This is a personal essay reflecting the progress I’ve made on my life that I’m sharing with close friends and family to help bootstrap capital (between $5K and $10K) for my startup, Nanolens. If you’d like to understand why we’re bootstrapping, skip to TLDR; Game Plan for 2020 — thanks in advance for reading.
Things Start Earlier Than You Think
In January 2016, I received an email from Parse, a BAAS (Backend as a Service I used to use to manage our server and database), notifying us that they’d be discontinuing their services. (My theory is that Facebook shut down Parse because it enabled developers to build mobile products insanely quickly, threatening Facebook’s market share.)
That night I cried, and I’ve got a friend as a witness. It felt as though all the work I put into building something was crumbling down. Looking back, this was naive for two reasons:
- I misread that it would shut down in January 2017 (the next year).
- It was relatively simple to migrate your data from Parse to supported infrastructure providers such as AWS.
Looking back at it now, this was a matter of fear — fear of not knowing what I didn’t know. Now, I’m able to spin up a production-ready database, server, and API client with Parse (or frankly, any other tool that’s open-sourced) on AWS or Heroku in less than 24 hours.
For the past few years, I’ve started 4 startups (2 of which were started with a cofounder), while attending university and working at both large and small companies. Each year, I had the opportunity to meet interesting and brilliant people who’ve molded my thinking in progressive and regressive ways. And, it turns out that each year, I developed skills I was previously resistant to explore. Here are some key takeaways:
I learned to code, build a product, and iterate. I also learned how to collect feedback (although I didn’t analyze it thoroughly enough). I learned the mechanics of how network effects “work” and I also learned about networking with people. The key takeaway? You can’t market a shitty product.
When I built Capsule, I learned how to use analytics, UI, and UX design. I learned the importance of defining metrics or KPIs that define the progress of your company’s growth (.e.g, AirBnb’s metric might be the number of nights booked, Postmates might be the number of transactions over a period of time, etc.).
When I was building Bucket, I learned about market analysis, founder market fit, people picking and operations. 2018 was the most important year for me because I learned how to work better and collaborate with others.
In the context of starting a company, depending on the complexity and nature of what you’re working on with others, I realized I cannot work with someone I know I’m not compatible with. If your heart’s not in it, then there’s no real reason to prolong what you’re building with someone else — it’s just disrespectful to you and the other party (or parties) involved. And if you have the sociopathic tendency to “fake” your agreeableness with your partners, you’re killing a part of your soul.
I also worked at both a startup and a large company in 2018 and learned a lot about how to do things more efficiently as an operator. The key takeaway? UX is imperative. If you’re going to build something make sure you’re working on a relatively “intense” problem where the solution can be used frequently. Lastly, pick who you work with wisely.
Last year, I launched Nanolens and managed to generate a decent amount of interest when it got featured in Product Hunt’s newsletter and AMC Networks had invited us to be on their morning program (we declined). However, when classes started in September, I couldn’t do much, chiefly due to a poor allocation of time management. But then again, I really had to get my shit together because my GPA was tanking (2.0 — I’m a CS Major).
After graduating from YC’s Summer 2019 Startup School, I realized how effective their program was. Every Thursday, I’d be assigned to groups with other founders and share our progress, roadblocks, etc. and discuss how we plan to solve specific problems. And every Sunday, I had to submit an update on the progress of my company predicated on our KPIs such as the n number of new users or the n number of users we talked to. Afterward, these metrics would display a linear graph that quite frankly would portray whether you’d be doing a shitty job as a founder or a great job as a founder.
Looking back on 2019 now, I’ve developed a more intuitive understanding of a product’s essence and whether it’s truly unique or not. Interestingly enough, I learned that when you’re interviewing users about your product, you’ve got to lead your interviews with “tell me more about [relevant context].” Getting your users to talk about their daily life, their passions, their frustrations reveals much more insight as opposed to asking questions such as “Do you like [insert new feature] or not?”
The key takeaway? Ask better questions for user interviews (and obviously focus on the problem and not the solution) and maintain the discipline of reviewing your progress frequently.
TLDR; Game Plan for 2020
With the first week of 2020 nearing an end, I’ve decided to write this essay in the hopes you contribute your dollars to invest in Nanolens.
When it comes down to it, I realized that my primary source of motivation to start startups wasn’t because I wanted to make money (although it’s the axis on which starting a company is predicated on). It’s because I want to make a difference.
In 2019, I began “experimenting” with what it’s like to raise venture capital. I reached out to investors I met over the last 3 years and cold-emailed several new investors just to see how they’d respond (unfortunately, when classes got harder, I had to stop).
Lately, I’ve been thinking about “where” capital fits in my philosophy for running a startup. Depending on the context, one can usually raise VC money or bootstrap with net-profits from their revenues. For me, I prefer raising capital only when some sort of tangible result is present — unless the terms of financing are favorable towards the founder, especially during pre-seed/seed stages. Now, I’m bootstrapping capital to attempt to pay for the following expenses of Nanolens. Here’s why we need capital in priority order:
- AWS Servers: We’ve been paying $0 for the past 5 months and this is because we’ve been living off of credits.
- Dissolution of an NJ LLC (Nanolens is currently released under an LLC instead of the Nanogram, Inc. which will be a problem in the future regarding taxes and the App Store — we need to dissolve it ASAP).
- Purchase of stock. I basically incorporated about $250 of my own capital to incorporate Nanogram, Inc. but have no stock in it (lol).
- Hiring: We’d like to hire a proficient engineer who can make some of our stuff better. Specifically, for example, if you share multiple photos about your dog, the next time someone else using Nanolens takes a photo of your dog, it should be able to identify it as your dog, not the relative breed of the dog.
- Purchase of Tools/Services: For the past 5 months, we’ve been paying $0 for servers, email CRMs, databases, analytics tools, and more because we chose the right tools that can do its job well and for free. But, we’d like to grow our community and we think the most effective way to go about this is by purchasing tools to help us grow, (not spend money on Ads).
Our mission is to “decentralize” the identification of images through social interactions and we think our goal of raising $5K — 10K by the end of March 2020 will help us get there. If you’d like a slide deck before contributing, feel free to send me an email via email@example.com and I’ll be happy to share it with you (some aspects may be redacted). I’ll also add you to an email list to update you on our progress on how the capital’s used on a monthly basis.
Thank you so much for reading up to here. If you’d like to check out our app use the invite-code BOOTSP to make an account (https://www.nanolens.co).
Downloads are currently processed via Venmo or Paypal (until we find a better way to do this):
- PayPal Email: firstname.lastname@example.org
- Venmo: https://venmo.com/joshuamchoi