Ruzzit: The Story of a Viral Internet Project
My name is Anselme, I’m French and 30 years old. For as long as I can remember my hobby has been working on web projects and testing new ideas.
It all started like this: I had my first high-speed connection when I turned 11, so it was back in 1997.
At this time Google was just starting and I was still a kid, using Lycos and Altavista (and Astalavista). Unlike my 5 brothers who used the family computer mainly to play video games I used my allocated time-slot (yes, we had to share one computer!) trying to understand how this whole internet thing worked. I think I’ll always remember this moment typing on Altavista: ‘hacking’ and starting to surf on some dark background websites with pop-ups everywhere.
Just to be clear: No, I did not become a genius hacker, even though I played a bit with web-security, and no, I did not become a genius programmer even though I learned how to code by myself. In fact, I did a business school (quite boring actually).
I was just interested in discovering how things worked and I have always been convinced that if I wanted to have my own internet company, I would have to understand the technical side as well as the business aspect.
At this time it was still a ‘Do it yourself’ period and most of the web startups were only founded by technical people. Fundraising was not considered as the ultimate goal of the founders but as a logical step to help the quick growth of the business. Market was evolving fast and people were more passionate about the technology evolving around their products, rather than envisaging the possibility to sell their business for a couple of millions of dollars.
From there I followed the classical scheme of a ‘teenage geek of this time’: I started to create small websites with some html and ‘copy-pasted PHP,’ web-mastered some vBulletin forums, joined IRC, had ICQ, took part in some online communities, spent nights trying to install tools, software, frameworks etc… I was not gifted with extraordinary learning skills which would allow me to be the stereotype of the ‘genius’, but I simply liked to discover and experiment.
I considered the web as a big wild world of possibilities. The ‘made up in a garage’ myth was still possible.
I was observing with an envious look the Silicon Valley activities: it was becoming the capital of the Web. There you could still start a project based on an idea. In France, investors discovered too late this notion of seed funding for web projects.
I like to believe that I witnessed the exponential growth of the internet: the rise of today’s giants (Google, Facebook), the fall of others (Yahoo, Altavista, Icq, Aol), the arrival of the web 2.0, the democratization of connectivity through the arrival of mobile platform.
Furthermore, I have the impression to have noticed an evolution in the market and the startup industry:
When people with no technical knowledge started to arrive on the web, new jobs were created.
The ‘World Wide Web’ became more global, more marketed, more beautiful and more accessible! It was an exciting period.
Since a couple of years however, I believe that the startup world has become something more ‘hispertish’. Some people focused more on trying to ‘be like someone’, or ‘to create the next Uber’ rather than being passionate about the innovation of a product and the problem it can solve.
Don’t take me wrong, I love startups. I have established two of them. I have worked for them almost all my professional life. I’m just someone who believes entrepreneurship vision should not stop at raising funds and becoming like ‘a founder of a successful story’.
In French a synonym for the word ‘company’ is ‘society’. When you establish a company we say you ‘create a society’. I like this idea.
My goal in my professional life is simple: being able to have my own company in an industry that I like, which can sustain itself, makes me live comfortably and being able to employ some people. If I succeed to reach this point, I will consider myself as a happy man.
To finish to talk about myself, as mentioned, I tried twice to reach this goal. It did not work. It did not fail badly, but it did not work.
There is a statistic which says: ‘only 2 companies out of 10 make it’.
Well, the good thing in this case is that I only have 8 more tries.
This blog post is about my third try.
Back in 2014, I left France to move to Canada and start my first job as full-time-web developer. It was really something new as it was the first time someone was checking my codes. I created so many small websites before but I realized that I never really understood the core-concept of programming. Before, when I was having a programming issue, I was generally copy/pasting an answer on stack-overflow without necessarily understanding what it was really doing. As it was for my websites I did not care about the quality of the code but more the fact that it had to work.
Having someone telling me ‘your code is bullshit’ made me more skilled and I realized how bad I was before. The more I advanced, the more I realized that I was not having anymore technical limitations for starting a new project I had in mind: ‘A website which aggregates the most shared content on the main social networks and let users access to it easily.’
I had this idea after coming back from holiday. I wanted to be able to discover the latest trending content of the last two weeks. You know this feeling that they called ‘the fear of missing out’?. I did not find any similar service. I wanted to implement it myself, but I did not know how to do it technically. The fact that I realized that with my new skills, I could, made me start. Moreover, with the growth of Buzzfeed at this time and the fact that internet users were using more and more social networks to share content and viral content, I was convinced that people, and especially teenagers, wanted to be the first to discover viral content.
