“The only real mistake is the one from which we learn nothing.”
— Henry Ford
From having no idea of what a computer was to falling in love with computers and then opting for a diploma course in Computer Science, my story was about a passionate young Nigerian trying to learn more about something he loves. Fast forward two years later, and I had learnt how to code, and just like any other person, I thought of ways to use my skills to solve problems around me.
Programmers are one of the gods of today’s world, crafting and building almost anything they can imagine. And just like any other programmer, I set out to build my first idea.
RoadPal was a simple idea — your companion on the road. After spending some time in Lagos traffic, I wanted to build a community-based traffic information system. I slapped in alternate routes and found nearby mechanics, vulcanizers, and the like to the app. With my knowledge then, I built both the backend and mobile app after a couple of months, and then my first problem — marketing.
As a programmer, it was easy to figure out everything technical, and I quickly lost sight of the other essential aspects of “my little startup.” My first users were family, friends, and people I guilt-tripped into downloading the application. I quickly noticed some things:
- They were not coming back after their first use.
- I was the only one posting traffic information.
After talking to some family members and thinking for a couple of days, I understood some things:
- I was selling to the wrong market (my friends were college students who seldom used the major roads with traffic). Real customers don’t know the app exists.
- I could not answer a fundamental question — why should anyone post traffic updates on the app?
- While telling a speaker at Pycon Nigeria 2018 about my solution, she asked: “Who would you rather go to if your car breaks down on the road? A trusted mechanic, a referred mechanic, or some random mechanic?” I figured out something then and there — I had done almost zero market research.
A couple of days back, while reading the book “The Right It” by Alberto Savoia, I came across this:
“Next time, make sure that you are building The Right It before you build It Right.”
— Alberto Savoia
I immediately understood, and I could see that was something I failed to do for almost all my startup ideas.
We built a mini project less than six months later. A simple causal conversation one bright sunny afternoon at a hub became something we thought was exciting. Qhay was simple — an app for Q&A remotely. That same evening, we started building. By the next day, we had a mobile app in ionic and a backend fully built — and yes, we were that crazy, young, and full of drive.
Then the problem — telling people about what we built and getting them to use it. Nothing much from this; actually, it was a crazy idea we decided to build with zero market research or any idea as to how we intend to make money. We got something else out of this — we learnt to use Flutter (we rebuilt the app from the ground up for no “actual reason”).
Tiwa, our mobile app. Not the famous female Nigerian artist. Tiwa was from “Ti wa n Ti wa n,” a Yoruba phrase that means “It is ours.” It was the wrong choice of name for multiple reasons, including SEO (search engine optimization).
The Tiwa idea came from trying to serve the fashion industry in Africa. Showcase your designs and sell them to the world. We did some things right this time, including speaking to fashion designers about the idea and proper structure. We thought we were solving a significant problem. Ran ads on Google, attended big fashion events, and tried to market ourselves.
Oh! We were at GT Fashion Week. Speaking of GT Fashion Week, I remember a funny incident. We told a couple of people about the app, and a couple of people showed interest in the app. One of them even tried to use the app almost immediately, only to come back to us showing us a weird error on the app when she tried uploading her products.
We rushed to a corner. I brought out my laptop (we were always with our laptops) and started looking for the issue. I tried with multiple photos, and it worked well. I went home that day with this issue hanging over my head. I discovered the next day what the problem was. We were all using Android phones then. We tested on Android phones and an iPhone emulator on my laptop. The user tried to upload a photo she had taken on her iPhone. A single image was about 10 Mb in size.
For some reason, we configured our PHP server to accept a maximum of 5 Mb 😮. At this time, our logging/ error reporting was on the apps and not on the backend. Now that I think about it, it was a funny incident.
After much marketing, we started getting feedback. A popular one was — “This looks like Instagram. Why should I use this instead of Instagram.” We also couldn’t market a lot of individuals because we they didn’t want to come to a platform to buy clothes and only see 10–20 items on the application. We had many back-and-forth, chicken-or-egg conversations until we slowly got honest feedback. One of the problems fashion designers faced was logistics, especially in Nigeria. We had spent much time thinking we understood their problem.
We tried addressing this, but logistics in Nigeria alone was a big issue at that time. Some logistics companies had no APIs to integrate with, high or lowe cost, and coverage of cities outside Lagos. Tiwa lived for a bit until we decided to shut it down.
A couple of friends and I registered a company in Nigeria then — SoftNexus. We worked with a couple of clients to build chatbots for various reasons. After some frustrations faced by online vendors, we thought a chatbot could be the solution. I even went ahead to write two articles about it here and here. With some random conversations and research, we thought, how about we make it easier for any business to create a chatbot with no code? Thus Eazido (“Easy-do”) was conceived.
We had a target market — businesses and software developers. Come to our platform, answer some questions, and have your Chatbot up and running by the time you complete the signup flow. We built the platform with easy integration into social media platforms and websites. Building has never been a problem for us. We had a working M.V.P. in less than three months and faced our major challenge — marketing what we built. Oh! It should be easy.
We could talk to developers. After all, they are like us. We also spoke to some target businesses, and then it dawned on us — some don’t even want chatbots for various reasons.
We took the feedback, returned to the drawing board, and tried to build a platform that catered to both — Chatbot and human agents.
Fast forward to nine months later, we shut Eazido down.
Generally, these are the things I believe I have learnt from building startups/products:
- Proper market research is necessary before building. Thinking a product is a solution and people need it does not mean that’s the reality.
- Startups can’t be an overnight success. We might have done some things the “wrong” way, but I believe we could have restrategized, rebuilt if necessary, and pushed the product out again rather than giving up too soon.
- Building a product you can’t sell or don’t sell is as good as wasting time building the product.
- As a technical person or developer, if you intend to be the CEO, it’s best to step away from the tech and focus on your primary goal or concern — selling the product. It is okay to look for someone as passionate as you are and make them the CEO. It is so easy for a developer to focus on making the app perfect from a technical standpoint and completely forget that without the actual user(s), it is just another project on your local host.
- Money is important! People will either work with you on your idea because they believe in it or for money/equity. You have to have some cash, either savings, grants, or funding from investors. Cash will help with the cost of services or paying people to do what they do best.
I am looking at building another startup, the right way this time and probably a successful one. I hope you have learned one or two things from this article. I suggest you read this book as it is a valuable resource — “The Right It: Why So Many Ideas Fail and How to Make Sure Yours Succeed” by Alberto Savoia.
I will end this article with this quote from the book — The Right It.
Make sure you are building The Right It before you build it right.
— Alberto Savoia
Building Startups as a Developer: Learning from My Mistakes was originally published in Better Programming on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.