How it feels to be 18 months behind on your project
If you can’t be bothered to read the quick answer is; really awful.
I’m writing this for therapeutic reasons and with the hope it might resonate with some people dealing with the same issues I have/am.
Once upon a time I was a normal person, then i had an idea 💡
Having been a passionate photographer all my life, a professional photographer for some time and finally running a subsidiary of an international photo company, I decided to throw away the safety of a fixed salary and build my own product. Little — little!! — did I know…
I was deeply inspired by a niche in the analogue photographic community called film swapping or sometimes ‘doubles’. Shoot on a roll of 35mm film and send it to someone else, usually in another country, who then shoots over the same roll film. Once developed the two people have created very unique, sometimes not good and other times incredibly serendipitous photos.
The magic is not limited to the results of two photos. Often the best part is the excitement of the unknown, waiting for the results and connecting with people in a totally new way. As we were heading into the 2010s it was clear that smartphone photography and photo editing was going to take over. I was getting hooked on editing photos on my phone and sharing them. Walking home from my office one day I was thinking about the film swapping process. Mailing film that sometimes gets lost, people who never send the scans over or don’t shoot in the first place. I reached for my phone to check something and it hit me. Doubles needed to come to the smartphone generation.
As any wonderpreneur will know there is nothing better than a nice new idea to sink your teeth into. I rushed home, pumped and excited, kicked the door down and told my partner I had the best idea ever! “It’s shit…” she said. Not the reaction I hoped for but what would she know. She’s only a highly educated and successful marketeer. I needed some feedback and validation that would allow me to go full steam ahead with blinders on!
A name was required. Photo swapping sounded a bit pervy. Doubles a bit long. How about we get rid of the ‘o’ and ‘s’ and make it ‘dubble’? No one spells anything the right way anymore! Yes, dubble was born 🎉
In hindsight I had no idea what I was doing
Deep down i knew this was new turf. I was much more experienced with “real” business; money in and money out. Tech startups were new to me. Was I “starting a startup”? There’s so much ‘start’ in that sentence. Silicon roundabout sounded fake, everyone was talking about raising money for companies that made no money. What was i doing? I was improvising and the blinders were great quality.
Armed with a name, a logo and a terrible power point presentation I started to pitch my idea to anyone willing to listen. Of course my mum loved it but luckily I was clever enough to realise that parental approval is a given, a freeby. I spoke to a mixture of people that i knew would have told me the idea sucked if they thought so. Response was good. This was around the middle of 2012.
I just remembered i even got people to sign NDAs when speaking to them! What a paranoid douchebag. The first person I presented dubble to was a friend and editor of a tech blog. She actually corrected the NDA for me.
Team dubble was born
Now all I needed was a team. I had a designer, a pal and amazing art director. I needed a tech person so I spoke to a good friend and asked what her husband did; “I dunno some geeky shit…”. PERFECT! We had a techy guy. The three of us were into photography, we all loved the idea and were willing to put in some graft outside of office times.
It quickly dawned on us we needed a mobile developer to build the app. I’m so glad we managed to realise that. We posted one advert on workinstartups.com and got one reply. A Latvian dude living in London. He was young, tall and had an android and an iOS device. We liked him.
A few months passed. Occasionally we would meet, the tech dude ran a few tests to send photos to a server and send back a double exposure mixed with another person’s photo. We were going to make GAZILLIONS!
How to burn a seed round fast and badly
As you can see by the photo above 66.66% of us are older than the fresh-out-of-school-living-with-parents lot. Some of us had kids and we lived in London, one of the most expensive cities in the world. To go full time and launch this thing we needed cash. Through family and friends we raised £120k using SEIS.
ONEHUNDREDANDTWENTYTHOUSAND pounds is a fuck-load of money but with three London payrolls (one of us not taking a salary), server costs and other bills it burns pretty fast. This was April/May 2013 I quit my job and went full time on dubble. By June/July all four of us were full time and my bad choices started to kick in. Paying too much for legal consultation, bad tech decisions leading to really expensive server costs. Outsourcing a team in Romania to build the android version before the app was finished on iOS. We live and learn right?
Let’s launch this thing
At this point the four of us were still in our bubble. We cracked an awesome blending algorithm and celebrated by getting drunk. When the server was sending images down to the device we celebrated by getting drunk.
We would meet up as much as we could and spend ages admiring the progress we made on the mobile app.
October 24th 2013 arrived and dubble went live on the app store! By this point I had moved to Barcelona with my three kids, the Latvian headed home to Riga to save cash, the geek had become a dad and the designer fell in Love with a girl in New York. Basically we had become a 100% remote team meeting on google hangouts almost daily. It hadn’t slowed us down but it sucked.
All in all the launch went well. We got featured by Apple in some countries (sadly never the U.S) and also had some pretty good press over launch and the following months. You can check some articles here. Real people around the world seemed to love dubble! Thousands of mixes were being shared on instagram, twitter and other platforms. Some really interesting artists with big followings were using our app. Our community were creating amazing things together and some producing insane works. One dubbler created a perpetual dubble with over 100 layers of other people’s photos morphing into each other. Another redubbled a selfie 1000 times. A guy tweeted that he couldn’t take a photo anymore without thinking if it would make a good dubble. This was great stuff.
