Forget-Me-Not is the “living dead” startup that I started with my mom back in 2015. Since then, it’s been this incredibly rewarding, frustrating, and funny experience — and recently, it’s actually come up a lot in conversations I have with entrepreneurs, so thought I would share the story.
While I was still at Ernst & Young, I was frequently involved in bringing new interns into the firm. At each recruiting event, I would get bunch of business cards while simultaneously almost always forgetting to bring mine. Talking with my co-workers, we were baffled by how — in our deeply digital world — we were still using paper business cards. After some initial research, we found several teams working on this problem explicitly: some apps allowed you to “bump” phones to exchange digital business cards or take pictures of them to store. But nothing had taken off.
In one of my frequent brainstorming sessions with my mom, we realized that the real problem wasn’t the fact that business cards aren’t digital, but that they don’t accomplish the real reason for them to exist — to remember someone. How many people have told you they were “good with faces but awful with names”? Business cards are designed for everyone who feels this way. But they’re falling woefully short of this aim.
The Immediate Solution
I remember the moment we decided to take the plunge into this new venture very well. It was my birthday and my mom, being the wonderful person that she is, got us tickets to see Elton John at my favorite music venue, the Moody Theater. We were grabbing drinks after the show when she said, “What if we used location to help you identify and remember the people around you?”
If the real problem was trying to remember someone’s name, why couldn’t we create an app that would serve as your virtual cheat sheet for who’s who — just like Andy from Devil Wears Prada following you around, whispering in your ear. It would constantly be with you, remembering the people you met and notifying you of their names as soon as you have the “oh sh*t what was their name” moment when they walk in the room next time.
We wanted this to exist and we knew we were onto something. We figured, how hard could building an app really be? Some obvious foreshadowing here — it’s much harder than we thought. The fortunate piece of the equation is that my mom is a self-taught computer engineer*, so she could lead technical development.
*Fun side story- as a little kid I remember spending hours in Barnes and Noble while my mom read and picked out books on Java and C++.
The Big Picture Vision
The elephant in the room was of course LinkedIn. After all, doesn’t everyone just add each other on LinkedIn as soon as they meet? The answer is yes and no, depending on where you live and what industries you’re in. But that’s where the real insight came in. LinkedIn doesn’t help you remember people, it just gives you a massive network that’s impossible to actually parse most of the time. Certainly not when you need it in real time.
Regardless, we got the feedback that we were building a feature rather than a product over and over again. Personally, I never knew what to do with this type of comment. On the one hand, sure, LinkedIn could easily add in a feature like this. But at a giant company with its own problems trying to integrate into the world of Microsoft, it clearly wasn’t a priority for them yet. Additionally, after learning more about LinkedIn, they are clearly trying to serve too many conflicting sides of a market. Their focus is not in serving the casual user.
Okay, so what about Facebook? Facebook already has a version of it — i.e. their own version of find my friends through the acquisition of Glancee. This doesn’t work because people growing up with Facebook (think embarrassing posts from high school) do not want to be friends with new connections on it. Once we’ve gotten to know each other and I consider you a friend is when I will “Friend” you. Fleeting work connections don’t fall into this bucket.
Ultimately, these companies have been around for 10+ years now. They are the incumbents. And wouldn’t that just make multiple exit scenarios more plausible for any investor?*
Our goal was to create much more than a feature — it was designed to be a platform that:
- Automatically tags where you meet each new connection
- Automatically tags when you meet each new connection
- Keeps track of the person who introduced you
- Gives you the ability to add hashtags regarding the content of your conversation
- Gives you the ability to add in information like birthdays, spouse’s name, favorite football team
And most importantly- organizes the information in this way — the natural way in which you remember someone. You can sort/filter/search by all of the above. Even better, when you get the notification that Jane Doe is nearby, you can message them to see if they want to catch up, with locations suggested.
