This is a continuation of a series on bring an app to life, from nothing to something. Read Part 1 here.
Let Me Guess Your Idea.
‘Write what you know.’ They say this because if you start writing about something you’ve never experienced or know nothing about, it will show.
As a 23-year old, I knew some things about how the world worked. But like most young people, our view of the world is limited. There’s a lot we haven’t seen and most of the people we interact with are more like us than they are different; they go to school, work a part-time job, party, hang with their friends, use the same apps everyone else uses and go to sleep.
It’s because of this that many 20-somethings steer towards creating a social app. Dating, networking, sharing all your social handles from one app etc. Who can blame us, these are the problems we have and this is all we know! Rarely do young entrepreneurs tackle problems selling to businesses like the Collison brothers who founded the $22.5 billion valued Stripe.
One problem with most ‘social’ apps is they require scale to monetize. They’re only as successful as the number of users on it so it requires a lot of fuel (money). Serial entrepreneur, Roger Dickey, founder of Mafia Wars (exit to Zynga) and Gigster (raised $32 million) shed some exceptional light on what path would make sense for first-time founders in this GotInterviews piece.
“If you go after a Twitter type idea where it’s ‘we’re building this thing and we might be profitable within six years.’ Then that’s not a good business for a first time entrepreneur… maybe you have to stay small until you build up your own nest egg.”
‘Startups’ are sexy and cool because they have the potential to get really big, get press, and put you in rooms with people who are popular on Twitter or in real life. But as Dickey pointed out, a business that makes money will be your best friend early on and enable you to tackle larger problems that may require venture capital later on once you already have some experience running a business and calling the shots.
Consider the entrepreneurial journey of Taylor Offer who sold millions of dollars of socks. Socks may not be the sexiest of products, but it doesn’t take a ton of capital to get started. The business like that relies on design, branding and marketing above all else. You can do those things well without a lot of money, initially.
Taylor flipped his sock game into working with influencers like Logan Paul, at his most popular, and even received an investment from Michael Jordan’s agent, David Falk. He now does social media consulting and writes a hilarious newsletter for the Group Chat podcast.
In hindsight, RentHoop may not have been an ideal business for me to start out of college. A marketplace, which brings together buyers (demand) and sellers (supply), is expensive to operate, difficult to monetize without scale, and requires raising money, which I’ll talk about later. It taught me a ton about building products, mobile, marketing and being resourceful, but I don’t think we had a chance of making the impact I dreamed of without funding.
Ways You Can Supercharge your Chance of Success
Piggybacking — Platforming
The most relevant example of this is Lil Nas X’s emergence on the Tik-Tok platform that sprouted Old Town Road, which broke the record for longest top-charting song ever. He was promoting the song as a meme originally. The memes snowballed in popularity and the platform took the song to unprecedented heights. “TikTok brought my song to several different audiences at once,” he said in an interview.
Lil Nas X utilization of Tik-Tok is a case study in and of itself, but his strategy is certainly not new and is actually a strategy many entrepreneurs use to launch. A similar but more ‘black hat’ growth strategy employed by rapper Soulja Boy is one of my all-time favorite stories. In the days of illegal streaming, Soula Boy would name his song whatever was popular at the time. A downloader would think they’re getting ‘In Da Club’ by 50 Cent (which I specifically recall downloading) and instead get a Soulja Boy song. People were initially mad at being duped, but the song was catchy enough to launch Crank Dat to the top of the charts (YOUUUUUUUU).
Similar to marketing gurus Soulja Boy and Lil Nas X, Dickey, the Mafia Wars founder we talked about earlier, leveraged the newness of Facebook’s game application platform early on.
“I always wanted to found a business but didn’t really find the right time. When Facebook launched the application platform that was the best chance because Facebook apps naturally had this ability to go viral so the business and marketing side is kind of taken care of for you.”
With every mainstream platform (that you can build on top of) comes unique opportunities for early adopters. A lot of the battle is choosing the right platform. The early days of App Store, Google Play, Instagram, Google Search, Vine, YouTube, Yelp, LinkedIn, Tik-Tok, Medium, the web, Podcasts, E-mail all laid a foundation for creators to see compounding effects from their initial bet on the platform.
If you’re young, one of your big advantages should be you know what platforms are catching steam and what aren’t. Adults don’t know what’s big until it’s too late so there’s a massive advantage young people have in discovering what’s next.
