Learning from your failed startup
I just finished sweeping up the burning ashes of my tech startup, Xplore. It's a location sharing app for hikers, which in February 2017 a guy in Canada used to schedule a date a cafe in a forest. The gist: you could have the live locations of your group mates on a map. Here's how it all happened and what I learned from the experience.
We made a game like Pokémon Go before Pokémon Go
Not that impressive, considering Niantic, the team behind Pokémon Go, had already made Ingress, but we managed to win 3rd place at a hackathon. In this game, supply boxes would appear all over the map every morning. The players had to physically walk up to them, solve a puzzle, get random virtual items, and trade them with each other (by physically meeting up) to complete their collections.
While 3rd place is not much to brag about, it was validation for me that I was onto something. This got me interested in GPS and Android, leading me to start working on Xplore a year later.
NASA Millennium Awards
The competition that promised a tour at NASA to its winners and for which the idea of Xplore was born. I formed a team with my friends and started working on the app in November 2016. I knew that as the only person in the group that could code, the majority of the work would befall me, but I didn't mind, I really just wanted an excuse to learn new tech I had recently discovered. You'll see this pattern repeat throughout the story. We lost, because we basically took a business to a science fair, but we decided to continue work with hopes that we could turn Xplore into a startup. We came up with a monetization plan: have a separate account for trip organizers, who could use the app to easily coordinate their tours and payments through our app and take a 5% cut from them.
We took the app to various events to get it into other peoples' hands and get some opinions. The live hike feature turned out to be a great hook for new users, but was obviously useless for actual hiking as location services are often unavailable at most hiking destinations.
We needed validation for Xplore and winning a startup competition would definitely grant it to us. So we, again, decided to enter a competition. We became one of the three winners of the GoldenByte Challenge in Tbilisi and got to take part in its final stage in Kiev, where we scored a 2nd place in mobile development. Here's a 30 second video I made for the competition, which I then used for the Google Play listing.
It includes some contrived use cases for the app and features we later decided to remove. Narrated by me in a very patronizing voice.
Despite multiple restructurings, the team always consisted of kids, who didn't know what they were doing, especially me, who had roped everyone into this. As the CEO/CTO, I was solely responsible for the following mistakes:
- Releasing on Google Play too late. More specifically, not releasing a beat-up version of Xplore with incomplete screenshots and info, which I now know is completely OK.
- Forcing Slack, Trello, and bi-weekly meetings. Wasted everyone's time and nobody (including me) bothered to use either tool.
- Forming a large team. Most of the team couldn't contribute because we couldn't find things for them to do, so they had to leave.
- Incorporating too early. Easily the most impulsive thing I've done in my life. This single mistake has cost me 125GEL*, considerable time running around with documents, and my nerves. The path to deregistering an LLC in Georgia is laden with red tape.
I was aware of the mistakes I was making
... to an extent. I was consuming every blog, book, podcast, lecture, and video on the topic of tech startups, so I knew in advance, but that couldn't help me from committing the mistakes anyway. Only after the fun programming puzzles ran out did I realize that all the leftover work was boring. I finished the Android app in 18 months (after multiple iterations), cleaned it up and rewrote 80% of it in Kotlin, and rebuilt a barebones proof of concept version in React Native in a month. Then I implemented a reputation system for hiking partners, made a new landing page with React and a static blog with Jekyll . I started converting the backend to GraphQL and built a location-based game mode in Xplore for events and a tool for me to plan them from inside the app...
I'm embarrassed by how obvious it was that I was constantly looking for excuses to program, so I turned to my team with the proposition to cease all work on Xplore. We decided to fold after failing to find a willing buyer for the company. At least I managed to convince everyone to let me open source everything with a 2-clause BSD license. It's not like anyone will find my code useful, but at least I get to show off.
What I learned from this
- I hate the Android framework and Firebase.
- I didn't know how to run a business.
- I still don't know how to run a business.
- I'm OK at public speaking and pitching.
- There exist no valid reasons to sacrifice sleep, especially in adolescence.
- Using caffeeine long term is unsustainable.
- The only way to validate a product is to validate it. Nobody (including VCs) has any idea whether a business is viable. Go out and test the thing instead of vying for attention from urkanian startup competition judges.
What you can learn from this
If you're young like me, it's likely that you're also figuring out what you want to do in your life. In that case, the best advice I could provide is to examine the things you enjoy doing and search for patterns between them. This pattern-spotting has helped me slowly nail down the specific line of work that gives me fulfillment.
It's unlikely that a person's interests fully align with their daily job. For example, one might enjoy working as a plumber, because they find diagnosing a problem in a complex system interesting, not because they love wrangling pipes. Such a person could also find meaning in repairing car engines or even giving therapy. If plumbing loses the elements which the person enjoys, they'll easily be able to find different work with encompasses those elements instead of having to trudge through their job which has now become soul-crushing.
The most important thing I can suggest is to use your safety net. If you're as privileged as me to have the ability to bounce back to your parents if your moonshot fails, take as many risks as you can while you can! Not doing so is a waste of potential and a disservice to those who don't have the same luxury. Most moonshots will likely fail, but that's OK, because even if there's a small chance that one will be able to make something that creates value in the world, it's always better to try.
Here lies Xplore
Nov. 2016 - Nov. 2019
You should've died sooner
This post shall serve as the gravestone for Xplore, a startup that was going to unite hikers who didn't actually need uniting, nor did they need an app with a reputation system ripped from StackOverflow for finding hiking partners or planning their trips.
Having just turned 20, I've decided to take a year off from my boring university to take care of the side-quests that have popped up over the years. They're mostly just programming projects which I was nerd sniped with.