the problem you are solving isn’t big enough you won’t find enough customers.

Pulling the plug

We had set June 10, 2012 deadline for the next launch. We missed it. Reason, we had a “nice to have” product not a “must have” product. Once again, we had a choice to make. Keep working to achieve product/market fit or move on. We decided to move on.

Our decision to move on was based on 4 reasons:
1. It was getting harder for us to concentrate on ChefsNear.me while simultaneously working on client projects in Guwahati.
2. We felt we are drifting away from our primary objective of founding Glomindz, to provide innovative yet affordable IT solutions in North-East India.
3. We had spent more than a year without any revenue from this idea while our client projects has been a constant source of revenue.
4. We were slowly falling out of love with our idea. It wasn’t like what we had imagined. It didn’t make us jump out of bed every morning like it used to in the start.

So what next? I’ll be concentrating on Glomindz for now. We have some interesting projects in hand and are pretty excited about them.

Being a tech geek and a die hard fan of Steve Jobs, I’ll end this post with this inspirational video on life and failure.

So dare to dream big, dare to fail and most importantly dare to get back up and try again.

[Article reproduced from Sarfraz’s post.]

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