I had a quick look on Google to make sure that such an idea had not yet been implemented. After checking the first 5 pages of results which did not satisfy me, I decided that create an alpha version.
I started to work on this alpha in the evenings after coming home from the office. More than a side-project for me, I was also seeing this idea as an opportunity to practice my coding skills. After a couple of months of evening work I got a simple alpha version ready to demonstrate the concept.
The need of a team
‘Then what?’ I guess it has been my daily ‘motto’ for the past 10 years. ‘Then what?’
I had an ugly alpha, that was all.
I have always believed that it’s very difficult to build a project alone, especially web-projects for which so many skills are required.
I needed feedback, I needed improvements and constructive criticism, I definitely needed a design and a better UX to help people understand the product; I needed people disagreeing with the idea in order to improve it, etc… In other words: I needed a team.
I decided to put a link to this ugly alpha on reddit /r/startups in order to have some global feedback and potential teammates.
I had a couple of answers which helped a great deal, but the most important event: I met @AlexGilmore, the first co-founder of Ruzzit.
He was very enthusiastic about the idea and he was a designer: one of the most important persons if I wanted to build a MVP.
We started talking via email, and then via Skype. He brought up some very good suggestions and improvements. We decided to build a new beta version together which would be easier for the end user to understand, more beautiful and practical — exactly what the alpha was lacking.
At the beginning we started working on a freelance basis, I offered him money for some Photoshop mock-ups. But very quickly, Alex told me that he was not interested in the money, but more interested in being part of the project.
I believe this part was one the most decisive moments of Ruzzit.
Someone told me once: ‘The success of a project or a company is 80% due to the people who are behind it, 20% due to the idea itself’.
Choosing the right teammates can be one the most critical tasks for the viability of a project. I experienced it in the past.
Alex really hooked into Ruzzit and more importantly he started to belong to it.
We reworked completely the UX and added some features. After 3 months of work together (still evening works) we had a new product, beautiful enough for a beta.
The MVP (beta) and ‘product hunt effect’
After presenting the alpha on Reddit, our goal was to present the beta on Product Hunt.
I had followed the product hunt adventures since almost its beginning. I really think PH brought something more valuable to product creators. More than the concept, Product Hunt succeeded to bring together a community of trendsetters, tech investors, geeks and product lovers. This is the perfect environment and an indispensable platform in order to test a concept in the tech industry.
The plan was to give an exclusive access to the PH community. We had very good contact with PH staff before and a date of release was settled: Friday 10th of April 2015.
On the day of the release we were of course excited to show our ‘baby-project’ to some key-people, experienced and critical, but we did not expect such a good feedback.
In other words, the release day was an awesome boost of dopamine that I’m calling the ‘product hunt effect’.
All of this, because, luckily, the release did well.
We had incredible feedback and we hit the top of the daily ranking by being the most upvoted product of the day.
It brought thousands of unique visitors on the website and very enthusiastic feedback. We even received some offers for potential partnerships. Some actors who contacted us were really big in the market and interested in the future of our product.
Raise funds and partnerships?
If you read a bit on startup stories, nowadays there is a kind of mechanism or a standard protocol to follow when you build your startup: you build a MVP on your own, you try to get your first round of funding, then you build a real product, you try to raise the valuation of your startup, you enter into the series A, B, C etc.., etc.. Of course between each of these steps you try to raise the valuation as much as possible, depending on the success of your product and your capacity of convincing investors.
That’s not an exclusive scheme but let’s assume that these are the regular steps to follow.
After the ‘product hunt effect’ we were so excited and motivated to continue. We had so much positive feedback on our product, so the logical step would have been to raise some ‘seeds money’ or try get into an incubator program or something similar. With this money or support, we could have prepared a more stable product.
That’s where reality hit us.
Being the number one of the daily ranking on Product Hunt does not mean an investor will come to you and invest money in you or your product.
Like many things in life, if you want something you have to go for it and work hard.
We quickly realized it would be difficult to raise funds.
First of all, I was based in Montréal (Canada) and Alex in Birmingham (UK). Even if there are some startups communities and programs in those two cities, Ruzzit beta was mostly focused on the USA. It was difficult to convince investors in our cities with a product on a beta stage, which did not concern them directly geographically.
Moreover, I have to admit, I have never been really good at fundraising, and I did not have any network in Canada.
Raising funds for a startup has become a permanent competition: you spend time trying to be seen by the key people who are already overwhelmed by founders trying to get their attention.
When you are not in the Silicon Valley or in the US, I believe it’s even more difficult because the eco-system is less lively and wide.
The wish of a V1
What were our options at this stage?
- Option 1: Drop it! We could have stopped at this point pretending we reached the result we wanted and all of this was a nice simple side-project only.
