Around six months ago, I resolved to bootstrap my own Internet business. As I wrote at the time, my goal was to create a self-sustaining and personally meaningful business without seeking funding. I had no ambitions of becoming the next Mark Zuckerberg. Rather, I wanted to do honest work building a product which would prove useful to a niche audience.
Six months on, I have come a long way: I got possessed by a personally meaningful idea, experimented with Lean Startup methods for validating it, and then learnt Rails and iOS development to actually build it. And as of this week, my product, RecordBox, is open for business!
I have been documenting this journey on this blog all along. In this post, I am going to stitch my previous posts into a narrative which touches on how I began, what I did, what I learnt, and what lies ahead.
So get that cuppa brewing.. Ready? Let's go!
The story in headlines: a table of contents
Since this is a longish post, here are links to the individual headlines. I have tried to keep the said headlines as descriptive as possible for your reading pleasure.
- The Genesis: how the idea was born
- The first steps: validating the idea
- A slight change in strategy: getting a bit less Lean
- Building the product: Rails and iOS development
- Marketing and Sales: the tricky bits
- Marketing: where engineers fear to tread
- Sales: crunch time
- Epilogue: the end of chapter one
- Appendix: a list of referenced posts
Here's how it all began.
You see, in addition to being a professional programmer, I am also a music student. I learn the Tabla. You can get a sampling of my highly limited skills in action here. In June 2011, I was preparing for a short performance. As part of that performance, I had to play a composition I had learnt in 2009.
Now, Tabla music (and Indian music in general) is learnt aurally. Our compositions are preserved in the form of audio recordings and hand written notes. To practice and relearn an old composition, we listen to our recordings, read our notes, and take it from there.
So, in preparation for my performance, I dug out my note book and began combing through my files to find the things I needed. It took me two highly frustrating hours, and I thought to myself: by God, there has GOT to be a better way!
That's when I started asking my fellow students: what did they do? How did they store and find old recordings and notes? It turned out that everybody had ad-hoc solutions, all of which were unsatisfactory. The most diligent students had devised elaborate methods of organization, but even then the complexity meant that they were not as organized as they would have liked.
That's when I thought: I could build a solution for this! And so the idea was born. I wasn't looking for it, but rather just stumbled upon it.
People familiar with Lean Startups will realize that I had unwittingly already engaged in Customer Development interviews of sorts. I had spoken to at least a dozen music students, and all of them said that creating, storing, and organizing recordings was a big pain.
So, in the true Lean Startup spirit, the next thing I did was to see if people were willing to pay money to address that pain. Thus I put up a mock landing page with a price on it (see screenshots), and bought Google and Facebook ads to drive traffic to it. I got a 1% conversion, which suggested that there was a market there.
The results of these experiments have been documented in this blog post. At that point, I was contemplating setting up an even more elaborate landing page, replete with fake screenshots and a signup form with credit card fields. If people entered a credit card, then I would know that there was a paying market.
So far, so Lean.
But then I met Sean Murphy through his Bootstrapper's Breakfast in Mountain View, CA. He urged me not to waste time with further validation, but to build the product and iteratively release it to the people I had already spoken to.
I found his arguments against further product validation experiments very compelling. Have a look at this post for a detailed account of these arguments.
Thus I chose to build the product and release it to a small, immediate, circle of music students. I think that was a great decision. I started on 25 July 2011, learnt Rails along the way, and got my first basic product out by 14 September 2011.
I shared it with a few students and got plenty of feedback. The biggest piece of feedback I received was that I needed to make it easier to get music recordings into the service.
So I built an iPhone app to record and upload audio to my service. I have documented my experience of learning Objective-C and iOS development in this post. All told, I started around the first week of October, and submitted the app to Apple on 14 November, after going through a few iterations of testing with my users.
