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5 Crucial Lessons for First-Time Founders

This is the story of my first startup, Efographic, and how I drove it into the ground. By writing this, I hope to save many other first-time founders from the mistakes I made.

However, I would do it all over again for the five unforgettable lessons below.

Story:

Personal Pain

I heard all the time that solving personal pain is the best way to get started in entrepreneurship. My full-time job was in digital marketing. One day, I found a personal problem.

I had a long MailChimp email newsletter that was full of photos, and I wanted to share it to social media. But in doing so, I was forced to choose just one photo as the “social card” to best represent my newsletter. The problem was my newsletter was for a diverse audience and while one photo may appeal to ‘Joe’ on Facebook, it may not to ‘Jane!’

How do I appeal to 100% of my audience?

I wanted to create something that put the entire newsletter on social media.

Then I realized that, hey, infographics work the same way. When you share an infographic to Facebook, the content gets chopped off and viewers miss the top and bottom parts because it is too long to fit into Facebook’s image post parameters.

So, I created Efographic, a web app that takes a snapshot of an email newsletter or an infographic, and then fits the long image into a box, perfect for social media sharing:

The result of using Efographic

Code

I’m not a programmer and I didn’t know the first thing about building apps or websites. So I went to Crew, a more sophisticated and higher-tier Upwork — a matchmaking service for entrepreneur’s and developers/designers (they created Unsplash, the world’s best free high-res photo repository).

Crew allowed me to post my project and receive bids from developers and designers from across the world. I received bids from Nepal, Brazil, and the UK, ranging from individuals to large-scale boutique shops. I was looking for someone who understood the problem and the solution so that they could naturally fill in the gaps where my solution was lacking.

I picked Asim Hussain, a skilled developer in London, who had trouble getting through security in U.S. airports due to his last name. Asim had an impressive portfolio (Google, Huffington Post, etc.) and he was transparent.

We negotiated milestones, refined the final vision for the product, and pulled the trigger.

Capital

To pay for the project I went to family, borrowing $5,000. If there was ever a person who believed in me and wanted me to succeed as a young entrepreneur, it was Grandpa. He will always be my first investor.

Build

Development began. While Asim and his team worked, I did as much validation and pre-marketing as I could. I did social ads that linked to a Launchrock landing page to build an email list; I called potential customers on the phone and asked if they would use Efographic; I even paid $100 to run a Google survey to validate the idea. And, of course, held many discussions on Reddit and social media.

Googe Survey results showed Efographic was preferred

Launch

In January 2015, the time came for launch, so I reached out to a Twitter friend to post it on Product Hunt, a great place where new products are discovered online. I had over 2,000 visitors to Efographic that day, as I frantically worked my network to upvote Efographic on Product Hunt.

Instagram post asking for support

Seventy-five people signed up for the service. And not a single dollar of revenue came in.

Google analytics traffic

The Product Hunt traffic surge wore off in the next few days. Traffic eventually sunk to 20–30 hits a day. I called digital design agencies across the nation to get try to get B2B sales. Nothing.

Efographic needed to be revamped. But after long discussions with Asim, it was apparent that design changes would not fix the lack of product-market fit.

In June 2015 — six months later — I pulled the plug.


Lessons:

Was it worth it?

Yes, I would do it all over again because of the lessons I learned. An entrepreneur on Reddit once said:

You learn more in three days of acting than in six months of researching.

I acted without researching.

Do not cram everything you have ever learned about startups, tech, and design into your first startup.

I had never launched a startup before, but I had read all about it. In order to launch correctly, I had a huge checklist of hacks, tricks, and best practices to implement.

