|Hello Hacker News,|
I’ve been reading HN for a long time now and love the way the community shares thoughts with each other. I haven’t done anything extraordinary or extremely successful, but I want to chip in to the community with this experience that I find pretty interesting.
A year ago, I moved to San Francisco from rural Missouri hoping to join the start-up world. At the same time, I met a friend, Zac, who also just moved to the bay area around that time but had left his job to pursue something more interesting. We decided to become partners and start hacking stuff together.
Since we were new to the city and we didn’t know any one, we decided to build a mobile app that lets people use their phone to read the profiles of others nearby. It was supposed to help people “break the ice” and meet new people. This was our first startup. We coded the product in a week and pushed the product live.
Once live, we got like 5 users, since no one really knew about it. To promote this product, we decided to target events, since we thought that events is where people would like to meet each other. We locked ourselves in a room and asked this question over and over: “What is something valuable we can provide to event organizers so that they can promote our product?”
Zac finally came up with an idea. He proposed that we could build a kiosk where attendees can type in their name, and a name badge would instantly print. Then the attendees would be integrated into our mobile app as well. At first, it sounded insanely dumb (what would my mom think if I told her that I moved 2000 miles away from home to print paper name badges?), and I laughed really hard. But after thinking about it, it seemed “cool”, and we gave it a try.
In a day of work, we wrote the software in 300 lines of code and tested it. We ordered a label printer from Dymo and hooked them up to a Dell Mini 10v netbook. After that was done, we contacted an event organizer, convinced him that our system wasn’t going to fail, and asked if we could print name badges for him.
The event organizer let us try out our system, and that night turned out to be amazing. People thought it was the coolest thing ever to type their name in a laptop and instantly have a name badge print out. At the end of the night, we handed out lots of cards and got lots of people to try our mobile app. It was the first time in my life that there was “buzz” around something I created.
We continued to hit events and print name badges. We bought more printers and lots and lots of labels. We bought a huge travel suitcase to hold everything, and we carried it everywhere to print name badges for events.
The experience was amazing. Not only did we get a lot of people to try our mobile app, but all the attendees thought it was the “coolest” gadget ever. I guess we essentially “engineered” our way into these $600 technology events for free. Many event organizers gave us the front-seats sponsor booth, without charging us a dollar. Some gave us free advertising banners at their events. Most importantly, everyone walked around with our logo on their shirt. We shook all their hands as they walked into the door. Advertising can’t get any better than that. We quickly got our mobile app into the hands of our users, and talked to more than 500+ directly.
Unfortunately, after a month passed, we realized that our initial mobile app wasn’t working. People didn’t want the product. They didn’t want to read profiles about people around them. The mobile app wasn’t useful.
Here’s the weird thing about start-ups: things just happen. Although our mobile app failed miserably, our little name badge printing system became insanely popular. Event organizers were begging us to print badges for them every time they had an event. They were referring us to their friends, and we were hitting events literally every day with our name badge printer. To cater for each event, we forked our original software (which was completely hard coded and not well thought through) way too many times.
Just to name a few, we hit: TechCrunch events, Smash Summit, SF Music Tech, Future/Money Tech, ISA, Twitter events, FailCon/FailChat, TEDxSoma. You can see some pictures here: http://imhello.posterous.com/ .
Eventually, we got so many requests that we couldn’t go to all the events anymore. It was too much for us to handle. That’s when it finally hit us right on the forehead. This is what it’s like to build a product someone wants. Event organizers wanted to use our system. They’ll email you, call you, beg you, and tell their friends about you.
Since we were too overbooked, we decided to charge and up our product. We added EventBrite integration, customization, and polished it up a little. For every event, we would make around $50-$300 dollars (depending on the size and labor).
Soon, this little name badge printing software was now able to support me and my partner’s living expenses. And in the end, we sold the product to a small company. Although it was not an amazing multi-million dollar acquisition, it was an acquisition that gave us enough money to start another company.
The lesson we learned is that something so tiny as a “name badge printing machine” may seem silly and pointless at first, but it led to opportunities you can’t first predict. In our case, it fed us and turned into a small acquisition. We made lots of friends and great people while we were attending these events. Even our $10 Logitech keyboard was touched by many great CEOs and celebrities who came through us to get their name badges. We got completely free promotion and direct advertising.
I think that every startup has opportunities where they can be creative. Every startup can build something on the side and attach it to their product somehow. My advice is that if you find something “cool”, even if it’s small or trivial at first, take it for a spin before dropping it in the trash can. It might just spin into something that can help in the future.
After selling the name badge printing software, we decided to go back and pivot on our initial mobile app. Our new company is called View. View is a mobile app that “tells you what you need to know, wherever you are.” We’re really excited about this app because it’s very useful to our daily life.
We’re about to launch beta very soon. If you’d like to try it, go to http://view.io
Make sure you click the link above instead of typing it through the browser, so we can know you were referred from Hacker News and can give priority access.
Thanks for reading my story!
P.S. View is not in the App Store yet, but if you’d like to try the iPhone app as a beta tester, shoot me an email and tell me your city/state in the subject line: firstname.lastname@example.org. We only have a limited number of invitations left, so I can’t guarantee that everyone can try it.