Today I will kill my startup

(Need feedback on your startup’s website or idea so that you’re more likely to succeed? Get on-demand feedback from your target demographic with userinput.io. You can certainly learn from failure but it’s still best to avoid it… now on with my story!)

I’ve spent two and a half years trying to get my startup, Ignite Your Match, off the ground. I didn’t focus on it consistently at all, but it’s been a long and sordid relationship. Yesterday, I realized that one of the crucial features was broken (again) and I realized I just needed to take the whole project behind the barn and shoot it.

It’s sad. I’m sad. This feels like dumping a girlfriend. You probably know the feeling: You realize that while the relationship isn’t outright shitty, there’s no future there, and it’s not that fun anymore, and just because you have a past doesn’t mean that you have a future.

But sadness is of course an emotion, and if you step away from emotion and look at it rationally, with business eyes, you can see how obvious it is that this startup needs to fold:

  • There is just okay PMF (product market fit)
  • I’ve put $20k into the project and it’s only earned $2k
  • I can’t warrant putting more money into it, but it needs it
  • The LTV of customers sucks (more on this in a minute)
  • Traction has been very difficult

They say to fall in love with your problem, not your solution. (I didn’t know Lean philosophy when I started.)

The problem I was trying to solve: Online dating is hard because writing a profile is hard.

The solution I came up with: Private crowd-sourced feedback to find issues with your profile and learn how to improve it so that you get better results.

I thought it was a good idea. Other people did too, including my mentor, who is known locally for ripping ideas apart and making grown men cry. He really liked the idea, so I thought it was good.

I didn’t validate the idea when I had it. I just went for it, hiring an okay developer off e-lance and building out a crude MVP. I put about $3k into it, and I launched the first version.

And for an idea that isn’t validated, the worst thing possible happened: Sales.

People bought it. Not a ton, but people used it, and I thought I was onto something.

Knowing what I know now, this would have been a perfect candidate for a Wizard of Oz MVP, and I could have gotten sales and run the company without a lick of real back end coding. I could have validated without investing anything other than my time and the cost of a template and a domain. But I didn’t know that stuff back then.

It ran passively, but kept having problems. Fast forward a year, and I’m at a Startup Weekend talking to a dev company, and I tell them about Ignite Your Match (which had a stupider name then based on a Greek god) and they love the idea and we agree that they will rebuild it from scratch in exchange for a few grand and equity.

I thought that surely it could finally take off if it were built well. I could never really push it hard before, because it was buggy. But with a bug free system, sky’s the limit, right????

That dev company said it should take two months to build out. Eight months and 9,000 excuses later, I fire them because it’s tremendously behind schedule, and I hire Toptal to finish it out. Toptal was awesome to work with and finished it up quickly. I could finally push it. So I did.

Not that many people really wanted it, and there were still issues with the business model.

I should have killed the project a year ago. Maybe a year and a half ago. But it’s like a relationship, and you say “Jesus, why did I stay with that woman for so long? She’s the worst.” But at the time, it seemed not that bad.

Let’s talk about all the problems:

The business model

Since this is a service for online dating services, basically, it has all the problems that the online dating business models have. Lifetime Value of a customer is low, because if I do a great job helping them with their profile, they meet someone. Best case scenario with my service is that they get married and live happily ever after! No repeat business there!

Because if their profile is really improved, why would they come back? I did have some customers do what I did when I used it, which is to get feedback then edit the profile then get feedback again to make sure you didn’t go overboard. So with a base price of $39 for a review, LTV at best is $78 if they do the service twice. I had one guy put his two dating profiles through the system twice, so that’s the record possible LTV, pretty much.

I had to pay the reviewers to review the profiles, so my margin wasn’t that great. And a mediocre margin combined with a low LTV means you can’t spend much to try to acquire customers, so that makes everything more difficult.

And I never saw a way to turn it into a recurring business model, either.

Profiles are private

So while I have a similar (but successful!) service userinput.io that gives feedback on websites, which is easy to do because websites are public, getting feedback on dating profiles is inherently difficult because dating profiles are usually private. So we built scrapers for OkCupid and Plenty of Fish.

And every time OkCupid or POF changed their profile layout, the scraper broke. It was usually easy to repair, but since I have to hire out the backend work, a quick repair is still a few orders’ worth of net revenue.

Match’s security was too tight and we couldn’t scrape it. There’s no web login for Tinder, so we couldn’t scrape that either. So those customers needed to cut and paste their info over, which is no big deal for Tinder, but it sucks for Match, because there’s so many individual bits of info to copy.

In the first MVP, we had people make a PDF of their profile page and upload it, which is simpler for sure, and usually worked, but not always. You’d be amazed how hard it is for some people to make a PDF of their profile that was proper resolution.

Traction

I have other business ventures, like a screen printing company and userinput.io, so I didn’t give full time attention to this. Sometimes, I would devote a whole week to it, and sometimes a whole month. And I’d work to promote it and get it traction and get the ball rolling, but it was like sisyphus’s task, and it felt impossible.

