How I turned my Startup idea into reality
Last year I took the leap of faith and started my own business venture. I took a year break from corporate job, to turn the idea into reality and see where it will lead me. I felt overwhelmed by the entire concept and information about what I needed to know and what I needed to do. Once I started reading, I kept discovering, that there were a new things I needed to comprehend. I felt lost.
In this post I focus on the first steps I took, to turn the idea into reality and what I have learned in the process.
I hope you will find it helpful to some degree, if you are exploring the possibility of starting your own adventure.
So, here is how the story of Tribd App starts
I was planning another solo trip, this time to Guatemala and Central America, where I wanted to surf and explore the region. I started surfing seven years ago and ever since, a lot of my travels are actually surf trips. And that also contributed to why I decided to pursue the idea of Tribd. Maybe if it wasn’t for surfing, Tribd wouldn’t even exist now.
Even though I have many friends who love to travel, not many were interested in surfing or going away at the time I was planning my trip. And finding adventure buddies, has always been a problem for me. Frustrated, I remember thinking, why there isn’t an app like Tinder, where I can meet people, who like the same things as me and want to travel to the same places, at the same time, so I can just swipe right on them and problem solved.
Why nobody hasn’t created That App yet? It’s that simple.
The idea, I haven’t acted on, until almost two years later. Busy with my life, not realising it will be me.
If it’s still in your head, it’s worth taking the risk
Fast forward about a year and a half later, after another solo surf holiday to Sri Lanka and back to reality, I find myself calling my brother asking, if I could find a developer to build me an app… cheap.
Since the idea of Tribd has been in my head for almost two years now, I thought, that I ought to explore the possibility of it becoming a reality. At that time, I wasn’t even thinking about business, or Startups. I just wanted the idea of the app I envisioned, to materialise.
I didn’t know much about building apps, app development costs and the whole new world ahead of me. But I started exploring. What did I have to lose? At the beginning, all I had to loose was the time I have given into it.
At the beginning, all you have to lose is time
I needed to decide, whether all I am giving to the idea of the app, is my time, or it will be more than that. Am I prepared to incur the loss and discomfort this journey will bring me? And not just the loss of my time, but anything else I will put into it?
Ultimately, how much loss and discomfort am I willing to take? These are the questions I needed the answers too. Because more you give to it: time, money, commitment, the more you will have to lose.
The Summer I said bye to social life
So, it’s when my journey starts. In the Summer of 2017. And initially, during that Summer, I decided to give it a go, because after all, in the beginning all I had to loose was my time.
Time spent exploring the idea, researching the market and understanding what’s ahead. So, gone are the weekends and evenings and so is my social life. During the Summer of 2017 and beyond, I have two new best friends — my laptop and a WiFi.
I spent most of my time that Summer, researching the market, learning about app development, writing my pitch deck, product specs and more. All of the above, whilst working full time, so the only time to do it, was to sacrifice evenings and weekends. The new life of entrepreneur in the making.
Research the Market
After ten years of solo travels, I have met many solo travellers alike and I knew, that I wasn’t isolated in having the problem of finding adventure buddies, with similar travel plans and interests. And if you are into any active sports, like surfing, climbing, scuba diving; it can be really difficult to find one, if your friends don’t share the same passion.
I needed to understand how big the market is, what are the behaviours and demographics of solo traveller tribes, what are their main problems and trends. I also needed to learn more about adventure travel and travel industry, including the market size and the size of opportunity. Why? Because I no longer wanted to just build the app. I wanted to create commercially viable and scalable product. And before committing anything more than time, it was important to understand if the idea is worth pursuing.
Research the market prior to starting your journey, you will learn a lot more doing that, and will be able to envision the whole pie, vs. the slice of the pie your universe is limited to. It could sometimes mean make or break, depending on your business idea. The size of the opportunity, that includes potential users of clients, and the value of the industry, sub-industry or specific area you are planning to venture into, could determine the worthiness of your efforts. If you plan to seek an investment, it will be one of the fundamental questions driving decision making process. It will also give you an idea on the slice of the pie you could potentially capture, which initially will be a very, very small slice.
