In September of 2015 I emailed a former business professor. I had recently registered an LLC to do software consulting and I wanted to update her on this momentous occasion. I did not yet have any customers or revenue, but was about to get awarded a contract from the USDA. I have always had the desire to own my own business and now that I officially had a business, I wanted to reach out to the professor to let her know that her teaching meant something to someone. She thought it was great and congratulated me on it.
Then a few week later she emailed again to inquire about what my business actually does. After informing her, she connected my with an MBA student who had a business idea and wanted to see if it could go somewhere. Maybe I could offer my services or maybe be a co-founder.
Enter in Carmelo Mannino.
Carmelo and I first met at a local brewery which set the tone of our professional, yet laid back relationship. Carmelo had the original idea to make a Facebook app that could filter your Facebook feed. We found out it was not possible with Facebook and pivoted to Twitter which had a much more open API. We iterated, sought user feedback and discussed over the next few weeks, and formulated a real life product we could actually implement. We went on to prototype our app idea and win various local business pitch competitions, including some at Galvanize, and at the Rocky Mountain Angel Investors. We then won money at the Colorado State University Collegiate Challenge, another business pitch competition. We won more money from the CSU venture accelerator in the form of a grant as well as their closed business pitch competition. Needless to say we were successful in the early stages. We released our beta and there it was: an app and business we could call our own.
From there Carmelo did a lot of growth hacking as we tried to get our numbers up. Unfortunately we never hit over 100 downloads on the Play or App store. We eventually slowed down and decided to call it a game. Carmelo and I official declared our business dissolved and began the process of closing down shop.
Why I did it
The main reason for pursuing this app and startup idea, even though I had a fantastic full time job, was to see what I can do, to stretch myself. I graduated with a CS degree and have always had lots of invention ideas floating around in my head. Because of this I took some business classes. I wanted to take all that business knowledge and combine it with my technical knowledge to create something, in fact I was willing to make anything! I knew it would be a learning experience and that I might not make it, in terms of being a million dollar startup, but I was ready to fail and learn while I did it.
I was officially called the CTO and Co-founder, and Carmelo the CEO and Co-founder. I was the tech and Carmelo the business. For the record it was my opinion that Carmelo and I had great chemistry. We always compromised on any differences in decisions, trusted each other judgments in our field of expertise., and worked as hard as one another. Not to mention our love of brews always made things easier haha.
After prototyping our mobile app together, I began the process of actually implementing it. I receive daily Google news alerts and happened to stumble upon Ionic. It is a HTML and JS framework built on top of Cordova. Basically what it does is allows you to develop a web app, Android app and iOS app all in HTML and JS at the same time. It is an amazing framework for prototyping and non-performant-reliant apps. The first version of the app came out quick, less than a month, and was accepted widely by our various business pitch judges and our would be users.
With the making of the app itself we needed a web based backend for storing user info. For this I used some Python tools to create a web based API system. The used the Ionic built in API tools, as Ionic actually uses Angular.
A list of the technologies used:
- Android Studio (for building and debugging)
- XCode ( (for building and debugging))
- AWS (Ubuntu server)
Overall it was a simple stack. A mobile app that hit a web server with homemade APIs for data (we did minimal on phone data caching), and a database to store everything all on AWS.
What I learned
I will give a few bullet points as to what I learned then expand on a few.
- Beginning AND sustaining a startup take a lot of time, energy and emotional strength.
- You need to have an awesome co-founder/partner or else the startup will crumble quickly
- Especially in a tech startup, iterating a prototype rapidly is the key to success
- If you're not single, your spouse/significant-other will have to support the decision for you to engage alot of time with the startup, and be aware of the road they're about to go down with you
- You need a good 9-to-5 to fund your 5-to-9
- Business pitch competitions are a great way to get some early funding, so you're not spending your own cash
- You or your partner needs to be comfortable with pitching and networking
- Validate your idea before construction
- Garner as many free tools, services etc as you go along: aka bootstrap
- Growth hacking is really hard
- Failing isn't such a bad thing...
After the first prototype, making noticeable progress on IgnoreU, took a lot of time. Like I would work on a feature for a few different nights (if I had energy left after my full time job), and then all of a sudden it was Saturday again and the feature wasn't done. The problem repeatedly, was the fact that during the evenings I would only get 1-2 solid hours of coding done, which after one week is equivalent to 5-8 hours. Then maybe a solid 4-6 on Saturdays. By those numbers, I am not even working part time on the app or website. I got a prototype out really quick after locking myself away for a few hours a night for about two weeks, but that model wasn't sustainable as I had a full time job, a wife and because simply people can't work that much in the long term. So be sure to be realistic about your life and the time tables to produce the product.
We got started early on by winning pitch competitions to gain popularity and to be able to validate our idea. Carmelo also hit up our local college campus regularly for the first couple of months to get user feedback with things like notecard prototypes and surveys.
We bootstrapped our costs by doing things like using free trials of online services, using open sources software, signing up for student pricing or trials on things like AWS. Look around, companies are always offering 1 week or month trials. This is especially valuable in the beginning when your idea isn't yet validated or matured enough to warrant spending real money to progress it.
Getting users is hard. It takes a lot of creative thinking, regularly marketing via various streams (social media ads, etc) and a good product. If people actually bite on an ad the product better WOW them, or else they will never come back.
Sometimes the product can be validated, hours upon hours put into it, and growth hacking techniques fully deployed, but you still fail. This was our case. In the end, our app didn't have enough value proposition for users to switch from using Twitter to using our app. We had conversion barriers, that we either didn't test for or simply it wasn't able to be seen until actual launch. Either way, we did everything textbook though; Carmelo had an MBA in entrepreneurial stuff, I, the tech guy, had even taken business and prototyping classes. We had real world experience; Carmelo had done a startup internship and I was a software engineer with 2 years of B2B product experience. But we still failed. At first it was hard for me to stomach and I couldn't reason why or how. Like it all seemed so perfect. But after reflection, like even as I write this, it makes sense why we failed.
But we won money to fund the idea, and to even take a bit for ourselves. We lost time if you count that as currency, but we gained so much experience. We learned a lot about the real world of product development and startup life and makes me wonder how the big guys in the tech world made it to the end.
I plan on pursuing another startup one day, but the circumstances would be different. For now though I plan to excel in the workplace. I have a shot at working at a new company and would relish the opportunity to be a part of that organization. I won't name it here, but let's just say they make a great search engine. If I don't get in there (which I am going to give it my all to get there), I might start doing some consulting on the side to accelerate student loan payoff, then start saving.
For my next venture, I would love to work with Carmelo againand if he's not available I will try my best to find someone like him. The startup I would be a part of would be able to validate rapidly and stand up quicker too because I know about my shortcomings, like what worked and what didn't because of my experience now. I would also like to be in a place where I am debt free, I have some money saved up (like 6 months worth) for personal expenses and more money saved up for the startup itself for operating expenses. I would also like to be able to devote my full attention to the startup, so that means no full time job to worry about. I know that sounds like a picture perfect scenario but, if I am going to do it again I'm going to give it my all...and succeed!