1000 Days Of Building Our First Company.
The rise and fall of Epiclist.
“That’s it. It’s over.”
Writing this story and reflecting everything what had happened in the last 3 years was a strange mixture of sadness, greatness and deep gratitude. Our startup became our life during these years and we have never imagined how intense this life period would become.
Being here after roughly 1000 days of building Epiclist out of 4 countries (Estonia, Indonesia, Germany and Chile), working many long nights through, pitching on dozens of conferences, moving from city to city across the planet, pitching hundreds of investors, being broke, burned out, winning many new friends, losing several old friends, thousands of emotional ups and downs, going from a piece of paper to one of the “Best New Apps” on the App Store, cheered in blogs and newspapers, running out of money and failing to find a business model, … we will not build Epiclist any further.
We owe it to all the supporters and to the Epiclist community to share our journey and our lessons learned along the way, staying true to our believe of “Create more value than you capture.” — Tim O’Reilly’s mantra.
We learned what it is like to be Entrepreneurs. We learned how to turn ideas into working products. We got to know what other founders mean when they talk about this emotional roller coaster. Even if we did not succeed by the end, we have grown personally and professionally. All of it because of the people who have supported us along the way. We are so grateful to every single one of them!
And hey, we have built a pretty awesome product! We still love it every time we use it to discover new trips and destinations. People still tell us how Epiclist helped them to discover completely new experiences around the world and gather deep insights for their travel plans. Our users have taken our app to capture their trips in Patagonia, China, Australia, New Zealand and all over Europe.
People have contributed and shared their experience of climbing Mt. Everest, kayaking in Greenland, road tripping across Australia, surfing in Costa Rica, walking across India, sailing in the Pacific, Bedouin living in Jordan, as well as supporting local communities in Uganda, Indonesia and China, allowing thousands of people to experience this journeys along the way!
We did lots of things right and lots of things wrong. Many times during this 1000 days. Looking back, it have been some of the most challenging and rewarding 3 years in our lives!
Why all of it did not work out? By the end, we were not able to reach the product-market fit and build a sustainable business model, so our company run out of money and we could not find additional investment. We have built a good product, but it became a vitamin instead of becoming a painkiller.
Travel is a highly competitive space and only few companies are able to grow big, while others fade away. It is faced with very complicated market dynamics and highly segmented customer groups, so positioning is key to survive. Having a great product does not guarantee a successful profitable business. We have been very lucky to find our investors, who have supported us all along the way to give a shot in this market. To give our best to create our product. It is only thanks to them we were able to get that far.
If you are curious in how we began as clueless founders to grow and build a funded company, creating over 100 strategic partnerships with other businesses, designing a powerful product with tens of thousands of users, building a global community, and screwing up by the end, I will now try to give our best to share our story and lessons learned in this post.
Part 1: Becoming the Wise Guys.
In the beginning, it was just two of us. Me and Olga. An engaged couple, without a clue how exactly our business should work. Both of us knew why we wanted to build it: To help people achieve their personal heights, pursuing their dreams and goals. Being travelers ourselves, we especially met so many people who wanted to travel more, but simply did not do it. Experiencing some of the best life moments while traveling, we dreamed to inspire more people to pursue these moments as well.
Being fresh out of university with a business degree, neither me or Olga were able to code or design, so we started to look for a technical co-founder. Our first CTO was willing to start creating the first product together with us in his spare time, until we find some investment to pay the bills and work on this full-time.
Starting up without any experience, we began to look out for programs to get mentorship and guidance. Research done. Pitch done. Video done. Applications out. A couple of weeks later we got into the finals of the StartupWiseGuys accelerator in Estonia.
“Hell yeah we got excited about this!”
Our savings ran out very fast and we used our last money to buy flight tickets to Estonia (thanks RyanAir), pitched our vision to the WiseGuys and got accepted into the program.
Estonia, here we come! We quickly moved our stuff in a station wagon to leave them in the basement of our CTO and several days later all 3 of us stepped into the cold Estonian spring to start working in the WiseGuys office space in Tallinn.
Lesson learned: Build your values. Your “Why” will become the drive for your company. Why do you want to solve this problem? Why are you going to be different and unique? If you figure this out for yourself, being able to share it with others, people will support and help you.
We were the most inexperienced team with no existing traction, so we pushed lots of late night working sessions, mixed up with coffee and lots of fast-food, and quickly burned all of our energy. On top of this my credit card failed and we could not pay our rent. Our landlord got so pissed that he wanted to kick us out and call his brother to beat us up (no kidding).
Lesson learned (in general): Never promise something you can’t keep up to. Promise less and deliver more and better.
After about 6 weeks, we have launched the first version of Epiclist and started to gain some traction. The press picked it up and we got featured in Silicon Allee (thanks Dave!), VentureBeat and VentureVillage. Coming closer to the finals in London, we worked for several weeks on our pitch (thanks Jon and Mike) and went all in to sell our vision to more investors.