Research the Competition
I spent a lot of time researching the competition. Direct and indirect. Aka solo traveller apps and adventure travel operators. I have also travelled through organised adventure trips in the past, so I had first-hand experience, on pros and cons of those types of adventures vs. solo travel. I have tested the apps aimed to solve similar problem. After years of solo travel, it was the first time, I have learned that there are actually apps focused on solving similar problem already. But none has gained global recognition, neither has taken the approach I was taking in functionality and design.
Testing the competition, I understood what their weak points and the mistakes I could learn from are. Whilst interacting with other people using these apps, I further validated the idea for Tribd. It has solidified my conviction, that I absolutely need to have Tinder-like swipe feature to prevent unsolicited contact and that I will not release Tribd globally, but only in countries core to adventure travel. Building genuine community is more important, than having thousands of users, many of which not particularly (as my testing concluded) interested in finding a travel partner, but more often in romantic pursuits.
I wanted to create a genuine adventure community who share passion for travel and adventure sports, so I limited Tribd release to 54 countries core to adventure travel departures and arrivals.
It is very likely, that whatever you are passionate about and whatever your business idea is, you will have the competition. It’s definitely valuable to know what and who you are up against, but it’s more valuable to find your competitive advantage and focus on that.
Make something people want
This is actually Y Combinator motto. It’s simple and to the point. In other words, validate the idea.
Whatever your idea is, whatever your skill set and the product you are building; researching the market, existing solutions, and validating the idea is an absolute must, before you go any further. Speaking with actual potential users of your product or service. Would anyone want your product or service? If so, why? What problem are you solving? Is there a real need? Do you have basic concept of how your product would look like? Business model?
If you are creating something similar to what is available already, it doesn’t necessarily mean that you will fail, or that nobody will want it. But find your difference. Think Lyft and Uber. Tinder and Bumble. HelloFresh and Blue Apron.
Even though, I’ve connected with many people over the last ten years or so, who also have similar problem, to further validate the idea, I have also subscribed to countless of Facebook groups. Groups for women who travel solo, backpackers and groups focused on adventure travel, solo travel, travel buddies and more. Millions of people everywhere, not only discussing travel related topics, but also actively seeking travel buddies, by posting to those groups. And of course, extensive research helped me to understand the adventure travel trends and tribes even better.
Understand about app development
Prior to starting Tribd I had very little knowledge about app development. I felt comfortable with product development in general, coming from my professional experience, but mobile apps were a whole new world. In fact, my only knowledge was — that there were apps built on iOS and Android. And that they were on my phone and I used them every day. The End.
So, here comes Google to the rescue and the mind field of a new knowledge to acquire for a non-technical person. Because I didn’t know what was important and what was not at the time; I aimed to understand as much as possible. From understanding the difference between native and hybrid app, to programming languages used to code these apps and so much more. I obviously didn’t learn any programming languages in this process, but it was useful to understand the difference between React Native and Ruby (as much as the civilian can!) and going into a little bit more detail on everything, because the more you know, the stronger position you have, if you do decide to take next steps.
Having a little bit more than just a surface knowledge has its advantages, as you are likely to rely to some degree on third parties through the length of your journey, in many areas, from product to legal, to marketing and beyond. Thus, you not only need to know what you are talking about, but you will also be better positioned choosing a service provider or discussing anything related to your business.
In case of Tribd, I understood and knew, that we need to build a native app and I decided to build it on iOS first. But I have had conversations with potential development partners, where I was being persuaded to build a hybrid app, and I know, that this would not work for Tribd and for what I had in mind. Also, one thing that I have learned, is that sometimes a person or a software development firm I have spoken to, had their own preferences, hence strong persuasion to choose that specific solution. Many different, often contradicting solutions were suggested to me, by many different vendors. It’s easy to feel lost!
