The Co-founder Who Cost Me My Sanity, Startup, and Success
I spoke with Deepak Shukla, Founder of PurrTraffic, about some of the experiences he’s had throughout his years in the entrepreneurial game.
He was a treat to talk to and has a very diverse background. From raising capital to completing IronMans, serving in the UK Armed Forces to recording rap songs.
Deepak highlights (or low lights?) the story of his first startup, trying to find a co-founder, and how he would approach it differently if he had it all over again.
Without further ado…
I’d like to share the story of my first startup. This is the kind of story you don’t read about on major media outlets. Why? Because we never raised or even cleared more than $100k of revenue. It failed almost before it began.
This story of failure is endemic among young entrepreneurs today. Inexperience leads to poor choices, and poor choices lead to failed startups.
Even though my story began and ended back in 2012, the lessons learned are just as relevant today as ever. I’d like to talk you through the mistakes I made that I didn’t even know I was making.
Maybe then, your startup experience won’t be a gamble, like the 50/50 divorce rates of today.
Maybe, it will be a success.
So. Let’s go.
Visiting the Graveyard
That’s the name of the music startup I launched in 2012. It was my first launch into “internet space.”
At 24-years old, it seemed I came late to online entrepreneurship. But, it also made sense given that I was a brick and mortar recording studio owner prior to that.
I ran two sound recording studios (called Deep Impakt Recordings), but I was on the hunt for something more. The longer I talked to established recording studio owners, the more I doubted the sustainability of the business.
For them, it was a labour of love. They were monetarily upside-down, and predicted the same for my business.
That wasn’t a future I wanted.
At the time, I was doing great. I dominated my local market and I even had musicians coming from further afield because they couldn’t find “good studio time” anywhere else.
It kept me busy — as you can see:
And so, the idea that become Studiobookers was born. It aimed to be the UK’s first online recording studio price comparison and booking platform for musicians.
The graveyard of my startup still exists online:
As you can see from some of the links, views, videos, etc.–significant effort went into making this startup a success.
I figured that if brick and mortar studios had financial glass ceilings, maybe this platform could change all that.
How Did I Even Raise the Money?
A generous uncle. Isn’t that how all startups begin? In all seriousness though, between my uncle’s investment of £10k and my own ability to self-invest another £10k I had what I needed to move forward.
Here’s why it made sense for my uncle to invest:
- I had some domain experience from my recording studios, which did £24k revenue in 18 months.
- I had 50+ regular clients, which meant a strong and existing customer base to tap into.
- Deep Impakt Recordings exhibited slow and steady growth (£18k Y1, £9k first half of Y2).
So, I had the idea. I had a strong network of customers who liked the idea. And, I had the financial means to scale down my time recording musicians and focus on the new startup.
I just needed to build the thing!
[#LEARNING: In the UK, if you can prove you’ve made money in the same industry it makes raising money a helluva lot easier.]
How I Built My Team
First, I needed a developer to build the platform. I could not and still cannot code for sh*t.
I commissioned my one developer friend to create a prototype of Studiobookers for £1,800. Unfortunately, he didn’t have the time to keep developing the platform, and I didn’t have the funds to keep paying him.
So, a new search began.
Sites like CoFoundersLab were either still in their infancy, or I wasn’t aware of them yet. I didn’t really bother with networking events in London because I wanted to hire without getting out of my seat. While I did attend a few, and had a fun time — they were a total waste of business time.
There was no one I could work with.
I turned instead to the freelancing website, Guru.
I posted a job for a paid position, but attached a Word Doc that revealed my true intentions — a business partner interested in investing sweat equity.
I was able to show that I had:
- A strong prototype
- Some basic online assets (Twitter and Facebook handles with decent followings, etc.)
- Plenty of market research
All of this made it easier to get into serious conversations with serious developers.
[#LEARNING: The more work and research you do in the early stages to develop an online presence and show commitment/knowledge, the easier it will be when you’re ready to go out and ask for a partnership, funding, hiring, or anything else at a startup level. Simply having “an idea” is not enough when you’re green to the world of entrepreneurship with no track record of success.]
And so the conversations began:
I also put together a document with 18 questions, which you can see here (alongside the interviewees’ answers).
My pool started with seven developers, but I took only three through the entire process. Four developers weren’t prepared to answer the questions, so that was an immediate red flag — not worth my time.
That left three. With one guy who stood out from all the rest.
Pretty thorough, right?
I even managed to build a relatively decent team of interns and staff on an I-can-barely-pay-you “payroll!”
However, a couple of things happened that I should have anticipated.
Hindsight is always 20/20, isn’t it?
My Vetting Omission
The developer — let’s call him Adam — answered the twelfth question like so:
In 2012, I was 23, single, and living at home with my folks. I had no overhead, and I was completely in control of my time. As you can imagine, his answer gave me cause for concern.
So I followed up:
His reassurances made sense to me. I decided to go ahead and get him involved.
However, as I soon learned, and as I’ll later discuss — I didn’t ask a couple of key questions.
Why Going With My Gut Was a Bad Idea
Drive and determination. The will to succeed. This is the foundational trait we are taught to look for in a co-founder. The ethos around this is strong and found in just about everything you read on the topic.
