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Reboot. Relaunch. Redesign. Pivot. Sunset. Shutter. The Knack, a web app, story. (studiofellow.com)
87 points by anthony_franco on Sept 21, 2011 | hide | past | favorite | 63 comments

Success does not come from Getting Real, or from Lean Startups, or from any other business book. It doesn't come from sitting in your room reading Inc. Magazine or Joel on Software. It doesn't come from great typography or presentations worthy of Steve Jobs.

I'll bet if you look at your server logs, you'll see that this post on Hacker News got you more traffic than you've had since you launched. I would guess you got about 35,000 humans listening to your story tonight.

Get it? It's a story. It's about the story.

Sitting around the campfire telling stories.

You can reboot, relaunch, pivot, A-B test, Go Lean and Get Real in your room until the end of time but until you have a story to tell you're not interesting and if you're not interesting nobody will pay attention: not poor teachers, not rich teachers, not anybody.

OK, congratulations, you have now learned one thing about business. If you'd like to learn another couple of thousand send me an email and come work for me in New York; it looks like you're a pretty decent product designer and programmer.

This is not an example of someone following the advice of the smart people and failing. This is someone not following advice and making most of the common mistakes people warn about.

He's a sole founder, working part-time, in Colorado, on a problem he doesn't have, in enterprise software, for schools, with no distribution plan, no team, no domain expertise, in a niche market, and giving up after 1 year.

Of course, he still could have succeeded, but he definitely stacked the deck against himself.

A couple of your points are narrow-minded. I have to live in the bay area, work on a team, and work on it full time to build a viable business? Come on, there are other paths to success.

Your points about domain expertise, and working on a problem I don't have are right on. I learned the hard way it's way harder to build software to meet someone else's needs. (Even though 3 immediate family members are teachers, including my wife.)

"Of course, he still could have succeeded, but he definitely stacked the deck against himself."

The real story might be that his product just isn't as good as the competition. It took 10 seconds of searching to find https://www.igradeplus.com/, which on the surface looks like a much better offering.

He seems critical of his customers and dismissive of his competitors, both of which are big red flags.

You are correct. Not as good + niche = death

At least he apparently landed himself a job :). Being positive.

(I don't deny that fact that yours are good points.)

My attempt at a story was taking a stance in the ongoing education reform controversy. It earned me the chance to write the post for GOOD, and got the one blogger to cover my app. That one guest post got me all 10 of my paying users.

Story is huge, but I couldn't make it over the hump. Maybe my story wasn't compelling enough.

Thanks for the kind words, the advice, and the offer. Will send you an email shortly.

Just curious. I read Running Lean and always had problems with its advice. I just recently got my hands on Lean Startup and think the advice is a lot better.

Running Lean is part of the problem. People can't tell you what they want, you can only observe what they actually do.

You should have pivoted Knack so that its customers were parents who wanted to track the progress of their child against other children. That's what parents just love to do. Parents should have been begging their teachers to use the tool, then it would have been adopted and you probably could have charged a lot more for it.

Right, but the problem is what do you do if you have no one to observe? That's where Running Lean makes sense to me. Start with highly structured interview scripts and hypotheses, and piece together data by limiting the possible set of answers.

A pivot for consumers sounds like a great idea, but we all know consumers are more fickle than professional audiences. Turns out teachers behave a lot like consumers, which I should have figured out much much sooner.

So, I'll just repeat what The Lean Startup would say (or at least my interpretation):

a) You still have your hypothesis, but you can't validate them until you have actual data. People's opinions about how they might act to some situation in the future is not data. People actually using your product is though.

b) Smoke test demand for the product in the first place. You could have created a sign-up page in a weekend and spent a few weeks marketing that if you wanted to feel comfortable with potential demand. These guys did just that and had thousands of sign-ups before they even begun programming their product (http://vizualize.me/).

Go on Facebook right now and share a link to a webpage that you can track. When you share out the link use the headline "National grade statistics released. Is your child a genius or falling behind the curve?". Tell me how many people clicked on that link. That's your smoke test. My gut tells me parents are not exactly your typical consumers. Parents emigrate to new countries where they have to work menial jobs but so that their kids can attend better public schools than what would be available to them at home.

c) Create a "concierge" MVP for your first few customers. It's an MVP version of your software that the first few customers use in which you can assess the usefulness of features before you program them.

