An underground failure

by the creators of Dojo

This is a story about a failed attempt at building a network to discover micro-communities. Dojo was the first underground ecosystem that empowered powerful opinions, unadulterated content and free thought.

First things first — the code is yours!

Github for iOS: https://github.com/mikezucc/dojo-app

Github for API: https://github.com/mikezucc/dojo-site-api

Website v1: https://github.com/minupal/dojowebv1

Website v2: https://github.com/minupal/dojowebv2

Website v2: https://github.com/minupal/dojowebv2

Conception

The idea was conceptualized June 2014 by Michael and me after my high school graduation. The platform allowed creators to post images, videos, links and texts to groups housing like-minded individuals. These groups were dubbed “Dojos” and recommended them based on your location. It was now effortless to find virtual homes around the world.

v1 of Dojo

Ideation

Development wasn’t easy. We slaved away designing 10 iterations of a UI, writing endless lines of Obj-C, Python, JS in order to finally complete a shippable product. One of our biggest problems was bypassing the hundreds of patents tech heavyweights such as Snapchat and Facebook placed on their newsfeed layouts and camera modules. In hindsight, working around these patents made the development process a bit more adventurous. After 40k lines of code written and 9k commits to Github, the app was ready to be shipped. Version 1.0 was just 3 screens: a page to manage private, public and nearby Dojos, a detail view for pictures and videos, and a unique camera that leveraged slide to detect video and photo. Our priority list was simple: build functional UI, not pretty UI— the camera represented this mission well. To us, the tech that we built was the jungle that users could set to flames with eyebrow-raising content (the kindling).

v2 of Dojo

Launch

We launched at UC Davis in early November. This was a great month to market since most of the fraternities became active and opened doors to all the new students. We were engineers, not marketers — as a result, we had no idea how to sell the product. This was illustrated through our aimless walks on the Davis’s campus, selling Dojo to students who were trying to get socially involved. We would tell them that there was finally a place to post hilarious pranks and hysterical videos.

No, we’re not talking about WorldStar.

Dojo valued content on platforms such as WorldStar but wanted users to be protected and have access to local audiences. These type of genuine relations were unattainable on massive services like Facebook and Twitter.

Growth

So we got our first 40 downloads after that weekend of marketing. It was an exciting time, because we only expected about 10 to 15. People weren’t excited about the application when we showed them the functionality in line — maybe because they were preoccupied by getting into a party.

Among all the communities that downloaded it, the Davis football team was the primary source of traffic. They genuinely enjoyed sharing their dorm life experiences. Whether it was the crazy highlights they recorded from Madden NFL 15 or the vine-like memoirs they captured of their personal life, there was finally a platform for them to casually post random stuff underground. Discovering genuine content based on your locality only made it sweeter.

We saw similar occurrences — small groups of friends who posted to their Dojos just to have something to laugh at or scroll through when they were bored. Although this was our main source of traffic, others used the service to elevate their passion and provide an outlet to share their work. For example, local Saratoga DJ’s created “Real Dubstep Dojo” and posted hundreds of videos and pictures about their upcoming EP to fans, family and friends.

Can you name another service that gives you a personal look into the process and creative-backing that goes into building a track.

Apple Music? Yea — that was released after Dojo was built.

Thus, we understood the model worked with passionate users that gave it a chance

v3 of Dojo

Iterations

The growth was bottle-necked after a few months of activity. We couldn’t troubleshoot specific reasons to why it failed in early Spring. We first thought that it could have been the lack of new users since the same 40 people continuously posting can be a dry experience. This was a contributing factor, but it was primarily because we stopped believing in our core mission.

Instead of focusing on subtle features such as image & video compression or more dynamic graphics, we dedicated our time to pivoting on the overarching idea itself. We tried to hard to fit ourselves into another model. We asked ourselves, “Should we display content similar to Snapchat story? Maybe we should visualize everything on a map? Maybe we need to simplify our flow into one page.”

This was our biggest problem. We aimed our faults at the larger product flaws that most of users hadn’t even thought about. By wasting time building prospective alternatives to Dojo, we didn’t have time to optimize the product on the market.

This sounds stupid right? Why would you build a product and then feel the need to rebuild the whole thing?

