Many people have asked me about my startup interactions over the course of the years. I plan to briefly talk about the different ventures I had co-founded or helped out in this series of posts.
Apart from the reason I just stated above, there are mainly two reasons which motivate me to write this series of posts.
Entrepreneurship is a space where there is a lot of Survivorship Bias (link). People mostly hear the stories of the ones who succeed whereas over 99% startups fail. I see that many startups still make those same mistakes that we went through. I would like to document our learnings so that others and (more importantly?) future-me can learn from these.
Having said that, I strongly believe we did many things right too. Some of the same ideas which we tried out were later validated by others (the stories of which I hope to touch upon in this series). But many a times, some of the variables that control the fate of a startup are beyond your control (right place at the right time?). This series is not just about calling out our mistakes, but telling our stories as it is. These were some of the best and most exciting moments in my life.
The year was 2012. I had learned the basics of web development and was looking for an opportunity to use the skills. I came across CampusLAN – an SMS based facility through which students could get to know their attendance instantly. It got popular pretty fast as it let students take an informed decision about bunking classes. It was started by some of my seniors. I immediately got excited and decided to join the team.
At that time, HedCet was a 4 member team. During the course of the next year, we grew to over 10 members. The team composition was interesting in that it consisted of students doing undergrad in Mechanical, Industrial, Electronics, Civil etc along with one or two Computer Science students. Most of them were self-taught programmers. We were coding in PHP using CodeIgniter framework.
We were all heavily inspired by Mobme ( a tech company that was founded by our super seniors) and Startup Village, a non-profit startup incubator that they started. We actively participated and helped organize ’30 days to freedom’, a education policy change favoring entrepreneurship.
And yes, the name ‘HedCet’ did not have any particular meaning to it apart from CET standing for our college (College of Engg., Trivandrum).
Up next, I will try to talk through some of the ideas that we tried out back then.
Our plan was to expand campusLAN (rebranded as Avocado) into a full fledged campus management software, with break-through features like fingerprint based attendance marking, social networking features for sharing study materials (dubbed Resource Pool) etc.
We spent about 8 to 10 months developing the software before starting approaching colleges. I remember reaching out to and also traveling to multiple colleges across Kerala trying to talk to the Principals and Head of Departments and convince them to use our product.
We were woken up to a stark reality. All the colleges (including our own) declined our proposals siting various reasons (not feeling the need, opposition to transparency and sometimes even political). Interesting thing to note here was that not even a single college cited a technical reason or lack of some feature to be the reason for declining.
Learning: Test your assumptions early on.
We could have created an MVP fast (in a month or so) and got the same feedback without wasting 10 months of a 6 member development team.
Looking back, I feel that TinyMail was one of our most brilliant ideas. Even though none of us had smartphones or were aware of WhatsApp at that time, our idea was very similar to the modern day WhatsApp.
The idea was this – We already have everyone’s mobile number in our contacts. However email addresses of much fewer people. Why not make your mobile number your single point of communication (i.e. your email address?)
Instead of creating a chat server, we somehow stuck to email. Users need to sign up like normal email but by giving their mobile number. The email address will be <mobile-number>@tinymail.com (e.g. firstname.lastname@example.org). We setup our SMTP server and had a working website and hybrid mobile app (albeit crappy).
We never really thought that a single easy ‘point of contact’ was in itself a complete product. In the subsequent iterations, instead of improving our UX, customer adoption etc., we tried to create a superior email product with features like an app-store (codenamed SuperMail). We never got any adoption and the product died.
Learning: Focus. Don’t try to do everything. Do one thing really well.
At that time, there were no movie booking websites or mobile apps. Considering the limited smartphone adoption in Kerala at that time, our idea was to create an SMS based movie booking platform.
We approached the Kerala Film Distributors Association with a proposal to implement this across the various theaters in Kerala. We were met with a lot of bureaucracy and the project never took off.
The problem was eventually solved by BookMyShow across India. Its story is also inspiring in that the founders met similar failure in adoption early on but persisted for many years before becoming a multi-million dollar company and the single dominating movie-booking platform in India (read more here).
Learning: Don’t let a few rejections make you doubt the merit of your idea. Keep persisting.
We tried out a bunch of other ideas also.
Near Field Communication – 2012 was predicted to be ‘The Year of NFC’. We got a few NFC chips and two BlackBerry smartphones from Startup Village. We made a few basic mobile apps using these. We approached some of the 5 star hotels in Kerala offering to make their hotels/resorts ‘smart’ using NFC.
NFC did not pick up. Our proposals were not accepted.
MediCol – Appointment scheduling and telemedicine services. These are probably still unsolved problems to some extend (at-least in India). We tried approaching some hospitals to adopt our appointment scheduling software. Here also, most of them sited non technical reasons for declining our proposal.
Smartphone games – We tried building some mobile games during that time (ScoreLoop, Tripped etc). We never really ended up releasing a fully functional game if I remember correctly.
As I mentioned, some of these ideas had great potential. We were just in the wrong time, wrong place or didn’t have the right resources to execute these. It’s always easier to look back and identify your mistakes. Identifying the ones you’re yet to make is an all together different ball-game.
Nonetheless, I am sure the whole team learned a lot and moreover enjoyed a lot during this period. At the end of the day, probably that’s what matter?
Update: One technical learning that I forgot to mention was the importance of version control. As a five member dev team, we used to have five versions of our code base in a shared Dropbox folder. Substantial amount of time was wasted in keeping these in sync and merging changes together.
I strongly recommend version control (Git preferably) for even a one person single day project.