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SnapViva and the Failure of a Startup

What It Is Like To Create a Startup

I met Tim, the founder of SnapViva, in a Social Entrepreneurship Meetup. We did a hackathon together for two days, and after that Tim invited me to join his startup. I still remember that afternoon, when we sat together in a fast food restaurant. He asked a lot of questions about me – apparently background check, and then he asked, “do you want to join us?” and I said “yes”.

Our startup ultimately failed after two years of excitements and struggles, but I must say – although I try hard not celebrate things when it fails – I enjoyed it. Tim and I are still good friends, and we are all continuing our journey working as entrepreneurs.

The Idea

Our idea was inspired by the fact that people love taking photos in restaurants, for sharing with friends on social networks and blogs. This showing off has a side effect, that if someone who sees it finds the photo really appealing, they would ask the poster where’s the restaurant and go there to try the food.

Well, that’s how advertisement works.

So we decide to build an app, that makes it easier for posters to share the photos and for restaurants to advertise their place. It’s one click photo taking and sharing. And at the same time, there’s a photo frame with the restaurant’s design, and a message on the post from the restaurant. Also, we tried to give the poster a motivation to share it. When they posted a photo, we asked the restaurant to give them a coupon.

Before I joined, Tim did a great validation using this app, not for a restaurant, but for a charity event, where people also wanted to share photos and show off, and the organizer also wanted to promote themselves. We got more than 50 photos shared for a single event.

Our ideas were good enough to help us to go further. We were accepted into a startup accelerator called AppWorks, where we were told that we had been accepted because our ideas were interesting.

Daniel has a good article about ideas. According to his list, here’s something our idea is good about:

  • Require little, or no money, avoiding the need for outside investors (i.e you can bootstrap).
  • It is simple to explain.
  • Easy for customers to trial and use (i.e. low barriers to selling).
  • Fits into an existing market so you don’t have to create both a new product and a new market at the same time.
  • Has no legal issues – you don’t want to spend the next 20 years in litigation with everyone.
  • The first mover has a major advantage. Because the first mover builds a show-off-er’s community.
  • Has a high R0 index (i.e. is viral).
  • Is sticky, if we get enough restaurants to work with us.
  • Can be sold without expensive sales staff (i.e. low touch sales model).
  • Generates sufficient cashflow to enable your company to expand as fast as you want without needing external investors, if we ever did it correctly.
  • Doesn’t threaten any well-established powers who are able and willing to crush you.
  • Is of interest to the media.
  • Has a narrow target market that can be identified and reached.
  • Is not dependent on the use of low cost labour.
  • Can be scaled to support millions of users at a low cost.

While something indeed prevented us from success. The reason is not mainly due to the idea, but here’s something our idea is bad about:

  • It is easy to conceive. Investors asked us how would we cope it if others copied our product, and we actually had no idea.
  • Can be easily replicated. Same as above.
  • It is being worked on by anyone else (i.e. no direct competitors). We knew people who worked on this in other countries.
  • It is dependent of the actions of others (e.g. does not build on Twitter’s API). From the business side, we were dependent heavily of whether in the culture there’s a habit of taking photos in restaurant, and how much people liked to show off. So actually in the beginning, we had already figured out that this app would never be working in some countries.
  • Is only 5x better than the current service.

Remote Work

It is hard to get remote work right, in general. There was periods that we didn’t have an office (actually we did, but it was too far away that both of us didn’t want to go), so we tried remote work.

The first mistake we did was that we didn’t have regular small check-in meetings. It is important to know what other people are doing in your team, especially when your work is highly entangled with others. Without check-ins, it would be common to assign too much work to one person while the only thing the other person can do is to wait. But most importantly, regular check-ins keeps each other updated of the current status of the team, so people can react fast.

The second mistake was that we didn’t work at the same time. This may not be the case for a big company, where roles of everybody are clearly defined. However, we were a startup, and we constantly needed each other’s help. However, we couldn’t agree on a common working hours – I needed daytime for study, and Tim needed time for his family. We suffered from times when even a small request takes a few days by email, and we didn’t know what to do.

Interview

I was fortunate to have a chance to both interview others, and to be interviewed by others. At SnapViva, we tried to recruit developers because one didn’t seem to be enough.

Generally, when you recruit people, there’s one question you may want to ask, that “can we work together to get those things done?”. Okay, probably that’s two, “can we work together?” and “can we get things done?”. The first one talks about whether you and the interviewee could cooperate with each other, and the second one examines the real business – to get things done.

We posted the job ads, filtered several people and invited them to come for an interview. We decided that the most important characteristic we would be looking would be the ability to learn – because we were still in early stage, and our toolchain might change pretty quickly.

So I designed several code challenges. And during the interview, nobody even finished the first step of those challenges using a whole afternoon.

Is that a good thing? Probably not.

Because the whole thing about doing a startup is to get things done. It would be okay if only a few steps are finished after an interview, but if none is ever done, either the challenge is wrong, or you are looking at the wrong participant.

So when I was interviewed by others, I knew I failed it when I got none parts of the question worked out.

Honesty

Briefly, we talked too little about money. We didn’t talk about how much investments we have already got, how should we balance the salaries needed for hiring, and how long could we survive using the current investment.

In a word, we didn’t be fully honest to each other because of the social norm, and that created a huge gap between us. Because when making certain decisions, money do matter.

Reflection: What Is It About To Do A Startup?

It is not about being cool. Many people would join a startup competition because they think it is cool to put on the title of “entrepreneur”. You probably hear some enthusiastic talks about why you should do your own startup – but please don’t do it if it is just feeling cool, because the enthusiasm would fade, and one day the startup would not be that cool – it’s hard work.

It is not about making money. Although making money is a necessary side effect. You may hear about people making a lot of money by doing a startup, but don’t forget that the probability that you are going to fail is also really high, and when talking about money, you should always talk about the expected value. When you multiply the large amount money with only a small probability that you will succeed, you will probably get something that is lower than the salary of working in a big company. So don’t start a startup because of the money.

Instead, it should about the idea, because idea does matter. And about people, because people matter, too.