in Productivity, Review

How I wasted 4,380 hours on failed projects

It’s 11:30 at night and the moon casts a soft light across my feet. I lie in bed motionless but my mind shuffles around at flying speeds. Every thought bounces off each other with restless energy that keeps me awake staring at the ceiling and begging to fall asleep. Within the web of thoughts, an idea jolts forward causing the rest to scatter away. Blood rushes through my chest and goosebumps cascade up my forearms. This is incredible! Why hasn’t it been done before? I need to write this down. I lunge for my phone and scribble down the idea in the quickest note app I can find. A sense of excitement and jubilance overcomes me as I wonder about the future of my new company.

Morning follows and the sun beckons me awake. I open my MacBook and prowl for competitors against my newborn midnight startup idea. I write down a few requirements, open up my code editor and start the typing march to complete the product. 

Within eight days I have a working prototype ready to unleash on the world. But I find myself overcome with uncertainty. My enthusiasm has leaked away as the days flew by and the doubts have poured in and established themselves at every corner of the startup idea mindmap. What if this doesn’t work? Why would anyone buy this? How do I find customers? I don’t want to do sales, that seems so invasive and icky. Maybe I should just give up and find a better idea.

Within a month, the once promising thought has been buried in the graveyard of previous startup ideas. The dissatisfaction weighs heavily upon me as I crawl into bed to slumber once again. Restless thoughts creep back into the mindspace with dizzying speed. Out of the disarray of thoughts, an idea emerges. This one will surely be different.

This piece of narrative nonfiction may hit close to home for you. If you’re a software engineer, code is accessible at your fingertips anytime you want. Ideas are generated as quickly as they are dropped and your once bright eyed enthusiasm dissipates overtime. Cynicism strengthens its grip as each idea becomes untenable as the last.

Unfortunately, many of us are acutely familiar with this cycle: Idea -> Build -> Release -> Abandon. Sometimes the process doesn’t get far enough to reach the Release step and skips directly to abandonment.

This cycle formed much of my 4,380 hours of startup failures. I’ve had a few successful nuggets but it was after hours of failed ventures and mis-steps. The timeline breakdown is to serve as lessons learned and a review of these hours.

The first 1,280 hours

My initial series of ventures were of the typical college variety: social networks and marketplaces. I hadn’t learned the value of a strong business model and monetizing in the beginning to support yourself and the project. Furthermore, all of my apps were siloed to mobile applications. This was during the craze for mobile startups that gripped every man, woman, child and VC.

One project was a social network for college students to share pictures and join a school wide group chat (with zero moderation). Fortunately it didn’t end in a PR disaster but quickly died out due to a lack of enthusiasm. I lost interest when people started abusing the system coupled with a lack of a returning userbase due to not building a habit loop into the app. This was my introduction into how fickle a users can be and why it’s crucial to find a way to bring them back to your product.

From there came a series of more mobile apps. One a language learning application that made learning Spanish effortless, another fitness related, and finally a cross platform learning app.

Lessons learned:

  1. Mobile apps are a race to the bottom in pricing (largely because it’s B2C).
  2. Mobile apps introduce friction into the customer funnel (they need to visit the generic App Store page and download the product before anything else).
  3. Business model early on is vital for bootstrapped companies.
  4. The mobile app marketplace is controlled by Apple and Google. They could flip a switch and your app/company would capsize in an instant.

The next 2,890 hours

I got tired of the limited capabilities of a mobile app and the friction it caused to convert a user. I learned more about monetization and stumbled upon a business model and architecture called SaaS (Software-as-a-Service). The most famous example of this would be Salesforce. I could build the app once and any customer with a device could sign up! I could also charge far higher than a mobile app, which I had felt was a race to the bottom with 99 cent apps littered across the App Store. SaaS mostly excels in B2B but they can succeed in the consumer market as well.