  • Instead of a subtle pattern, I used Unsplash photos as the website backgrounds. This was a mistake because the artsy photo did not match the utility function of the tool. Looking back, I was compensating for the un-sexy-ness of the tool with a flashy high res photo.
  • I set up a pay-for-credits revenue model, when it should have been free. The value of the tool wasn’t near worth the money. In the idea-validation stages, I never asked people how much they would pay for a service like Efographic. I assumed they would just pay when it existed. Nay. I wish I had made it free and convenient and then grown to an ads-model or sale exit strategy.
  • I tried to make a heartfelt story out of it, when it was just a boring resizing tool. My perception of Efographic was very off from the perception of my users. I viewed it as an inspirational cause — a thing of beauty when it was a calculator — a straightforward, convenient tool.
  • The site solved several needs and therefore could help several buyer profiles. WRONG. Pick one need and one buyer profile and focus on making it a perfect fit.

Do not become romantically involved with the idea of yourself having the label “founder”.

This is so blinding.

The potential customers I called were on the fence, did not understand the concept, or told me yes just so that I would quit bugging them. But I only saw green lights. Seek to prove yourself wrong. I bought surveys and ads for idea validation but made sure I set myself up for automatic approval so I could use it as a marketing tool (75 people out of a hundred prefer Efographic, see?).

To me, all money spent should go towards making the startup stronger, when I wish I would have been okay with spending money on proving the idea wrong. A good idea will stand no matter what and it will sound like this from a customer, “I would pay $[real dollar amount] if that were a real thing.”

If there is absolutely no competition, take pause. This could be a terrible sign.

Any good idea involves one of two things:

  1. Either it’s an innovation developed upon something that already exists and therefore is relatively inexpensive to build and fraught with competition (i.e., clothing, weather apps, pens, etc.),
  2. Or it’s a blue ocean where nobody has gone before and it requires mountains of cash (space exploration, UAVs, artificial intelligence, etc.).

As a first time founder, I should have been aiming for #1. I should have done something simple like a t-shirt company or a mobile app. To gain experience.

Instead I went for something that doesn’t exist yet. There was no competition. No other tool was like Efographic. This led me to believe it was an amazing idea and had to keep it secret until launch. Then everyone would see it and say, “Whoa, I DO need that!”

False, false, false, false, false, false, FALSE!

There was nothing like Efographic on the Internet, and while this made me excited that I would bring a “new” tool to the Internet, it should have made me think maybe there is nothing like it on the Internet because there is no a market for it.

Clever products are never as successful as helpful products.

This was the biggest lesson that I will never forget for the rest of my life.

As an entrepreneur launching a startup, your goal is to give your user a fuzzy, warm feeling when they use your product or service. Their life is more enjoyable because of what you have created. It feels so gooooooood. Like food. Like buttery movie theater popcorn sprinkled with chocolate raisinets and a large Coke.

Efographic had zero emotion to it, there was no release of neurotransmitters in my brain or in my 90 users. During the development stage, I would tell people I’m founding startup and they would say, “Oh, what are you doing?” I would say, “Well, have you ever…” And I would launch into this long pitch. At the end, I would look at their glazed-over eyes and deadened faces as they say, “Huh.” And then as if they had just woken up they would always say, “That’s clever.”

Beware of indifference when pitching your product to someone.Indifference is a red flag. A good product idea causes a person’s brain to *click* awakening zeal, urgency, and passion.

Build your product around a pitch, not a pitch around your product.

Before your startup launches, you will end up giving the pitch hundreds of times to friends, family members, and strangers. I constantly pitched Efographic to almost everyone I met. But it got tiring because Efographic was not a simple pitch and no one but my “niche target audience” would understand it. In other words, no one said they would use it, it was too complicated.

So this is what I learned: if your product does not have a simple pitch, then there’s something wrong with your product. Focus on getting the pitch down first, then build the product to match exactly what the pitch promises. This will keep the product simple and well-designed.

Bonus: I encourage you to not put Product Hunt into your launch strategy just for the sake of removing it as a crutch. Let it be an added bonus, not the crucial meat.

Bonus #2: Move slowly. Rushing leads to poor strategy and poor execution. I felt pressure to cut corners with my developer because of the little amount of time and funding I had. I wish I had taken the time to think through and talk through the ins-and-outs of my business. So do not rush. Take the time to develop a strong launch strategy, build an audience, and form a team and a find a mentor!

Original post: FundingSage.com