Musings of an independent start-up developer: a project postmortem

It was November of 2010 and suddenly I got an idea while in a conversation with a friend. I have always devoted my skills to projects defined by others, but the prospect of starting my own has always been alluring. Finally I got that idea. It had long frustrated me that I could pretty much implement any concept other people threw at me but somehow couldn’t come up with a concept myself.

I think that one of the reasons that I was able to get the idea at all (let alone pursue it), was due to the fact that I was taking a voluntary break from contracts. I was lucky enough to have saved some cash so I wanted to spend time on some technologies that you don’t run into a lot in the enterprise Java world.

When I’m in the middle of a contract I am completely caught up in it and therefore don’t have time for other stuff, at least when it comes to my profession.

The idea I had wasn’t revolutionary, but something like it did not exist yet out there on the web and the audience for it ranged in the order of 15 million. What I wanted to do is create a social platform for people to communicate about a specific sport, let’s say mountain biking, to socialize it and to give the people that practice that sport insight into how they’re doing so that they might improve. Given the fact that the this specific sport is often more of a passion than just a casual hobby, I thought the site would have a chance of success. I still believe that.

I was lucky enough to be able to team up someone who is knowledgeable on both social media and the sport and soon enough we had come up with a pretty good list of features and I could start developing. Together we came up with requirements, I developed, he tested. We did about 45 incremental releases that way, got through all the boiler-plate functionality a social networking site needs and the UI was coming along nicely.

A couple of months passed, and I would spend at least 10 hours a day working on the site and things were looking good, not in the least thanks to Grails, which I recently blogged about too.

And then the big set-back came. A different website, well-established and catering to the same community, had also seen the light and had integrated a very beta-ish version of the same concept into their website, which already had a big audience. I was gutted.

It prompted me to step back and think about what I was doing. Here I was, on a huge, almost solo-effort to build something that in terms of complexity and labor required was best compared to FourSquare. Sure, the thought had crossed my mind: is this really feasible? But my enthusiasm and the feedback from others made me continue. And there was more: having worked with many other web-software professionals, I had access to people that were willing to help me out on areas that I couldn’t handle myself, such as graphic design.

The obvious question is: why didn’t I seek investment upfront? I felt that investment would be easier to get once the concept of the site could be demonstrated. It is usually kind of hard to convince people of your concept when it only exists on paper. Just as we got to the point in time where I could look for investment, the other website mentioned earlier launched their take on the concept. And with this kind of concept, being the first mover is critical.

I did contact the biggest competitor of that website. At first they seemed to be very interested but after a conference call they asked for was cancelled they didn’t show a great deal of interest. I think that this deal went south in part due to the fact that they were based half-way around the world, and for our initially scheduled presentation I did not fly over. Big mistake.

So now it’s late March and I’m abandoning the project. I loved working on it but when I add up all of the things mentioned above, I think it’s wiser to give up.

What we did complete:

  • A well-defined commercial strategy
  • All boiler-plate functionality for a social networking site implemented (follow, unfollow, sign up, find friends etc etc)
  • Security precautions (think OWASP)
  • A nice asynchronous way of dealing with the heavy lifting that makes the social network tick.
  • A nice Ajaxified UI (thank you jQuery UI)
  • All the central concepts of the sport covered by functionality, so that users would see real benefit compared to just using Facebook or Twitter
  • Good test-coverage that inspired confidence in the quality of the implementation.

What we didn’t complete:

  • The companion iPhone and Android apps. I was considering just doing a HTML 5 mobile version but that was going to run into problems (access to the camera API being the most notable). I was going to focus on developing these after putting the website online.
  • Integrate a CMS to be able to easily update some pages with secondary content.

Next time:

  • I hope to be a bit more lucky in terms of timing :)
  • I’ll try harder to get more developers involved full-time. I like to think of myself as a pretty productive developer but the amount of work required here was obviously exceeding what one man could finish in a reasonable amount of time.
  • When I demonstrate the product to a potential partner/investor I’ll insist on doing so face-to-face, no matter how far away they are.

All in all, I really enjoyed working on it and I  learned a lot. This was just my first attempt at a start-up, so I guess the second time around is likely to be more successful.

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One Response to Musings of an independent start-up developer: a project postmortem

  1. Bastiaan March 28, 2011 at 4:32 pm #

    I guess starting a start-up is never easy and when looking at my own experiences with start-ups timing always seems to be key. The right time, the right place. Timing is, unfortunate as it is, often beyond your span of control. But, learning from the experience isn’t. So, as disappointing as it may seem, you have (as I can read) learned a lot, gained new skills and are better prepared for your next challenge. All the best!

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