/ producthub

ProductHub: Our First Failure

Me and Akhil had our first meeting for 2hackers at Super Duper Burgers. One week earlier, we had accidentally discovered that we were both trying to start a bootstrapped company, and the decision to work together seemed obvious. We had committed to launching a product every week, so we could learn 4x as fast as @levelsio. Of course, the first step to launching a product is coming up with an idea. So we pulled out our idea lists and started brainstorming some terrible ideas.

After an hour and some unhealthy food, we decided to work on a feature voting product. Users submit feedback to websites all the time, but the feature requests and bug reports that they make are hard to quantify if they’re just sending emails. Our solution, ProductHub, would allow users to submit features, merge similar requests, get notified when a feature they cared about was added to the roadmap, and many other things in the realm of product decisions, user requests and transparency.

We started off by coming up with the basic design for our MVP. We finalized the feature set and split up the work. He was going to work on the frontend in React, and I’d do the backend in Node and Mongo, both working with the technologies we already knew best to make life easier.

Later that night, we realized that we were not the first geniuses to come up with this idea, and discovered two competitors, one of which was an IndieHackers company (shoutout to Canny <3).

We decided that even though there was competition, maybe there was something these companies weren’t already doing. We thought user interviews would give us a better understanding of the problems people had in this space.

I cold emailed a few random companies I found on IndieHackers, and some of their responses started coming in. I was amazed and surprised that anyone would take their time to respond to me.

The emails I sent looked like this:

And the responses looked like this:

A day after we came up with the idea, something hilarious happened: someone posted the same idea on IndieHackers, asking for feedback on whether people thought it was viable.

Spoiler: No one thought it was viable

But we didn’t really care at that point. We decided that competition meant the idea was validated, and that it was fine if we were just like the other products for now. We could figure out how to differentiate ourselves later.

After browsing through IH for a bit, I found a video that shifted my perspective. In this video, Pawel Brzeminski talks about getting sales before you build anything, which seemed kind of deceptive, but made a lot of sense. We thought it was a good idea so decided to go that route. We would make mockups and a landing page, then try to sell it to people before building anything. That way we wouldn’t waste time coding unless enough people were willing to pay for it.

We had no idea how to do sales or marketing, so our initial plan was to send emails to a bunch of random companies. We decided that if we got 3-5 sales, then that would be enough validation to start coding it.

However, right before we started executing that amazing plan, I found a blog post called “The Epic Guide to Bootstrapping a SaaS Startup from Scratch”. That post helped clarify our thinking for this project. We read the guide and decided that this guy was definitely a lot smarter than we were, so we would follow it religiously without question.

According to the guide, the first thing you have to do is figure out your value proposition.

“Getting your messaging right is perhaps one of the most important things you need to nail.”

So our message looked like this:

I believe that people want to find out which features and bugs their users care about the most so that they can prioritize tasks and engage with their users, and they would pay good money for that because collecting a ton of feedback over email/support tickets and manually trying to keep track of what’s important is annoying and inaccurate.

Then we had to come up with 20 good places to find the kinds of people that would pay to solve this problem.

“If you can’t come up with 20 good places, chance are you don’t know who your customer actually is.”

Our list included sites like IndieHackers, ProductHunt, BetaList, startup related podcasts, and anywhere else we could find people who had relatively small tech companies.

Then came the really fun part: we had to send 200 emails.

“So now, we’re going to research 10 individual people from each of the 20 places we identified. Yes. If you’re good at math, you just realized that we’re going to be going after 200 people.”

That was a pretty ridiculous amount of emails, but we were determined to follow this guide.

For the next few days, we spent most of our time writing these emails, trying to make them personalized enough to get a response. We ended up spending most of the time trying to find people’s email addresses. I would go from ProductHunt to Twitter to LinkedIn to their personal website, just to have a small chance of getting an email address. The more likely outcome was that I ran into a dead end, and all that time was wasted. Since it took so long to find email adresses, I eventually gave up on making the emails personalized.

The emails looked something like this:
We sent emails all day for 3 days in a row until we were finally done.

Our response rate was a lot higher than we expected at around 47%.
(This was probably because fellow hackers are happy to help each other)

Our responses looked something like this:

email email

The next step in the guide was to find 20 people who really wanted what we had to offer. And this is where we failed.

Our stats looked like this:

Initial responses:

Follow up for people who had a problem:

This meant that:

  • Most people did not have a problem.
  • Most of the people who had a problem already had a solution, or didn't consider it to be a big problem.
  • A small handful of people had a problem and were willing to try our solution.

We could have modified our value proposition and continued trying to get sales, but we decided that this problem was already solved by enough people.

It was time for us to leave it behind, and start working on something new.
More on that later...