How To Get Started in Technology— Part 1

A non-technical story from zero to minus one

Everyone starts out wanting to make something bad. You don’t realise it at first, in fact quite the opposite. You think it could be massive. Maybe the next Facebook, or at least Snapchat. But after an indefinite amount of time, for some days, others months, you have a eureka moment and realise that people don’t actually want whatever it is. Not long after this you realise that you don’t even want whatever it is, you never did, it was a bad idea.

I wanted to build a Tinder for friends. I missed the original craze with Tinder because I was living in China at the time. Although the Communist Party didn’t block it, no one used it. My closest ever match was 2,000 miles away and distance did not make the heart grow fonder. Instead the Chinese used 陌陌, or Momo, which was deemed the ultimate booty call app, much like I later learnt Tinder was.

The seed idea

Fast forward 1 year and I’m flying to Japan for the first time, using the aircraft’s in-flight entertainment system as a way to learn the language. When I land I quickly realise my new phrases will not be enough. How will I meet people? Who will I hang out with?

Why not try Tinder one more time? When I open the app in Tokyo I suddenly see hundreds of young urbanites in my area. Matching is easy and before I know it I’m having fascinating conversations with locals, who speak English, and who want to share their recommendations with me. Hidden restaurants, hipster coffee shops, retro arcades and crazy bars. Much of their advice shaped my time in Tokyo.

She didn’t accept

Soon enough I was the one giving the advice and my most successful date came after I recommended this cafe in Tokyo’s Ginza district to someone. Some people I chatted to for 6 months without expecting to meet. Some I still chat to today, 18 months on, having never met. Others I did meet and we’re still good friends 😉

The opportunity

New ideas come about when existing concepts are brought together in new ways. Existing concepts could be anything, like gelatin and water, or taxis and smartphones. These combinations give us jelly, which is tasty, and Uber, which is really convenient.

When you get a new idea you think it could be massive. You think you’re the first person to have it and it’s scale could change your life. It’s hugely empowering but its potential is terrifying. You’ve discovered the path to success, but the route includes Takeshi’s Castle and Total Wipeout. You definitely could become a billionaire if you wanted but wonder if it’s worth it. It would be so much effort. What if I don’t actually want to become a billionaire? This is the feeling of having a new idea.

Ironically this feeling is never the result of knowing exactly what the idea is, but simply asking the question in the first place. What if I combined Tinder and friends? What if? Anyone can become the next Bill Gates or Steve Jobs by asking a rhetorical question, inside their head.

So here was my rhetorical question: what if you combined Tinder and friends? Think about it. It’s Tinder but instead of using it to find sex, you use it to find friends. Why would you want to do that? For the reasons why it improved my life in Tokyo. To meet new people, to learn new things, and to open the door to life-enriching friendships.

Tinder for friends

In many ways Tinder was already showing signs of this trend. In 2015 users started adding the description “looking for friends” or “not DTF” to their profiles in an attempt to ward off sex pests. Positive stories were also emerging such as this guy who used Tinder to hitchhike across North America.

At the same time popular culture began to reflect on the internet’s ability to keep us apart. Instead of meeting up in real life, people now hang out separately infront of screens. Videos touching this nerve went viral, like this spoken word film and the more lighthearted commercial below.

The pitch

Starting out is the hardest part. What makes it so hard? It’s not knowing what to do. You can sit down with a pen and paper and say OK let’s do this, but then what? What do you do next?

In most areas in life you know what’s expected of you and you perform accordingly. You can bounce off the walls from time to time, picking up a detention in school or a warning at work, but really you always know what you’re doing. This is different when starting on your own because you’re free from example and leadership. By definition no one has done it quite like you before and there’s no one showing you the way. You’re on your own and you don’t know what you’re doing.

But rest assured. Whilst it is hard to know what to do at the beginning, the secret is that no one else knows what to do either. The only solution to this is to simply do something, anything. The most successful people in life regularly say they don’t know what they’re doing or that they don’t know how got there. The only difference between you and them is that they just did it anyway. You just need some courage to take one small step after another without necessarily knowing the end goal.

I started by deciding to present my idea to someone. I figured I’d get feedback from them and quickly learn if I should pursue it or not. So the very first thing I did was create a 10-page presentation in PowerPoint. Yes, my first ever smartphone app was mocked up in Microsoft PowerPoint as you can see below.

First mockup made in PowerPoint

I showed it to my family and they loved it (thanks Mum & Dad) and encouraged me to test it with it’s target market. The next morning I posted it in the London Couchsurfing forum and started reconnecting with all my old Tinder matches. Transferring a presentation is not possible on Tinder so I had to ask for their email addresses. It meant revealing who was behind the mysterious Tinder profile but everyone I asked was happy to provide.

The response on Couchsurfing was overwhelming and it generated lots of requests to help out or ‘meetup’. In hindsight I should have known that all couchsurfers ever want to do is ‘meetup’, but the interest was positive. My old Tinder matches all got back, some at great lengths, offering feedback and confirmation that they’d ‘definitely use it’.

