Tuesday, June 07, 2011

The Startups I Didn't Deliver

As I work on yet another side project with some friends, which we hope this time really will become a real company, I thought I'd reflect on what I'd failed to deliver in the past and why.  The answer's usually quite simple, really.  td;lr - I didn't execute.  Here's my list; I worked with various different friends for each project.

Project Bravo:  A side-scrolling RPG developed by a company called Artificial Intelligence Entertainment.  I was convinced side-scrolling wasn't getting the development attention it deserved.  My friends and I gathered some of the best artists, programmers, etc, that we knew from our high school grad year, with the full intention of working through the summer after high school to make AIE into a real game company.  We spent all our time on storyboarding and character design, not a single line of code.  Interesting that this would be much easier to make today with things like iOS, Android, XBox Live, etc.  But not important.

Computer Evolution:  A guy I met at a university event had a small computer services company, and he wanted to bring me on board to help the company to scale up.  Well, we tried.  I found the company had no real strategy, was just him working by himself, and had no real clients.  We worked our butts off to get new clients, and I designed various websites on a volunteer basis for various clients to build up a company portfolio.  He took care of sales, so I didn't learn at the time how hard sales can be.  But eventually, I just couldn't continue, it wasn't making sense.  Companies like these were a dime a dozen, and our service was frankly very sub-par compared to competitors.

SMSMob:  My friends and I were frustrated by the difficulty of skiing around big ski resorts.  Sometimes, some would want to tackle full black diamonds, while others wanted to tackle greens.  Using cell phones or handheld radios to find each other, meet up, and coordinate our ski routes was inconvenient.  Take off the gloves, unzip the jacket, take out the phone/radio, answer.  We wanted a more asynchronous solution that still would accomplish the same goals.  Enter SMSMob, which has an exact current-day equivalent of GroupMe. We gave up our own attempt after skiing around Whistler Blackcomb and discovering that we couldn't even send and receive SMS messages due to network unreliability; the network may have improved by now.  But suffice it to say, we gave up too easily and didn't think of pivoting our use cases.

Paper Recycling:  My friends and I formed a group we jokingly called Knights of the Round Table.  We'd make a paper recycling company that gathered used paper from corporations and other organizations, and shredded what was considered confidential, and ship it off to China for recycling.  Or maybe we'd just gather the paper from waste companies who were already doing collections and shredding and simply act as an agent for shipping product.  The market was perfect, the opportunity was perfect, and China had poor quality trees for making paper.  However, my friends and I discovered changes in China's import laws that would be implemented within a matter of months, that would require certifications to ensure that we were a quality used paper supplier.  It seems everyone wanted in, so China wanted standards on what they accepted.  We gave up at the first hint of trouble.  Only a year later, we found out through some news articles that the richest woman in China ran paper recycling facilities.  Gah.  We didn't even try to hustle.

myGrapevine:  This was to be an online social network that focused on professional life.  People could keep track of their career paths, goals, and colleagues.  Correspondingly, employers could use this network to find new employees through referrals and use an expert system AI to automate analysis of candidate resumes, goals, and job/cultural fit.  We wrote up the entire vision and submitted it to a business plan competition for feedback and the hope to get some funding and mentors (the whole business plan competition was set up for this).  We gave up after being rejected from going to the next round of competition.  Today, we see LinkedIn.  You know what else we see?  The problems that existed in the hiring world years ago still exist today.

DOME:  DOME was a home automation solution that we'd create using mesh networks, specifically based on the Zigbee standard.  It would finally deliver on all those empty home automation promises we'd been seeing for years, simply by enabling all communications for every electronic device in one's home to communicate via the mesh airwaves.  We wrote up a business plan again and submitted to a business plan competition (again).  It's amazing how important those competitions seem to be when you're just a university student; things like YCombinator and the whole Web 2.0 world was only just getting started.  And we of course stopped trying when the competition rejected us.

Project M/My Eyes/Geats (Good Eats):  We wanted to make a restaurant review website with wiki-style pages, geolocation, and a mobile app for easy on-the-spot reviews.  Then Yelp made Yelp.  My friend to this day thinks our greatest blunder was us trying to hire a rock star coder I knew who had his own food review website.  We explained our concept to him, and the guy was like, "Wow, that's a great idea!  Mind if I use it for my own site?"  Excuses, excuses.  We wrote some code, but we didn't execute to the end when it mattered, and actually, neither did that guy.  Yelp did execute.  So did Urbanspoon.

