My Startup Is Failing
My name is Mike and my startup is failing. This is my story.
An Era of Optimism
A few years ago I developed an exceptionally well-articulated and targeted idea. Since inception it has matured into a solid concept and business model, mostly thanks to the counsel of some outstanding mentors and friends who have helped it evolve from a good idea into a better business. I’m a non-technical founder with a digital innovation – but that wasn’t going to stop me. At least I didn’t think so.
With a prototype in hand and high-conversion landing page pulling in potential users at a favorable rate, I secured angel funding to finally launch a business that had customer validation and users knocking on the front door. Still without a co-founder or enough technical ability to execute the full scope of my needs, I pushed forward in complete confidence. I contracted a very good developer to bring everything to life at a pretty reasonable price. It went well.
Even as the business was well received by potential customers and users, I knew that the solo founder act could only continue for so long. I knew that my ability to pivot was severely limited because it would require more cash each time to pay my developer for new work. Never lacking in vision, strategy, or creativity – I had a plan. A really good one.
I wasn’t going to wait for a technical co-founder to launch. I wasn’t going to ask anyone’s permission to pursue an idea I not only believed in, but knew would be very profitable. My plan was to take the business as far as I could without a technical partner, gain momentum and traction, and use that traction as leverage in recruiting. I figured I could reduce the risk for developers if I had a proof of concept and momentum. I knew that if someone could tangibly experience the website, literally see users signing up, and talk to customers then it would be easier to convince them to join my venture.
Between a pre-launch landing page and post-launch momentum, I recruited more than 800 emails and 1,000 pieces of user generated content. I presented a live prototype of a vision that people felt was exciting and valuable. They wanted more. The heavy lifting was done because the core functionality of the website and design was complete. No doubt I had reduced the risk and demonstrated enough traction to convince someone to come on board and carry it home, right? Nope. The curse of the non-technical founder was still a dominating presence.
A Slow Fade
Over the next few months I read every non-technical founder discussion and blog post that made its way onto websites like Hacker News, Quora, and similar tech circles. People just like me were struggling to take their business to the next level without a technical co-founder. The advice and discussions were good, but nothing ever materialized for me. As a result I had to look investors in the eye and explain that the reason why my startup is failing is directly linked to my inability to recruit a technical founder that can help execute the grand vision they invested in. (Anyone been there before?)
Over time my confidence began to weather. The startup started to die. There was only so much I could do contracting small jobs on oDesk. The isolation of being a solo founder became toxic and I lost motivation. We’re taught to embrace failure as a learning opportunity, and I do that very well, but it doesn’t change the fact that pain and suffering comes with watching your idea reduced to a whimper. I finally ran out of steam.
Discouraged, I began to reflect on the experience. It didn’t make sense. I had a great business model with a significant number of pre-launch users, content, and customer validation. My previous startup is venture funded a couple times over and is now a leading health care innovation. I did everything in my power as a non-technical founder to gain as much traction as possible to make it an attractive opportunity for technical partners. Each person I talked to certainly agreed that the opportunity was there, but again nothing materialized. Why?
Refusing to accept defeat, I’m on to plan B. I had no trouble securing a good job to start replenishing my own reserves. I bought a nice house with extra rooms to further help reduce the risk for partners – a free place to live, play, and work is on the table in addition to the aforementioned traction. I might not be able to offer co-founders cash, but what I can offer is a legitimate equity deal and free cost of living if that is a concern. I’m doing all I can to reduce your risk of joining my startup.
Additionally, I’m launching a new startup group in my hometown of St Louis that seeks to eliminate the people gap between ideas and execution. It’s a very highly targeted group that focuses on connecting professionals and entrepreneurs with the people and resources they need to execute ideas. To someone in a startup friendly environment like Silicon Valley that might sound trivial, but in a place like St Louis it is desperately needed. We must eliminate the gap and animosity between non-technical founders and developers to foster a better culture for incubating ideas and bringing them to life. Since I’ve failed to recruit a co-founder on everyone else’s platform, I might as well create my own – out of necessity.
The reason why I’m sharing this story is because I know there are hundreds of other non-technical founders just like me out there trying to bring a legitimate business to life. Most of us are not wolves seeking to devour the time, energy, and independence of developers for our own profit. I want to share my story to inspire you, encourage you, and give you some ideas on how to advance your own venture as a struggling solo non-technical founder.
I’ve learned that developers are in high demand. They’re getting paid well to work on interesting projects, and if they weren’t doing that, they’d be working on their own awesome ideas. Having a good idea isn’t enough. Good ideas are everywhere. As a non-technical founder you have to create some sort of significant value that your partner can’t bring to the table without you; whether it be experience, relationships, subject matter expertise, or some other unique value. Being good at marketing or social media isn’t enough. Having good ideas and working hard, unfortunately, on its own doesn’t cut it.
What you can do is never give up and constantly seek creative ways to reduce the risk of partners joining your startup. If you’re a non-technical founder like me, living anywhere but the social circles MIT or Silicon Valley, you’re going to have to work extra hard. But you can succeed. Sometimes you just have to take a different path than everyone else. I’d love to hear what you’re doing, what works and doesn’t work, and how you think my story can take a turn for the better. I’d love to write another chapter, but I need your help.
Update: My startup is Showasis.com. The website leverages a variety of perspectives to generate insights that venues use to make more informed booking decisions – ultimately allowing them to reduce the risk of a booking and accurately select bands based on the type of audience they wish to attract. If you have questions about the business model itself I’d love to have that conversation with you.
Photo Credit: Stephen Brace (via Flickr, Creative Commons License)