(and how I ‘saved’ a quarter million dollars)

Six years ago, I flew back to the US after 4 years overseas with some money in my pocket and a successful startup under my belt. This was when mobile was just starting to gain traction and apps were still hot. I had recent experience and was really motivated to get going, especially after having read Business Model Generation, Peak, and The Lean Startup.

So I went to a bunch of Meetups in Sacramento, CA to network and to learn who could code. I was on the hunt for an idea, and found a meetup that dealt with a subject I found interesting at the time: hypnosis.

I started hanging out with a few hypnotherapists and kept learning about lean development. Finally, I got an idea for an app, and I called it The Hypno-app. The idea was to allow a hypnotherapist to record a session with a client (mixing sound and voice), and then make that session available via the cloud for ‘on-demand, mobile device access.’

I had access to the meetup and a bunch of knowledge, so I thought I was ready. I started wireframing:

I got a sketch together and even used a prototyping tool - Justinmind - to create a functioning mockup. I assembled the business model and figured out a price point, or at least one that I thought was feasible for my customers. I found a national hypnotherapist association and figured that with a $5 monthly subscription rate and a market, I was ready.

And then, shit got real.

As I started showing my mockup, I realized I didn’t know as many customers as I thought I did. The people that I was showing the mockup were developers and other tech folks I’d met. The questions I asked were leading questions, designed to get good feedback and not real feedback. I was only able to reach out and touch 3 hypnotherapists. I reached out to an app development company, and got a quote for $225,000 (which came out to about $125/hr), which was way too much.

My wife and I were trying a couple other things out, and finally I realized that if I was going to do this thing for real, it was going to be an uphill battle and that I had better be passionate about it. So I dropped it, after all that work. Here’s what I learned:

  1. ‘Passion’ means being able to do something over and over and over without getting tired of it, and even enjoying it once in a while.
  2. Finding customers is one of those things that gets talked about and is easy to understand, but when it comes to actually getting customers (ie people that will give you their money for stuff), it is a whole other thing. Thou shalt buckle up, fool. Because ’twill be a bumpy af ride trying to get them.
  3. Developing things takes real money that’s hard to find.
  4. Finding people who are interested in your janky product is hard to find, let alone finding people who are willing to even get paid to work on it.

So customers, customers, customers. Revenues and clear understanding of 1, 3, and 4 are solvable, but #2 is the deal maker or show stopper.

If there is anything that I have learned over the years, through my successes and fails, it’s that getting customers is the hardest part of any new startup. Sure, there are technical problems and monies to find. But without people to validate you with their wallets, it is not a business. It’s just an obsession.

The good news is that getting customers is a learnable skill, albeit a counterintuitive one called Customer Validation. I was so shocked by how unprepared I was for this that I’ve spent the last 6 years learning and testing this, and am happy to say that I know a thing or two now. I’m not perfect at it, but make progress every time I try out a new project.

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