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Post-Mortems For Ten Products I've Built (thirdyearmba.com)
131 points by dlevine 2131 days ago | hide | past | web | favorite | 29 comments



Does anyone else think that the author could perhaps put that wealth of experience into a startup that ISN'T aimed at the tech sector?

SaaS apps for the tech sector are ridiculously over saturated compared to every other sector, go and find a problem for a non-tech sector and apply a tech solution to it.

Personally i'm in the process of doing this. One is aimed at the tattoo industry and the other is aimed at the property market. There is WAAAAY less competition because all techys seem to do is build for their peers, go and build for someone in a different market that doesn't know they could have a tech solution to their problem, they will throw money at you for solving it.

If anyone wants a further discussion on it, email is in my profile or comment here.


I do agree with you, but I think it's a lot harder than you make it out to be.

The issue is domain-specific knowledge. I write tools for developers because I know how developers operate - I am one. Even though there may be a greater need, it would be hard for me to make software for doctors because I don't know what doctors want.

Which isn't to say it can't be done! In fact, it _should_ be done. It just takes a bit more research (of the you-cant-just-google-it kind) than most hackers are used to.


Take an interest you currently have that isn't tech related and start solving it. In my case, sports league websites suck (or at least the volleyball leagues I've played in), and I got fed up enough to do something about it.

There's always some underserved niche to be found, and you don't necessarily have to seek it out. Eventually, if you keep your eyes open, something will annoy you enough to change.


So what if it takes a bit more research or even a lot more research? If you want to go into business to make money by building domain-specific software, not knowing the intricacies is not only inexcusable but should very much be frowned upon as downright lazy.


Most startups fail because the serial entrepreneur build stuff they think people need but would never use themselves. It's not as easy as just researching what potential customers may need. If YOU are not that potential customer, then you won't have the intuition to make something better than the competition when they pop up. Also, if YOU're not the target customer, your passion for the project will fade way before you actually make money from it.

The above is true for both projects large and small. I still think Google+ will ultimately fail b/c its top level execs don't use the platform and therefore won't have any insights about where to take it.


First of all, awesome write up Dana. Would love to hear about your current project when we get a chance.

@Tam...seems to me like there were plenty of non tech businesses in there... restaurants, speakers, renting of items, office hours.

My core issue with these businesses, and 90+% of those I hear about in the valley, is that they are so extremely specialized for such an incredibly narrow market segment that they are next to impossible to get either traction or revenue. Usually, this is nothing more than a strategy by start-ups to AVOID competing with established products rather than creating an actually remarkable product of their own.

...and yes, I have many times heard about the people who are making a killing by selling some obscure little piece of software/product or service to an uber narrow market segment thereby facing nearly no competition. Not sure if that was Dan's strategy as well.


Yes they are not tech businesses. Some of them sounded like they needed less techy people, to actually be realistic about sales.


Wow, it's great to see a bunch of very candid assessments of failure. You don't get a glimpse of failure very often often, especially for really early stage stuff, so it's hard to learn from the mistakes other people make. Appreciate the author for putting themselves out there like this.

Reasons for failure broken down by project: 1) No traction/user retetion/no monetization potential 2) Weren't able to break into the existing market 3) Sales problem for an engineering focused team 4) Market opportunity too small 5) Disagreements in the founding team 6) Disagreements in the founding team 7) Market opportunity too small 8) Disagreements in the founding team 9) Bad cofounder 10) Bad cofounder

Grouped by reason for failure:

-5 cofounder problems

-3 no traction

-2 traction, but market was too small

Startups are rough.


The exact timeline for all the projects isn't clear, but it hints of a relatively short period, say 3 years?

10 (make that 11) projects in 3 years seems like a high number to me. Yes, lessons can be learned by failure, and test pivoting early is good if needed, but if you're failing this often, and (disturbingly) for the same reasons then there surely must be a time to step back and take some time to do things differently.

The disagreements with founders being repeated so often is a sign of something. I realize that it may indeed be "the other guy" in all cases, but sooner or later folk will stay wondering if it's you. At best, your ability to select partners comes into question.