- Option 2: Stop every product development and only focus on trying to raise seed money, with the beta. It would imply heavy networking and travelling to some places where we could have more chances of getting funding.
Option 1 was quickly pushed aside. Even if our beta was not extraordinary, it was a good beta. We had many people who told us that with some modifications this product could be transformed into a company. We also saw over time that private users as well as companies were using our beta to fulfill a professional need. We even saw randomly on twitter, that Ruzzit was recommended and mentioned during a tech conference held by a big tech company. Many users were registering on the newsletter and asked us to be updated when we will have a more stable product.
There was definitely a potential market.
On our side we were not finished. We had some ideas to expand to an even wider market if we would build a mobile application. We did not want to stop here.
Option 2, as explained before, was the most logical one.We tryed a bit, but not hard enough. We even considered looking for some mentoring. We had some really good talks with some influential people in the business but still, at the end, we did not try hard enough.
We started to think of what we would have done if we had some seed funding. How would we spend the money? We would definitely hire some developers in order to make a more stable product and a mobile application. Why hire some developers? Because they would be better than me and more efficient. Moreover, my main goal was not to continue programming. Even if I was doing it at this time of my life, I was not passionate about coding and testing. I have always used programming as a tool which could help me to reach the next step of my life: having my own company
So, our desired final goal at this stage was to have a V1: a product better than the beta that we could proudly show to everyone and on which we could eventually establish a business model to be relied upon.
A new option was starting to draw itself:
- Option 3: Continue product development to make a V1, more stable more end-user oriented and not anymore a proof of concept.
This however would be a much longer procedure as it meant developing a complete new product on the technical side, which would have to be more robust and opened for collaborative work for later stages.
Then started the long shot.
A period of one and half year, during which I was coding at work during the day and coding in the evening on the new version of Ruzzit. It was not at easy period knowing that programming is not my passion… there were ups and downs. I decided to create the new product on Node.js which looked like a promising technology although I never worked with it before. It was taking way longer than expected. Sometimes I was struggling just learning the technology. Regarding the personal live, there were times when Ruzzit took too much space. I wanted to stop coding but there was still so much to do… a bug was leading to another one, etc…
In the meantime, Alex got married, and I moved back to Europe (Berlin) with my wife.
Alex’s role during this period was fundamental. First of all, his constant boiling imagination brought a lot of new features.
During my down time, he unintentionally cheered me up by his non-failing enthusiasm about the idea and the product itself. Being teammates, there was a mutual support and understanding.
Still, coding was taking way more time than expected and we were both not seeing the end of it. We needed more programmers who could take care of some parts of the project.
We decided to post a new message on Reddit looking for some help and potential teammates.
We met virtually Brandon (from the US) and Vincent (from Canada).
That’s why I like to say Ruzzit is an Internet story. All the co-founders never met in real life but we succeeded to communicate between Germany, UK, USA and Canada and developed something together.
Brandon was the first developer who joined Ruzzit about a year ago. His role was very important because while I was working on the ‘Backend’, he took care of implementing the Front end. It was the first time that we were finally able to see the visualization of the V1. He came with motivation and enthusiasm for coding in a moment where I was lacking some.
A few months after Brandon joined the team, Vincent got on board. His integration, as for Brandon, has been a key step in the life of Ruzzit. Vincent is an exceptionally good developer, way better than me. He came to us with all his expertise and knowledge, looked at the coding and made improvements in the quality. Moreover, he taught us a lot.
The quote was right, if we would not have met Brandon or Vincent, I don’t know if we could have made it till now.
They have been essential to Ruzzit by making it and improving it.
While I’m writing, I have this weird feeling of having finally achieved something that I wanted for a long time: Bringing Ruzzit to a turning point where we have given all we can, together as a team.
But even more than that: Ruzzit has been a project which personally helped me. I grew with the it, not only professionally, and learnt more about myself.
Even if none of it leads to something greater, Ruzzit made me think on my goals in life and my vision of entrepreneurship.
But we are now convinced that it’s only the first step.
Today, we have finally launched Ruzzit 1.0, available on desktop, iOS and Android. We hope they will help consumers discover new viral content that users care about.
Ruzzit has evolved and become something far greater than expected. What started as a simple viral feed has ended up becoming a targeted and completely customisable destination. We have also started to develop a series of stats & analytic tools. We want these tools to help brands and agencies understand how and why the content goes viral. The ‘Prediction Tool’ is what we’re most excited about — but more about that in future updates.
As we continue to build on our vision we hope to reach new levels that will allow us to become a committed and established company in the startup world.
‘Then what?’ … ;-)