Its because everyone is ready to criticize it. They’re going to say its not simple enough or doesn’t look good. UI & UX issues like these will cause you to doubt the quality of the product on the market. But hearing it from not just users, but by teammates & friends often convinces you to re-pivot and rebuild the whole damn thing.

Here is where a little stubbornness and confidence go a long way.

Hiring & Re-launch

The product was ready to be re-launched in a more organized fashion at the beginning of spring quarter. We needed a promo-video, posters, people willing to promote the idea of local underground communities — college provided the perfect untapped source of talent. Unfortunately, finding individuals passionate about the service was near impossible.

Obviously there were those ready to jump on it because they had seen the product. People were ready to jump onto a product that had a lot going for it. Dojo maintained a majority of its users, had a revamped UI and dedicated engineering talent (nearly impossible to find these days).

Everyone on the team felt good about Dojo going into the month of March. We were still losing users daily, but remained optimistic the new marketing talent we hired.

But when it really came down to going out door-to-door and selling it to users, there were only a flurry of excuses.

Answer 1: “The UI isn’t clean. Its too complicated”

Answer 2: “There’s no one on it”

Answer 3: “What makes this different from Facebook, Yik-Yak or Instagram”

The same hustle we had at our first launch in Davis couldn’t be recreated by the marketing hires. The passion and ownership of the idea simply wasn’t there. This only showed us that people were willing to hop on board for the novelty of it — but when expected to work, there would be no response.

From then on, we believed that a great hire stemmed from their willingness to make time for the product and their drive to learn. For niche products such as this one, “your passion for the idea” didn’t really matter to us.

v4 of Dojo

Marketing failure

If a product was unmarketable because of its simplicity, design or uniqueness, Reddit would have difficult to market. Reddit was notorious for hosting the most horse shit on earth. Regardless of the quality of the content, people still managed to find their way back to the site because they knew they wouldn’t be bored. Their interests whether it was League of Legends, viral videos or feel-good stories, would always be satisfied. Reddit inspired the creation of the Dojo — the platform built in the Medford, MA was the first to showcase content first and UI/UX last.

Mission

Dojo wanted to capture this environment, but on a local level. We knew this was going to be powerful if enough people were invested in the idea of an unadulterated medium.

Unfortunately, for the majority of mobile users, its hard to make that leap. Being able to post content regardless of the external pressures has become harder, simply because of the environment day-to-day politics has created. Snapchat has captured this but at the sacrifice of keeping content on display forever. Sure, people like it this way — but now your memories will never be saved.

For us, we wanted to find a balance. We wanted to make sure content wouldn’t be forgotten but also tried to make sure it was underground enough for only certain audiences to see. The in-ability to simulate this was one of many reasons we failed.

Failure @ many turns

We failed in too many ways — Dojo was the very first project that brought on many unanticipated variables. It provided us a peek into how difficult it was to satisfy a single user. For the first time in our lives, we had to not only think for ourselves but think for the rest of the world. Would users like seeing this color, that share button, or 4 separate screens? Every time we took it to the field, the number of issues would increase exponentially. It taught us everything from iterating on an idea to pitching to SV investors.

Understanding how to prioritize features, bugs and design changes was the most difficult part of the product iteration aspect.

❤ Please contribute

We have decided to open source the code, graphics, videos, documents and any other IP that contributed to the creation of Dojo. We believe there is still a platform to be made. Although we will not continue working on the product, we encourage anyone and everyone to continue the mission.

Github for iOS: https://github.com/mikezucc/dojo-app

Github for API: https://github.com/mikezucc/dojo-site-api

Website v1: https://github.com/minupal/dojowebv1

Website v2: https://github.com/minupal/dojowebv2

This was the first of many failures that set the decline for Dojo. In addition to having no clear product vision, we were unclear about the legal roadmap that was required to protect IP and secure small rounds of Angel Funding. In hindsight, applying to small-interest accelerators (anti-YC) would have been the best decision we ever made. Product, engineering, legal and marketing development require an unparalleled amount of time. If you’re not bootstrapping your product and already have the connections to launch, you have the luxury to only focus on building what you love.

Above all, we understand that this is a game of failure — fail & learn, you’ll succeed.

Demo: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uqW92ejxgDM

thanks,

dojo team (Michael, Minu, Kian, Sudeep, Mihir)