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How (not) to build a startup

Tomas Vestenicky
April 19th, 2020 · 4 min read

This is the story of how I built FeedBear. It’s the first of my projects I take seriously as a real business. Now, on its 2nd birthday, let’s take a trip down the memory lane to revisit the beginnings.

I did so many things wrong it amazes me to this day. Yet despite that, I still managed to build something useful and get that first, happy, paying customer even before the official launch. Since this is a publication from founders to founders, you may be going through something similar. Here’s what I learned.

Knowledge is important, but experience is the key ingredient

The name of the master’s program I studied was “Service science”. Besides engineering, it included communication, marketing, business, and finance. I’ve read many books about startups, endless medium articles, blog posts, success stories, failure stories, you name it. I should be as ready to build something useful the proper way as I can possibly be, right?

False. Somehow I didn’t manage to apply the things I knew and mostly went with the gut feeling.

Having all that knowledge in my head — when it came to action — didn’t seem to matter. The actual experience is the best teacher you can ever have. Reading about things before they happen to you leaves a very small footprint in your brain. But, when you read about a problem you’re currently having and apply that new knowledge right away, it tends to stick.

Long before I started working on FeedBear, I kept a list of potential ideas that I could build some time. Having a stable job I never actually started anything. But I sure read a lot about it.

Then suddenly, in May 2018, I left the job and traveled to SE Asia (as everyone does, right?) to work on what later became FeedBear. A very risky and irresponsible thing to do, but it finally pushed me to actually create something. And let me tell you, no amount of articles could have prepared me for what was coming.

Start creating today and learn as you go.

Actionable takeaway: Avoid trying to soak up tons of information before you start actually doing something. It’s mostly a waste of time. Start creating today and learn as you go.

The not so lean startup

You already know what is the lean way to build a business. How you should have customers waiting with the money at your door before you even write the first line of code.

So I picked an idea from my Idea stash, built a quick landing page, and sent it to a bunch of people. But there was no selling involved, no price tag attached. The responses were mostly positive, somewhere along the lines of “Yes, I totally need this.”, or “I needed this so bad I built it myself!”.

You can imagine how this was completely enough for me to start building FeedBear. My plan was to create the most basic version and get some beta users to grow it further. That sounds like a good plan, but my definition of “the most basic version” started to shift as I worked.

I’m sure you can relate to this. You think of a possible feature. You think about it more. After a while, it grows into OMG THIS IS ABSOLUTELY ESSENTIAL, MY PRODUCT IS GARBAGE WITHOUT IT. And when you find out that your competition has that feature? It’s simply not possible to resist after that.

I always felt that a barebones ‘MVP’ is not enough. The result was a bunch of half-baked features that people didn’t use. Thankfully, as the product grew, they became handy. But you may not be that lucky. In the beginning, it’s a gamble that will just slow you down.

Build a product that completes one user story and does it well.

Actionable takeaway: Build a product that completes one user story and does it well. Which story? Ask them. You have to solve a real problem for your customer and it should leave them asking for more. Take your time with that one task. Everything else can wait.

For FeedBear this was completing the feedback loop:

  1. Letting users leave feedback easily
  2. Showing that feedback in an organized fashion to a manager
  3. Allowing them to quickly notify their users about updates

The competition

My competition research was very weak. Googling “feedback management tool” gave me mostly bloated enterprise solutions and blog posts listing them out. I took that as a positive sign (“I will build a Trello to a bunch of JIRAs!”).

So I started coding. As I progressed, I talked about it with my friends who sent me links to similar solutions. But not the ones I found by googling. Small, focused products doing pretty much the same thing! I started to be concerned. Am I building something useless?

See, this is the kind of situation everybody wants you to avoid. All those medium articles and all those books. It’s not a good feeling. I decided to finish what I started anyway. So what it’s not an original. I will figure it out. I definitely won’t be the first one.

Things worked out in the end. As you’re reading this, FeedBear is out in the wild having paying customers. I certainly don’t defend my lack of research, but my confidence is slowly rising. I listen to my customers a lot and this alone can influence the product in a very unique way.

Originality is overrated. Focus on providing value.

Actionable takeaway: Research the competition, but don’t worry if you find somebody else doing what you want to do. That’s a good sign that there is an existing market you don’t need to create by yourself.

Originality is overrated. Focus on providing value. Differentiation will come from truly serving your customers.

Summary

  1. Don’t waste time trying to learn everything before starting your business. Seek answers when you start to have questions.
  2. Stay lean. Avoid the temptation of building more features. Pick one user story and do it well.
  3. Competition is healthy. Don’t let it discourage you. Actively listening to feedback from your customers will guide your product in a unique way.

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