The Startup that Never Started

The glamor of the Tech Startup life has been appealing to me since the beginning of mainstream Internet. The idea of creating the next Google or developing a killer mobile app to sell for millions is a dream that continues to pop into my mind on a relatively frequent basis. Always starting ideas and brainstorming with friends and partners, but never really acting… Until one day a few short months ago. My business partner came to me one morning to discuss an idea that he had for an app that would revolutionize the way people planned their day; reminders based on location. An idea that I thought was our break into the industry. Take it by storm, be on the cover of FastCompany, offices in Palo Alto and NYC, living the large life all because of this idea. I was hooked. I was ready to jump in and make this happen. I’d invest my career and my savings into getting this thing off the ground.

So let’s get moving, right? I felt a bit like George Clooney and Brad Pitt in Ocean’s 11, putting together the ideal team; “Off the top of my head, I’d say you’re looking at a Boesky, a Jim Brown, a Miss Daisy, two Jethros and a Leon Spinks, not to mention the biggest Ella Fitzgerald ever!” Picking from the best people in our network, we actually created a pretty solid team that was excited and vested in our idea… except a developer. Our reasoning: “We can always find a developer to get moving on this, once we’re ready.” But, nonetheless, we had an amazing team set up. Next came the market research, strategy, partnership development, VC pitches, creative/brand development, etc. We had it all moving towards startup greatness… That is all except a developer. We were on a roll. We had some great momentum, but the lingering feeling of needing to ship stood over me. We had a VC meeting set up, that was a very good chance to get funded for our development process; which was when we decided we would hire a developer, once the idea was sold.

Tech Startup stardom was in our future.

The Apple Factor

All well and good, right? A development plan and timeline, the right players, VC funding on the near horizon, and a marketing penetration strategy ready to rollout.

Freakout #1: Enter Apple iPhone 4S with built in location based reminders into the G-D operating system; the destruction of ideas.  Don’t get me wrong, I completely admire Apple and the technological innovations they have created over the past 4 decades, but really? Our exact idea right there, on stage, on commercials, and voice activated with that little floozy Siri. A kick right in the nether regions…

Of course we had a very quick regroup of our key stakeholders to identify challenges, opportunities, and to revisit our timeline. Since our idea was to initially launch on Android, we saw some hope. The 4S would only be available to a small percentage of the smartphone population; we could still get in, make a splash and get situated for success. Keep Calm and Carry On…

Freakout #2: Then, I updated my iPhone 4 to iOS 5… Right there, on my first screen is a little reminders app waiting for me to make a reminder and put in my location… no big deal just our idea EXACTLY right there for an increasingly broader portion of the population. It seemed as though Apple was going after our idea directly.

Again, another partner regroup to decide the viability and opportunities for our idea in the App space. We decide that we have a very small window that is closing fast to get in. We need to step up our game. Get funded ASAP and deploy by year end if we wanted any chance for success. The risk level continued to surmount the more Apple’s idea permeated the Interwebs and the conversations around the functionality.

Freakout #3: Technical Knockout: What’s that on TV? Oh that’s just our app… being advertised… by Apple… Something I had envisioned in the future, but with us leading the way; not Apple. The stake through the heart of our idea. With the mass audience display of this very application idea permeating through every household in America, we came to the realization that this idea was something that is going mainstream… without us leading it. The great minds at Google or any other future investor had to be developing a similar concept (not to say they hadn’t already begun; but out of sight out of mind). We’ve officially run into the proverbial death of our idea sifting through the airwaves in dramatic iPhone Advertising-like Fashion.

Lessons Learned

As you would imagine, we learned a lot along the way. Being novices in the app arena, we felt as though we had hit a goldmine. After stakeholder interviews, developing key partnerships and even setting up funding presentations with VCs, we were on our way to startup success, given we could beat the competition to the market. But we didn’t. I’m a firm believer of “failing forward” and ensuring that each experience is a learning experience. So here is what I’ve learned:

Ship: You don’t have an idea until you’ve shipped it. No matter what, you have to get something out in the marketplace in order to have a fighting chance. I believe you need to do your due diligence on your idea to ensure it is solving a real problem, but once it’s decided, get your ass in gear and get something in the marketplace; even if it’s just a very short iteration on the grandiose realization of what the product could be.

Time: Real time isn’t fast enough when getting a high tech product out to market. There are millions of people and companies, most of which smarter than you, working around the clock to capture the next big thing. If you think you have it, someone else is thinking of it already. Be very cognizant of time and ensure you meet your development deadlines and “ship” on time.

Resources: One of the biggest factors that played into our demise and inability to ship was our resources. We had an extreme knowledge of theory and strategy, with a little bit of knowledge of tactical execution. When you make that transformative mindset in becoming a tech startup, your very next step is to ensure that you build a team of competent individuals to execute any idea; especially development of the idea. Do this before the idea is even finalized. By having the team in place, the issue of time is becomes a non-factor and shipping your idea becomes a smoother transition.

Agility: The landscape changes daily and is changing faster and faster. I’ve heard it a million times and have witnessed it in my story above, but your idea may come out before you have a chance to ship yours. Don’t get discouraged when this happens, but have the ability and agility to flex the idea or shift directions to ensure success. You may need to cut features to launch or focus on other features than previously thought, but to differentiate in the marketplace you MUST be agile in your production process.

It’s been a great trip, one that has invigorated me to move onto the next idea. Yes, it’s a bit frustrating, but like I said, we’re failing forward. We now know what’s needed to succeed in the next venture. It’ll happen, as long as that little bitch Siri stays out of it.


Photo courtesy of Flickr – Chad Podoski


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