What I Learned Ending Our Software Startup After Six Months of Product Development
My co-founders and I didn’t want the unexciting ending of Pradl, our first startup, that we are currently accepting. Unfortunately, over the course of six months of product development — during which I took on the role of lead front-end developer — we discovered a few important steps in the software life cycle that we had forgotten along the way.
Here’s what we discovered, how it contributed to our startup’s failure, and what I learned as a result:
1. Intuition is great for thinking about your product, but is less trustworthy when thinking about your customers
If you aren’t familar with what Pradl does (did?), feel free to read my previous blog post about the problems we were trying to solve. Needless to say, my co-founders and I had some strong intuitions about what Craigslist sellers wanted, and the fact that Craigslist sellers were even the ideal target for our product in the first place.
We never talked to sellers over the six months we spent building the product.
Over the course of almost all of Pradl’s development, we assumed that car dealerships were especially prone to facing spam and scams on Craigslist, and that they would be ideal customers for our product. We assumed, anecdotally, that a significant number of Craigslist sellers faced these problems. Not only that, but we assumed that the product we were building was what those sellers wanted.
Customer validation is not a joke. Customer validation is not something you can brush over after a few conversations with some friends about your cool new startup idea. If you want product-market fit, you need to learn about the market part.
The trap we fell in to was trusting our intuition when assessing the needs and wants of others. Instinct is important when determining how to build the product your customers are asking for, but it should not be used when determining what your customers are asking for in the first place. These kind of assumptions are crippling when you’re wrong, and you’ll most likely be wrong. Pradl failed in part because we didn’t do our due diligence in talking to our potential users. Be obsessed with your customer, and do everything in your power to learn about them rather than assume you already know them.
2. To be obsessed with your customers, you (probably) have to like them
Over the last few months before we decided to quit, my co-founders and I made a last-ditch attempt to understand Craigslist sellers. First, we attempted to reach out to car dealerships because we assumed that they would be especially prone to the problems we had already developed a product to solve.
Yeah, we built the whole thing without talking to car dealerships, our self-proclaimed “target market”. It sounds worse reading it aloud than it did at the time.
Unfortunately, we discovered quickly that car dealerships aren’t affected by spam at all. In fact, sales reps at car dealerships are bored, and are mostly desperate for new leads to talk to. Almost overnight, our largest potential market was invalidated. Yet, that didn’t have to be the end of the story. We knew that we’d have to change directions a few times to reach our destination, so we quickly turned to… asking random sellers if they’d use Pradl.
Individual Craigslist sellers do NOT like to talk. In fact, any form of communication that wasn’t directly about their listing tipped sellers off that we were just trying to scam them, and they almost always never responded. Slowly but surely we became extremely frustrated with the market we had built a product for, and even when sellers responded they were standoffish and rude.
None of the founding members of Pradl had experience communicating with car dealerships or Craigslist sellers. None of us cared about cars all too much, and none of us really cared about Craigslist at all. We had identified a problem and had attempted to solve it, but we didn’t have any passion for the people we thought would want our product.
So, a valuable lesson I’ve taken away from this experience: Make sure to be passionate about the market you’re serving. As I’ve pointed out, building a successful startup will require constant customer validation. If you don’t care too much about the people you’re talking to or the market they’re part of you probably won’t find enough motivation to communicate with them, nonetheless build a product to help them.
3. Failure is ugly
I compare this to an applicant for a job that is asked “What is your greatest weakness” and responds something like “I work too hard”.
Anyone entrenched in “startup culture” has probably been beat over the head with the notion that failure should be embraced and that failure is the greatest teacher. Although those statements are true, an unfortunate consequence of their acceptance is often a desire to methodically position failures as a way to impress others.
Perhaps, for example, you write a blog about how your startup failed so that others can commend you for learning important lessons…
My friends (co-founders) and I always told ourselves that even if Pradl failed it would be a calculated termination rather than a slow death. Maybe after selling the product to some avid early adopters, we’d discover we couldn’t find product-market fit without serious pivoting. Or, perhaps, we’d take some of our code and build something fresh that we found even more relevant. Regardless, this was a startup! Failure was totally cool, and we told ourselves we’d accept it.
Here’s the thing about failure that nobody talks about: It’s not graceful. It’s not an immediate cause for celebration like that Lean Startup book led you to believe. Failure sucks. After more than six months of working on a product we couldn’t wait to show off, my co-founders and I discovered that we’d forgotten some really important steps along the way… And Pradl died a shockingly boring death.
Don’t try to control failure, and don’t be upset if failure itself doesn’t go as you envisioned it would. Acknowledge mistakes, determine root causes, and move on with new knowledge.
I learned about working with co-founders. I improved my front-end development skills, my design capabilities, and learned more about building a user interface from scratch. I met people I never anticipated speaking to about Pradl, like venture capitalists, university program directors, and successful entrepreneurs. And, arguably most importantly, I learned the aforementioned three lessons about product-market fit, passion, and failure. I can’t speak for my co-founders, but I stopped working on Pradl when I felt I had extracted from it all of the learning that I could.
In that respect, this failure feels a little less ugly.