You could have set your wife up with Google Docs templates and watched how she used a few templates over the course of a couple of months of teaching. You could have scaled this out to a pilot program of a few customers, and setting up the templates could have been a weekend job. Only after getting feedback about likes/dislikes with the Google Docs templates solution would you have started to build your software.

Joel, what would be the story behind trello?

This is an incredible response.

The core problem is that he tried to make & sell a product to people who are not tech-savvy, who are famously slow adopters and who are also famously broke & skinflinty.

To people, in other words, who didn't want what he had.

All the story in the world won't fix that.

That's why Jarrod is learning a better, more effective approach in my 30x500 class :)

At first, this seems to be the bog-standard "I built something that people said they want, but then they didn't buy it" post-mortem. However, dig deeper and you will be delighted by gems like these:

"This is a farce. Talking about tech and being on the Twitter make teachers look good to administrators and to the public. They can add “Technology Committee Member” to their resumes and congratulate themselves for being innovative. But using tech to do work requires a small minimum of effort and change, and any amount of these is too much for teachers."

"I didn’t realize there is a stigma amongst teachers—that they deeply resent having to spend money on their classrooms and careers. Many businesses, both online and off, have special discounts and freebies for teachers. This has warped teachers’ sense of value and fostered a sense of entitlement."

I applaud this subtle rhetorical device. The author understands that this readers may well be distracted by feelings of sympathy. So, he has carefully filled his post with nuggets like these so that we can focus on the substance of his post, rather than mawkish sentiments like: "How sad that a nice person can work hard for a year on a startup and not succeed".

The conflict that's weirdest for me is that he internally conflates mindshare, educational reform, etc with him earning cash money. It's as if he believed there was a direct correlation between his rising income and teachers' decreasing entitlement.

And now that he hasn't earned any significant cash, he can claim that teachers/education have a warped sense of value... right.

I really don't like the part where the author rags on teachers.

"I didn’t realize there is a stigma amongst teachers—that they deeply resent having to spend money on their classrooms and careers. Many businesses, both online and off, have special discounts and freebies for teachers. This has warped teachers’ sense of value and fostered a sense of entitlement."

Sorry, but why the heck should a teacher have to pay for their own classroom? If I were forced to pay for my keyboard at work, or my monitor, should I not be pissed? Teachers, especially ones that are starting out, are dirt poor, and for some reason they need to spend money on their classroom? Nonsense.

As sense of entitlement? How about a sense of what's fair. I didn't like the attitude at all.

"I feel for them. I really do. But they’re still terrible customers."

Or, in other words "Teachers refused to pay for my product, so they suck."

I would say the author was guilty of a cliched mistake that many startups make: he built a solution for a problem that no one was interested in, or at least interested enough to pay for.

I don't think he resents them as much as he just realizes that he had mistaken assumptions. He heard that teachers often pay for their own supplies, but what he didn't know was that teachers hate doing it.

He says they have a “warped sense of value” and a “sense of entitlement”, and that teachers’ claimed love of tech is a “farce”. I don’t know if he “resents” them or not, but it’s a pretty insulting tone he takes. Teachers don’t hate spending money on school supplies because they’re somehow unique: everyone on a fixed salary hates spending their own money on stuff that is absolutely necessary to their jobs and should be provided by their employers, especially ones who feel underpaid and disrespected in general.

You can bet that if you forced (for example) salaried programmers to pay for their own chairs and their own company email accounts, or forced salaried graphic designers to pay for their companies’ font licenses and stock photos that there’d be plenty of grumbling and resentment about it.

"teachers’ claimed love of tech is a farce”

I've seen this one many times.


Sorry, still learning the HN ground rules. No more one word comments.

Sorry but one word comments are the only way no to indicate assent quickly, if you upvote it's useless except as an indicator the commenter and even then they don't know it was you who upvoted. FWIW I think that your comment was fine, showed that you agreed.

