Lessons Learned from Past Startups — Alignment with Idea
As I’ve worked on my startup WinOptix, I’ve thought a lot about the mistakes I’ve made in my past startups and how I can avoid making those errors again. So I figured I’d write a few (or many) blog posts about my lessons learned.
The first lesson I’ve learned has to do with how to select an idea or space that you’re properly aligned with.
The mistake — ribl
The first big mistake came on my second attempt at a startup, ribl.
ribl is a location-based messaging app, something like a localized Twitter. We were chasing the SoLoMo trend — Social, Local, Mobile — which should have been a red flag right off the bat.
For apps like these, network effects are super important. The more users you have, the more value your app provides. Think about social networks like Facebook or even the fax machine (if you’re old enough to know what that is). The more users on each platform, the more people you can interact with on the platform or with the tool.
In ribl’s case, the more users we have, the more content would be posted by these users, and the more value new users would get from interacting with this content. And so on and so forth.
So you really need to dedicate a lot of time to growing your user base very quickly to achieve these network effects.
But my co-founders and I were primarily working on growing Thorn Tech, a software development services agency, for our day jobs. Thus, we weren’t fully dedicated to ribl and couldn’t focus enough time to iterating the product and growing the user base.
Even though we built a great mobile application, the business model of ribl was just too dependent on the number of users. We wouldn’t have been able to monetize ribl (with advertising) until it had millions of users, and we couldn’t dedicate enough time nor move fast enough to feed that beast.
Essentially, the idea of ribl wasn’t aligned with our current situation and the amount of time we could dedicate to it.
Applying the lesson learned to WinOptix
After we decided to stop working on ribl, I realized that the next startup I worked on had to really be aligned with my life situation, interests, and expertise.
I’m still working with the guys at Thorn Tech on the agency but we aren’t pursuing a startup together anymore (more on this in a future post). So I’m still in a similar situation where my startup is a side gig, and I don’t have enough time to dedicate to growing a consumer application.
This definitely factored into the industries and products I would pursue and how I decided to work on WinOptix.
WinOptix is a platform for government contractors to make better sales decisions, so I’d be selling to businesses instead of trying to grow a massive consumer user base. I’ll still have to move fast and dedicate a lot of my time to growth, but it’s a much more measured, sales-based approach.
WinOptix also has a clear, revenue-focused business model. It’s a software-as-a-service (SaaS) application where future customers will pay a monthly or annual fee for the software.
So I can monetize with a single customer, as opposed to needing millions of users to start earning revenue.
While getting one customer will still be very tough, this situation is a much better fit with where I am in life. In addition to working on the startup part-time, I’m a bit older with a family, so the consumer app revenue model just doesn’t jive.
Also, the subject matter of WinOptix is more aligned with my strengths. WinOptix is a sales, business development, and analytics tool, three subjects that I’ve been intimate with for all of my career. And even though I haven’t worked in government contracting, I’ve been able to understand the industry and identify problems through over 40 customer development interviews with experts in the field.
Overall, WinOptix is a completely different business that fits my situation much better than ribl ever did.
The alignment of your idea with your life situation, interests, and expertise is extremely important.
I’m not saying that your idea needs to perfectly match all aspects of your life and career. If you find a problem that you’re super passionate about that doesn’t quite align but you think you can make it work, by all means get at it.
But I’ve made this mistake, and this lack of alignment was one of the primary reasons why ribl failed. If we had the foresight to see this misalignment, we may have been able to use that time and effort on a concept that fit us better.
The next time you’re thinking of an idea or space to pursue, consider the alignment of that idea with your current work and life situation.
What are your thoughts on alignment of the idea with your situation? I’d love to hear what you think in the comments.