I also had extensive conversations on this topic with our CTO, then “only” my brother and not a CTO yet…. but that’s a different story. Which it leads me to the next important question.
What about Co-Founders?
At some point through the whole process, which was slightly later then the stages I am describing, before signing the contract with the software development company, I have asked my brother, a computer scientist with PhD to join me on board as a CTO. I needed someone I could trust, and trust specifically with any technical matters that were beyond my understanding. I couldn’t think of a better partner. Not just that. But also looking at the bigger picture of algorithms we wanted to create, plus anything else, I foresee for Tribd at much later stages, which goes beyond just ‘coding the app’.
I was just lucky, that I didn’t have to look far. Even though initially, I only thought of running the entire venture solo, as I could always ask my brother questions if I need to. But I understood, that I needed more commitment than that.
Here is the thing. If you are a solo founder, it could be perfectly fine to fly solo. But sometimes it could be better to partner up with someone, who has the skill set that you lack.
I have read many posts online with strong opinions, why you shouldn’t venture solo. Even stronger, if you are planning on seeking an investment from Angels or VCs. Which as the wisdom says, are not so keen on solo founders? It’s really not that straightforward or true in every case. And quite often by the time you reach the VC stage, you are likely to have some sort of team on board anyway. What I am describing, are the very first steps if you are thinking of starting up your own venture and that doesn’t necessarily mean that you need to frantically search for a co-founder, because you read about it, or because somebody said so.
Everyone’s reality, idea and problems are different. But if you, do partner with someone, then have the legal aspects sorted before you register the business, or before you commit anything more than your time. Imagine your initially excited partner, is not so excited a year or so later, yet you have split the equity 50/50 or 60/40 or whatever ratio you have agreed upon, and they just stop contributing to the venture, but keep hold of the business, or worse, have say in the decisions you are making, but don’t commit anything. It’s not just registering the share split and partners in the company registry, but also having vesting agreements in place, if you are really taking the venture through beyond the beer talk.
Understand about the cost of app development
So, you are a non-developer thinking of building the next Tinder. Or the next Uber. Or the next WhatsApp. Or the next whatever you are thinking of building. It usually goes like this. Google: “How much does it cost to build an app like…?”
According to Google I needed a lot of money to build Tribd. Which basically meant I was f…d before I even started. My kidney wouldn’t sell for that much. I wasn’t willing to remortgage the house. Am I really f…d and should I go back to my day job now?
I validated that through a lengthy beauty contest with app development companies from San Francisco, to UK and Eastern Europe. I still have both kidneys, didn’t need to sell one. More on this in my next post.
How much money are you willing to lose?
I took the magic sum Google told me as the minimum I needed to build an app like Tinder, as my benchmark imaginary budget I didn’t have. I did have some budget of course, just not that much, and even if I had that sum, I wouldn’t spend it on building something that I had zero guarantees on. I would probably buy a bigger house.
I self-funded Tribd and invested my own capital, but I have put the ceiling on the amount of financial risk I was going to take. The amount of loss, I was prepared to absorb with my tears and to count as an ‘experience’, but not with my health, or mental well-being.
Understand how much money you are prepared to lose without having to jump out of the window if you lose it. In other words, invest proportionally to the loss you can absorb — mentally and financially. Don’t sell your kidney. Don’t take loans (not yet anyway). Don’t re-mortgage your house. Regardless how passionate you are about your venture.
Understand if you are doing it just for fun, or it’s a business
If it’s the latter proceed to the next step.
Understand about setting up the business
For some reason this part freaked me out the most. It’s one thing to joke that your favourite position is to be a CEO, it’s another to really become a director of a limited company and have director’s responsibilities. Shareholders? Board? I think the legal stuff related to this overwhelmed me a lot initially. But it’s not as scary as it initially sounded. Initially, your board is just you and your co-founders. Same goes with shareholders, plus any early stage investors, which usually aren’t many.
