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Moments Before Success or Failure

What it feels like launching years of work not knowing the outcome.

Will I keep investing? Am I making the right decision? Next time I would do this, this and this different. These questions are on the mind of every startup entrepreneur all the time.

There are plenty of articles that describe the 10 main steps that lead to someone’s success, but today I’m going to try to sketch the perspective of a startup entrepreneur prior to launching, not knowing if any of it will lead to a successful outcome.

We are now approaching our launch date, after having moved it 7 times, over a 2 year period. In this article I’m going to share with you the real story that lead up to this moment. The 1000s hours of work, and 10000s of self-earned capital that was required to get it here — all while still having no idea if it’s going to be successful.

Its was summer 2014 when I first started working on the idea of being able to index the data we come across while browsing the web. The idea was to create something similar to how a computer indexes documents (the way it makes them searchable), but then across a decentralised information source; the millions of web services across the internet. Hence History Search; Your way back to a million websites.

At first, most of the people I told about the idea said “oh you mean browsing history?”. This was the first real challenge; positioning. It took me about a year to realise what this was; it wasn’t people trying to discredit the idea, but an effect described as “name it frame it” in the marketing book “Crossing the Chasm”. Simply put, this is how people place something into their current frame of mind — especially when a product isn’t tangible (yet).

After about 4 months, I had traveled from the Netherlands to Ukraine to find an affordable development partner, recruited a team of senior partners, got a mentor, wrote a pitch and business plan, and developed a prototype. Sequentially, for about two months, we planned everything to launch the first concept version; using online configurators to get legal documents, spending weeks building the right homepage, carefully formulating a press release, and the list goes on…

Launching the concept version went pretty well, people really liked the idea and we got the necessary market feedback — so much of it actually, that the next challenge arose; the realisation of how much time and effort it was going to take to bring a full version to market. It was no surprise that shortly after this, the initial excitement started disappearing among my relatively new team mates. 3 months later the first and shortly after that the second team mate quit. Now it was just two of us left.

Since we didn’t raise funding from third-parties we were constrained by our budget. This lead to the hiring of a small team of developers, most of them still at University (with limited practical experience and availability). Everything appeared to be going well, until about 9 months into development (while getting ready to launch) when we discovered a major technical limitation in the design of our product.

I’m a strong privacy advocate, and for this reason we had set out to develop History Search to run completely locally on a user’s computer. However, after developing an electron based desktop-app, with a server running locally, we discovered 3 major issues: the application size was huge (due to the virtual server required to connect to multiple browser extensions), search results were poor (as result of being limited by application size), and on top of that installation wasn’t always as easy as we had planned (requiring us to package the Java Runtime Environment to assure the app would run on every device, further increasing the application size). Long story short, this lead to a complete failure and required an entirely new approach; cloud storage.

You might feel it coming……… by now the team had shrunk down to me alone.

Although cloud storage provided many benefits regarding performance, easy setup and higher search quality it brought an entirely new challenge; privacy! I decided the tech required was going to be so advanced I could only work with senior developers. Obviously from this point on the next worry was the monthly cost associated with covering all our expenses; server costs, my own expenses and their salaries.

Aside from the pressure on the budget, things were going great; we were producing great search results, topnotch security, and assured data storage was fully encrypted (and for anyone techie reading this: authentication throughout every request). By the beginning of 2018 our beta-user community had grown to over 2000 users, with about 250 daily active users. Just when our launch day was set, I felt the marketing proposition wasn’t sharp enough, and that it wasn’t ready. So back to the lab, to re-do all our marketing pages, and implemented several great ideas (suggested by some great users) to make History Search even more functional.

This is when the most challenging question appeared; when is it good enough for the world to see my child (who was slowly growing into its teens)?

Naturally, I became more critical every day and wanted the entire user-experience to be near perfect; after all I had invested so much time, energy and capital already. But every additional month of iterating was a huge expense. This went on until about 2 months ago, when we had tweaked the product and user experience to a point we believed to be ready, for real this time. Only to be followed by a new challenge; how to do the perfect launch.

Launching a product means so much when you’ve put years of effort into realising it that you don’t want to compromise. So you do everything you can think of to make it a success. In the meantime you keep improving your product (because who ever really stops finding things to tweak or cool features to add), but from the business perspective you know you need to get out there and start generating some income as well. The line between building a great product, with a successful launch, or unnecessary procrastination is thin.

You will never truly be done, but the hardest question is when are you ready.

Finally we got to the point where we were ready. The launch preparations were enormous and stretched several months of hard work; ranging from the writing of personal emails to a curated list of journalists, to the production of product demo’s.

As we were closing in to our launch date there were a few final hiccups, such as getting all our latest extension updates approved and published across all the major browsers (some with enormous waiting lines). But finally we have arrived, not at the finish, but at the starting line.

I hope you have enjoyed this story, and got a peek into what it’s like behind the scenes. I don’t have a top 10 for you, but I will share a valuable insight I’ve learned; “As startup entrepreneur, there’s no right or wrong path looking forward, there is just your current situation and a challenge you need to overcome”

Some parts of this story might have come across as a negative experience, but honestly it’s actually quite the contrary. The value of the entrepreneurial startup journey is priceless, and will teach lessons on topics you wouldn’t have realised existed.

We’ve made History Search available for you prior to our official launch next week, if your interested have a look here. I would love to hear your feedback, and hopefully save you valuable time in the future.

This story is published in The Startup, Medium’s largest entrepreneurship publication followed by +368,675 people.

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