As we entered into 2014 a couple of months after launch we had a pretty solid user base and most importantly the quality of the dubbles produced was often insanely good!
Raise a seed round, launch, raise a bigger round and get acquired right?
WRONG! I kept checking my phone to see if my connection was good.
“Can you quickly ring me to see if my phone works? Mark Zuckerberg hasn’t called to offer me a billion yet.”
Ok I wasn’t that naive but not far from it either. We were heading to the summer of 2014 and cash was low. Our usage was quite high so our server bills were big. If we got a spike in usage it either cost us a fortune or the app stopped working. People used to say that it was a “great problem to have”. It fucking wasn’t. Cracks were beginning to show with the app’s user experience and instead of removing and changing things we offered even more complex workarounds. We literally tried to reinvent the wheel. Users asked for features and we gave them ones we decided they wanted. Quite typical mistakes for first time founders I guess.
Just keep smiling
Throughout all this i was putting on a happy face and somehow blagging meetings with some top VCs and angel investors. All were “super nice” and were happy to have long meetings to talk about the millions of dubbles being made and watch me show off all our vanity metrics. We had enough for the servers for a few months but payroll had to stop. Back to committing after-office time and weekends. We were way too early to properly kick in with our revenue streams and at this point were well and truly fucked. An angel investor who committed part of a round (rightly) pulled out and another who committed a decent round with some other investors turned out to be a con-artist.
With our backs against the wall we headed to an accelerator
After speaking to Paul he invited me to pitch at Ignite effectively shortlisting dubble for the 2014/15 cohort. Sitting at Barcelona’s El Prat airport waiting for an easyjet flight to Newcastle and leaving my partner and kids behind was my first big dose of founder depression. Watching orange geordies running around the airport in Newcastle United shirts and eating obscene amounts of sweets was too much for my delicate snobbish soul.
Arriving in Newcastle was a different story. The air was fresh, the people were fantastic and the city itself was (and obviously is) beautiful. Cut a long story short I pitched, met the investors and we were offered a place.
Sadly only Uldis — my Latvian cofounder — and I could commit to going to ignite. It was a tough moment for the four of us and dubble would need to change structurally. It would mean three months away from home, very little cash but a decent opportunity. Not all of us were willing or able to make this commitment. As dubble turned one Uldis and I moved into a house in Newcastle with another team from the program. I was a student again, this was our wallpaper and living room radiator.
The hard work was due to commence but we had a slight problem(s); no backend developer and no designer. It was just Uldis (mobile developer) and me (all the other shit and a constant flow of ADHD ideas and motivation). Although accelerators are possibly too short for mobile products (without a full team at least) ignite well and truly saved our ass. Server vouchers and tips into R&D relief got us back on the road. We finally spent our time finding out what the product really needed, met some great mentors and got to hang out with these freaks for 12 weeks.
What was quite bizarre is that having worked with Uldis for over a year we had probably only spent one week together face to face. Now we were house mates and working together 24/7!
Half way through the cohort there was the Christmas break. We went home which gave us a chance to reflect. Not much real progress had been made and as we were heading back for the final push we were worried about our lack of a clear direction. Our product needed so much work and it was too much for the two of us and we weren’t in a decent position to raise any cash. Regardless we headed back for the final weeks of Ignite.
A chance encounter gave us hope
Ignite is based at a coworking space called Campus North. I often spotted this kind of rocker/skater style dude with piercings and huge black glasses typing away on the sofa. One day he gave a presentation and he turned out to be a senior infrastructure engineer at Github. For me this was meaningless but for the geek community it’s like meeting high end celebrity porn star.
We reached out to Sam for advice as the tech aspect of dubble was one of our biggest issues. After the Christmas break he told me that he had been playing a lot with dubble and both he and his wife were addicted. Having mentored at a few cohorts he thought dubble was the single best product he had seen through the ignite doors. I was flattered and Uldis had geekgasm. Sam spoke to another CTO he knew called Phil and they both offered to help us re-engineer the app.
Ignite came to an end late February 2015. We decided the current version of dubble was our Minimum Viable Product and we were going to work on dubble v2.0, faster, slicker, user friendly and with the features people wanted. We were not going to raise any money and bootstrap until launch, estimated late summer 2015, October latest. We were stupidly excited again and of course got hammered.
little did I know, the emotional rollercoaster hadn’t started yet!
At this point we are 16 months into the project. Our MVP is still in the app store, our founding team is down to two of us (plus help from Sam and Phil) and we have pennies in the account. Uldis is back in Riga freezing his tits of and I’m in Barcelona being a full-time dad to three. Sam has emigrated to the US to work at Github HQ and Phil is in Newcastle developing for a large company. Bootstrapping is a wise if you’re up and running on a small amount of revenue. When you have a tiny amount of cash, a displaced team and a LOT of work to do it’s really hard. In fact i don’t even think we can say we were/are bootstrapping. At this point it’s 100% a labour of love.