There must also be a balance between this frantic skipping from one project to another (6 months per project?) and putting in the time to get a product done right. It _feels_ like you're looking for an overnight smash hit, or you bail quickly. The conference project felt especially like this. You narrowed the market to a tiny segment, the segment incidentally that had the least motivation to pay anything, then opted not to follow through on the markets that are more likely to pay. It's like you built a job site, focused on people who already had high paying gigs, rather than people out of work desperate for jobs, or employers disparate for employees.

I think the article was really interesting, and I think an excellent learning experience for others - thank you for being honest enough to post it. I think you have learnt some lessons along the way, and hopefully these comments will make the xperience more valuable to you. I wish you all the best with finding the one-true-project you want to commit to long-term.


You've detailed why those startups failed, but I don't think you've touched on whether you've learned anything from your failures. Maybe the time period went by too fast but it seems like you kept making the same mistakes over and over again:

1. Not properly validating your ideas.

2. Working with other people with ADD.

3. Not marketing the idea, or hiring someone with marketing knowledge to push the ideas out.

4. Not building something you'd actually use and pay for yourself.

Did I miss anything?

Side note, I know tons of hackers that just build stuff for fun and are always "just getting by" with their ideas when partnering with a marketing or social media person would have done wonders for the startup. I never understood why they wouldn't just get the proper support system in place before drowning themselves in code (even when this step has been s-p-e-l-l-e-d out for them as a necessary step. Is the whole point just to code stuff and to solve unique problems they haven't solved before? I figured most hackers like to just crawl into a hole and code and not have to worry about anything else about the business - if that's the case, why not just stick w/ a 9-5 job?


> I figured most hackers like to just crawl into a hole and code and not have to worry about anything else about the business - if that's the case, why not just stick w/ a 9-5 job?

Because a 9-5 job also involves doing tons of things that aren't coding. Mostly, communicating your intent and your results to other people--not to convince anyone of anything, but because they need information you already have in order to work with you. And, unsurprisingly, having business partners also requires this... but being a single founder doesn't. Obscurity is the price many pay for being able to avoid socialization (with anyone except their customers, and perhaps not even them.)


I think a lot of hackers actually subconsciously sabotage projects when they've done the interesting coding. I think I detect a whiff of that in this article.


LOL - I'm convinced this is why so many of Google's lab stuff are stuck in beta. The cool parts have been built but nobody wants to finish the last 20% that takes up 80% of the time. =)


Indeed, why not. I like writing code, let someone else deal with the boring stuff.


Lack of market research and validation is a very common reason for B2B software business failure. And for good reason - hardcore market research can be tedious, boring, frustrating, and potentially highly disappointing.

What if the market's wants/desires cannot be solved with technology? Perhaps your prospect's deepest need is simply information about how to do their job better with existing technology. In this scenario, as an industry outsider, you are not even remotely capable of meeting their needs, so you shouldn't write even 1 line of code without talking to dozens, if not hundreds or thousands of prospects.

Why bother making an app to help tattoo shops schedule customer appointments unless you have surveyed hundreds of tattoo shop owners? Perhaps their biggest need is wowing their customers with an Ipad version of their tattoo library. But you wouldn't know this unless you or someone on your team talked to them! To me, this is what people like Steve Blank mean when they say 'get out of the building'. Survey, survey, survey!


The first item on his list was a todo list. It's interesting because I once had (what I thought at least) was this killer idea for a personal task management app.

I was psyched about it until I went and pitched it to a friend of mine and he was like "It's a todo list. That is the equivalent of 'Hello World!' for product ideas. Don't do it."

Looking back, he was so right. I think every programmer I know has come up with an idea for a new spin on the todo list at some point.


One theme across most of those stories is that the author and his team went out and built something before validating their ideas. Actually building a product is perhaps the HEAVIEST way to validate whether there's a market for the idea. Spend more time upfront validating the idea... make a fake version of the product, create some landing page that people can sign up for... anything to avoid going out and building before you know you're on to something.

It's okay to mess around with products in your spare time if it's just 'tinkering', but if you're trying to do the startup game for real, then lower investment upfront in ideas is critical to finding one that works.