As a result it was time to build a Launchrock page because you know what, something BIG is coming!

Second mockup made in Photoshop Elements

Eureka

The next step is to dive deeper into the target market and test if there really is demand for your product. Get rid of the vanity support and confirmation bias and prove that the problem is real.

Successful entrepreneurs say they see too many “solutions in search of problems instead of problems in search of solutions.” The point being that more and more startups build things that no one wants. If there is one rule that you cannot break in entrepreneurship this is it. It doesn’t matter what you or your team think is a good idea, but it’s of crucial importance what your customers or users think is a good idea. Without them you have nothing.

Using this approach I extended my research to couchsurfers visiting London for the first time. If I could find what their pain points were I could better understand if my app idea solved a real problem.

Does this solve a real problem?

Having hid around the edges of couchsurfing.com for many years I finally decided to dive in and list my couch online to strangers for free. In case you’re unfamiliar with Couchsurfing, the reason why it works so well is because only a very specific type of person is prepared to let a stranger crash in their house, and similarly only a very specific kind of person is prepared to crash in a stranger’s house. Their shared mindset creates a bond of trust and the host’s generosity is often the start of lifelong friendships.

24 hours later I receive a request from a Polish boy with a no-nonsense message. I have a quick scan of his profile and despite him not having any reviews I accept him because I don’t have any either. We agree to a time and location to meet and I become fascinated by the experience ahead. Who will he be and what will he be like? Will he be nice? It’s exhilarating to commit to a stranger staying in your house because you have to get along. You have no choice because you’ll be living in a confined space together with nowhere to hide. Not even your closest friends see this.

5 minutes after meeting and I’m getting on better with this stranger than many of my friends. We exchange stories about travel, university and startups with a shared mindset. We move on to work and I can’t believe my luck when he says he’s a mobile app developer. It turns out he listed this on his profile but I missed it.

Convinced the stars are aligning I hurry into my idea of a Tinder for friends and to my astonishment he explains that he’s already made it. It’s an app called Gulliver that enables backpackers to meet up spontaneously. I’m dumbfounded. Of all the people I could meet what are the chances of meeting someone who’s already built a similar app, and who’s staying in my house?

We talk for hours about Gulliver, the research behind it, the launch and the lessons. It turns out it’s been more difficult than I could have imagined. Despite the backing of several hostels in Berlin at launch, users have not flocked to it or got much value from it.

Undeterred my new friend invites me to a startup event later that evening that he had planned to attend. Maybe I could meet more people and get new ideas there? It is an interesting event with three successful entrepreneurs explaining their stories. At the end of the evening the host unexpectedly turns to the audience and asks if anyone would like to come up on stage and pitch their idea to the panel and 100 or so people in attendance. Destiny lifts my hand in the air.

My pitch goes well and although the audience like it, the panel are lukewarm and give it 4/10. Afterwards many people come up to me to talk. The first person is a Brit who had spent a year in Atlanta. He explained how he had used OK Cupid’s app to find friends around him. Despite his platonic intentions in Atlanta he did express doubts that a Tinder for friends app could avoid becoming yet another hookup app.

Next an Italian living in London comes up and says that although he likes the idea, he has found meeting friends online to be far less convenient than simply meeting people at a bar. It’s funny but I’d never thought of that before. The best way to meet people might be simply to go out to a bar. A bar connects people offline around similar-ish interests. He goes on to say that “just because I like beer and watching football doesn’t mean I want to meet up with a stranger who likes drinking beer and watching football.”

Shit, I begin to realise that Tinder for friends might be a bad idea.

After walking out of the venue an investor from the audience comes up and without asking lists the flaws in my idea. Whilst not ruling out the possibility of a pivot he leaves me with a piece of advice that should not be taken lightly. “People are motivated by sex, convenience and money.” If your idea does not satisfy one of those it is unlikely to appeal to anyone.

A week later and I decide to check out a museum in London. On the bus there I imagine myself using a Tinder for friends app to see if anyone wanted to join me. When I imagined a beautiful girl joining me I thought the app would be potentially life changing. When I imagined a random guy joining I thought fuck that no way. The penny dropped, it was a bad idea. No one wants to meet online just to be friends. People do want to meet online for sex, but there are plenty of apps out there already that do that really well.

I had fallen into the trap of every first time founder. I was smitten by the fallacy of thinking I had good idea before I tested it with the market. I originally thought ‘if only people could see it from my point of view’. But that’s the mistake. Your point of view is not the customer’s, and the customer is king.

Wishful thinking

Please follow if you enjoyed this story and stay tuned for part 2 where I build my first real app on iOS and Android.

N.B. Subsequently Couchsurfing introduced Hangouts and Tinder introduced Social — two apps similar to Tinder for friends. Time will tell how they work out.