All of this culminated in the vision for a platform that encouraged and spurred face-to-face interaction. In an age where every social media platform is designed to keep your eyeballs on a screen as much as possible, Forget-Me-Not was intended to be the opposite. It would give you the confidence to go up to Jane Doe in the airport and say “Jane! Great to see you, how’s everything going with the new firm? Are you headed to Austin for the Texas game this weekend?” This is far more empowering (and helpful) than avoiding her because you can’t quite remember her name or place where you met her.
The other big concern people always had was privacy and not wanting to share your location- which is totally valid. But, the difference between Forget-Me-Not and every other app started at the height of the “SoLoMo” phase a few years earlier** was timing. In our view, people were becoming more comfortable with sharing their location if it provided a high amount of utility.
*Now I realize that this was a perfect example of the different incentives between some founders and big VC’s, an “acquihire” exit isn’t a good outcome for most VC’s when even a single 6 figure exit would be incredibly meaningful to us as a founding team.
**Apps in this “social discovery” or “geosocial networking” category included Yobongo, Highlight, Kismet, INTRO, Mingle, Google Latitude, and to some extent Foursquare.
The First Peak
Me getting in and going to Harvard Business School was the first peak on our Forget-Me-Not journey together. The biggest area I didn’t understand (or at least I thought at the time) about entrepreneurship was actual logistics. How did people start companies when they still had demanding full-time jobs? Quitting the demanding full-time job wasn’t an option for me because of little things like rent. I couldn’t fathom how others were doing this.
When I started looking into business school, HBS was hyper focused on promoting and supporting entrepreneurship through multiple on-campus initiatives. Obviously always in a competition with that tree school. Through the Innovation Lab, the Rock Center, Startup Bootcamp, I knew I’d have ample amount of time and resources to devote to Forget-Me-Not. More importantly, this would be a great place to launch a new social network. We could literally employ almost the same strategy as Facebook and make the app part of the prematriculation checklist for HBS students. Instantly, we’d have 900 new users!
The First Trough
While my mom has ample programming experience, she didn’t have experience with Swift or Objective C. More importantly, she is Vice President of a software company where she works 60+ hour weeks and wasn’t quitting that to run the startup anytime soon. Leveraging her extensive programming and engineering management skills, we were able to hire a contract firm in India to code the first version of the app for $1,500. This was great to get us going — and give us something to submit to the App Store. But ultimately, there were loads of technical issues and the UI/UX left much room for improvement.
We dove headfirst into iteration on the app that would last for over a year. When I got to HBS and had friends with product design experience check it out, I realized how much we still needed to do. Business school also familiarized me with the lean startup methodology, and the idea that you should invest more time in upfront research than you do in the eventual first prototype. We had definitely skipped some of these steps in thinking we could just make something, put it in the App Store, and it would take off.
The biggest frustration for me was not knowing how to code. I constantly debated signing up for coding bootcamps. It felt too late for me to add this kind of value. I spent a great deal of my time at HBS tweaking the product and working with a number of contractors to micro-optimize what we had. I didn’t want to promote a product that I wouldn’t use myself, but the time I wasted perfecting robbed us of valuable feedback opportunities. We confronted the chicken and egg problem. Forget-Me-Not wouldn’t be a useful product until there was a core group of people using it, but we couldn’t get a core group of people using it until it provided some value.
A Few More Peaks and Troughs
At this point, I discovered Planet of the Apps through the Entrepreneurship Club at HBS, and thought it was our chance for a breakthrough. Here’s how the program was positioned:
- Apple’s (yes that Apple, the $1T company) FIRST ORIGINAL TV SERIES; people were constantly speculating about Apple’s entrance to creating original content and this was it.
- Shark Tank for Apps: Shark Tank businesses receive significant uplift after going on the show. For a consumer networking app like Forget-Me-Not, this was huge.
- Our app would be featured in the App Store as part of this program.
