Most of what you read on the web or in the magazines about the software business are the incredible successes, the outliers, the Facebooks and Instagrams of this world. We rarely read about failures because they’re not glamorous. And still, there’s so much to learn about failures of others! This is mostly intended to other single founders who bootstrap their products. It’s probably very different if you’ve got funding and a team of 15 people. Now, go ahead, make your own mistakes, and remember to share them so we can all learn from it
First, let me share a few quick facts about my first online product:
- High-level concept: professional file sharing for small french companies
- Value proposition: organize your professional documents
- Why it would succeed: SEO advantage, smaller market with less competition, knowledge of successful products in the same space in a different market (United States)
1- Starting a product based on a false assumption
That’s the mother of all mistakes: I started this product based on a false assumption. My assumption at the time was rather simple: taking the theme of file sharing for companies, I’d replicate what other big players were doing on the american market, except I would do it for the french market. I scored a very good domain name for this purpose (partagedefichier.com: basically “file sharing” in french) and I picked up the best pieces I could find from marketing, design and features of established american players (a couple that I’ve evaluated are sharefile.com, smartfile.com and onehub.com). My thinking was along the lines of “I can make this software, though maybe not as polished, I can drive traffic to the website, so this will work!”).
But, an idea in a different market + a marketing strategy working for other players might not be easily replicable. As I found out, most of the people that came through the chosen keywords were overwhelmingly consumers or even business people who had a problem with one of their files and wanted to send it to their recipient already. Just get it sent! So through SEO I targeted the wrong people. Most of these people were not at all interested in buying software to manage file sharing with their customers or other business partners, no matter how many emails I’d send them.
Whatever works for other businesses doesn’t necessarily works for you, even if the business is close. That’s where gathering data and accepting the evidence is of paramount importance. It took me some time to accept the fact that the approach I had would not be working in these conditions. In fact, I didn’t realize first it was an assumption: thought of it as just a hard fact.
Lesson learned: when you’re starting a new product, try hard to uncover all your assumptions. Make sure to test them as fast and as cheaply as possible.
2- Not being crystal clear on which pain I wanted to solve
As I was trying to be the “french file sharing for small companies”, I didn’t zero in on a specific pain, which would have been simpler to address. Here are a few underlying pains I wish my software would solve, that I didn’t articulate well at the time:
- I can’t send files of more than 25GB and I’m wasting critical time getting around this limit
- I want my files to be exchanged securely because i want to minimize risks
- I lose time with sharing files with other businesses
- I want to collaborate more closely with my customers because they’re going to value me more
- I want to appear professional with how I handle the documents of my clients
It’s hard to admit, because I’ve known for a long time conceptually that you can’t be all things to all people, that you can’t build something for everybody etc. I thought that focusing on the french market and providing decent software was my main differentiator. Which brings me to the next mistake: not knowing which customers to serve.
Lesson learned: start with a concrete, specific, emotional pain, not with a vague interest (“small companies need file sharing”)
3- Which customers am I serving? Not being clear on an ideal customer profile and being all things to all people
Soon, as I saw my initial brilliant idea wasn’t quite working, I decided to find people who might be interested across different markets. I talked to photographs, accountants, lawyers, print designers, architects, advertising companies. I found myself in a corner. How could I only target the french market and at the same time specialize on a given market? I felt like there would not be enough people to sustain my business. So I tried to be all things to all people. I was still in the initial stage of market research and discovery, but I had a working product. Too much product development, not enough customer development. And I was already fully aware of this bias at the time, I had read mostly everything about lean startup methodology, customer development, read various books about it. etc. I still failed at this stage.
Lesson learned: have an ideal, narrow, precise customer profile who desperately needs your software.
4- Customers in need are not reachable online (or: failing at product-market fit)
I cold called people from different markets. I asked them questions about how they managed file transfers and file sharing for their company, and how I could be of help. Some people did answer positively, and I began to have hopes. People that would be interested typically had few clues about the Internet, were not hanging out on online forums or looking for solutions on Google. How was I going to reach these people? I didn’t exactly dream of finding customers through cold calling, and it doesn’t seem manageable as a team of one person. At this point, many people advised me to look for someone willing to do the business development for the project. And maybe it would have worked better, but it didn’t fit in what I want from my business, which is mostly independence and freedom.
Lesson learned: do your homework and make sure people you’re targeting are active online, feeling the pain and looking for solutions.
5- Selling to people I don’t feel empathy with
Falling back to cold call local businesses as a customer acquisition method wore me out quickly. I realized my software was trying to do too many things and I had difficulties getting across what exactly my solution was about. I felt like I was explaining very basic things to a very non-technical audience, and I felt out of place. Working with a french-only environment, after being for 7 years out of France, is also not something I found very stimulating (yet the domain name, marketing and everything were chosen to support a french-only execution). It was quite a stretch from the international, technical, Internet savvy people I’m used to interacting online.
Lesson learned: Make sure the customers you’re after are people you can relate to, and want to work for. That’s maybe the most important thing I’ve learned.
I spent 7 months of my life working on this project. I eventually got 2 customers at the peak of the business. I’d need around 100 to make a good living from it. So I unofficially stopped working on it in March, when I started to freelance to actually earn some money. The website still hasn’t changed, but I plan to scrap it and make a very simple free file-sharing website. That’s what people that come from the search engines seem to look for anyway.
In the meantime, I have learned valuable lessons from this and I’m not giving up on software business just yet