Being honest with ourselves it was not a big surprise. A product idea which already failed by others a dozen times. Just couple of thousands users. A lack of engagement in the user base. A team without any experience. No proof for the business model. There has been no way we could raise more money with these facts on the table. We needed to change things. Fast.
Then something came very unexpected. I still know exactly how it felt when our CTO told us about his leaving and we were just standing there exactly in the same position as a couple of months before! Of course it was understandable, given our situation. There was a mixture of being desperate and extremely confused about the next steps. We went back home and did not know what to do. We were screwed.
Lessons learned: Your team is your most important asset. Make sure you align diverse minds and skill-sets, who are sharing the same vision, the same values, the same drive to build what you want to build and why you want to build it. Even if your idea changes, your vision and your beliefs will keep you together.
Part 2: Racing with the turtle.
Still, me and Olga were convinced in ourselves. We can’t give up now. There were people who supported us, invested their money and time, and believed in us (thanks Andrey, Andris and Thom). Heck, we just got started! We asked our parents to loan us some cash to survive and found a new co-working space, Betahaus, in Berlin to focus on progress.
We didn’t have anyone to design, so we have decided to do the visual design ourselves. I looked into all of my favorite apps and started to design the new Epiclist app from scratch with Keynote with Keynotopia. Several weeks later we linked up screens out of Keynote to an interactive dummy-prototype using InVision (our obsolutely favorite rapid prototyping tool today).
Having this simple prototype, we started to do one of the most important things every startups needs to do. We talked to our users. We started to look for validation before building something. Looking back, we asked many wrong questions, which lead to false signals. Would you use it? Would you like this feature? So, this feature is really good, right? Wrong. Wrong. Wrong.
Lessons learned: Customer development interviews are essential, but tricky. Asking the wrong questions is easy, asking the right ones is essential.
Still, we got so excited that we mocked up every possible user scenario in the app. We posted the mockups on Angellist, messaged designers and developers and got many responses from people wanting to help us building the new Epiclist!
Lessons learned: There are many ways to find your team. Look outside the box (new platforms, events, meetups, etc.). There are people who share your passion, you just need to find and unite them.
By November we found people to help us part-time. Alex, an amazing young designer from France, jumped on board to redesign the app and the homepage. Illya, a super-driven developer living in Italy, started to write the first lines of code for the new iOS app.
The progress was slow. Very slow. Since the new team worked with us in their spare time, we simply could not move faster. While our friends launched their products, built new features, received new funding, we felt like the lonely turtle swimming sleepy in the ocean full of sharks.
Still, step by step, the new Epiclist mobile app started to take shape. Thanks to our friend Emil, we were able to work for free in his co-working space, while hustling to get investment and the product out.
Things started to move faster and by April we had our first angel investment commitment on the table. Just two weeks later, we had a second commitment. Boooom!
A few weeks later, we received more amazing news: we had been accepted into the StartupChile program. As we looked for further team support, Gaurav joined the team from London work on the back-end architecture and technical strategy. Looking for a new iOS developer on Angellist, Ignacio joined us a the new lead designer and front-end of Epiclist in August. Allison, from US, and Lauren, from France, joined our team as interns here in our Santiago office by October and November.
Finally, all 6 of us got together here in Santiago de Chile from all different parts of the planet, closing a $US 200.000 financial round. By this time, we worked for a whole year without any salary, but now we were super thrilled to have a kick-ass team, working forward to launch Epiclist worldwide together.
Read on Medium: The New Epiclist.
Why travel and activity discovery are broken and how we are going to re-imagine it.
Part 3: Starting all over again.
Having everyone together and on the table, we decided to rethink our mission. We need to focus, or otherwise being stuck with a ‘fluffy’ product value proposition. “If You Want to Follow Your Dreams, You’ll Have to Choose a Focus”, as Oliver Emberton writes: “Most people aren’t failing because of their potential. They’re failing because their potential is spread in too many directions.”
Observing the user behaviour we have realised that there is no community feeling in the app. People simply did not share a common interest to create networks with new people they did not know, because everyone had different personal goals in mind (from running a marathon to climbing everest to mastering guitar or cooking skills). We weren’t able to focus ourselves on one direction, let alone focus our users on achieving their dreams.
“Why are we doing this?”
Our ‘Why’ from the beginning was a passion for travel and exploring the world. As we analysed the user behaviour from the first version of Epiclist, we saw that over 70% of them were already creating and sharing ‘travel’ and ‘adventure” oriented goals.
We decided to take a big step and focus on something we ourselves and our users were most passionate about: Adventure and travel. Even this direction was a wide focus, it helped to define and simplify all of the processes, while helping our community to discover and share unique travel experiences on the go, right from their Epiclist app.