Especially with consumer products, differentiation is not always obvious. I remember exactly when the shift from MySpace to Facebook happened for me. It might have been the very first high school party I attended in Woodinville, Washington with my buddy Jared. It was on New Year’s Eve in either ’07 or ’08. A couple of girls we were interested in were telling us about this thing called Facebook at the party so the next morning we rushed to the computer to create profiles. That is network effects in motion.
Even now, I question the main differences between MySpace and old Facebook. I actually preferred MySpace to Facebook, but the hype was around Facebook. The hype (born from college students) was probably the greatest differentiation. Even though Facebook’s whole thing was ‘connect with other people in your class/school,’ it’s not like you couldn’t do that on MySpace. MySpace Creeping was a thing way before FB Creeping.
Great products fill gaps. They’re not all born from painfully obvious problems. Sometimes they are marginal improvements on existing products. I think of AirBnB as a great example of this. Couchsurfing and VRBO had been around for nearly 15 years before AirBnB. Their concept was not groundbreaking, albeit a bit weird to most people. Who wants a random stranger sleeping in their spare bedroom for a night? What if they’re murderers? (As valid as not wanting to get murdered is a reason to not do something, this was many people’s hesitation to adopt any new ‘shared economy’ technology. My mom told me this every time I told her to take an Uber instead of a cab. She would always say it’s not safe. Even when I explained it’s actually way safer because Uber knows who your driver is and has access to both you and the driver’s location, she still took cabs. Then, once she accepted her tech savvy son’s advice, she thought wow what an amazing idea this is! I don’t have to bring cash or anything. How cool!… Yes, mom I tried explaining this to you a million times).
In the UpStarts, by Brad Stone, covering the rise of Uber and AirBnB, Stone notes that AirBnB’s differentiation came in the form of ‘carefully selected photographs’ and ‘reviews from previous transactions.’ While user experience and trust are two of the most important components of consumer/marketplace (and really any business) products, those don’t seem like features that overwhelm incumbent products who have a 10–15 year head start (VRBO was founded in 1995). On the contrary, having a car pick you up within minutes of ordering it to take you anywhere for a reasonable price was a massive improvement and innovation over traditional cabs.
“It was much easier to reach a few thousand people who really needed our product than to try to compete for the attention of millions of scattered individuals,” said Peter Thiel. In other words, don’t try and boil the ocean. Dig deep rather than wide. Don’t bite off more than you can chew. There’s a reason all these old corny sayings exist: because they’re on the money.
Going niche is hard because it requires you to say no. Saying no is actually really hard in a startup. If you say yes to every feature or every customer request or every investor’s idea than you will be building a big, ugly, gross product that serves nobody.
You can start niche in a couple of ways. If you’re trying to build a marketplace, like RentHoop, you’ll want to narrow down on a geography, like a city, a college or a neighborhood initially. If we have 100 users looking for roommates across the United States, our app sucks. If they’re spread across California, our app still isn’t very good. If it’s spread over Los Angeles — now we’re talking, you actually have some people to choose from.
This is one thing we struggle with. Because RentHoop is solely a mobile app, we organically get downloads from all over the country. The App Store doesn’t let you hide your app based on a state. A lot of our negative reviews on the App Store are from people who download the app looking for a roommate in Omaha, Nebraska and can’t find anyone. We’ve done our best to label the cities we’re active in, not only on the app, but in our description and elsewhere, to no avail. If you’re on the web, you can do a much better job controlling this experience though you do lose the App Store as a distribution channel.
Aside from geography, going niche may mean making one feature the focal point of the experience. Think Google. Even though Google has a suite of products, their search page is still as simple as any tech product. They provide the best search experience. That in itself is very powerful.
You could also choose to make your content niche. Rather than write about the NBA, maybe you write about only the Orlando Magic. If you’re a good enough writer, you’ll be far more likely to develop a strong audience of Magic fans before you do ‘NBA fans.’ Why is this? There’s a heck of a lot of talented people covering the NBA broadly, whereas there’s a lot smaller of a pool covering the Magic. If you cover them well you’ll have plenty of opportunities to branch out.
