Want to build a start-up? Read this. This is a story of how (not) to build a startup.

Disclaimer: I am a non-tech girl in tech. When I started I had no idea what I was getting myself into but despite all the heartbreaks it’s been the best time of my life.

Disclaimer 2: As you will read, you will see a lot of (stupid) mistakes. Please hold your horses while commenting. It’s been quite a step to share this failure with you.

“Google must have read your e-mails! Have you seen Google Trips? This looks so much like the startup you wanted to build. Next time you have a great idea let me know. Maybe we will be able to make it happen before Google does ;) ”

This was the message I have recently received from one of my friends that I showed my mock-ups to a while back. My heart ❤ stopped for a minute.


I remember the that day clearly. As Kid Rock would sing: “ It was summertime in Northern Michigan”. Well, more like in Western Michigan. I was lying on my bed. Multiple pages of plans, doodles, and scribbles around me. My backpack not fully unpacked after my last trip to the West Coast still in the corner. “I saw Grand Canyon”, I thought. “My life is complete”. But there was one more thing I was planning. I picked the phone up.

Two weeks later I was surfing on the Waikiki Beach. Those pages that were lying on my bed were my attempt to create the best itinerary for this trip. It took me ‘ages’ to find affordable flights, lodging & activities to do when I am in Hawaii. In the end I wanted to optimize cost (traveling alone requires overcoming the challenge of higher prices that obviously less friendly to a person traveling solo). I had to find the best priced flights (tip: connecting flights are usually cheaper but the travel+transfer time had to be reasonable so that I wouldn’t miss too much time of my vacation on the plane). I wanted a safe hotel that, again, was in my budget, and of course I wanted to make the most out of my trip. The reason being that I would probably never go to the Paradise Islands again. Manual optimization was a lengthy process. Excel helped a little but it looked more or less like this:

As for Google and its product Google Trips, there in fact is a lot of similarities with my idea. They have the offline feature and they mention that they are like TripIt but not for business (hello, that’s what I was saying!). I truly hope they didn’t read my emails because, I have this patented!! ;) …(but were they ?)

Signed, sealed, delivered as of July 18, 2014.

I am a huge time-saving junkie. I have a lot of systems set up that help me navigate through a busy day starting from an organized kitchen so that unloading the dishwasher doesn’t take too much time, through my daily, weekly and monthly calendars. Almost everything planned (no, I am not crazy. I am efficient).

And here, I don’t have any hacks that would make planning fast, yet allowed me for finding stuff of great quality. The idea sparked. I need a customized planner to create a downloadable itinerary! Something that will allow me to keep all my reservations in one place. Better yet, something that will allow me to interact with other travelers and see what they recommend (ok, you all could now say “there is this and that to do that” — all the same story with every single idea. Reality check- no idea is 100% original. Let me dream my dreams, right :) )

Fast — forward a year after my first step I was left with a paid for graphics designs and no programmers who had earlier required those designs “so that they can build the engine” on board as I let them go.

How did this all happen? A story of my failure.

  1. I have no idea how to make my idea become reality. Just a girl with a huge idea.
  2. I put everything on the paper. I design, I draw, I think about the processes.

Then I put everything into my computer. I don’t know any online tools for the mockups so I create a graphic design in Word. Yes, MS Word. I print it out. I glue the pieces to a flipchart paper and I take it to my potential partners (programmers) whom I have just found on the Cofounders Lab. They like the idea. They sing the NDA and we start the project (oh yeah, NDA guilty here).

3. In the meantime I start researching the tools to build my website. I pick Wix and I create my first website. I start putting my travel itineraries up. It turns out, there is limitations. And I am not very fond of the design.

>>My posts include tips, recommendations for places to see and a step-by-step map(s). (You can still use the one for Helsinki here)<<

4. I move to Squarespace. It looks more professional. I get caught up in trying to figure out the best way to communicate with my team that I kind of give up posting on the blog. It dies.

5. In the meantime I create a Pitch Deck to show to potential investors (yeah, I know, don’t laugh). I apply to incubators. I go to the Slush Conference (Helsinki again! Love the city and its vibe). I talk about the project. I show people my printed Pitch Deck. Nothing happens besides gaining a few new connections.

6. I sign up for a coaching/mentoring/business operations-help sort of program. I pay to be a member. I lose money (a bunch of theoreticians who only want your money don’t help much).

7. I improve things (or that’s what I think I am doing) and I apply to YC (ohh yes, another rookie mistake). I message a girl who is a YC graduate and she says I need traction. What the hell is traction?

I am flustrated.

8. I dig deeper and deeper to find out what I do wrong. I study cases of other startups and I feel like a failure reading all those success stories of college dropouts hitting it with their first try (in fact, they don’t. It just seems like their first idea has been a success when in reality it’s been an evolving process with many pivots).

9. The team starts to crumble. “My” teammates turned out to have a company and they were actually looking for a paid project (Hmmm, on Cofounders Lab? I am thinking, but anyways). The team falls apart when I mention the incubation process of an incubator and my will to finally enter one.

I am devastated.

10. I am back to square one — I have no programmers. I lose more time (months) to search for a new team. In the meantime I learn learn learn. I work on the Social Media accounts for the business. I connect with travelers from all around the world.

11. I take my flipchart sheet to show it to somebody else and this programmer likes the idea. YES! He gets in with his business partner. We start “building”. I see no progress but hey! I have programmers on the team.

12. I find a graphic designer because “we need one to be able to build the engine” . I have the beautiful designs done. I pay quite a lot (as for my budget)

(ps. if you need a really great graphic designer a have found a few I recommend — they do the graphics plus they code the front in HTML + CSS plus cut it all to the latest version of Bootstrap. Have I already mentioned I am not a programmer ?)

13. I pay for a recommended group workshop and an individual idea analysis session. I learn a lot and the trainers put my beloved beautifully designed product into pieces.

I feel crushed. My beautiful idea!!!

14. We start Lean with a landing page and an idea for a mobile app that would connect travelers with locals. I create new mockups. We start building & testing.

I develop a strategic development plan with huge vision that will ultimately lead back to more or less the initial idea of a Trip Planning portal.

15. I apply to Startup Sauna. I get into the local event. I pitch with idea. It’s a disaster. I feel like a fool. “Go big or go home” — who says that?

16. We jump onto the project to make it even better, test more, get more traction. After some time I don’t see much progress. The communication fails (we all are in different parts of the world). I move to the same city one of my team colleagues lives in, hoping we will get more done. I decide to set up some commitments (time commitments mainly). They say it’s impossible that they will put 10–20 hours a week into the project.

17. I get rid of one of them as he talks more than he does (although he says they have been building behind the scenes- I haven’t seen that so I can’t say if it’s true but still I “thank him” for cooperation and our ways part).

18. The other one follows his friend even though when asked earlier what he would do if I let the other one go, he said he’d stay.

I am frustrated, angry & devastated again.

19. I accidentaly meet someone else, someone who is looking for a business partner to join forces. We decide to work on another idea (as the travel industry, according to him, is a tough one).

20. I get convinced to drop the idea and work as more of a sales/marketing/business development person on something more traditional (it’s a bad partnership from the start but hey! a programmer wants to work with me! — that’s a whole new story)

21. I give the idea up (I am exhausted of trying and left with no power and support).

….

months later Google Trips show up

….


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This post appeared first on Medium on October 9, 2016.

About the author

Iwona Gruszka is a multi-passionate entrepreneur, the Founder of Iwona Gruszka Consulting; Co-founder of Puzzlingo & is working on a tool that aims at helping business relationships building. You can connect with her on Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, Instagram & Snapchat.