Several years ago, an acquaintance of mine shared an idea with me. I became obsessed with it. He gathered a team and we spent the next year and a half working really hard at it, but unfortunately, it never materialized into a profitable business. And so, we failed.
I’ve been thinking about that experience lately and I decided to write about it. I’ll try and present to the best of my ability all the mistakes we made as young, rookie entrepreneurs and all the lessons I’ve learned from this endeavor.
I will not mention names or blame anyone for this. I think this experience taught us a lot of good lessons about life, friendship and business, so I wouldn’t trade it for anything else.
If you’re an entrepreneur already, this article won’t be that useful for you. This is for those who have lots of passion but zero experience. It is long, but trust me, there is a lot to unpack here. Stick till the end for some great thoughts by yours truly.
How it all started.
It was a sunny day back at home in Sofia, when an acquaintance of mine from Glasgow University reached out. He wanted to meet - there was a startup idea that he wanted to discuss with me. We weren’t very close at the time but I had heard good things about him and I’m a curious fella, so I had to see what his idea was.
The idea was simple - drones are an emerging technology that we know has global implications across many industries, so we should build a portal for drone pilots to find freelance work and make money on the side. Just like Freelancer, we would be the middle man and there were many opportunities to evolve this platform into a one-stop-shop for drone owners.
He was super passionate about it and he shared his plan to gather a whole team around it. I was surprised - my friends and I had spoken about our ideas and starting businesses together, but we never really did anything. So here was this guy from uni that I barely knew and he was really serious about it… and he wanted me on the team. I was in.
Well…the initial plan never got anywhere really. I won’t go too much into the details, but at some point within the first six months, we decided to pivot to another idea, still within the drone industry. We would ourselves provide sophisticated drone services to companies in the agriculture and mining industries. It wasn’t an overnight decision - while building the platform we realized how little funds we have and how unprofitable it could be. So this pivot was a necessity, we needed to find a way to make money faster through providing drone services ourselves.
But we only knew how to fly drones, we didn’t know anything about the industries we were trying to help and we had no clue what problems we would be solving or what is the end product we would be selling. So, things only got worse over time as we were flailing around while trying to find a product-market fit and we all slowly lost our motivation. One by one, the team disbanded and our dream was dead.
So, let’s go through the lessons I’ve learned and maybe your first attempt will turn out better than mine.
#1. Problem -> Solution
There’s this pervasive belief that to start a business, you just have to get a crazy idea and then you’ll start making money from it, right? Well, while this may work on some rare occasions, it’s definitely not a reliable approach, and getting a sudden light-bulb moment is a very misused cliché. There’s a better way.
Think this through with me. At its core, what does a business do?
It creates and provides something to society. If many people want the “thing” and think it’s valuable, the business will be rewarded. This is the only transaction that matters.
You’ve heard folks complain how unfair it is that doctors never earn as much as football players or actors, right? Well, yes, a doctor will affect a few people’s lives tremendously, but the entertainer can put a smile on millions of faces. And funnily enough, people are often willing to pay more for a smile than to protect their own health. Provide value to as many people as possible and you will be successful.
So, you might be thinking … Okay, I need to provide value, but what does society want? Well, the answers are limitless, but I suggest to look within yourself first. If you don’t think you have any good ideas in you and you’re clueless as to where to start, it’s actually quite simple.
One thing no one teaches you at school or university is that the best approach to entrepreneurship is to constantly think about problems. Your problems, your neighbors’ problems, your city’s problems, and the world’s problems. Is there something bothering you in your daily activities? Are you upset about it, do you want things to change? Well, if many people think like you do, then solving this problem for them is your business opportunity.
This is why our drone adventure was doomed from the start. Instead of a problem, we had this great technology and we were looking for a problem to solve with it. But the problems we found weren’t OUR problems. They were not what motivated us to get together in the first place.
Motivation and resilience are important. So when you’re trying to solve a problem you deeply care about, you have a higher chance of success. And one problem can be solved in a multitude of ways, not just through drones.
Not only were we trying to solve problems we didn’t deeply care about, but we were also dead set on using only this technology when we could’ve potentially used others. I hope you see now, why this is the wrong approach.
*Find a problem and then solve it for as many people as possible.*
#2. Team Composition
The whole team was friends of the founder, except for me haha. All of them are great people with whom I was super happy to work with. But none of us had founded companies before, none of us knew anything about drones before we started, and certainly none of us knew anything about the industries we were hoping to disrupt. This played a major role in the slow disintegration of the group and thus, our project.
So, how you should do it instead?
Assuming you’re tacking YOUR problem, start alone.
In the very beginning, if you can do something yourself, do it. Go the extra mile. Push yourself. Set up the company, start working on the thing that makes you tick. Don’t wait for others, because this is YOUR problem and it needs to be solved.