- The “advisers” we would pitch to included Gwyneth Paltrow, Jessica, Alba, Will.i.Am, and Gary Vaynerchuck
All of that sounded great. We applied, and to our shock, were accepted. Terrified, we weren’t sure what we’d gotten ourselves into. The whole deal included signing our lives away in a reality TV show contract, flying to LA to shoot an episode, and delivering our “escalator pitch” directly to the stars.
While the episode only shows a short clip, our pitch was warmly received by the advisers initially and resulted in an interesting discussion. But when Gary asked the feature vs. platform question and how we planned to take on LinkedIn, my response wasn’t convincing enough and we didn’t make it through to the next round. Still, in our opinion, this was the optimal result. I wasn’t going to be dropping out of HBS to do the next part of the program — 6 weeks of work with your paired adviser before pitching real VC’s. We got the exposure and literally had Jessica Alba tell us she knew the current CEO of LinkedIn well and could introduce us to explore an acquisition — nuts!
We raced to finish a new version of the app with a vastly improved user experience before the show aired. We started working with a much better and more experienced (though more expensive) developer and were so excited to see what uptick we would get from the show.
After all that, Apple decided to release the show only on its Apple Music service and it tanked. I couldn’t even finish the episode that we appeared on it was so bad. Needless to say, the uptick in users was a few hundred but nothing more than that, and DAU over the next couple months trickled down to essentially me and my mom.
In the midst of all of this, I was trying to decide whether to commit all the way to Forget-Me-Not, join another startup, start something else, or try to break into the black box of venture — something I always had in the back of my head.
Everything came full circle when I was introduced to a partner at Lightspeed Venture Partners, now founding partner at Unusual Ventures, John Vrionis. Today, I’m a senior associate at Unusual and couldn’t be more thrilled to help other entrepreneurs reach their goals — while hopefully being able to bring a sense of understanding of some of the ups and downs.
Forget-Me-Not is still something I think about almost daily as I’m dealing with the problem at an even greater scale. Networking is such an integral piece of venture capital and my life now. About once a month, I get a text from my mom or a friend with a link to some new product resembling Forget-Me-Not, and I’m waiting for someone to crack the same problem we tried to tackle. HBS came out with its own app for alumni utilizing location (an idea that we considered doing and white-labeling for independent organizations but decided against). And LinkedIn even launched a feature called Find Nearby. Despite all their resources and talent, they still haven’t cracked the same chicken and egg problem that stumped us.
The Long-Term Learnings
The biggest reason why Forget-Me-Not remains in limbo is that we can’t answer the question “Why Us?” — that critical query that investors (including me now) always ask. We didn’t have any special knowledge or skill to make this a success. On our own, we couldn’t build the product to be what we needed it to be. We weren’t backable because we couldn’t prove that we’d be able to get to serious traction. Starting a consumer app without the ability to bootstrap to product-market fit is almost impossible. At least right now. I fully expect this to change. But in the meantime, we had to face facts that we weren’t the strongest, no-brainer team to build a product like this.
Practice what you Preach
The other huge learning for me was how to practice crafting pitch decks (this is one from the last time I pitched Forget-Me-Not at a campus event), pitching, and being told no. There’s no better way to prepare for sitting on the other side of the table, listening (with an emphasis on listening) as a VC.
I also now know the pluses and minuses of the lean startup methodology — where it works and where it doesn’t. That still doesn’t mean I know when we should have “launched” and started growth hacking. But for a consumer app dependent on network effects, I err on the side of minimum lovable product.
The Founding Team
Finally, I know where I stand on family teams. At the end of the day, you need the highest level of trust and candor between founders. If you’re fortunate enough to have a family member with a complementary skill set, I’m all for that. I couldn’t think of a better person for me to have started a company with than my mom, and I know that when she finally does find the perfect founder-market fit for one of her ideas, she’ll make an incredible founder. In the meantime, I’ve found a home at Unusual as an investor — where this experience will hopefully help me help others through their own peaks and troughs.