The "ground rules" were set and worked on an earlier version. Your comment added information that was unavailable to us.

Thanks for the clarification. Appreciate it.

I left this out of the post, but my wife, father, and sister-in-law are all educators. I am a huge supporter of teachers. That's why I got into this in the first place.

You shouldn't have to pay for your keyboard, but maybe books to keep your skills current. Maybe a web host to operate a portfolio website or experiment with new code libraries. Everyone in every industry invests money into their careers. Why not teachers?

Last thought about the cliched startup mistake is completely true. I definitely made that mistake.

We're talking about 2 completely different things here:

1. Investing in your future skills, and

2. Having the necessary tools to do your job.

I don't know a single teacher that confuses these. If I want to become better at my job, clearly it's my responsibility to go take a class or buy a book or just study on my own. If I don't have the tools to do my job properly, depending on how core it is to my job, I would have the expectation that the school would provide it. The problem is schools often do not provide what is commonly understood as core tools.

Some random webapp that slightly enhances the classroom experience or slightly enhances learning outcomes is not a core tool. Instead it is a tool that exists on the periphery. Just as with any population, you have the early adopters and the not so early adopters. The early adopters may be interested, the others won't. Convincing administrators that your app isn't just an app that exists on the periphery is the most difficult task out of all.

If that's the case, then you should change the tone of your post. You obviously don't realize this, but it makes you sound petty, and makes it seem as though you're blaming your failure on "those stupid teachers that didn't realize how great my software was".

When I wrote the post, I realized there was a danger in that. I think the wording I landed on is blunt but fair.

I still really don't think it's an issue of "those stupid teachers that didn't realize how great my software was." ( However if I'm honest, I did think that on a couple of my more challenging days.)

I think teachers just don't want software for everyday tasks.

I thought that initially, but upon reflection, I think he struck the right tone.

He's not writing marketing materials for teachers to buy his product, he's providing a stern warning to other hackers making the same mistakes. So for that purpose the language was quite effective.

Exactly. Shows how important it is to bounce your concepts off the right people before you start. Everyone should quickly learn that the guy that says "Yeah, that's awesome!" with dollar signs in their eyes every time is the worst with feedback.

Yep, I totally fell for it. The Running Lean book I linked in the post was really helpful to me on that point.

I'm with steve8918 on this --- complaining about your customers not liking tech shows that you missed the point about their technology needs. Like... what if your school ALREADY has a system and you need to live with it? What if graphs aren't necessary, or even helpful? I get graphs that show where my kids grades on a standardized test compare to the scores of other kids in their cohort. These graphs are both trivial to make, and essentially useless at conveying information not contained in the raw numbers.

Also, it's CRITICAL to understand the difference between USERS and CUSTOMERS. If you sell something into schools, the SCHOOL BOARD is your CUSTOMER. The teachers are your USERS. You'd better make sure you can sell to the CUSTOMERS.

If you think about it, this explains why most school software is so astoundingly horrible: the CUSTOMERS don't ever have to use it!

My hat's off to anyone who wants to sell to this market --- I sure don't have the courage or masochism for it.

What you're describing with users vs customers is pretty standard in education. My approach was that teachers would be both customer and user.

I probably did confuse the two a bit in my post. To clarify, my point is that teachers are bad customers, but probably deserving users.

In the vein of "nobody ever got fired for buying IBM", no teacher ever got fired for storing all of their students' data locally, whether on a personal PC or a physical gradebook. I have worked with businesses that do not want to store data in the cloud (Amazon, Salesforce, etc) if the data is at all confidential. They have a point: the risks of local data storage are serious but intuitive, whereas the average person has only your word regarding the safety of the cloud. And teachers, like doctors and bankers, have auditors that they would have to persuade to accept the new technology.

I would not be surprised if the post mortem reveals that some teachers brought this app up with their administrators, who responded, "That app would be handy for you, but if there is theft or corruption of your students' data, how would we defend ourselves in the ensuing lawsuits? 'The developer seemed reliable?'"

I make my living selling software to teachers, and the privacy issue comes up about 1 in 20 sales. It is an issue, but not a deal breaker. If a teacher has an online grade book they can share with parents, and it gets results, then teachers will buy the software.

