In Q4 last year, I started working on a project called BorrowMind - a design review marketplace - with two cofounders I have never met before. More details in my previous post on how and why we started.
Most people we have talked to love the idea. Our pilot customers raved about us and saw tremendous value in what we provided.
But unfortunately, we will be shelving this project for the time being.
So, what happened?
Most ideas don't survive the first contact with customers.
It is natural to think most digital products could use an expert design review. After all, who doesn't want a better product, guided by world-class expertise?
But early on, a few of my most astute friends pointed out an inherent challenge with BorrowMind - those who need our product most, can't afford to pay (indie developer or small team with no designer), while those who can, don't see a need (more established companies).
That means the effective accessible market for us is narrower than we thought.
Also, for products that are in serious need of a design review, most of the times, they don't need a world-class design advice; they could improve the product 2-3x just with any semi-competent designers that they could hire much cheaper on general freelancer marketplaces like Fiverr or UpWork.
As an analogy, this is akin to offering world-class professors when our target market only needs a competent teacher who can teach middle school algebra.
So, it is an even narrower subset of businesses that could get the most value out of what we offer. In a way, we are a luxury product - helping a product goes from 95% polished to 100%, instead of from unpolished to polished. There is still a market for such luxury product, just that it needs to be positioned or marketed differently.
Our market positioning was too broad
While the target customer segment is smaller than we thought, we also made the mistake of positioning ourselves too broadly. There is a wide spectrum of need for design review and audit, each with a slight nuance in how the problem can be solved.
Not having a focused positioning at the start makes things 10x more challenging, because what we offer might not acutely appeal to the different pain points of our potential customers. And it made customer acquisition a lot more difficult, especially with limited resources of a bootstrapped project.
In retrospect, we could have pivoted and narrowed down our focus further. There are several different ways we could position this more incisively:
- cross-cultural check: e.g. whether Americans like your design, if you are European or Asian building for the U.S. market.
- as a service specifically for incubators and accelerators, helping their startups access to design experts
- help review your outsourced design (i.e. not in-house design), as a quality guarantee and insurance for your investment
- as a luxury offering for funded startups to get their pre-launch products from 95% to 100%
The interesting thing to note is, when we started, we were aware of the need to have focused positioning, and chose design review specifically as a narrow vertical to validate the on-demand expert opinion market. But it is now clear that we should have been even more focused.
Lesson learned: When you are launching with limited resource, and trying to catch every fish in the ocean, you end up with no fish. If you think your initial positioning is focused, chances are you need to make it 10x more narrow - so narrow that you can list out exactly 50-100 customers that feel this pain point specifically.
We didn't think hard enough about distribution.
We spent a lot of efforts in the product, the operations, and in getting supply-side (the experts) of the marketplace.
But we were caught a little flat-footed when it comes to getting our product to customers. We did some effort before we started - surveys, interviews, getting pilot customers, etc. But we only started putting together launch and acquisition plan a month before launch date. It should have been a continuous efforts from day one that have higher priority than product development - especially for our product which is not technically difficult at all.
Here are what we did at launch:
- joined 20 micro groups and communities for startups and entrepreneurs, and shared BorrowMind launch with promo code
- offered our quick design reviews - as a teaser - when some people ask for feedback on their products on IndieHackers, Reddit, and other forums
- meet people on Lunch Club for 1-on-1 networking
- post on 50+ new launch sites, which culminates in a last-ditch effort to launch on Product Hunt
We have a lot of other acquisition activities planned that we ran out of morale and energy to pursue, including writing a design ebook/guide as a lead gen tool, organizing Clubhouse talks, partnership with incubators, and longer term content marketing activities.
Looking back, we didn't have to touch the supply-side at all. We could be the one doing all the reviews ourselves first, and focus 100% growing the demand side. In this specific marketplace dynamic, the supply-side is easy to ramp up.
Lesson learned: Distribution should be the most important thing you think about even before starting. As an early founder, you cannot outsource understanding your customers and knowing how to get them. If you have an exciting startup idea, that idea should include how you plan to get customers and distribute. Acquisition strategy should not come later as an afterthought.
Product-Market Fit is a well-known concept in startups. But an equally key one is Product-Founder Fit - whether the founding team is the right group to tackle a problem, with the requisite domain knowledge, commitment level, and resources to take on this challenge.
All the issues shared above - market, positioning, distribution - are somewhat easily solvable. The only unsolvable issue is the founding team.
Amongst three of us, we lack a core competency - design expertise; not just someone who designs well, but someone who understands intimately the design industry and the nuances and challenges involved in a design process. What it means is we were essentially going in blind without any domain expertise or relevant network.
Another huge mistake was the founding team did not come to a mutual understanding of commitment that we expect from each other. The founder who could only afford to put in a few hours a week took on the most time-consuming and path-critical tasks, which ended up killing a lot of the momentum of the project that we generated early on.
Momentum and feedback loop is a big part of early-stage execution - especially in a product which has no inherent moat in the long run and could only rely on the strength of execution. Not having momentum and a shared level of commitment kicked off a downward spiral of lower morale and lower input that eventually brought an end to this experiment.
Lesson learned: in all my startups and projects, the most important factor is always the founding team. A good founding team can figure out which market and problem space to tackle, and can navigate most challenges and roadblocks thrown in their ways.
When we started, I was at a YOLO phase in my life where I openly welcomed what fate has brought into my life. So despite not knowing the two other founders before, I jumped straight in without assessing if we are a good fit as a team.
If you are starting a new project / startup, set out clear expectation of each other and the project before you jump in - even if it is someone you have known or worked with.
Be very critical and realistic whether the founding team have the requisite domain expertise, resources, networks, and personality to take on a challenge.
Do not YOLO like me.
A minor but critical mistake we made was using Bubble.io - a no-code platform - to build our MVP web app, even though two of us know how to code. The intention was to empower our design founder to be able to implement his design quickly and easily.
But we found out the hard way that Bubble is a huge pain in the ass - even to this day, it still does not render mobile design optimally. In the end, we spent so much time learning and tickering with the quirks of Bubble, that we could have built everything manually in one-tenth the time.
We should have ditched it after a month and save our efforts on other more important tasks, but we were caught in sunk cost fallacy. In the larger scheme of things, this is not a root cause for failure, but it definitely accelerated the demise.
Lesson learned: trying out new tools is fine. But if it is not a good fit, we need to learn to cut our loss and ditch it.
GG, Go Next
There are a lot of learnings in this project, with myself contributing to plenty of unforced errors and mistakes. But I have enjoyed working with my co-founders, and we are still in good terms. We have collectively recognised the issues we face and learned a great deal from this experience.
There are still a lot of angles to this problem space: bringing easier access to expertise and talents that are traditionally locked or gate-walled. The fundamental idea is sound, and we could have continued and iterated on BorrowMind further if we are more aligned in our commitment.
It is an exciting industry, and in the past year alone, many similar products have popped up. And there are many more verticals, from music production to copywriting, where there is opportunity to unbundle and provide creators with quick expert opinions. If anyone has a fresh impetus and would like to bounce idea off me, I am all ears.
Meanwhile, I will be spending more time on my other project and continue to explore other exciting ideas. Stay tuned!