The great manic depression
Initially everything was good. Chatting away on Slack and trying to have calls once in a while. After some weeks Uldis went quiet and he was a bit vague when i asked for updates. I didn’t have the guts to come out with the hard questions but something was up. The truth was he was faced with the reality of the task ahead and i couldn’t face the fact that everything was crumbling. Phil would ask “what’s up” and I would put on a bullshit mask and pretend all was good. This was the summer of 2015.
Uldis is critical to this project, without him it was over and I was not willing to give up. The summer flew by and as we aprocaded the end of September and October Uldis came clean. He wanted out. The project was too much, the tunnel way too long as it became clear we had to rebuild everything. Uldis was suffocating. I could understand, totally understand but I wasn’t going to let it happen. I flew to Riga armed with a few bottles of Red. Uldis needed some looking after.
The trip to Riga was well overdue. It was great to get a break from my routine, breathe in some fresh air and reconnect with Uldis. We managed to crack a really important part of the new version of the app; the Lab, which could potentially turn out to be the most fun part of dubble v2. By the time I left the energy was flowing again.
It was now Phil’s turn to go cold. From his point of view he had done a lot of work fast and nothing had really happened for five months. My instincts were telling me he had run out of patience and his messages on slack were getting fewer and far between. As we were heading towards the new year Phil sent me a message “I can’t work on dubble anymore…” Fuck. Without Phil we have nothing. He’d been working on dubble because he loved the project, not for money. He didn’t want to spend time on it any longer.
Of course there was no way I was going to let him go either! We spoke and I was honest about the time we lost with Uldis but assured him we were moving now. Communication between all three of us was regular and the ball was moving again with around five or six months lost. Phil came to see me in Barcelona and i did what I do best, look after the geeks as they work their magic.
The final stretch keeps getting longer
It’s now April 2016. APRIL TWO THOUSAND SIXTEEN! At this point we have lost all credibility. I had stopped emailing investors and mentors months earlier. When people asked “where is dubble” i just wanted to dig a hole and curl up inside. We were working but progress was slow. We were all part-time and there was so much to do. The more we built the more we had to do, like when you start painting one wall at home. In the end the entire place needs a new coat and it’s time to change the flooring, electrics and plumbing. Uldis popped over in the summer and more progress was made. Working together is so much better than remote.
When he left the waiting started again (for me). There is only so much waiting a wonderpreneur can do. Ideas of other projects were constantly occupying my mind. To stay inspired I teamed up with another team and launched a new product under the dubble brand called ‘dubble print’ — this was always in our roadmap but was supposed to be after launch of v2 — I bought it forward so i could play with something.
Fighting bouts of depression was starting to get hard. I joked about it with the guys in our calls but it was getting difficult for me to keep this together. In the daytime I couldn’t do much. Couldn’t focus on the bigger picture especially as we had no product anymore. We took the old version of dubble off the app store months earlier as the server costs were too high. Now there was just v2.0, v2.0, v2.0, v2.0, v2.0, v2.0…
One day after the usual school run i came home and curled up on my daughter’s bed (the closest bed to my desk). I lay there thinking about how miserable I felt and realised the only way out is to shut this thing down. It was my turn to quit! It was a relief just to think I could quit. Pulling the plug will be the best thing to do for my mental sanity. No more waiting. No more questions about “what’s up with dubble”. I even mentally drafted the email to users, investors from ignite and mentors/advisors. It felt great. I jumped out of bed, headed to my computer and a message popped up in slack
“Finally!! I’ve cracked the bug i was working on the last days. It’s a smooth run now to finish the app”
There went my moment to quit. I couldn’t. The finish line was really getting close. We were now into September 2016.
Time to launch… again
We have launched before and this is why we were never willing to: “ship it now… fuck it, it looks ready!”. Version 1 worked, was liked so it made no sense to ship a half-baked product. At this moment dubble v2 is more or less ready. It’s been so long since we decided to work on a new version that I’m used to the impossibility of the project.
So how does it feel to be over a year late? On a personal level, for someone who loves reacting fast and firing out quick ideas, it feels painful and a little shameful. Generally however the reality is this: we had our lives that took turns we couldn’t predict. Personal issues, partners, kids, technical problems, scope changes, product adjustments and ultimately no money, no (new) investment and just a burning desire to eventually release this thing.
Everytime we wanted to quit we couldn’t. People would send messages saying they missed their favourite app. We would look at the beautiful work on our instagram and decided we could not give this up. To keep sane I would read about projects that were delayed or never even made it to launch. Skype calls with other founders so we could laugh at our problems. In the last 18 months so much has happened. Many of the companies i follow or know from the startup community have raised, spent and closed. Others are close to succeeding but all are going through the same ups-and-downs as us.
So yes, we’re really late but we are also really fortunate to still be here and it looks like we will be live very very soon! Hope people still like taking photos!
Follow us on social (@)dubbleapp if you want to know when we go live