Lessons learned: “The greatest challenge to any thinker [designer] is stating the problem in a way that will allow a solution.” — Bertrand Russell.
Since focusing on tours and activities in August 2013, we have been moving Epiclist miles and miles forward. We have built an advanced product, which is very simple and at the same time stunning to use. We have partnered with over hundred small and big adventure tour providers, allowing users to explore over 300 bookable activities and add them to their trip plans or send a booking request straight away — our business model has evolved as well, as we aimed to unite user generated content and mobile commerce. No one has nailed it right, so we were confident to build something truly amazing here!
Read more: Designing Epiclist from research to launch. The Case Study.
We have celebrated progress with team dinners and drinks and took our whole team on weekend getaways to the mountains around Santiago. Creating an overall team culture with strong interest for the outdoors and understanding for beauty of travel was something we really wanted to achieve. Brett Martin from Sonar puts its very well: “Culture is your cofounder”. Everyone at Epiclist worked hard to move our product forward, and we are truly thankful to everyone from the team for this commitment!
Part 4: New launch. New hunt.
In January 2014 we launched the new Epiclist for iPhone, instantly being featured in several categories in the App Store, incl. ‘The Best New Apps’. By the end of the first week, we had over 10.000 users! Every time we updated the news feed, we would see tons of new activity! It felt just amazing to see thousands of users to use the product we have put so much energy in.
Olga sent personal emails to thousands of users, welcoming them to Epiclist and gathering their feedback. During the next months we have shipped new updates, simplifying and improving the user experience. Many loyal users later became friends and ambassadors (thanks to all of you guys!). Our Facebook groups started to take off to connect people together to do adventures, organised by Ambassadors in the Bay Area (thanks Brice and Gina!) and Santiago de Chile.
Lessons learned: Get out there! We all strive to make our products look and feel perfect! Simple truth is, it’s never perfect! To build something truly great, you have to get it in front of the people. Only then you can understand the gaps in your product and lacks in your business. Jump into the cold. Release. Gather feedback. Improve. Repeat.
All of us worked 6–7 days a week, 10–15h per day. Getting ready for our next funding round, we have scheduled over 100 meetings and calls in the period of the next 3 months. Within the next weeks, I would fly to London from Berlin for 4–5 days, speak to 3–4 investors every day, pitch with the biggest passion and drive I could pull up to, sleep on my friends couches (thanks Sam and Mike) in my sleeping bag, get up, grab a coffee, look nice and give my 100% selling skills again, more meetings, fly back to Berlin, sleep on another friends couch (thanks Michael), more meetings, more skype calls, more coffees and so on.
Email after email we saw the VC feedback going in, mentioning the worries for the challenges in the travel market: “We really love the product and your team, but we need to see more traction as we are not ready for this commitment yet…”. First negative responses were painful, but we have also started to understand the feedback. We could have raised less with another angel round, but we knew we would need to go all-in or nothing.
Especially in travel, there are so many entrepreneurs driven by a big vision, strong passion and good will, but much of that passion felt gone when we chatted with this founders and investors. So many startups who have failed, so much investment money lost. The reality of running a travel startup is very different from being a traveler or having a passion for active or adventurous lifestyle. And investors know it very well, even if they share that passion.
There are many reasons, but in my opinion we could not raise a new funding round, because we did not nail this 3 things:
- Not enough traction (lack in the product-market fit)
- Lack of unique positioning in a highly competitive market
- Difficult business model in a difficult market (B2B2C)
Lessons learned: We have spent too much time hunting VCs. Our job was not to hunt for investors. Our job was to create an outstanding company and reach the product-market fit. Nailing this right, investor would hunt us.
In the same, we have started to face more challenges in the core product experience. Our product was designed to solve 3 different problems for 3 different user groups and it became very challenging to focus on all of them.
Read on Medium: Lessons learned from 300 investor pitches.
And we started to face all the challenges that travel entrepreneurs warned us about. Many users loved the app, but only used it when they planned their own trips, instead of following other travelers on their journeys and being engaged in their process. This resulted in decreasing monthly activity and we had many users coming back in every 3–4 months. Too many users planned trips too far ahead. We started to have fragmented user groups, with different preferences and expectations towards the product.
Lessons learned: Learn to say ‘no’. The main thing is to keep the main thing the main thing. Focus on 1 concrete problem to solve. Focus on 1 core use case. Focus on 1 target group. Focus on 1 business model. Focus on your hypothesis and test it brutally as fast as you can. If your focus does not work, choose the next focus and test it again. Always remember: Your start-up life time is limited.
On top of the existing problems, our product architect and back-end developer decided to leave the team. There were many discussions and emotions involved. It happened so spontaneous and so fast, just from one week to another. We have lost another member of the team and it hurt deeply.