J. Cole had Hov. Kendrick had Dre. Eminem also had Dre.
Starting out you may know nobody. You may have no reputation and nothing on your resume that says you’re capable of building something significant. The great thing about rap is that the less you come from the better. There is no ‘rap’ Stanford or YC that gives you credibility to the outside world before you make anything. There is just bars and refining your craft.
In startups, you may have to hustle your way to finding that person who believes in you and is willing to assist you in your journey if you don’t have superstar credentials. Maybe you start off your career by begging to work for someone you admire. A cosign will make introductions, give you credibility, put money behind you and give you an opportunity to be successful. They can open crack open doors that you don’t know exist.
Does my idea already exist? Should that deter me?
While you may think that competition is a threat and dissuade you from going any further, I’d take a step back to consider another angle.
Competition is good. It means there’s a market and other entrepreneurs see it, too.You can learn from incumbents or competitors mistakes. That may lead you to creating something better.
“It ain’t about who did it first. It’s ‘bout who did it right,” said the great business philosopher Aubrey Graham. We see tons of examples of this in technology as Facebook, Google and the iPod weren’t even close to being first in their category.
When we launched RentHoop, there were dozens of competitors. Many web-based and a few apps. That competition validated we were solving a genuine problem (although that’s not hard to see). Though there was no one doing it well validated that no one in the space had built a great business yet. I had the pleasure of discerning whether that was because it was a tough business or no one talented enough had tried at it. Interestingly enough, the AirBnB founders first idea was a roommate-search tool. They believed that because there was already ‘roommates . com’ the problem was solved. As anybody in their 20s knows, nobody uses roommates . com so they were wrong, but in the bigger picture they were right to choose the business they did!
Should I keep my idea secret? What if someone steals it?
This is one of my favorite debates to have. People will be like, “well, you know in the Facebook movie Zuckerberg stole the idea from those two jocks and I don’t want anyone to do that to me.”
The two brothers walked away with, reportedly, $120 MILLION DOLLARS. Now, they’re billionaires. Think about how much of Mark’s life has been consumed by Facebook. He’s become one of the most despised people in the country. If you could skip out on all the shitty things about building a company and take home $100 million I’d say that’s a win.
You don’t have to shout your idea from the rooftop, but building a company is so hard that even if many people like your idea it takes too much work to bring it to life successfully.
Should I make investors/cofounders/my mom sign an NDA to hear the idea?
99% of the time, no. Startup people hate when you make them sign an NDA just to hear an idea that probably already exists.
Asking the Right Questions
I wanted every single person to validate my idea and tell me it was the greatest thing ever. While it’s extremely important to get feedback on your idea, you have to consider the source and if that information is constructive. I’m going to pitch an idea and respond the way a lot of casual people would.
It’s an app that lets you send disappearing photos.
Why do we need that?
How are you going to make money?
Is this an app just for sexting?
It’s an app for connecting with your friends at school and creeping on them.
Doesn’t something like this already exist? It’s called MySpace…
One of the things I understand much more than I did 5 years ago is nuance. Questions or doubts about your idea don’t make your idea inherently bad. In the case for the examples above, all those questions would have been warranted.
If it’s not obvious, Idea 1 is SnapChat and Idea 2 is Facebook. Both turned out pretty good.
A popular graphic in startup circles shows that many of the best ideas don’t often seem like good ideas at the time.
Does your product fill a gap?
SnapChat was, supposedly, an app for sexting. But really, it filled a gap that other social networks did not fill — sharing the highlights of your day through ephemeral messaging. Sharing is part of human nature and in that way, SnapChat tapped into what we already naturally do as people.
Here’s a quote I love from investor and former Tinder product guy Brian Norgard.
How to Name Your Company/Product/App
What can be a waste of time is pouring hours into naming your company. In my first startup, we spent probably a good two-dozen hours arguing over names. I have four things to shoot for when coming up with a name.
There’s a good story behind itIt’s short and easy to say, spellThe .com is available*It’s relevant to the product**
*At this point of the internet, most of the quality or easy to say domains have been scooped up. If yours is taken and you really love the name, try adding “get” or “app” somewhere.
**I don’t think this hurts, although it’s not totally necessary.
For additional context, check out from another one of Tinder’s top product managers.
As Claude C. Hopkins puts it in Scientific Advertising, “names that tell stories,” have been worth millions of dollars.