Although when I finally registered the business, I felt quite stressed, because my adventure became real. It was no longer just an idea. I took a step forward; I was a company director and about to sign contract with an app development partner and build Tribd. Wohoo! We are building the app!
UK is one of the easiest countries to set-up own business and there are services to help you with that and also to provide you with registered office address, so I would recommend using one of these services. If you are signing contract with any third party, register the business first, so you can act as a limited liability company, rather than private individual.
Do you have the name for your business?
Regardless, if you are just brainstorming in your head with yourself, or with your co-founders; this can be both exciting and frustrating part. I had no idea what I will call the app, only that I wanted it to be short, memorable and also represent the idea of the app connecting solo traveller tribes. When I run out of ideas in my head, I used various name generators online, which threw up really weird names, none of which I liked. At some point, after reading another research on solo travellers’ tribes, I had a moment of enlightenment. Tribd. That’s it.
Understand what legal stuff you need to get in place. If any? At what time?
If you are registering your business, you may want to think about shareholders agreement. Companies House in the UK provides you with the standards Articles of Association, but if you are thinking of raising an angel round, and also have co-founders, it’s good to invest in Shareholders Agreement.
I won’t dwell too much about legal stuff here, but there are some basic terms and clauses you need to get familiar with, that should be part of your shareholder agreement. You can structure it any way you want, your lawyer will typically provide you with standard terms and discuss your specific requirements, advise on putting them in the Shareholder agreement. If you get to raise venture capital investment, which likely won’t be until much later, the agreement will probably be re-negotiated, but what you need in place, should be sufficient to take you through Bootstrapping and Angel rounds. If it’s not, you will pay again very shortly, for another agreement, so make it the way you want, but without many “off putting” clauses for potential investors. Speak with legal firms who are involved with Startups and they will advise you on the standard terms. Do your homework and learn about dilution, vesting, drag along provisions, etc.
You may decide that standard articles of association are fine for where you are.
If you have co-founders, it’s good to have vesting agreement and co-founders’ agreements, in case of any disputes.
Legal costs can be very expensive and when I initially talked to legal firms in London, I got quotes in thousands of pounds for some basic agreements. But the world expands beyond London and I have partnered with legal firm outside the capital, where I got personalised advice and legal stuff sorted for probably one third of London prices. You can also use legal service on demand. There are plenty of firms, that specialise in all legal matters for Startups, such as Rocket Lawyer, lawbite and more; where you can get a quote for the agreement or a bundle of paperwork. Just shop around, don’t be afraid of talking to many people, certainly don’t jump onto the first one, without speaking with others.
And don’t forget about GDPR policies for your website or if applicable product or service.
Understand what you need to run the business. Aka — find the accountant
If you register the business. Aside of the legal stuff, you will need an accountant. Similarly, to finding a lawyer, shop around. What you really need in the first year or two years of trading, is just basic bookkeeping and maybe assistance in company secretarial services, if you are doing share split, or issuing new shares, etc. Your accountant will also prepare your annual tax return and annual statement for your Ltd company and may occasionally help you with other ad-hoc requests, like filing for HMRC SEIS approval. That in most cases it will be as sophisticated as it goes. So, it’s worth expanding your search beyond the capital, speaking with a few firms, before you decide to settle for one. You don’t need a big firm for that, or equally just because you see accounting firms on page one or two of your Google search, it doesn’t mean there aren’t more. And find someone you can ask questions, as some firms, will also want to charge you for that too.
I have been told by some people really close to me, that Tribd logo sucks. It hurt my feelings for a split second. It seems, I forgot that I have really talented family members, proficient in using various graphic design tools. I used online logo generators, and after many versions of logos, I settled on the one with shark-bitten surfboard implemented in the name Tribd. Some people will like it, and some won’t. Bottom line, you can spend your life designing the perfect logo. Or weeks… but this isn’t the most important part of the process. Choose something that will represent your brand, your idea and that you will like. You are not a multi-billion corporation just yet; you can always easily change your logo later.