Through it all, I kept making incremental releases and kept collecting feedback. The product improved immeasurably as a result. But the best part was that, as people saw the pieces coming together, surprising new ideas emerged for future development. For instance, it turned out that since people studied or performed in groups, the lack of collaboration and sharing tools was painful. That became the number one feature request, and it makes total sense in retrospect.
However, I resolved not to build any more features until I addressed two major gaps, viz.
- I had no marketing plan. The only people who were using the product were those whom I knew personally. That was good for starters, but there really had to be a a way to get the word out if RecordBox was to have any chance of succeeding.
- I had not put a price on the product. I did not even have an open signup process nor a payments system. In my books, I wasn't building a business until I had paying customers.
I first turned my attention to marketing.
Around this time, I had the good fortune of attending a fantastic talk by Rand Fishkin at the Microsoft Silicon Valley Campus, called inbound marketing for startups. That convinced me to start the RecordBox blog as a means for generating buzz and getting attention. I documented my plans for the blog in this post.
I also started learning about social media marketing, SEO, etc.
Through it all, I realized that marketing is really not my cup of tea. Before I started this new career path, I was a systems engineer who used to love doing Calculational Math. Through doing my startup, I found that I actually really enjoyed frontend programming, applications programming, and product design problems, all of which were totally new to me.
But marketing was a step too far. It did not come naturally to me and felt like a drag. I was never very active on social networks to begin with and generally preferred not drawing attention to myself. And that was something I found very hard to change.
I soon figured that it wasn't worth it. I figured that it would be wiser to look for a partner to execute the marketing functions. I figured that there was no point wasting my energy on something I felt so uncomfortable doing.
I am still trying to figure out what such a partnership would look like and how to go about it. But at least I am thinking about marketing in different terms, and I count that as progress.
Thus I decided to switch my attention to the other major issue and build a payments system with open signups and a more attractive landing page. That took around three weeks (It would have taken a lot longer had it not been for the awesomeness of Stripe).
With this system now in place, my aim is to tap my existing users and do what it takes to convert them to paying customers. This is the crunch, the real litmus test. If nobody is willing to pay, then that is a really bad sign. If, however, I do acquire my first paying customers, that would be a huge boost.
This has been the journey so far. The coming months will be crucial. The challenges of sales and marketing are totally outside of my core skill set, and that makes the situation all the more precarious. But startups are all about doing things which are uncomfortable, so this is a good sign.
What do I think of the journey so far? All in all, it has been a really positive life experience. Here are some highlights:
- Having only myself to answer to has forced a much greater self-discipline.
- Generating ideas, validating them by talking with people, refining them, and finally converting them into a product has been a highly rewarding experience.
- Learning UI design (via these three books), Rails, and iOS development has been a refreshing change from the world of C++ and distributed algorithms.
- Having the chance to build a company and a brand from scratch is tremendously exciting.
- Doing a startup has opened my eyes to the importance sales, marketing, and finance. As an engineer, one tends to think that the technical work is all that matters in a technology company. It isn't.
- I have developed a profound respect for any entrepreneur who starts a company that makes any sort of revenue. It is easy to beat up on failed or struggling ventures, but one can only appreciate the subtlety and difficulty after one does it oneself.
Do I think I could have done things better? Of course! One can always to do things better.
But one thing I will certainly change next time is to to address the marketing and the sales problems earlier in the cycle. Sales and marketing are as much part of a business as the product. Thus being totally product centric is wasteful. I know that this is a core message of the Lean Startup movement, but some things just have to be experienced to be learnt. This is one of them for me.
And so we have reached the end of the first chapter in the life of RecordBox. I am excited for what the next six months will bring. I thank you, dear reader, for sticking with me this far. And I will thank you twice over, if you leave me a comment to show you were here. Have a good one!
- Why I chose to build a bootstrapped business.
- The results of my lean startup experiments
- Why I chose to build a product without validating all aspects of my business first
- My experience learning Rails
- My experience building my first iPhone app
- My thoughts on starting a blog as the core of a content marketing strategy