  • Paid ads were too expensive usually.
  • Facebook doesn’t allow dating related ads, so that was impossible.
  • Plenty of Fish has an interesting ad system, but those didn’t convert.
  • Match and OkCupid’s ad network rejected me.
  • I did a DIY PR campaign and got written about in the Huffington Post, SFgate, Boston Metro, etc, but that didn’t result in many orders.
  • There aren’t major dating blogs, so guest blogging never worked out.
  • I had interesting data to write about but content marketing never got traction.
  • I even ran Porn Hub ads, and while that can get you a flood of traffic for super cheap, those guys never converted, because maybe they had their uh hands full?

I took a call with a professional growth hacker from sohelpful.me and even he was like “man, this is hard” and couldn’t come up with ideas.

Shame

And word of mouth marketing didn’t happen, as far as I can tell. Because what are you gonna say? You’re at the bar with your bros and you say “hey guys my dating profile was shit so I hired a company to tell me why and they said I sounded obnoxious and now I’m not obnoxious sounding and girls respond to my messages at a better rate and you should totally try it too!” No.

Online dating is getting way more common and people are getting more open with it, but there’s still shame involved. I ran surveys on this, and guys’ biggest fear with online dating was getting catfished or people finding out that they were doing online dating at all. (Just to show the difference, women’s biggest fear? Literally getting murdered).

But people aren’t going to talk about online dating publicly in general, and they’re sure not going to talk about how they used a company to do it better because they were having trouble with it.

I tended to get a fair amount of British customers, and one of them said the British especially would never admit needing help, so word of mouth would never happen there.

Trust

It’s a weird concept, and people had to be very trusting to hand over their super personal dating profile for us to review. They were concerned who the reviewers actually were (they came from Mechanical Turk). They were scared to give us their login information so that we could scrape and duplicate their profiles. Some obviously trusted us, but it was a sticking point for many.

No market

There is very little search volume for stuff like “dating profile improvement”, so I was having to educate and create a market for it, and creating a market is always difficult, perhaps even a fool’s errand. Getting feedback on a dating profile is a pretty unheard of idea, and while I still honestly believe it’s very helpful (I used it myself and saw results, just ask my lovely wife that I met on OkCupid!), people don’t know to seek it out, and it’s hard to get in front of them.

It’s so personal

Selling feedback on websites is one thing. Hearing stuff like “the blue you use at the top is too corporate” or “your popup is so annoying” or “I don’t really understand if this service is for individuals or businesses” when you order website reviews is WAY different than getting feedback on your dating profile and hearing “you sound pretty arrogant” or “you sound like you drink way too much” or other helpful but sharp criticisms that people might need to hear.

Guys would ask “Am I attractive?” which is not a helpful question to ask, because it doesn’t lead to feedback that you can act upon. Sometimes they weren’t. It was cringe-inducing to review the feedback sometimes. That’s not a question that is easy to ask, or answer.

False hope

I want to write an entire piece on just this, but the only thing worse than no revenue for a startup is some revenue. Getting enough revenue to feel validated, like it can work. And I would get that.

I would be on the verge of shutting it all down, and someone would order, and then tell me it helped them. I kept the project going for the foolishly altruistic desire to help people find love. I know that sounds corny as Lifetime movie network hell, but it’s true. That’s why I kept the project going. Because life sucks and meeting people and falling in love makes it tolerable.

We offered profile rewriting, too, which was rarely ever ordered, but the last guy who ordered it, he wrote me back twice raving about his results, saying it was basically an epiphany for him, and how great everything was going now. That’s one of the greatest professional emails I’ve ever gotten in my life, and Robbie, if you’re reading this, I’m so glad we helped you.

I wish I could have helped way more people but this business is fucked and I have to terminate it.

No regrets

Education is expensive. I went to Drexel University and got a degree in Information Science and I’m blessed that my wonderful parents paid for my college so that I don’t have crazy student loan debt like so many of my peers.

And I feel okay about putting so much into Ignite Your Match because it was my startup education. It was my first startup, my first foray into online businesses other than my screen printing business and some drop ship muses that the Four Hour Work Week inspired (don’t bother, that’s a shit business model too). I learned a ton and I absolutely love the startup world. I feel like at 32 years old, when I started Ignite Your Match, I finally figured out what I wanted to be when I grew up.

There are obvious upsides to putting this startup in the ground. It’s off my plate, out of my mind, and I don’t have to think about it at all. I can focus on Vacord and userinput.io, and give more attention to other worthwhile sites like startupresources.io.

But it still bums me out, honestly. I wanted this to work…

Stuart Brent is a free range micropreneur, founder of Vacord Screen Printing (they want to make your custom t-shirts and hoodies), userinput.io (an easy way to get on demand feedback for your app, idea or website), and StartupResources.io (a list of the best tools for your Startup). When he’s not glued to his laptop, he enjoys traveling, eating sandwiches, and trying to find decent espresso throughout The South.

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