How we went from “let’s solve this” to our first paid customer - all during 2018 YC Startup School

“Do Something Great neon sign” by Clark Tibbs on Unsplash

Getting accepted to the 2018 Startup School program was a thrilling experience! Getting the ‘oops we made a mistake’ email followed by the ‘our bad, we’ll accept everyone’ made it all a fun roller coaster of emotions. As the first few weeks of Startup School began, we had a couple more surprises in store…

During the first Startup School group session, I mentioned to our group that instead of our original startup idea, my co-founder and I were thinking of a completely different idea to explore and that we were going to discuss it more before bringing it to the group to get their feedback.

When the second group session came around, I once again told the group we were pivoting to another idea… But, that this time, I was serious about what we were doing! I am confident everyone’s eyes were probably rolling and that they were thinking I have issues sticking with any one idea.

Four weeks later we launched and landed our first customer for our product, Dawfin, with 3 weeks left of Startup School to spare.

This is how we were able to do it:

Have an awesome co-founder relationship

If you’re in Startup School, you’ve heard it over and over how important the co-founder relationship is. And, it’s true! Ashok, my co-founder, and I have completely different skill-sets that come together to form the collective set of various skills required to ideate, plan, build, and iterate forward towards something truly valued by our customers and users.

More importantly, we get along very well and love to build on top of each other’s ideas while at the same time having constructive dialog. We are comfortable stressing what we feel is important and can quickly come to a decision that errs on the side of building a better product for our customers. We are on the same page and that page is loving what it is we are doing, how we are doing it, and providing awesome value for our users.

Rapid prototyping at the speed of a cheetah

We didn’t waste time and immediately began to build something we could show potential users. We believed the quicker we could show someone what it was we were planning to do, the quicker we could get feedback to be able to course correct. As Reid Hoffman proclaims, “If you’re not embarrassed by the first version of your product, you’ve launched too late!” The same sentiment is true for prototyping — you don’t have to have much to visually show in order to start getting great feedback.

Prototyping came in different forms: white-boarding, pen and paper sketches, low fidelity wireframes, landing pages, and web-based prototypes with incomplete functionality. Showing prototypes allowed us to receive feedback quickly, which, in turn, allowed us to zoom in on what our minimum viable product looked like. It also allowed us to quickly improve Dawfin in significant ways prior to launching to our first customer.

Prototype’n

Rapid networking at the speed of a cheetah

Running at a cheetah’s pace prototyping solely in a vacuum would not get us to where we needed to be. We also needed to network and find experts and innovators that were willing to give us their time and provide the feedback we needed.

As Michael Siebel and Geoff Ralston stress, “Talking to customers and iterating is much better than waiting to build the “perfect” product.” I opened my Rolodex (LinkedIn), contacted people in my past that I thought would be interested or willing to share with others, went to local meet-ups, contacted local companies advertising in the newspaper, and met people for coffee so often my taste buds now have a constant coffee flavor sensation.

I discovered that people were more often than not willing to meet in person, discuss ideas, and comment on sketches and wireframes. Some of those would go the extra step and look at the online prototypes and provide additional feedback. A few would even say they wouldn’t need or use the app themselves; but, they liked the idea so much that they referred us to others. Some of them even asked us to keep them in the loop and gave us their email address without us having to ask. A select few would go on to be the innovators we needed that would provide constant feedback as we continued to iterate on our prototypes.

We didn’t expect everyone we met would work with us from end-to-end; however, the multitude of one-time interactions really added up and the insights provided were extremely helpful with setting the overall trajectory for Dawfin. A key takeaway here is the tried and true advice of “get out of the building and start talking to potential customers!”

Doing it all full-time

There’s no way we could have done this without being able to be completely focused. Having the ability to concentrate full-time on our product reduced context shifting that would have occurred if we only worked on it on the side. It also allowed us to be hyper-focused throughout the day. Although, there were certainly plenty of times when we felt like there just wasn’t enough time in a given day…

We were also lucky that the company we work for believed in our idea, invested in it, and invested in us so that we could be 100% committed. Without their support, this would not have happened so quickly. We will post another blog about how this ‘startup within a startup’ concept worked for us.

Having an awesome support system

Speaking of support… the guidance we received from watching the Startup School videos and the support from our fellow Startup School group members was highly valuable and gave us the knowledge, tools, and support to succeed — sometimes, by holding us accountable so we can fail quickly, learn, and react. We highly recommend the YC Startup School for anyone considering it for the future as the lessons learned and the support received was invaluable.

There was also no way we could have done this without our loving and highly understanding families. Our commitment meant less time for our families, which was difficult. However, the strong support we received from our families motivated us even more and motivation is required 100% of the time when in full startup mode.

Our journey with Dawfin is only just beginning and we will continue to build-measure-learn on our journey towards achieving product-market-fit!

If you would like to keep up-to-date with our journey, keep an eye out for more Medium posts or come hang out with us on our Slack channel!

“four silhouette of person's in front of aquarium” by Chris Kristiansen on Unsplash