It was the best 2020/21 decision so far
First of all, there will be do names. Everything here is, of course, biased and based on my perception of how a project or a startup should be done. With this put out of the way, let me tell you a story of startups, hard choices and low-key anxiety.
A year ago — early 2020 — a guy called me. Let’s just call him…The Guy.
So, The Guy called. He had an idea of creating a startup in e-learning, turning boring many hour-long video lectures into gamified, and I may say, Tik-Tok like experience.
That resonated with me. I’ve worked in the e-learning industry; there are many ideas that could change the process, but all can be summed up like “PowerPoint with X”.
PowerPoint with quizzes. PowerPoint, but with videos. PowerPoint, but you pay per each slide. Anyway, any possibility to change that PowerPoint-like system dominance is worth trying. We picked a niche — soft skills, mindfulness and so on, and this was the first red flag.
You see, eBay started as a yard sale platform. Youtube was born a dating service. Three of four startups get to B round with another idea than they started with. By limiting yourself to a niche of a niche of a niche, you might run out of users.
Takeaway one: don’t try to imagine your audience and niche at the very start— you might overcomplicate your positioning.
Anyway, we continued. Each public learning platform, in a nutshell, is a marketplace. When you are building a marketplace, you have two options — either you focus on supply or on a demand. We decided on the supply strategy and The Guy started chasing mentors and teachers, and I’ve prepared the simplest bootstrap for video lectures — almost no code, I recoded every video by hand, we had a couple of pages to tell about the project and it somehow worked. I mean, teachers were interested in a new platform, but it ended here.
We need to think of a competitive advantage, and the best thing we came with was…a better user experience. You know, you create a super-duper UI, and your users immediately move from Coursera or whatever they are using to your platform.
Red flag number two. Let me explain.
Good ideas become monopolies. People continue using them even the UI is a disaster. It’s sometimes frustrating, but if you think that, for example, Facebook Advertising is a UI disaster (which it is), you are free to find another Facebook for you. There aren’t any? Thant’s the point.
Takeaway two: if you are good, people will use your product even with bad UI and design. Therefore, any redesign should be postponed as long as possible.
Takeaway three: if the only competitive advantage is UI and design…stop. You can do better.
At some point — late summer and early autumn 2020 — we had profiles, player, video lectures and other fancy things. Not bad for two guys working in their spare time, and a couple of other people have shown interest in joining the team. Everything looked good, except for one thing — lecturer commitment. They were very positive, but they did not engage.
Red flag three. If you are half a year in a business, you have an MVP, and your uses do not commit, stop and rethink.
All projects, startups and ideas compete for the most valuable thing in the modern word — time. To win the competition, you have to provide a better experience than they had before.
Let me simplify it even more: to win, you must offer people to spend little time to spare a lot of time.
Dropbox: move files once, never mess with thumb drives.
Netflix: 5 minutes sign up and never spend time looking for a DVD.
Amazon AWS: move data to the cloud once and never support the hardware.
All we could offer was “spend some time recording the video, adapting to the new format and then…” with the exception that we had no “then”.
Takeaway four: save your users’ time and they will commit. If they don’t commit, you are wasting their time instead of saving it.
At the dawn of 2020, The Guy left his job to pursue the idea of getting a six-number investment in early 2021. We were four at the time. We had twenty-ish teachers joined, two courses, zero-effort onboarding (I will not go into the details, but the only thing was left for teachers was to push the button and talk to the camera).
We were searching for funding and a couple of months ago one venture fund agreed on giving around 10% of the desired amount for three months in exchange for a full commitment of the team.
The problem was that we had twenty-ish teachers joined, two courses and zero effort onboarding. Course drafts were one, two and three months old without a single video recorded. The only plan we had for improving it was to create a better UI and present a new design.
Red flag four. Money won’t buy you traction.
I was wrong to pull it that far.
Takeaway five: don’t do something you see no sense in.
I’ve told to the team my concerns. I’ve explained that I can not drop all my current projects in 20 days to join the acceleration program, as I have at least two success-fee based projects. I talked and talked avoiding saying the thing that bugged me the most: I don’t want to waste everything on something with no traction and the worst development plan ever.
We talked with The Guy afterwards. He ultimately stated that I’m either in, or out, and no negotiation accepted after this point.
Red flag five. When someone says “no negotiation after this point”, you were wrong to take it to this point. In fact, you messed it quite badly.
I said I’m out.
The morning after was the calmest morning in months.
The anxiety that was building up for months was gone now. I was free, I wasn’t supposed to build something that does not work in a way I was not ok with.
I was free and calm, with the only thought that I should have had done it earlier.
Thank you, The Guy.
I have no final takeaway but here a quite of Winston Churchill I’ve stumbled upon while writing this article:
Now, this is not the end. It is not even the beginning of the end. But it is, perhaps, the end of the beginning.