SaaS became my new obsession but web development was a mystery to me. I decided to jump on learning a web app framework that prioritized developer productivity. I chose Python and Django because Python was simple to learn with many use cases and Django was a mature web framework that came batteries included. I had my new web dev skills on one hand and my newly researched SaaS business model in the other. It was time to combine them into something great.

Unlike my previous iterations, I had discovered the value in profitability and control. However, I had not realized the value in a sales process. The need for marketing, vision and strategy were lost on me and so the four-step cycle continued. I found myself releasing products into the wild without a whisper of feedback or revenue. I grew disenchanted.

Lessons learned:

  1. Building a SaaS is a long process. The time and financial investment needs to be worth the outcome. Is there an easier way to build something with the minimum sellable features?
  2. SaaS is now ubiquitous and prospects have a difficult time visualizing the value. Show them how it will impact their business and how it differentiates from competitors.
  3. Figure out who your customer demographic is and reach out to them for interest.
  4. Make sales your friend as it will be an integral part of your startup. If you’re not doing it, then someone else must be. No one will buy into your startup without some form of sales.
  5. Find a framework that prioritizes your values. I found one that values developer productivity so I can ship the product out rapidly.

Where I am now 220 hours later

I was distraught from the lack of success. I could build the product and research the market so why couldn’t I get someone to purchase it? Overcome with uncertainty, I found myself lurking forums for answers. One thread caught my eye — it was a salesman who had difficulty selling his company’s products everyday. The replies attempted to diagnose what his hangup was, but the most interesting of them was one of belief. If you don’t believe in the product you’re selling — if there’s no vision or story behind it — sales becomes excruciating. If you as a creator don’t see the value in the product you’re selling, why would the prospect feel the need to have it?

I opened up my book of business ideas and found one that had a strong market. I gathered the necessary requirements and began my market research. I found a small network of potential customers that I could reach out to and began developing customers. This time around, my sales process was much better but my vision and drive was lacking. Although it brought in a decent amount of income, I discontinued the project.

I love SaaS, and it’s still my end goal, but I discovered that a good idea means nothing if no one is there to use it. I shifted my focus from grand SaaS web apps to smaller apps like chrome extensions.

If you’re interested in the pros and cons of a browser extension startup, check out my article.

My last startup was my most successful one and turned out to take the least amount of hours to develop. It was a simple chrome extension that helped investors save time analyzing deals on the fly. I did market research but mostly built the extension for myself to use. 

I had a few paying customers before launch and finally saw promise in something I was creating. Then, something fantastic happened. I was approached with a buyout offer from a reputable local investor for my simple tech product. It was nothing major but nonetheless an exciting offer that put me over the moon. I grabbed it.

Total hours spent on the project: 30.

Total hours spent learning about extensions: 190.

Lessons learned:

  1. Build small first and gauge interest
  2. Your market matters. Having a network of potential customers willing to offer feedback is valuable.
  3. You can take an idea and transform it with a new medium (i.e. take an existing web app and make it a mobile app)
  4. Have a vision behind the product that keeps you going. You’ll need this when you start the sales process.

It feels like it was yesterday that I popped open my code editor and started working on my first business idea. The wonders of production coupled with the dangling carrot of profitable side income fueled my enthusiasm. But in the end — like many of my earlier projects — failure was only a step in the route to success.

The lesson learned here is not one about regret. As my uncle always used to quip: There’s no use in crying over spilled milk. Yes uncle, I agree, crying is fruitless — but attempting to learn from spilling the milk is worth something.

Like many developers, I have a tendency to not engage in sales because I considered it ‘icky’. But the fact is that marketing and sales skills can make or break a business (and they don’t have to fit the pushy salesman stereotype either). If you don’t have what it takes to sell your product, you’re better off partnering with someone who does. The idea behind ‘build it and they will come’ doesn’t exist for most of us. We have to pave our own way to success.

Note: The hours were calculated through a combination of RescueTime, git breakdowns and estimations.