You’re not wasting your time without a team. You’re just laying down the foundation for others to come in later. Set a plan, follow it and take your idea as far as you can, alone. In a few months, if you still think that it’s going to work, then that’s the time when you should start bringing in members to the team.
When you do need others, always remember to pick them not because they are your friends, but because you value their specific skillsets. The team you are creating should be flexible and possess the grit and knowledge needed to survive a brutally competitive marketplace.
#3. Research, verify, invest.
Soon after we made the pivot and decided to focus on agriculture, we began reading about the different ways we can analyze soil and plants with drones. We settled on a few different systems and applications and one team member (the investor) started purchasing the drones, sensors and other equipment needed to make it happen. We wanted to learn how they work in the field, how we can operate them and what the limitations were.
Not only was every single thing extremely expensive, but we had so much to learn:
1. How to fly the drones, set the right parameters
2. The sensors, how they work and how to attach them to the drones safely
3. What are the conditions for optimal image capture
4. Differences in the crops and soil
5. Software to compile and analyze the data
Each one of these steps would probably take months by itself, some maybe even longer. The whole process was awfully daunting. And wrong.
You might ask … what’s wrong about this approach? Well, almost everything.
Research first, then verify. And only then Invest.
Firstly, we should’ve spoken to as many farmers as possible. Is this something they would consider at all? What are their problems? Can this drone analysis solve them at all or are they looking for something different?
If all of those questions were answered correctly, then we would choose the drones, sensors and potential software. And then we should’ve reached out to as many drone companies doing the same thing abroad and asked them about our plans as well. Does our tech selection make sense? Are they doing something similar now? If yes, is it working? Is there a market for this? What mistakes have they made in the past that we can avoid? Are they willing to teach us for a consulting fee?
Only when you have verified the product can you start thinking about investing. Not before.
#4. Don’t spend too much time on the wrong things - PRIORITIZE
I remember we spent the first few months thinking about a name, logo, business cards and on the website. Oh, the website. I myself spent a lot of effort and energy on thinking about these things and all the small details.
I hope I don’t have to explain in too much detail why that was a mistake. None of those things needed to exist for our business to start getting somewhere. We didn’t even have a product, why did we need these things? Instead of focusing on the superficial, we should’ve done a lot of research on the market and product. But this is what we knew, this is where we felt confident and comfortable.
In fact, nobody in the agricultural industry would’ve cared about our website. Our efforts were going in the wrong place, into something that didn’t push us forward as a company.
You have to constantly review your priorities and where you’re spending your time. Is it something that is actually getting you closer to product-market fit? Is it helping you sign more clients? Priorities, priorities!
You really don’t need a fancy website or business cards to start selling a product or service in the beginning. Show people that you’re providing value by solving their problems and they’ll pay you. It’s that simple.
#5. Entrepreneurship is difficult - is this a priority to everyone?
Many people have dreams to build a business of their own and to become an entrepreneur. And yet they never take that leap of faith. You should know - that is totally fine.
We don’t all need to be entrepreneurs. It’s not a light decision to make, and trust me, it’s an extremely hard job. Work-life balance? Forget about that. Social events, good sleep, enough time with the family? Yeah, it ain’t happening.
The reality is simple. The more you sacrifice, the smarter you work, the higher your chances of success. But monetary success doesn’t transfer into psychological or emotional well-being. Many entrepreneurs are broken and depressed, many make mistakes that end up ruining their lives.
You must know yourself extremely well before you make the decision to take this risk. What motivates you deep down? Do you really need to start this business? Is there a chance that peer pressure or the constant glorification of entrepreneurs in movies and TV shows is swaying your opinion? Think about it.
“Entrepreneurship is like eating glass and staring into the abyss. If you are wired to do it, then only do it, not otherwise. So think of it this way - if you need inspiring words, DON’T DO IT!” Elon Musk.
Failure is scary. No one wants to be the one who failed, the one who disappointed their family, friends, and team.
But the fear of failure is worse because it cripples us. It makes us weak, scared of any changes, of taking risks. In that state of mind, we never venture far from our comfort zone and thus, we do not explore the world and all the opportunities that lie beyond.
We all make mistakes, perfection is an illusion. The world is full of ambiguity and we should all know that. In life, unlike school, there is never really one right answer. If we are to succeed, we have to adapt and change the way we think about failure.
Failure is scary, but it’s a lesson. A chance to learn, adapt, improve. Don’t stop yourself from exploring the world. And if you can, always learn from the mistakes that others make.
You don’t need to burn yourself to know that fire is hot.
Thank you for reading this, I hope you liked it! Expect more from me soon ;)