Why I Shut Down a 115k User Startup After Only 3 Weeks: The Story of VSBRO (Part 1)
Part 1: Humble Beginnings
Doing the right thing isn’t always popular. It seldom is. Two days ago I shut down a startup I launched. Its a long story and I promise its a good one. But for the sake of clarity, I’ll start with the end and then take it from the top.
I shut down my startup (kinda project I guess) after just 3 weeks with 115k users. While some of the userbase was great, a large portion was extremely sexist and toxic. We fought back with many content moderation solutions but ultimately felt the community inside the app was something content moderation couldn’t fix. It’s hard to walk away from that many users but when some really bad things starting happening, we had to do the right thing. VSBRO became something I was not proud of, but I was proud of what our team accomplished. We started this project as a joke, an app where guys could post funny and dumb pictures. We never could have imagined it would turn into a place with such problematic content.
We generated a ton of success and I’m really proud of that. It landed us the #3 social app on the App Store, and #21 overall app. As well as got us an article in Forbes. We had investment offers in a matter of 72 hours. However, a moral and ethical dilemma was on our hands. We didn’t want to contribute to bad technology in a toxic society — the world didn’t need it. Despite folks loving the product and building something great, there was an inherent issue that no one could fix…and that was the behavior it was generating from users. At the end of the day, you have to live with yourself and no one can do that for you. And because of that, we made the tough decision.
VSBRO had humble beginnings. It all started over a year ago in my sophomore dorm. I was talking to a friend about VSCO and how mostly girls seem to use it. And I said, “we should make a VSCO but for guys”. And VSBRO was born. I put together a quick Rails app overnight. My friends and I played around with the site and got some laughs out of it for a week or two then forgot about it. But in the back of my head, I knew it could be bigger than that.
It started back up when COVID hit. I was home from college with a lot of free time on my hands taking online classes. I asked a couple of my great friends (Jacob Schuler and Brendan Sirois) to help me work on it. We threw up the site on Jacob’s server that he has set up in his basement and started trying to get users. We compiled a list of about 2000 frat president emails and started firing away mass emails. We got a few bites and picked off a few users here and there but no traction.
I really started to work harder on VSBRO when I lost my internship. I was set to work at Flexport, a top startup in SF, and was going to have a wonderful internship out there. Unfortunately, COVID hit and my position was terminated. I was pretty upset at the time but decided to direct that newfound time into building something big.
Users said they thought it was a cool idea but something wasn’t clicking. No one was sharing it or coming back each day. So we talked to them and they all said they wanted an app. I had made an app in the past and knew how hard it is to get users to download an app. The average person downloads zero apps a month. We were so against building an app that we just ignored them. We just told them “use the website”. But after a couple of weeks of no growth, we finally decided to build an app.
Lesson Learned: Just go for it. You don’t need the perfect idea or one that even seems rational. Start building and you’ll find your way. Start with a hunch, some insight you have into something, and go for it!
Investing in the product
I learned React Native and quickly threw together VSBRO v1 app. It definitely wasn’t easy and took a few weeks to get something ready to go that worked well. We added “bumps” to posts (likes) and a way to add “bros” (friends) and see their content as well. The website started as just a place for a user to have a stream of photos and share their link. Now it was a platform.
Lesson Learned: Team > Product > Growth. You will never have a great product without a great team. I built the team first. Then we tried to skip to growth but we had a bad product. Build a great product or you simply wont grow.
The Big Break: 300 to 20,000 in one night
At this time, we had been working on the project for a month or so. We had about 300 users and probably around 5 daily active users. We had been on the AppStore for one day. It was just a fun joke of a project. It all changed on a Tuesday night. We had randomly DM’d people on Instagram to use our app and one guy responded asking if he could make a TikTok about it. We didn’t think much of it. It was around 8 pm and I got a text that we had a lot of sign-ups coming in and we had no idea who these people were and how they found us. We checked his Tik Tok account and the video was blowing up.
It was all hands on deck, and remember — we were still running on Jacob’s server in his basement. It didn’t slow down, we were averaging over 1000 sign ups per hour. It was the most surreal experience. Jacob’s circuit breaker tripped because we were pulling so much power. We went from working on a joke of a project to something that was climbing the AppStore charts. And the problems started rolling in. People spamming porn, nudity, personal information. We never imagined this app would have this problem. We saw it as a place for people to share funny and dumb pictures. We forgot what happens on the internet. You don’t see that content on other sites because of moderation so you don’t think about how it is that those sites are pretty clean.
Rate limiting, IP bans, moderator dashboard, and little sleep that night. By the time I woke up, we had 20,000 users. We were off to the races. Little did I know I would wake up to an emails from investors, Forbes, and an insane ride in front of me. Part 2 coming soon….
Lesson learned: Life is crazy.
From that night: