Turning my shit into sugar

12 Valuable lessons from my failed startup

Valuable lessons from my failed startup
Photo by Ian Kim on Unsplash

Today marks a year since I shut down my start-up company, Sweeft. An app that allowed users to find social events that happened nearby.

To shut down something that you created and are passionate about is like having to give up your own child. Needless to say, it’s not something that is easy for anyone to do.

After months of feeling low about the failure, and battling a major case of impostor syndrome, I finally mustered the courage to reflect on what happened on that wild ride. Instead of continuing to blame myself for the failure, I finally decided it was best to focus on the valuable business lessons that I learned from the experience.

Coincidentally, I just finished re-reading one of my favorite books on being fearless- The 50th Law (by Robert Greene & 50 Cent). What stuck out to me the most this time is the part about how you should always turn your shit into sugar. That is, seeing negative situations as opportunities for a positive change.

I now see the failure of my startup as a teachable moment for both myself and a chance for others to learn from my mistakes. This is me turning my shit into sugar.

I’ll skip all the sappy personal stories of why it didn’t work out for us. Instead, I’ll focus on the general lessons that anyone can apply. I hope these lessons may help you in some way.

1. Focus on one niche/customer avatar at a time

We had so many different ideas for how we could build the product. And each time a new user requested a feature, we tried to build it. We were trying to please everyone and we ended up pleasing no one at the end. We should’ve focused on the problem we were trying to solve for one well-defined customer avatar at a time. Then test our assumptions and iterate from there. This is what people mean that they say you should find your niche.

Don’t lose sight of who you’re building for

2. Be 10x better than the second best

Any product that you are trying to build should be a painkiller, not a vitamin to the user. Meaning it should be something that your user thinks of as “my life is incomplete without this”. Instead of “it’s nice to have this”. Our product was a vitamin. Lots of people liked it, but not many loved it.

3. Sell it before you build it!!

If we had spent more time talking to customers, instead of building, we would’ve realized that no one was willing to pay for our solution.

By talking to paying customers, we would’ve known exactly what we needed to build. Instead of the “throw spaghetti on the wall and hope something sticks” approach that we took.

A constant feedback loop with users is a major key to any business’s success.

4. Function > Form > Fashion

You should always build your product and features in this sequence.

  • Make sure it serves a purpose for the customer. Your product should either be making them more efficient, making or saving them money, entertaining them, etc. Just make sure that you are creating real value for the customer.
  • Then you can decide what efficient form that will take. It could be in the form of an app, website, etc.
  • After your product/feature creates real value and works in the most efficient way possible for the user, then you can start obsessing about the colors, brand name, and everything else that improves upon the experience.

5. Don’t get too emotionally attached

Treat projects and each feature as an experiment/hypothesis, and be completely objective. With this approach, even if something fails, you move on from it and try something else. Remove any personal & emotional attachment until you have validated your idea. And keep iterating.

This was something that caused a lot of friction on our team. We each got emotional about things we built/suggested, even when they had no positive impact on our collective vision of the product.

Always be experimenting. You learn quicker and you don’t get as attached

6. Avoid pointless activities

An interesting thing about ideas is that the more you come up with ideas, the easier it is to come up with more. This is a great thing, but on the flip side, it means you end up having too many ideas that it’s so easy to lose focus on what is truly important. Avoid building things that don’t add any value to the user/customer right now.

We wasted so many days trying to figure out how to implement a chat feature cause it sounded like a good idea. But no one needed or asked for it at the moment. We wasted months trying to come up with a name for the company when we didn’t even have a solid product.

Tip: The product name becomes clearer once your customer avatar, problem area, and solution are well defined.

Other examples- printing business cards without a proper business, incorporating federally, attending every networking event, meetings with no valuable agenda, etc were all time-wasters.

7. Be decisive

“In any moment of decision, the best thing you can do is the right thing, the next best thing is the wrong thing, and the worst thing you can do is nothing.” – Theodore Roosevelt.

When you are trying to create something that hasn’t been done yet, it’s not always clear what the next step is. Instead of overanalyzing everything and developing analysis paralysis, do the best thing you currently know. And when you know better, do better.

It took me a long time to learn this one.

8. Be aware of the competition, but focus on the customer

There were times when we saw competitors in the media getting a lot of PR love or raising funds. So we then wasted so much time and effort doing those things that we thought were helping them get traction. What we didn’t realize was that not everything was rosy behind the scenes. Most of what you see in the startup world is just hype. Just cause someone raised a round doesn’t guarantee success for them.

Focus on your vision and customer. Know who you are serving and serve them the best you can. Better than anyone else.

9. Don’t confuse hype for traction

Just cause people are talking about your startup doesn’t mean you are doing good. We had a lot of buzz but very little traction. Focus on your KPIs(Key Performance Indicators) and let them be your indication of how well you are doing, not what people are saying.

10. First repeat, then scale

Make sure you do something manually a few times first before you think of scaling it, whether it’s business or what you are trying to achieve for the customer. This article by Paul Graham explains it better than I ever can.

11. Define your own success

Besides knowing how well your KPIs are performing, you also need to define exactly what you want in your startup. Are you trying to build a lifestyle business, a bootstrapped business, or one that will raise capital from venture capitalists? There are differences in the approach you need for each one.

Unless you’re The Joker, you need a plan

In retrospect, I never actually intended to start a company at the time.That just happened as a by-product of trying to bring my idea to the world. Even when we did just that, I wasn’t able to internalize what we had achieved because I didn’t have any clear objective, to begin with.

To my friends in the startup world, Sweeft failed. To my regular friends, Sweeft was a massive success. To me? I’m still not sure 🤷‍♂️ since I didn’t define what success looked like or knew what I really wanted.

11. Put on your own gas mask first

This was one of my biggest mistakes. Working on the startup became an obsession, and after a few months, I began feeling burnout. This made it hard to get even the simplest things done.

Your company is an extension of you- especially early on. What you learn outside of working on your business/product is often your competitive advantage in your industry. So take care of your health, practice your hobbies, have a social life, and try to have fun. It’s a marathon, not a race. You lose your edge and creativity if you are running on fumes.

12. Dream big, but be grounded in reality

Entrepreneurs have a tendency to distort reality. It’s our unfair advantage, but it’s also something that could make us delusional if left unchecked. If I was more realistic, I would have quickly realized that we didn’t have the right resources for the scale of what we were trying to do. I would have either a. pivoted to start with something more realistic or b. hustled harder towards the direction that we were heading. It’s okay to dream big, but start with small actions, using the resources that you currently have.

Barack is a wise man

There were a lot more shits that I dug up from my failed start-up, but these are the basic lessons that will be the sugar to sweeten my next venture. I hope this post can also help shorten the learning curve for someone else.

Since you made it this far, please tap and hold on to the 👏 button. Share it to help others find it 🗣📨 and follow to see more content from me. You can also reach me on LinkedIn or Twitter. I’m always happy to discuss more on this or connect.

Onboarding Specialist @ Moz |Life-long student of technology, business and life 🇳🇬 🇨🇦|