After five years, BarterSugar is shutting down next week. I thank all BarterSugar members for their support. There are now multiple, effective avenues for connecting online to barter. So while this post is sponsored by a heavy heart, it also could not have happened in a more comforting time.
For super sleuths, the first evidence of BarterSugar’s existence appears in 2012, the date of the Intent to Use for one of two trademarks I would go on to secure for the company. Filing a trademark before a single line of code exists is a very attorney move to make, but not a practical one for startups as you have limited working capital in the beginning, and I do not recommend it.
It seems the only people that read “shutting-down” articles like this are the ones hoping to glean lessons that are applicable to the majority, so I’ll try my best to make this goodbye useful.
For me, BarterSugar became the tech-MBA hybrid I didn’t know I needed. I didn’t know it would shape the sort of person I wanted to be for the rest of my life. By the end of these five years, I gained skills I didn’t know were mandatory for being a sufficient technology founder: front-end and back-end development, design and intermediate skills with the full Adobe suite, UX testing, questionnaire and survey building that would lead to recording hundreds — nearly 400 — UX and UI interviews, negotiating with investors, pitching partnerships to larger businesses, and learning multiple languages. The language requirement will vary depending on your market, but I finally learned how to read and write in Persian (a skill now in vogue thanks to the current U.S. administration) and learned basic Spanish and German.
FIRST HILARIOUSLY BAD VERSION
As an attorney that had focused on studying intellectual property and litigation through a video game and interactive technology lens (and having played almost every Final Fantasy RPG before law school), my initial inclinations were to design BarterSugar like a video game — fun and community-driven. Hilariously, this is what the very first version looked like:
(No, your eyes don’t deceive you. That is a mini Alanis Morissette image we were using in our internal mock-ups.)
Yes, because the sky was the limit then, I was also trying to build our own internal PPC network for advertisers to place ads on the right-hand column of the marketplace, which would be the primary revenue source for the platform. I studied gamification for a semester in law school and, as you can see, went a wee bit overboard with implementing some of the methodology in this first version.
I believe these images sufficiently answer the question as to why the site is called BarterSugar — it began as a P2P site, and later evolved to a B2B startup site.
FUNDING AND SECOND VERSION
In 2014, BarterSugar got its first very modest investment from a newly-minted angel group. The next version would be a tremendous improvement, but still wasn’t optimized for the obvious reason — it was designed by an attorney and engineers.
A year and over a thousand design articles later, with UX/UI toolkits, half-a-dozen Trello boards, and three tech hackathons crammed into my brain, I would understand and appreciate the trained design eye, simple UI, and common-sense UX that only a design pupil’s mind could create. But back then, we were just learning. There were zero high-level designers in the cohort we were a part of in 2014 and Medium design articles weren’t around yet, so we were essentially all the same — like newly-born deer wobbling our way through an unfamiliar terrain, searching for a parent for guidance.
By the end of 2015 and into 2016, I finally did what is now the standard model: got a pair of bright UX/UI professionals, created high-fidelity, clickable mock-ups using a combination of the Adobe suite or Sketch, and imported it into InVision, which could be shared with testers to unearth usability issues before going live. Our final version is the gorgeous live version you see today:
THE FUTURE OF BARTERING
With my mental gas tank running on E, courtesy of less than eight hours of sleep distributed over three days of a startup-investor boot camp in Massachusetts, I still remember getting chills when I got the PayPal notification that our first paid barter had gone through. Not only was it for the 7.5% cut, but it was international — a U.S. to Eastern European barter exchange.
With the bar noise hitting critical mass and the lights dimming to indicate night’s approach, I remember telling a VP at JP Morgan over happy hour drinks that I believed the future of bartering was obvious — one day, maybe in eighty or one hundred years from now, bartering will be the jurisdiction of a government agency. Partnering on the vision I saw expressed in a video lecture at MIT, I believe we will eventually move toward a society that spends approximately 20% of time at work, with the rest of the time filled as desired. Everyone will get a little bit of work, because the amount of work will be drastically reduced. Because a person’s means and resources will work within parameters, bartering will flourish as a way to stretch those limitations. I hope to be around, and lucid enough, to see this, but if not, maybe this Medium post will serve as the flag-in-the-ground predictor.