Take Arnold Schwarzenegger for example. I’m a huge fan and respect what he’s accomplished in his life. And I love that he shares his exact training tools and strategies. He’s an open book. If you want to know how he became a five time Mr. Olympia winner, it’s all there online.
The man had an iron will to succeed that’s for sure.
While success might begin with determination, it doesn’t end there.
Schwarzenegger knew he had to spend three to four hours per day, six to seven days a week for years in a row to eventually achieve what he did with his build.
He can give you his tips, but he can’t give you the discipline and dedication now can he?
I had a gut feeling about Adam the developer. He certainly appeared to have the right work ethic and drive. And you know what? He really did. But I failed to see the signs that his life wasn’t in a place to commit to the startup with the same iron will as Schwarzenegger brought to body building. There were more pressing and important things happening in his life that would take center stage.
As development trundled along, we did make some headway. Take a look:
A second beta launch courtesy of Adam!
The Breakdown in Productivity
We were one month into our second beta launch when things started to slow in the development pipeline.
Adam said there were problems at home: kids and school, increasing financial commitments. The paltry sum of $500-$750 I paid Adam each month was barely enough to help.
He had given me so many assurances! I wondered what really changed.
With development delayed, studios that had already signed up got restless. Users had issues with the site. I just didn’t have the appreciation or the savvy for how to make a B2C model work.
Back then, WordPress websites couldn’t do what they can do today with marketplace models like StudioBookers. Times were different.
As development faltered, my drive began to fade. My circle of friends would tell me all about their cool new ideas for startups, and I was quickly losing heart for my own.
On top of the pressure from studios and users, I had my uncle asking, “Where are we at? What are the timelines?” There was the potential to raise another $25k for investment from my uncle’s network of business owners, but their faith in my startup was also fading.
I decided to fly out to Dublin to meet with Adam, spend a weekend side by side, and get things nailed down! I’d already flown out to meet him in person and sign the deal when we started our joint venture together, but I had stayed in a hotel.
This time, I was to bunk in his home with his family.
That’s the weekend everything changed.
I saw first hand what was really going on at his family home. Chaos. Interruptions. Arguments. Financial strain. Pressure.
No wonder StudioBooker’s development was failing!
Despite Adam’s best intentions to get things done. Things weren’t getting done.
These were things I couldn’t fix.
Remember all the great questions I asked him in the interview document?
Turns out, I didn’t ask the most important questions.
1) He was contracting. What would happen if he stopped? (He did.)
2) Was he the sole breadwinner in his household (He was.)
3) What happened if money from other sources stopped coming in for him? (StudioBookers would get dropped immediately.)
4) I didn’t follow up with any questions regarding his family. (I learned one of his kids was home schooled and that required a significant financial investment.)
Adam lived month-to-month. If pressure got to him, StudioBookers was the obvious and most natural thing to drop first since I couldn’t pay him more. And that’s exactly what happened.
It wasn’t Adam’s fault. His family life got in the way of the startup. But I was the one who ignored the warning signs, and leaned on our budding friendship in the hope that things would change. When I flew out to Dublin though, it all finally clicked.
Adam was an incredibly competent and driven developer. My gut was right about that.
But he wasn’t able to put the success of StudioBookers first. And I get it — family comes first. Adam worked his butt off while he could, and perhaps over time, things would have changed.
I didn’t have time that kind of time to find out though.
What it Meant for the Startup
We had that second beta launch, but many things were broken and still didn’t completely work. They also weren’t being fixed.
Convoluted messages like this one below started going out to people engaging/registering with us. (I don’t expect you to read this.)
I needed to take action fast. I needed to get ahead of the issues before people freaked out or got any more confused. I decided to send out emails to the studios that had signed up and tell them we were “working on stuff.” Right.
I told them we delayed the launch because we wanted things “to be perfect.”
It should have read, “I’m panicking over here — hang tight!”
18 months passed and we never made it out of our buggy second beta launch.
Any traffic I drove to the site faltered. Our site had multiple kinks and issues. It wasn’t sticky. It was an all-around deadzone.
It wasn’t just Adam’s inability to continue development. I hadn’t spent the marketing hours needed to make the thing a success. And, it needed it. Desperately.
I kind of just…stopped responding to emails from registered users.
I stopped chasing Adam down.
I guess you could say I gave up.
And so, StudioBookers went peacefully into the night..
My Advice to Founders
All experience teaches us. We all fail. What we must learn to do is fail forward.
If I can give you any wings to get your startup off the ground more smoothly than my own, it is this:
When and if you decide to launch a new venture with another human, rationally and thoughtfully consider their outside commitments and how it could impact the company first.
Dig deeper than what they tell you.
Think through all the worst-case scenarios and form possible action plans.
In other words, do your homework before you get into bed with someone.
- Family commitments and responsibilities
- Rental or mortgage responsibilities
- Other work commitments
Regardless of what assurances you might get from a potential partner, do your own due diligence and don’t lose sight of the end goal.
- When hiring for long-term remote/equity level, go and visit. You will learn a lot.
A startup is emotional. It’s your baby. Only…it’s not really a baby. It’s just business. Do yourself a favor, and maintain a degree of level-headedness.
I’m lucky. StudioBookers wasn’t a complete flop. I had users. I raised money. I got some interns on board. I learned a helluva a lot about development. And in the end, I still have a great friend in Adam.
Originally published at whatarmy.com on May 25, 2017.