I have heard many moderately and wildly successful entrepreneurs and marketers including Seth Godin, Tim Ferris, Steve Blank, and Eric Ries all mention some variation of "prove your market first by prototyping your solution and getting feedback from the market BEFORE writing a single line of code".

The market validation process is relatively obvious and straightforward to execute, but it's STILL hard to build a successful business around a compelling solution for a validated market.


This has been another big learning. Basically, it's super-important to validate your ideas before you start building. I have trended towards doing more and more customer validation as things have gone along.


I like the post a lot. Looks like Dana tried a lot and learnt a lot from what was not working for him.

I especially like the cultural side of trying, folding gracefully (if need be), learning and re-trying.

Here in Italy, you can't just do that. Even a graceful fold marks you as a lifetime failure, it is a sort of social stigma.

I wonder how this works in other parts of the world, in and outside US.


Are you sure that's how entrepreneurs and investors think in Italy?

I strongly suspect that if you genuinely tried hard in a business that ultimately failed, and truly learned some difficult lessons then people will give you another chance.

For most of us, failure is a milestone on the road to success.


I have been an entrepreneur for five years.

I decided to close the business and get hired because the risk to reward ratio was too skewed on the risk side.

According to what I have seen happening to fellow entrepreneurs, when they did run into trouble they did not get broken but neither had second chances.


5) Wishlist - is Pinterest alerting people to products they've pinned that have subsequently gone down in price? If not Pinterest, has someone built an extension/plugin/third-party site that does this?

8) About/Team/Press - I had a side-project (not trivial to monetise) idea noted down that was slightly similar to this: maintaining beer pages for pubs/clubs/restaurants by mobile. Usually a pub will put up a crappy list of beers they have on tap or by bottle. Looking up any more info would be a pain. But if they embedded a script/iframe from said side-project, they could simply login from their phone and activate/deactivate to show the right beers, and the side-project site would serve up labels, descriptions, origin, alc%, etc. Venues could optionally list prices, mark specials or flag beers as available on tap/bottle/both.

The insanely large catalogue for wine would make this a lot harder to do in that market. (BTW, if you know of a way to get a database of all wine and decent bottle shots, let me know because I have a solid idea on the shelf that would work with that sort of information.)


wow that is a long list! what time period are we talking here? Some of the ideas seem like they would need at least 12 months if not more to successfully bring to market. Are you sure you aren't jumping to the next big thing before giving the last a good go?


It seems like a lot of the reasons for jumping ship were because there was no market for the product. Maybe it's just that he's making his brainstorming and market research phase sound like a product when it isn't yet, but it's strange to me that one would get so far as a usable product, funding, etc for a something that they hadn't yet done an ounce of market research for.


These were built over about a three-year period. One of my big learnings (to be detailed in a future post) is that I have product ADD.


Great article. As a super techy guy something which really sticks out for me (and which has been confirmed by my day-job recently) is how key marketing seems to be. You can have the crappiest product but with the right sales team its possible to get anybody to buy it.


several thoughts as i was reading the article, if you look at jason calacanis' show "this week in startups", the intro to his show has a quote that says something along the lines of "think about your biggest idea and then go for it full speed!" that one resonates the most with me, i'm sure that quote was pulled from somewhere else. anyway, my point is that i've been and am in the same boat as i have a shedload of ideas, implement some of them half baked (i.e. no marketing/sales follow through), and then move on to others for various reasons. but when i read your article, it made me think about this because it seems that lots of your projects either you or your partner lost motivation, e.g. wanted to work on something else.

will/motivation to me is one of the most important things when choosing an idea to execute. of course business model is important, but if you have an excellent business model and you are only 80% interested, then chances are you will fail.

ideas are a dime a dozen, put your efforts into the one that you feel most passionate about from a personal level. not to say that you wasted time on any of the projects because i'm sure you gained a lot of experience, but focus that energy on the one thing and you'll go a lot farther than all of the 10+ combined :)


If I'm passionate about stuff that won't bring money for sure and there is an idea that I hate but feel it could be profitable, which way shall I choose to build a startup in your opinion?

It's easy to pick up to be passionate when doing a side project, and it's a completely different thing when you think about "going head-on" and need to pay the bills.

And in real life the choices are more subtle and have more dimensions.




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