The beauty of Squarespace or WordPress? You don’t have to spend thousands developing the website.
Which was also part of my early worries and how much it will cost me. With any of these two services, you can use plenty of great templates to build your own website. You can make any changes that you want at any time you want. You don’t depend on anyone. You will learn, that not depending on anyone in any areas of your business has huge advantages. And these websites are optimized for SEO, easy to integrate with Google Analytics, easy to measure traffic and generally easy to run and maintain. From running e-mail marketing campaigns, to measuring Facebook ads effectiveness (easy to add Facebook pixel), Pinterest share button and more.
Understand your business model and write your business plan
Understanding your business model, as well as having different scenarios is key to the survival of your business.
Even if you don’t need a detailed business plan at this stage, at some point through this process, is useful to write one. There is a lot of stuff that you need to account for in a business plan, but it will give you a much more realistic idea on what’s achievable and when, how much money you need for on-going working capital costs and anything else, such as product development, marketing and any expense that you may incur running the business. No business plan is set in stone and no business plan will ever reflect your future reality perfectly, but making it as realistic as possible, will open your eyes to many things, amongst all — the amount of funding required to reach next subsequent stages of your business.
I had a basic business model but didn’t write a proper business plan until much later, when Tribd was already released. I didn’t need one earlier, as I wasn’t borrowing any money, nor raising investment at that stage, but I wrote it with the purpose of raising capital and the process made me realise and reconcile the expectations vs. reality. Life validated it further, so I have revised it many times since.
It’s not the most exciting exercise and certainly it wasn’t exciting for me, but as a founder, knowing your numbers is fundamental.
Write your pitch deck, even if you are not pitching
Writing your pitch deck, even if you are not pitching is useful exercise, as it will force you hard to think why your idea is unique, what problem you are solving, understanding your growth plan, competition, your go to market strategy, your funding needs and beyond. There are many templates out there, and many guidelines. The template by Guy Kawasaki, with only 10 pages and key information to be included is one of the best ones I’ve seen.
And if you haven’t thought about it already, Google the pitch decks of some successful Startups, like Uber, Airbnb and others.
Don’t pay anyone any money for anything you can do
As you embark on this journey, you will soon enough learn that the world of Startups offers an opportunity to lose your hard-earned cash. Quickly. There will be people ready to write you a pitch deck, a business plan, charge you for an event where you meet investors — all three of them… every single time. Yet, instead you will meet a plethora of early stage founders just like you, and so much more. Every opportunity to make you part with your money.
So, even if you are not the best pitch deck creator, or not a number person, or whatever it is that you are not, as you go through this journey, more time and effort you put into mastering all the above, learning about the areas you are not as strong, the better you will be later. Even if it sucks doing it now. With so much information at your fingertips, there will be bigger challenges than your deck or business plan. Money runs quickly, so save your money for things that are critical to survival of your business at these early stages.
Same goes, for paying anyone to publish anything — such as investment platforms, etc. Do your research and think twice before subscribing to any of this. Or subscribe at cheapest tier, if you want to validate the worthiness of that. Don’t get carried away. I’ve been there, done that and most of these platforms, don’t provide the value they claim they do. If you can subscribe to anything for free do it. Put your Startup on CrunchBase, Angel List or free Angel Investment Platforms, but think twice on spending money on any paid subscriptions. It doesn’t mean that investors will start knocking on your door because you are there. Most likely a development company from India will be knocking on your door offering to build you an app. But it’s good for your Startup to be discover-able. Plus, you will be creating back-links to your website
If you use any other service, which requires you to commit to any recurring fees, think twice, if this is absolutely necessary for you at this stage. Or ever. You will soon learn, that there are many recurring fees awaiting you, so try to commit to the ones that are absolutely necessary for your business survival. Many services that you may need, that’d be legal, marketing, or other can nowadays be outsourced on demand basis.