Place to Study:  For this one, my friend invited me to join his co-workers from EA.  I'd be more the business guy.  We wanted to make flash card systems that could run on cell phones and MP3 players.  The iPhone hadn't yet been released, so the thought was very much make things with feature phones (using Java), Windows Mobile, the Nintendo DS, or maybe even the iPod (we had grand visions and saw the writing on the wall).  Unfortunately, everyone was too busy with their day job, so the effort fell apart.

EmployerMark:  Well, couldn't get enough, I guess.  Finally, I decided to go hardcore and quit work to try to do this stuff.  EmployerMark was a system where people could post reviews of their employers, post salaries, keep track of their own goals and wants, and employers could set up corporate profiles and do analysis to find good employee candidates for their corporate culture and available jobs.  It was like myGrapevine all over again, but cooler, with 2-way feedback.  I asked the designer and a coder from the Place to Study group to join me.  But they didn't want to quit their day jobs.  Well, we gave it a go anyway.  Unfortunately, they couldn't focus due to work, and our team started to fall apart when one guy started looking at changing employers for another game developer.  EmployerMark wasn't the #1 priority.  Today, Glassdoor.com is going strong.

Solwrks Solutions:  Well, while doing startup work, still needed to have some cash in the meantime, right?  So another friend and I incorporated Solwrks Solutions to try to make some consulting money on the side.  I was full-time, but he was part-time because (again) he didn't want to quit work.  I finally found out that consulting is hard because sales is hard.  Sales is a harsh numbers game, and so you need to be pounding the pavement and networking all the time in order to get clients.  I was able to keep it up for a while, but eventually, you can't do both sales for consulting work and coding for a startup's product development, when really, both should be considered full-time jobs.  Especially true if you're a no-name and have no client base to speak of.  I ended up finally landing 2 clients, but the money wasn't worth the effort.  Meantime, my partner worked during the day.  He was supposed to be more the business guy, but he couldn't devote the time to be the one to rack up clients, given his day job.  Eventually, we just closed up shop, because the annual incorporation fees, bank fees, membership dues for various networking organizations, etc, were just draining cash.

Omotta:  Well, funding's a problem for everyone, right?  What if we could make an easy way for people to raise seed funding?  Thus, Omotta was conceived.  My friend and I excitedly laid out the vision and designed the product.  Anyone would be able to invest any amount into any idea.  It would be like a mini-stock market of ideas, where the only shares you could purchase were issued by the company.  But as we researched how the thing would work in terms of the regulatory environment, we were very discouraged.  It looked like a nightmare.  So we dropped it.  Look at Kickstarter today.

LegalSuite:  The legal process is horribly paper-heavy.  My friend was interning at a criminal law office and complained about how inefficient their case management was.  As she described the situation to me, I got excited.  What if we designed an online system that allowed criminal lawyers (and eventually all lawyers) to do better case management?  Webifying and automating paper processes is exactly what I did at my first job after university.  I knew I could do this.  We excitedly laid out the vision, designed the product, and started coding.  It would have case workflow, document templates, and even geolocation for case management (trust me, it turned out it was actually a big issue)!  Only thing is, I discovered that while I was excited to work on a product I was confident I could actually create this time after years of no progress, I was actually pretty indifferent about the product itself.  Why did I care whether case management was inefficient for criminal lawyers?  I didn't.  So the effort slowly died.

CV Manager:  OK, still just wanted to create something.  So I thought of a little resume generator that would allow you to generate new resumes custom-tailored to fit any job application, based on criteria you would set in the app.  Honestly though, this was just me bored wanting to fill my time.  It died again from boredom.

Today - SocialCheck.me:  Well, here I go again.  After going back to the normal work world due to having eaten up all my savings doing the other stuff, I am once again trying to do a startup project with friends.  After all my efforts, I only conclude that I probably still don't know what I'm doing.  Here's my pitch.


  1. Haha I remember 2 of your projects in particular. Those were the days...

  2. Yes, execution is always what holds the entrepreneur back. Until starting my bathroom remodeling business, I was in the same boat