This is nothing to say of the bartering that has occurred and will continue to occur among nations today, such as that with Iran, Russia, India, China, or Venezuela.
LESSONS LEARNED: FOR STARTUP FOUNDERS
- If you have a lifestyle business that is not platform-intensive, use Shopify or another simple website creator or outsource your app development to a cheaper developer. For me, some of the best-quality work for the price came from Spain and India. If you don’t know how to code, then make sure you have a friend — truly a friend that loves and cares about you — who can act as a project manager to keep the group on track.
- If you are creating a tech product — platform, simple website, app, bot, etc. — take one intensive month (ideally more, but we’re being practical here) and practice the languages you are going to use. It’s worth it to know how to read your code, and understand if it is garbage or not. Five years ago, I did not know anything about code. By 2017, I have gotten good enough at reading code that people are still shell-shocked when I report my negotiations for project specs with outsourced firms. Knowing the true cost of development will save you thousands to hundreds of thousands of dollars.
- If you outsource, only pay for milestones. Never pay per hour or you will never see your product come to fruition.
- Whatever timeline your outsource team gave you, add three months to it then go back to your project specs and see what you can prioritize to ensure you make the actual inside deadline.
- As an attorney-advisor to several startups, I keep seeing the same pattern emerge: an enthusiastic team of idealists quit their jobs before their product is cash-flow positive or has gone viral, savvy shark-like investor senses blood in the water and offers a deal with crummy terms, and starved startup needs the capital infusion and ultimately takes the bad deal. Do not quit your job unless you’ve raised enough capital to last two solid years of expenses and meager salaries. Ignore this advice, and the blood that starts to color the water will be yours.
- If you are creating a tech product, and you’re not the one building it, then you should become adept at another required skill: building partnerships, PR, online marketing, startup legal documents, etc. Take your pick. I have lots of non-engineers ask me how I have technical co-founders for every project I make, and I tell them some variation of, “I got my Facebook clicks down to seven cents; we never hired an attorney.”
- Get a co-founder you can laugh with. Life is short, and it will feel even shorter if you are around someone who personifies Chicken Little instead of Broad City.
- If you’re a startup founder — the kind that does not fall into the pool of “unfair advantage” founders — then you’re a little crazy. Because only a crazy person — someone who is not already a second- or third-time founder coming off of a sale and who is without a family legacy/family reputation, mountains of capital, or famous friends — would launch a prospect that has a 90% chance of failing. That means many of the other founders you meet will be on your wavelength. When all is said and done, what I am most grateful for are the friendships that were forged through the various programs in which BarterSugar incubated.
- Without getting too fortune-cookie cheesy, life is a constant balance between acknowledging you only have a young, elastic body once that can endure long mountain hikes, wild club nights, and endurance sports and knowing that your young, ever-curious brain is deteriorating and slowing down with age. This is why you have to work so hard in your youth to save enough money to support your old, disease-ridden, future self. I took a spur-of-the-moment trip to South Africa with a friend to play with elephants and learn about the culture there, then went back to working on my startup two days after the trip. There is no bright line rule here — just keep this acknowledgement in the back of your mind when making decisions.
I am already working on my next startup with a really wonderful team. This will be the third tech product I’ve made with one of my co-founders, and I am really excited to showcase our product in a couple of months, which is designed to give peace of mind to many families.
I also try to accept about three startups a year on an equity-only basis as a Startup Advisor; if you have a unique startup and are looking for an attorney-advisor for equity, feel free to reach out to me on my website: laylatabatabaie.com. I’m mostly interested in tech startups that have raised at least $100K or have great user retention numbers, but will cave in for chocolate, cupcakes, coffee, etc.
Thank you to all the inspiring people who supported me, until next time.
Layla F. Tabatabaie
Special thanks to Alison Swety for editing this piece, and Oscar Solis for the early comments.