I am planning to give up on something I worked on for a year. I am not sure if I am giving up too early or too late. What I know is that I want to use the product I tried to make. I seriously hope it will still be made and reach people, I’m sad I won’t be the one making it.
What I wanted to do
I wanted to build a growing self-help chatbot where advice could be at the same time customized and transparent. A collaborative chatbot helping you ask yourselves the questions that matter. A bot that would ask you questions about your work, love life, family life, feelings, money situation… and would guide you to content validated by a friendly community. The idea was to avoid the complexity of NLP by asking closed questions and focus instead on the structure and content of questions.
For the expertise, I wanted to draw on Stackexchange, Wikipedia and Reddit. I believe all these platforms have built a tooling that makes it easier to share information and build expertise. For the introspection side I wanted it to be similar to Okcupid questions, which can help you define who you really are.
A chatbot like wikipedia for the common issues of life.
I built it. First I wrote a basic android app to deliver the questions. Then I began to write the backend in node.js: I wrote tools needed for collaborative editing of structured questions. I tried to come up with a simple structure for questions which could be at the same time powerful (target specific users like young adults living in high cost of life areas) and understandable by anyone so everyone could get involved and leave their mark. I spent a lot of time implementing an interface that allows for collaboration, versioning and a vote system to accept/reject revisions.
I realised 6 months into the project that if I could come up with technical solutions, I was coming short on the business side. My goal was to create a company which could focus on the project and work with its community. I tried and managed to enlist the help of an old friend with strong business skills: Yibiao. Talking to him was the best thing that happened to me since starting the project.
From the start, I knew there was a psychology angle to this project. I tried to contact people from the field but I haven’t been great at following up on the potential leads I had.
We decided to focus on one area. We chose travel because there was a whole wiki dedicated to it and a very active community on a subreddit. I tried to fill the app with these resources, trying to rewrite their content to fit our format. Looking back I am a bit unhappy with the content I wrote at this time. My process was a bit too mechanical and it made obvious the fact that I was not a native English speaker. I also felt that answering these focused questions became way more tedious than a conversation should be.
We learned at this stage that the complexity of the graph was high but that it was manageable with dedicated tools to graph it:
We then decided to contact some subreddits and use them as feedback sources. We contacted only one subreddit /r/getdisciplined, the feedback we had from the subreddit mod was valuable and we changed some things from their inputs.
Meanwhile, I had contacted another old friend who had graduated in psychology to see how we could add some sourced psychology content to the app. It led us to add some Work Psychology surveys. I discovered bugs in the platform during this addition and I spent a good deal of time fixing these. She was also a bit less available and I didn’t want to pressure her into taking time from her paid job for a project I couldn’t promise would work.
Loss of momentum
Somewhere along these steps, I lost my momentum. My partner kept meeting with people. I began to look for work. I also suffered a sports injury which blocked me at home. I had already lost momentum several times before but being blocked at home made it harder to get back on track. I have almost entirely recovered from the injury now.
We had always been oscillating between focusing on one single area and trying to build something for an universal audience. Finding the right angle from which we could apply enough friction to build a successful company and reach everyone with the project. Yibiao managed to get hold of someone with a strong background in startups and investment.
The results of the conversation would suggest that it would be extremely challenging to launch as a successful company or attract investments to bootstrap the project as it is now. It seems we need to do a strong pivot. While I agree that pivoting might be required, I’m afraid that it means that we need to throw away one year of work.
How do users get there?
All questions have a webpage, all these pages are related by the graph of questions. We try to source content. I believe this is the kind of content search engines want to promote.
What will they find?
Why should I use the app?
To find the questions that matter. To help you get out of financial debt, of a dead-end job, of a toxic relationship, to find a way to get back in touch with your family… We need to help each others run our lives in a transparent and friendly way.
Why is this the right format?
I am not sure the format I chose is the right format but I believe dialog is the right format for a tool like this. I also believe that the YES/NO format is interesting because it allows the user to answer a long list of questions in a limited time-frame. It seems the YES/NO format also has limitations and might be replaced in some places with drop down lists or number pickers sometimes, not too often in order to keep the flow though.
This project ticked a lot of the topics I have been passionate about in the last 10 years:
I wrote a first chatbot over IRC in engineering school. I had been following closely the field since then.
I had the opportunity to work for a community with my previous job and it felt great. Building something with positive feedbacks made me happy to go to work.
Stackexchange and Wikipedia have always fascinated me. Browsing talk pages of wikipedia and stack overflow meta is something I need to refrain doing. Have you heard about federated wikis?
You must have heard about reddit by now. What you can find on reddit are small communities of people who share passions with you. That’s where I want to bring you to, to these dedicated communities and to the resources they have already created/selected.
Answering okcupid questions might have helped me define who I am now.
Working to build something on the shoulders of these platforms was really awesome. Before I began doubting the project too much, this work didn’t feel like work.
Lost in traction
What can you do when the big vision looks like it could work but you have no idea how to get there? I’m lost. I never believed it would be easy though.
I have worked in a startup and I had seen that finding the right product/market fit could be a struggle. I hoped to gain some traction earlier and that we would have to react to feedback rather than always try to find ways to get useful feedback.
I hoped to find a tortuous path from where I was to where I wanted to be. What we learned is that the path we had is not practical. We need to reach many more people to create new paths.
I can either give up, get back to normal life; I really should actually. Loss aversion. Being lost and having little self-discipline is a bad cocktail.
I still don’t want to. I believe we have not played some of the cards we have in our deck. I’ve not failed hard enough.
I know I speak to two communities here. Those who want to get involved already and those who believe they know why it can’t work. My goal is to reconcile these two communities and to walk the fine line where this project happens.
If you want to contribute, please go ahead, this project is at a stage where all contributions are welcome.
Finally, I managed to get the right to create a subreddit: It’s here
You can discuss where you want this project to go. It’s not mine, it’s yours. I want to stay involved but it will be up to you whether I will be contributing. We also need a name for the chatbot…
Writing this, I have not been great at the people level. This is no surprise as I have never been really a people’s person but its impact here is huge. I might especially not have been assertive enough on what I saw in this project and how daring we should be reaching people.
Since I began writing this article, things have moved:
I am currently interviewing for Android developer positions in Parisian startups. Going through interviews has helped me move to a more positive state of mind.
I will fund this project for the coming few years if it attract users. I need to clean the code and open-source it too.
I would love input from wikipedians, redditors, okcupid and stack exchange users and the people behind these platforms. Their input is what I need to know what to do of this project. Can you help me reach them?
Jeff Atwood, Joël Spolsky, Jimmy Wales, Ward Cunningham, Steve Huffman, Alexis Ohanian, Chris Coyne, Christian Rudder, Sam Yagan, and Max Krohn: I owe you guys big chunks of my career and my personality. Can you help me figure out what to do of this project I made?
This project would never have happened without the support of my friends, and family. Thank you
I need to extend special thanks to Yibiao who was ready to partner with me on this project and who followed progress week after week while trying to push this project to viability.
Special thanks also to Meggie who took the time to contribute and Nicolas who gave me feedbacks to finish this post.
Thank you too for reading this far.