Most Startup events and networking is a waste of time
Not all. But most.
It’s a good experience to do it a few times, just to understand the ecosystem, but think what do you want to get out of it and whether or not you are getting it. Even more so, if you have to pay for the privilege of networking. Who are you meeting in these events? Don’t expect investors queuing to hear your story. Most times, you will meet guys just like you. Embarking on a journey or at very early days of their Startup life.
A good experience is to observe other people pitching, if you have the opportunity. If you ever have to go through a real pitching event yourself, this will show you how difficult is to squeeze your key message into a few minutes slot, what questions are being asked by the panel and learn how others deal with it. It helped me tremendously, when a few months later I stood on a massive stage at British Airways headquarters, presenting Tribd at the Future of Flying competition quarter finals.
User acquisition, retention, marketing, growth
All the above are equally important to the product you are creating, your business model and the future of your business. It’s fundamental to acquire understanding about the above, regardless of the type of venture you are starting.
I’m not an evangelist of strictly following any gurus and I certainly have not mastered the art of marketing and growth hacking just yet, but here are the books I’d recommend to start with: Sean Ellis & Morgan Brown: “Hacking Growth”, Jonah Berger: “Contagious”, Nir Eyal: “Hooked” plus follow Neil Patel on YouTube & LinkedIn, for all things SEO. One day I hope I can afford Neil Patel… Until then I have his tips.
I will write more about marketing and growth for Tribd in my next post!
But, since we are on reading recommendations suddenly, you absolutely should read The Lean Startup by Eric Ries.
Plan A, B and C
Don’t quit your job just yet. You don’t know how the future looks like. There are many ways of creating a successful venture. Not everyone will be a founder of a Unicorn, but also not everyone would want the stress associated with that either. Success can be defined in many different ways and achieving it can also be measured in many different ways. So, would getting to it.
Have workable scenarios, for different realities ahead of you. Maybe you will bootstrap a business, start generating revenue shortly after and may not want to think of diluting your share and capital raising? Maybe a Startup loan could work for you? Or maybe an angel round is all you need?
If you think, that you need venture capital to accelerate the growth, have plan A, B & C, on different scenarios. When it can happen? If it doesn’t happen by certain time-frame, what happens to your business? Assume it won’t happen and have plan B. And plan C. Make sure you have enough money, resources and whatever else is needed to keep your business going until then. And “then” could be as far as another galaxy, hence you need plan A, B and C.
You won’t and can’t do everything
Know your strengths and find others to complement what you need.
Take vacation, time off and whatever time you need to get distance, perspective, new ideas, re-think things and whatever else you need. You have no boss. You are the boss. It’s the journey and not a destination. Also, life is short, enjoy it.
Take with a pinch of salt everything you read on Startups
Including this post. Think how it would apply to your circumstances. There is no “one size fits all” way of doing things, regardless of what anybody with any authority will be telling you and regardless how many books on Startups you have read.
Everyone’s reality is different. Yes, of course there are certain common-sense approaches and you can’t always change how things work. Some things will make sense to you later, even though you may not agree with them initially. There will be things you can’t change too. So, accept it and find your way. Rule number two. Always trust your gut. If something is too good to be true, is because it probably is. Rule number three. If something doesn’t feel right, don’t do it.
Finally — just do it.
There is no coming back after this point. Well, of course there is always coming back. One way or another, it’s your life, your choice.
And if something doesn’t go as planned keep these words in mind:
“Sometimes not getting what you want is a wonderful stroke of luck” — Buddha
If you are interested to read about the next parts of my journey, how we built and launched Tribd, our growth from zero to over 4000 users now actively using the app, what I’ve learned during my trip to Silicon Valley for the Y Combinator Female Founders Conference, British Airways and Founders Forum Pitch on a Plane competition and my experience pitching in semi-finals to the panel of investors at 30,000 feet at 3am, the reality of capital raising in London and other stories and lessons learned, including travel related posts, follow me on Medium.