Learnings from a (failed) social media startup – part 2.0

So, I tried to start up. It failed. I wrote about it all in my last post here. (If you read only of these posts, read that one). I’ve often been asked the questions “Why? Why do you think it failed?” and “What did you learn?” I don’t think our failure or learnings were extraordinary or even very different from the thousands of startups that fail every year. But, I recently learnt that that doesn’t make them less important. So, here goes:

1. Distribution/ Go-to market is EVERYTHING

The Product will fix itself if you find the right customers. Knowing WHO your customer is, defining her NARROWLY, and knowing HOW to get to her, is key. We obsessed over building the most beautiful, intuitive and bug-free product. We built it. What next? We weren’t really sure who our customer was and how to get to her. We didn’t ask ourselves “Who is my user AFTER I’ve exhausted my network of friends and friends of friends?” We thought “if we build it, they will come” “we just need to create buzz on Twitter”. That doesn’t happen for 99.9999% of products, so most likely it won’t happen for yours. In the earliest stages, distribution was far more important than building the perfect product (which will anyway evolve). I’ve since learnt that this is a classic mistake many first-time founders make. Second-time founders know distribution is everything.

2. Picking the right market i.e. User research is dangerous

We sampled on the dependent variable – we interviewed friends, friends of friends, friends of friends of friends – who were all similar to us, and faced the problem we faced. We didn’t think deeply enough about “yes, this problem exists, but how important is it, in the user’s life?” “how badly do they want it fixed?” This was a 1/10 problem for most people – while their current solutions weren’t ideal, they got the job done ‘enough’. That didn’t mean this wasn’t worth solving – in retrospect, I think it meant that we had to do something radically different, not marginally better, to solve it. We picked the wrong market – there’s SO many content aggregation, organization, discovery, and sharing tools – and they all die. We thought we were different, but we didn’t think differently enough. It could be the right market, IF you addressed the problem from an ENTIRELY new lens.

3. MVPs work (for most things)

I think MVPs still work for most web2 consumer stuff. We told ourselves that a beautiful, intuitive, bug-free product was core to solving the problem – that it was a product/ user-experience problem. So, like many first-time founders, we wrote code too soon and obsessed a little too much over getting v1.0 right. In most cases, it isn’t going to be right – so you’d rather get to that conclusion in 1 week than 2 months. This is the best thing I’ve read on thinking about MVPs. Imagine you’ve built your ideal product – think about what the user will do with it. Then MANUALLY do that for your user (e.g. manually build a “curated reads” profile for your user using Notion; manually aggregate article recommendations from a user’s friend and send them over text). See what happens when the end product is delivered – does the user even care enough? Leapfrog the building and live in a world where your product exists. If the user doesn’t care about your manual ‘MVP’, she most likely will not care about your beautiful iOS App.

4. Co-founder issues don’t “work themselves out”

We were in different stages of life, with different risk-taking appetites and different time horizons of commitment. Startups are SO hard anyway, that if the co-founders are not aligned, they’re almost impossible. We told ourselves “we’ll figure it down the line”, “nothing else matters right now”. But the issues just get more complex as time goes on – if one of you needs this to succeed in 1 year vs. the other has 5 years, there will be disagreements. If one of you is burnt out from years of working non-stop, while the other feels refreshed in life, it’s going to be hard. Issues can always crop up, but not addressing them upfront, is setting yourself up for failure.

In general, I’m extremely cynical of dogmatic ‘how-to startup’ posts, and hope this isn’t one of them. Often, it may just be about ‘sticking it out’ – I don’t know where that thin line is – till when do you keep trying vs. accept the market/ user feedback for what it is? Someone I respect told me back then “smart founder-type people know the right time to step back. Don’t let the sunk cost fallacy keep you going.” Sadly (or not), there’s no A/B test here.

One thought on “Learnings from a (failed) social media startup – part 2.0

  1. Aah. I really wish you succeeded. I need this app so badly in my life. But thanks a lot for sharing your experience! This was super interesting!

    Out of curiousity, a couple of questions:
    1) What communities did you try to target. And which ones did you find a decent amount of success/suprisingly little success? I without imagine this being successful in college campuses and closed communities..
    2) Coming at it from the substack model, I guess an important ingredient in order to make it work is to integrate it with existing online profiles/networks that we have – just as substack did it with twitter and email newsletters. I’m curious what existing online networks/communities you were able to exploit?

    I hope you are planning to write a more detailed summary/report of your findings! That would be super useful for others who might want to take this forward!


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