RentHoop isn’t my favorite name. I was swayed by it having the name ‘rent’ in it and the domain being available. Only problem is it’s really hard to say and always mispronounced. Ultimately, it probably had a slight negative impact, but wasn’t going to be the deciding factor whether we were successful or not.
Most people love to play Monday morning quarterback. It’s much easier to make suggestions than to make actions. Along the way, I found this to be somewhat annoying. I tried to remember people had good intentions and wanted to help me. Because there was a lot of constraints (limited engineering resources and marketing dollars) there was also a lot of features and ideas we couldn’t implement right away or at all.
This is one of the most difficult parts about building a startup, especially as a first-timer. Who do you listen to? What do you prioritize? There is a lot of advice, some of it very conflicting. This is what makes being on the front-line of a startup fascinating. You’ll encounter questions and ideas that most people don’t have to grapple with on the daily.
Who is this advice for?
Always ask (or consider) who the intended audience is before taking it like the gospel. A venture capitalist who seeks unicorns has advice that is geared towards companies with that sort of trajectory. Based on what you’ve already read, maybe your content with building a business that can stand on its profits with limited capital infusion. Here’a few questions to ask when you get advice:
Are they talking about any specific kind of business?
What is the background of the person giving you advice?
How much do they know about your business?
Does this person have any sort of credibility on this topic (examples they can cite, industry experience, general knowledge about business)?
Is this person quick to give you advice or do they want to know what you understand before chiming in?
The best advice I received individually was from people who took the time to genuinely understand what was going on with my startup. They were quicker to listen than they were to blurt out what you had to do.
Describing Your Idea — “The Twitter Rule”
If you can’t describe your idea in 140 characters or less, you’re doing too much. People who can’t clearly articulate their idea usually fall into the trap of having a product that does everything… which is the worst kind of product.
Founders who don’t know how to code get a bad rap. I felt that at numerous points throughout my journey and can see why some people in tech feel like that.
“Nontechnical” founders have a habit of demanding big features and enforcing unrealistic deadlines on engineers. The common thread for most nontechnical founders creating a technical product is we’ve all read the Steve Jobs book. We say stuff like, “Woz [co-founder of Apple and engineer] wouldn’t have built Apple without Jobs.” It feels cool to mimic Steve Jobs and be a demanding leader. Also, I’m not Steve Jobs. Neither are you.
I was wary of this right out of the gate. Well, that’s not totally true. I pitched many people to be my technical co-founder. While my pitch evolved to ‘Tinder for Finding Roommates,’ it didn’t start out so simple. The original concept was to create a rental ecosystem that streamlined the rental market for renters and landlords.
Which one’s easier to conceptualize; the first or second pitch? Clearly the Tinder one. An engineer can picture the look, feel and market of a Tinder-like product for finding roommates. The second pitch is an extremely broad concept that ultimately sounds like a lot of work without any clear direction.
‘The Lean Startup’ is a popular methodology for building products. Even if you don’t read the book, understanding how to build an MVP can save you a lot of time, energy and money. As I’ve seen recently, not everybody thinks the best way to build a technology company is through validating your idea before building them. Successful tech investors Marc Andreesen and Keith Rabois argue to go big. There is merit to both arguments. In my case, it wasn’t realistic to raise a ton of money from the get-go.
I was a novice pitching this big idea without any reasoning as to why it should start out so large. The feedback from engineers all sounded the same, yet I refused to acknowledge that my pitch was off.
It took two dozen meetings to see the writing on the wall. Once I realized I was the problem and my concept was not viable, I pivoted to something far more simple, realistic, drawn up and with reasoning behind it.
I can’t remember exactly how the idea was forged, but I’ll credit it to my friend and someone who spent a lot of time with me showing me the ropes, Tyler Menezes. Over a beer and drinks at what was formerly Rheinhaus on Capitol Hill in Seattle, WA, I believe Tyler blurted out the ‘Tinder for Finding Roommates’ concept. With his blessing, I took that tag-line and ran with it.
Although I had previously tried to mock-up what our site would look like, because it was such a busy product without a core feature or goal, my sketches came out horrible and confusing. With this ‘Tinder’ concept, I had a clear direction of how the product would function.
To support my pitch, I prototyped the app using a tool called POP aka prototype on paper. This was the best way for me to convey the vision. Now, engineers not only had a pitch for a feasible product, but they were able to see and even play with it through the prototype I had built. It made it possible for them to picture what they were building and how they would do it.