Irrational lawsuit paranoia is a real problem, but it is not the reason this product failed.

As someone who worked in Infosec at the 3rd largest district in the nation let me add something:

- Most, if not all, schools prohibit teachers from storing student data in external (non-school based) systems. In fact, our teacher/staff AUP strictly forbid using systems other than the district-provided systems for anything involving student information.

You missed your market. Look at your benefits list:

Demonstrates student growth. Reveals teacher effectiveness. Use data to inform your instruction. Creates beautiful and insightful graphs automatically. Detailed report card for every student. Organizes documentation for easy access. Faster and easier to use than any other gradebook.

Teachers already do all this in a way that is approved by their district via the tools provided for them. And, speaking cynically, they certainly don't want to reveal their effectiveness nor do they want to adjust lesson plans according to data.

That said, as a parent, I would want this kind of information about my child because I could use it to hold my child's teacher accountable. In fact, if I could share it on Facebook or a Yahoo! group (I'm a member of one for my daughter's class), it would help the community evaluate their kids and their instruction.

Call me crazy, but that's my 2 cents.

With a monthly burn of only $150 though, why kill it? The all or nothing approach seems stubborn to an outsider. Maybe it doesn't generate a full time income, but you only need 30 users to break even every month. That seems like an achievable goal.

This is exactly what I thought when I launched. A year later, 30 users is looking a lot less realistic.

The $150/mo isn't a big deal. I'd just rather focus my efforts on something else that is more likely to succeed.

Stack those bricks :-)

There are many very good insights in the comments already. I would add that the website doesn't work hard enough to establish credibility and trust, which is very important when dealing with a service where reliability is very important (I guess that you have a lot of manual input to do, and you don't want to lose your work...).

I'll add that my father (a retired teacher) sold some educational software that he created himself for years and it was mostly teachers who bought it to use in the classroom. He didn't make a lot of money (also because you could download the same software for free from the internet), but some teachers were definitely willing to pay for something that they valued for their work - at least here in Italy, but I guess that's also true in the US.

Your startup failed because teachers hate technology? Your startup failed because you couldn't make teachers love the technology you were providing. Or you didn't go to the right people. Maybe you should've gone straight to the schools.

My startup failed because I built it for the wrong people. I didn't mention this in the post, but I did approach schools in my area and offered a free pilot program. After a couple days of emails and cold calling I couldn't get a single taker.

The lesson is that you need to make sure you have a market before wasting time building a product. Most tech guys get this the wrong way around (but don't really care cause they like building stuff).

You're right. Next time around, I'm starting with a landing page and email list, and I'm only coding if I get a decent level of interest. I spent way too much time on this without knowing if I was on target.

If you read Sean Murphys blog and the posts that he writes in Lean Startup Circle Google groups, he gives a lot of techniques on how to figure out what a user means when they say or do some particular thing.

For my particular startup I have a lot of users who say - "I dont think I would be a potential customer but I really want to be on the site when you launch". Then I ask them for money right there and then discounted 50% from waht we will charge when we release and have had a few people actually give us the money. So we are going to launch this idea on Oct 15.

That's a lot of resentment for a group of people who simply didn't want to hand over their hard-earned for something you offered them but that they couldn't justify.

Nice story. Interesting view on problems and how people define them. Problems can be defined and constructed by workers as a method of explaining systemic or personal failures and they become devices to explain other issues relating to their own motivations and sense of satisfaction in their work. Maybe that's the trick - working out how solvable and how 'real' the problem is.

why wouldn't you try to release it for free, and figure out another business model. I can think of a few off the top of my head. Your only issue should be to gain users first, as you have an adoption problem or more like how do I show people the long term benefits of doing something different and new. Its about educating your users, which is hard by itself. Maybe we didn't ruin the web, we just weeded out those that are not creative enough to figure out how to make money from it.

What business model would you suggest? No business model or creative monetization strategy is going to change the audience's predisposition against paying.

I'm a bootstrapper looking to build a profitable business, not someone chasing an acquisition or an IPO.

