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This article was published on July 25, 2011

Lessons From a Failed Startup

Lessons From a Failed Startup
Hardik Ruparel
Story by

Hardik Ruparel

Hardik is a geek, writer, startup guy, programmer, FOSS enthusiast and a wannabe computational linguist. Follow him on Google or check out h Hardik is a geek, writer, startup guy, programmer, FOSS enthusiast and a wannabe computational linguist. Follow him on Google or check out his weblog.

Unlike over 99% of engineers who graduate in India, I decided that a job was not the way to go after graduation. Software companies expect me to do mindless so-called “programming” and pay me $6000 a year? What are you freaking kidding me?

It’s not so much the money (which is obviously insulting), but it’s the “programming” they make you do at Indian software shops. Sure, there are some better than others, but most of them are crap. I wanted something bigger, better and more challenging. After graduating in mid-2010, I attempted a startup – the product would be something on the lines of a web application that simplifies contact management.

In Feb 2011, just over half a year later, the startup crashed and burned. Worse, I was burnt out from constantly nurturing a web-app I knew would never take off under the circumstances then. I made a bunch of mistakes – way too many if you want your startup to succeed. The failure wasn’t sudden – it was a feeling gradually growing inside me for a couple of months.

So, (gulp), here’s the list:

1. Not learning web-programming earlier
From school, right through college, I enjoyed C++. I enjoyed it so much that I never bothered to learn any web programming. I focused only on C/C++ projects (since I enjoyed playing around with threads and the kernel in Linux). When it was time to do a web-startup, I had to spend quite a while getting up to speed with PHP/Javascript/CSS. That really slowed me down and made the initial release of my product buggy. I had to learn and build my product at the same time – that’s not quite ideal if you’re launching a startup.

2. Not finding a co-founder / building a team
There’s this debate whether single-founder startups are worth investing in, and whether they should even exist! I agree with Gabriel Weinberg with the list of qualities a good founder must possess. I must add tenacity to that list – the lack of which in a founder is often the reason why some their startups fail. Take me, as an example.
Sometimes, I had help from a couple of guys, and it was great when they would drop in and take me out of my lonely abyss. Their feedback on the product was great, and I often thought to myself that if I had someone as a full-time co-founder, things would’ve been very different today. Programming for a startup alone can get very lonely/intimidating if you are doing it from the town of Zirakpur in Punjab, on the world’s slowest Internet connection. Having a team would’ve helped me, for sure. If you’re stuck over whether you should find a co-founder, there are many great debates strewn over the Internet over this issue, and I’ll let you be the judge of whether this was a mistake, or an excuse on my part.

3. Not looking for funding
From my understanding of the Indian startup ecosystem, this is the #1 problem with Indian startups. They don’t realise how important funding is, and they don’t even think about approaching investors. There’s a huge deficit of early-stage investors in India, and that’s probably because there’s an even bigger deficit of startups to invest in.
I was so confident of making it as a bootstrapped startup, that this thought never crossed my mind – not even once – not even when I read about the most random startups/ideas being splashed with funding in the Valley. Funding is too important, even sometimes necessary for a startup to reach the next level. Sure, there are many great bootstrapped startups, but we’ll never know how much better they would’ve been with funding.

4. Not valuing my time / Distractions
I never realised how valuable my time was, when I was building my product. I spent hours learning programming, then programming and building my product and finally reading about successful startups, interviews, TechCrunch, Paul Graham’s essays, Hacker News, Proggit, Swombat – you name it. And at the end of most days – nothing much would’ve been achieved – probably a slightly faster loading page or a slightly cleaner interface. I often wasted my time attending startup events and networking with entrepreneurs who had nothing to do with my startup. Everyone talked about networking, and I was so scared I would be left behind. All this time, I should have been building my product – moving fast and breaking things – but I realised this much later.

5. Not Going Mobile
The thing with contact management is – it’s tied really close to people’s phones. I should have started building an iPhone app as soon as I launched the alpha web-app. It would’ve increased my product’s credibility and user base. But, again, it never struck me as something important enough to focus on, and I kept developing on the web-app.

6. Doubting The Idea
Online contact management / business cards is nothing new. My product was contact management with a bunch of twists. The product resonated with people when they heard about it. But then – the worst thing that could EVER happen to a startup founder, happened.
I started doubting the idea itself – and it all went downhill from then. I came up with another product idea, which I would integrate with contact management. I started building the new product on a new vertical, and even that ended up in shambles, as I was torn between the two half-baked applications.

7. Feature Lists
I was obsessed with my product being an online equivalent of a Swiss Army Knife. I wanted it to be loaded with features that would be useful to anyone and everyone. But this attitude had a big role to play in delaying the second/beta launch of the product. In fact, I quit before I even launched the beta version, and it’s still lying on my hard-drive.

8. Not accepting jobs from awesome startups
This may seem strange, but when people in my network started realizing my startup wasn’t doing too great, I received a job offers to become Employee #1 from two really amazing web-startups. These were funded, growing fast, and at the back of my mind I knew I could be a part of something big. But, only as a fool would, I politely turned them down and returned to my laptop to continue programming my product which I knew would fail, sooner or later. And a few weeks later, it did.
I personally thought (and still do) that becoming Employee #1 for a web-startup (especially if you’re a programmer) is the next best thing to founding it, but I wasn’t satisfied with that. I wanted my own startup to succeed, just as theirs had, and I forced my heart and nerve and sinew into my product, and finally I was left burnt out.

9. Having a second love / option
As much as I loved and treasured my startup, I had the same (if not more) amount of love for research in Computer Science (specifically Computational Linguistics). During building my startup, I often spent hours on reading research journals, learning from textbooks, programming solutions for the problems in the books, and reading anything I could find on the topic of computational linguistics. Secretly, I wanted to attend graduate school, and that’s why I couldn’t treat this as just a distraction like Hacker News. I had to work hard if I wanted to get into and do well in grad school. I guess this second option took a little bit of tenacity out of me.

10. Blaming the System
As much as I love India, I love criticizing it. I snickered when I thought of my situation : I was stuck in a small town, living off less than $70 a month, eating bad food and drinking dirty water, living in horrible conditions, and with an Internet connection that would often compete with dial-up Internet in surfing speeds. Even though I paid out of my nose for a supposedly 3.1 Mbps connection, it would be so mind-numbingly slow that I would take about 5 minutes to upload patches (which were a few kilobytes big) to my Mercurial repository on Bitbucket.
I thought to myself – how will a startup, run by the above mentioned person, compete with the awesome startups in Silicon Valley – the funded ones with plush offices and teams of ex-Facebook/ex-Google programmers? Impossible! Blame the System!
Even though some of my complaints about India being a hostile environment for startups may be valid, I still think this would be an excuse. Nobody said entrepreneurship would be easy.

Now that I look back, these mistakes were way too basic. I’m sure most American startups would never make these mistakes. But, unfortunately, many struggling startups in India are making these exact same mistakes. I’m not even sure if these mistakes would come back to haunt me on my next attempt at a startup (which is a little into the future – Right now, I’m heading to University of Southern California for my Masters in Computer Science.) Yes, my second love got me.

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