Rejection was an eye-opener for my startup
It’s rare to come across a first-time founder who has it all figured out — moving quickly, failing quickly and jumping on to the next item, all while being scrappy, hustling, and trying multiple avenues to research and launch their audience and product.
I fell into the category of someone who was treading very carefully and wanted to bring the best world-in-class product out there.
It’s not that I did not speak to customers or that I did not speak to the right customers; I did not speak to enough customers, and I did not ask them the right questions — until it was too late.
My co-founder and I got the idea to build a product like Geeks and Experts in 2020. Our problem statement was pretty clear to us — accessing experts is too difficult if you want to reach out to someone to get quick advice on a topic — you spend too much time watching videos and reading lengthy blogs! A quick face-to-face conversation is much easier and quicker and gets you the personalized response you need.
We started digging a bit deeper and found that multiple use cases could be applied to this problem — consultants, subject matter experts, and content creators — could join as an expert and give advice to users.
Of course, we quickly realized that we needed a focused and specific target audience. After a lot of customer discovery and interviews, we concluded that independent solo entrepreneurs struggle to get first-hand advice about startups. Social media DMs and finding “someone who knows someone” doesn’t cut it. That’s why we started narrowing down on this audience to give them a directory of experts available to talk to 1:1.
With a bootstrapped approach, we had to find efficient and cost-effective ways to approach our audience and get sign-ups once our MVP was ready in September 2022. We got our friends and family members to join. (One of the most crucial things a founder can have is a strong support system, and I am more than grateful for the hype squad I get to rely on each day!)
Our user base had been growing at a reasonable pace with organic, word-of-mouth marketing working and users referring others to join our marketplace. Great! Maybe we’re ready to take this up a notch?!
I began approaching accelerators, mentors, investors, and other networks to get on to the next step and quickly move forward with their support. I even got a response from some advisors who invited us to present our idea and product for potential investment and access to their ecosystem. I was thrilled with how things were going and felt ready to take the plunge.
It wasn’t until the second meeting was over that we heard back from the team with a rejection. I wasn’t mad or upset; I was just disappointed. I faced rejection when I was fundraising for a non-profit! I even faced a lot of rejection in job hunting when I first moved to the USA.
What disappointed me was how I wished I had done much more sooner. I read the book “The Mom Test” a bit too late in the day. I “hustled” to find scrappy ways to reach my target audience by simply sitting at my computer. I spoke to all the people to guide me to master this important pitch, but in the process, I lost track and focus of the product and users. It was a real hit in the gut to know that I had let a lot of things go off my radar.
For starters, I was so focussed on the MoM growth of users I did not even look at retention. When I looked at some retention figures, I did not even understand cohort-based retention. I had no idea what the users wanted most. Secondly, once I did understand retention, I completely missed the big picture of how I would increase the LTV of the users. Thirdly, I had been “talking” to customers, but instead of getting out of the building and finding them, I was waiting for them to respond to my messages on Slack, Reddit, