Ali Usman

There’s no such thing as ‘failure’ in startup world

Lessons from the ‘failure’ of Pages

Photo by Samuel Zeller on Unsplash

I hear a lot about ‘failed startups’ but what is considered a failure in startups? If we talk about the opposite of failure (success), it’s useful to remember these lines from Marc Andreessen’s Blog:

“The product usage is growing just as fast as you can add more servers. Money from customers is piling up in your company checking account. You’re hiring sales and customer support staff as fast as you can. Reporters are calling because they’ve heard about your hot new thing and they want to talk to you about it. You start getting entrepreneur of the year awards from Harvard Business School. Investment bankers are staking out your house. You could eat free for a year at Buck’s”

But let’s be honest, none of that happened to you, in fact, your product got an average response and a few hundred users. The word of mouth didn’t spread. You were unable to attract customers and therefore unable to make a business/profit out of it. You ‘thought’ you had a great product and a great business plan but after jumping into the market the whole plan went south — Oh the horror, your startup failed, but did it really? What if I told you it did not fail, instead it taught you things you didn’t know before. As Thomas A. Edison said:

“I have not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.”

I was expecting to write articles about my recent product called “Pages” to let users know how great the market response was, show massive user signups and traffic graphs and announce a bunch of new features to the app. Instead, I decided to shut down the app and sell it to potential buyers. To top it off, I wrote an article on why ‘my way’ did not work for my startup, why it did not reach my expectations and ended up collapsing like a house of cards. More importantly, I wanted to write about why the startup might not have worked as expected but was never a failure, in fact, it brought me a few steps closer to the ‘perfect success scenario’.

“Failure is part of the process of success. People who avoid failure also avoid success” — Robert Kiyosaki (book)

What is Pages you ask? If you don’t know I don’t blame you as it was a product that came on the market and went unnoticed like many other SaaS projects. Pages ‘was’ an AI-powered bookmarking and read it later tool with additional functionalities such as RSS reader, clean reading, reading offline, text to speech etc. I expected Pages to be a unicorn, however, it received an average response and not because I was pushing a bad product to people but because my approach to bringing this product to the market was insanely dysfunctional and completely divorced from reality.

Although there was some positive feedback from users such as the following:

This is what I was actually supposed to do before building the product. I will make it simple and short, there were multiple issues I identified with my startup but we will talk about a few major ones:

  • Team
  • Product
  • Market

I won’t start a debate about which one is more important as the answer will be quite clear at the end and I also let you decide for yourself.

The Combination of Determination + Flexibility

Paul Graham ( Y Combinator) writes that the top quality in founders is Determination — “This has turned out to be the most important quality in startup founders”, and right after that Paul talks about Flexibility — “The best metaphor I’ve found for the combination of determination and flexibility you need is a running back. He’s determined to get downfield, but at any given moment he may need to go sideways or even backwards to get there.”

These lines sum up everything you need to know about launching a startup. I was determined but was I flexible? If yes then what flexibility meant to me as a founder? What were my plans to go sideways and backwards if needed? Well, I didn’t have any plans for that, the determination and motivation were so strong that it actually overcame the flexibility (Bad idea).

This shows the returning visitors to the Pages app ( not too many)

Product/Market Fit + Early Validation

Nowadays, Product/Market Fit is an obsession for new companies, the reason is, whenever we see a successful startup, we see one that has reached product/market fit. I might have successfully provided an improved solution to a problem, but I did not follow the very basics steps such as:

  • Figure out if people will use (pay for) my product before I build it;
  • Learn which research methods are best for early validation;

I spent no time validating my key hypotheses or on understanding the current market for my product. The questions I should have answered are:

  • What is my product market?
  • Why users will want to switch to my app from other hugely successful similar apps like Feedly/Pocket/Instapaper?
  • How can I create a whole new market for my product and what changes I need to implement to achieve that (going sideways/backwards)?

I realized later that my product was unable to appeal to users because I did not have a clear vision for it and I didn’t give enough information on how to use the app efficiently. I expected the users to figure out everything on their own overlooking the fact that I needed to be clearer and more precise about the best features my product offers.

The following is some of the feedback from users describing how the app failed to make a good first impression:

As you can notice, there was a huge problem happening. The information provided for the product was confusing and the users couldn’t understand the purpose of its existence.

I will refer to McDonald's as I’ve learned a valuable lesson here — How many of us agree that McDonald's doesn’t make the best hamburgers, instead what makes them popular is the idea of fast production on low cost?

Similarly, in order to succeed, I needed to design a business around the promise of a cheaper and better product. The idea was to get many users to use the app and if they liked it they will clearly see the advantages of using it. What I didn’t do is provide enough information on how to use the app in the first place, and I let users explore and figure out how everything works on their own (bad idea).

When I asked more than 100 users (that logged-in to the app minimum 2 times a week) how would they feel if I shut down the app the response was something like this:

The importance of your team and co-founders

Going solo on a big project like this was not ideal. Even though I was ‘‘determined’’ the product still needed a Web App, Android app and iOS app, browser extensions, API to offer integration with other apps etc., so the amount of work required to build and test something on this scale was considerable. Especially when I was also the one adding all the features to match currently available similar apps and then add more features on top to ensure differentiation from these other apps and provide a better and cheaper solution. My competitors have been in the market for years and they know how to slowly work through the problem. A team of 5–10 people working on a product for years VS one person working for a few months to take an app to the next level is not an ideal situation. Is it even possible? Of course, it is possible but it probably isn’t a good idea. The reason for this is clear, as Tim Shaped said: “A great team is a team that will always beat a mediocre team, given the same market and product”.

I don’t consider Pages a failed startup, as there is no such thing called ‘failure’. This startup presented me with an opportunity to learn from my mistakes and find the right direction for my next product. It made me wiser and showed me the correct approach to build my, as Steve Jobs said, ‘next big thing’ with my team. Experimenting and risk-taking are one of the many qualities of a great entrepreneur.

At the end of the day, look at everything from a learning point of view and for new starters ‘welcome to the rollercoaster world of startups.’

If you have read this far, thank you very much — I will keep you updated over the next few months about my new product. You can follow me on twitter or drop me a line @a1iusman where I can answer any questions you might have.

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