Why we shutdown our second startup even when we were on verge of raising funds

Sounds like foolishness, but we did. Funding is not the only goal of a startup. The first and primary purpose of a startup is to serve customers while being committed to its mission.

Before I tell you why we shutdown, let me explain how I started PocketScience.

I left my full-time job in 2013 to start my first startup SchoolGennie but it failed, and we lost Rs. 15,00,000. I left with a very small amount of savings. But that was sufficient to survive for another 6–8 months.

I had three options at that time

  1. Go back to shitty corporate job
  2. Start another startup
  3. Join another startup as an employee (it’s different from a regular job)

Going back to a job was out of questions because I was determined to stay in the startup world. When I left my job, one thing was clear that I will never ever go back to the corporate job.

I wanted to do work with my freedom, for rest of my life.

Starting another company was very hard. I did not have sufficient money to bootstrap.

I lost my co-founder as well because we had different vision & thoughts. I was having a lot of startup ideas, but I was not amply passionate about any of those. I had the urge to be around the startups and work on solving issues in education or finance — both are my favorite domains.

My wife helped me taking the difficult decision. She supported me in my terrible time and encouraged me to take the risk. I chose the third option.

I was ready to work with a startup even if I get a survival salary.

I shortlisted a couple of startups and contacted their founders. I reached out to startup accelerators if they had any work opportunity with their portfolio companies. I attended startup events to find interesting people.

Nothing was working for me because I was looking out for non-technical work like marketing/operations while my resume says that I spent my entire life in technical work.

Most of the startups were hiring technical talent…

… and I was a misfit and under-qualified for those who were looking out a digital marketer or growth hacker.

Two months past, nothing happened. My savings were drying up. What a person should do in such conditions? Of course, keep searching for your love!

I was attending startup weekend in Chandigarh where I met with Sameer, co-founder of The Morpheus, a startup accelerator having 50+ active startups in their portfolio.

I got connected with Morpheus portfolio startups in NCR region like IIMjobs, CardBack, MyPrepMate and PocketScience. I talked to their founders, and everyone was doing great work.

The founder of PocketScience was doing something that was very close to my heart — improving the way of science learning through a mobile app. I met him in Delhi, and we had a discussion about educations — for hours. We were enjoying each other’s company. I met with his team and loved the overall startup.

Their product was live, but their growth was stagnant due to various reasons. They did not have anyone to take care of marketing. They wanted to experiment with social media and content marketing.

I was looking out for the same, but I communicated clearly that I have a strong desire to try my hands on marketing but my marketing experience is limited to my last startup only. He understood the point, and we decided to run an experiment with new mobile app and get installs through social media.

I worked on social media marketing and figured out some ways to grow the Facebook fan base and drive app downloads. After a month long successful experiments, I was able to prove my worth to the company. I got the offer to join as co-founder with 30% equity (no cash salary).

I started working from Chandigarh although PocketScience team was based in Noida.

PocketScience was a mobile app for Science students. We believed that a curious mind learns naturally. The whole purpose of the app was to invoke curiosity in learner’s mind.

Rather than developing text based question/answers, we developed word games like crossword & anagrams to practice science. The games were designed to spark curiosity rather than providing answers. We picked up questions from NCERT books so that students can learn what is relevant to their syllabus.

The market was big enough and mobile adoption was very high among students.

As per our research, 15L students appeared for CBSE class-X examination, and there were 10X more students in the same age group, attending state board affiliated schools. Every year India’s population increases by more than 1,50,00,000 and there was no end to our future market.

We launched three more apps. We experimented with different features in separate apps to figured out what works with students.

The most interesting insights were

  • Students highly engage in discussions
  • Targeted push notifications increase app usage dramatically
  • Games, virtual rewards, and curiosity keep them busy inside app
  • Highly motivated students complete the entire game in few days
  • App referral was very low among students (fear of competition)
  • Students do not buy in-app learning content
  • But students buy sample papers for exams

We were planning to expand with new content for more classes. We drafted a business plan and designed our future product.

But there was an unsolved question in our mind — most students look for shortcuts to get better marks in the exam. They are not really interested in learning science.

We tried to find the answer by doing some experiments and taking feedback from students.

We found four type of students

  1. Highly motivated students looking for more learning
  2. Intelligent students but focused on exams
  3. Average students struggling to get better marks
  4. Below average students trying to get passing marks

Our product was highly useful for the first category, but the problem was that they were less than 10% of total students. We realized our mistake that mobile app was not an appropriate tool for reaching out to so narrow & niche market.

Build a mobile app only if you want to impact the masses.

We should probably make better learning tools for the first category of students. Moreover, these students do not depend on anyone, they do their research and get the right resources from Google. This understanding further dilutes our value proposition.

Rest of 90% market was focused on marks & exams. If we have to make a viable business in education, then we should build something that can help in getting more marks in exams (and students don’t want to work hard).

Was it possible? Absolutely.

We just had to change the content of our app. We already tested that students buy test papers before final exams.

We decided not to continue with exams/marks focused education market. There was nothing wrong with the exam-related products but it was our personal choice.

We may not feel content even after making a multi-million dollar product. Curiosity-driven education was our goal, but the market was not big enough to be addressed through a mobile app.

However, we were happy that we helped thousands of students in exploring science. We found great mentors, entrepreneurs, and friends on our journey.

App is still live if you wish to explore — PocketScience

Related

How we lost Rs 15,00,000 in startup and shutdown before first anniversary


Originally published at startupkarma.co on January 24, 2016.