Coming back without any positive results from fundraising, our designer and iOS developer informed about about him accepting a new job position as well. He needed a constant salary to provide for his family and could not work with us without any payment. We were happy for his new job. It was understandable, but it was still a shock for me and Olga. I spent the rest of the day in fear and hopelessness. Once again.
It was not their fault, it was the founders fault. We steered the company here and we had to deal with it. Once again, me and Olga sat down in quiet, without saying anything. We did not know what to say. We did know what to do. From all of set backs, losing team members was the most frustrating thing ever happened.
Lessons learned: Keep everything transparent in your team. Make sure you talk about your feelings, fears, motivations, achievements and frustrations. The longer you keep the inner voice silent, the harder things become to change.
Part 5: The last chapter.
In June 2014, we traveled to San Francisco to meet new investors and partners. We met many people who had already used Epiclist for months and who were excited about our progress. We came back to Germany with new energy and hired freelancers to help us with new features (thanks Tito!). And we did our best to create new business partnerships, aiming to generate additional revenue to keep us floating.
Lessons learned: Understand your market dynamics. Study your market history. Why did certain companies rise and fail? How did successful companies get started? What is lacking in the market and why now is the right timing to fix it (new technology adoption, behaviour change, etc.)
Sadly, we underestimated the long sales cycles in the B2B space. When we got to the point of closing the first deals, it was already too late and our finances were too short to keep building. We have built a good product, but we have been still far away from creating a great business.
Talking to our investors and saying that we cant pull it off was one of the toughest conversations in my life.
I felt miserable saying that we dont see any other way. My job was to fix the problems and create new solutions. Me and Olga always did that. Being the marketer, the designer, the product person, the salesmen, the recruiter, the HR person, the accountant; it did not matter, we always were able to find a way to solve a problem.
Not seeing any other way to solve our problems meant that I failed. Not the startup failed, but I failed. We could still pivot, change everything, and see if it works. Start everything from scratch again. However, we simply did not have enough energy to pull this off. For the biggest part of the last 1000 days, only our energy and drive kept us both moving.
Somehow we knew that it was over. This summer me and Olga moved back to my mom’s place, trying to save the last money to run the company, paying freelancers, services and servers. Moving out from my parents in the age of 19 and moving back in at 27 felt really bad, but this was the only thing we could do. At least, my mom was glad to spend some time with me, after I did rarely talk to her and other family members during the last 3 years.
Lesson learned: We truly believe in storytelling, but we don’t see a working long-term business here. At least not yet. Without a working business model, we can not create a sustainable company.
With the latest update we made sure to create a feature enabling our users to export their created and planned trips in .PDF files. Thankfully, there are many great startups out there working on a similar mission that you can join to keep your Epiclist stories alive. Check out Maptia, Exposure and Storehouse, as all of them have built incredible products for exploring and storytelling. In fact, this story was inspired by Maptia’s “10 things we believe after 1000 days of building Maptia”
Last lesson learned: There is a fine balance between seeking and taking advice. Surround yourself with smart people, who share your passion. Ask your mentors all the questions you don’t want to hear the answers for. But, remember to trust your guts. It’s your job to be innovative. It’s your job to be remarkable. It’s your job to lead your company into the future!
For us, the Epiclist journey ends here. It was our first company and I am sure it’s not our last startup. And I am sure that we will take all the lessons learned into the next adventure, that is going to be even more epic! You can follow our new projects on my website and on twitter @stanreim and @olgareimgen
We will continue doing what we love now, which is creating amazing products and creating remarkable stories about amazing people. We will continue curating the Becoming Heroes series. The medium we use might be different, but we follow our passion to explore the world and share our discoveries via stories, movies and photography.
We are deeply thankful to everyone, who supported us to create this first company. We have built it together and without you we would never make it that far. We are very proud of what we all together achieved with Epiclist, as we discovered thousands of amazing destinations and we will make sure to go and explore many of this great places sometimes for sure! Maybe even together with some of you?
We did not have many resources and we still achieved quite a lot! We hope that all of you have enjoyed using Epiclist and being a part of it. If you are reading this and we can support you and your team anyhow, just reach out to email@example.com or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Thanks to all of our incredible users, investors (Gary, Ralph and the WiseGuys) and mentors (especially to Floris, Dirk, Thom, Ravi, Anar and Andrey), and so many others who helped with advice and time!
Huge thanks to all Epiclist Heroes, especially to Matt Prior, Dave Cornthwaite, Al Humphreys, Brendan van Son, Charli Moore, Deb and Dave, Dan and Casey, Clinton Lewis, Emily Penn, Susi Mai, and many many others!
And a big big thank you to our business partners, Intrepid, Urban Adventures, Arctic Adventures and LUEX, Raquel London and Billy Morales.
Thank you all for being part of this story! Remember: Life is an adventure. Keep exploring, keep discovering!
Stan & Olga