Ending up with 1000 users who aren't paying me is no better than where I am now, is it?

Your audience will happily pay for software. See http://www.bingocardcreator.com : over $100k sold to teachers. They even happily paid for your software: 10 paying users out of a hundred is a pretty nice conversion rate. Your problem is the denominator there. You need to scale it up to the point where the numerator becomes meaningful to you.

A related problem is, on watching your presentation, I don't think you solve a problem teachers actually have. No teacher gets up in the morning and goes "Dang, but for my crushing lack of simple data tools, I'd be ready for today."

Honestly, your success throws me for a loop—it's the exact opposite of what I've encountered. Every teacher I speak with objects to the very idea of paying for software—without even seeing the app.

In another comment, I wrote this about Bingo Card Creator vs. Knack: I think the difference is that he's providing something teachers already use, need, and look for, as opposed to a "new" kind of software solution. (Online gradebooks aren't that new, but they still are not in use by the majority of teachers.)

I really wonder if the difference is just in what we're selling. If I understand your product correctly, you offer instructional materials teachers have been using for a long time: customized cards to play bingo. This is something teachers are familiar with. As I mentioned in the post, teachers already buy classroom materials like pencils, letter charts, and decorations. They've been buying these for years and actually enjoy buying them. Bingo cards are a familiar need and expense. However teachers do not, generally speaking, regularly use software, much less pay for it every month. The concept of paying for an online gradebook is foreign, regardless of what the software looks like.

If you don't mind, I'll send you an email to follow up. I'd really like to continue discussing.

I think the difference between your two products can be expressed much more simply: When teachers buy BCC, they can go to bed earlier, when they buy Knack, they've just opened the door to more clerical work.

Completely agree that is the perception, even if the net effect is less time spent working. And to be honest, I'm sure in some cases it would cause more work.

Do you have any other ideas for small personal educational software? Or do you know any websites where I can find problems teachers are having that can be addressed with software?

I'm always happy to help folks, particularly folks helping teachers. A bit busy this week but will get back to emails eventually.

you've already admitted to doing freelancing while keeping the project going. You could of kept doing that. Theres companies that will pay for sponsorships if you have a 1000 dedicated teachers using your application. You said teachers pay for supplies, well you could make affiliate money. You could figure out how to get deeper discounts on bulk supplies teacher's are regularly buying and take a cut. You could ask for donations.

Once you have a 1000 people hooked on it, I have no doubts that you could think of a premium feature that opens new features to these users that they'd be willing to pay for. Again its about getting those users and showing them the benefits first.

It's an opportunity cost issue. The choice isn't go big or go home. The choice is work on this some more or [insert-new-project]. Which is more effective: to plan, host, and field support requests for a product that has no monetization strategy? Or to roll the lessons learned into a new project instead? The fact that there might be some value in 1000 users down the road doesn't mitigate the fact that he's learned a bunch of lessons that will inform his next product from the beginning.

There may be other ways to package it before releasing it for free as well. Remember, patio11 manages to charge mostly teachers $30 (although not monthly) for bingo card software, but it took him 4 years of learning and optimizing to get there.

I'm familiar with the Bingo Card guy (Patrick McKenzie). I read his blog. What he's accomplished is definitely impressive.

I think the difference is that he's providing something teachers already use, need, and look for, as opposed to a "new" kind of software solution. (Online gradebooks aren't that new, but they still are not in use by the majority of teachers.)

Maybe I didn't hit on this hard enough in the blog post—teachers just are not a ripe audience for software in general.

I have to second Patrick. I sell a Mac app to alot of teachers for $20, and sell about 100/month. While not big bucks, not bad either.

joel: great points. "If you'd like to learn another couple of thousand send me an email and come work for me in New York; it looks like you're a pretty decent product designer and programmer." - for some reason i love that you see his talent and want it. if he were to come to NY and work for you, that would be a story to tell around a campfire...

I feel for you. You have good intentions and want to make something that actually improves the quality of education, a noble goal... The problem is that sometimes what people need vs what we want is different. We want to throw money at gambling, and tabloids, when in actuality we're better off spending that money on other things that could improve the quality of life.

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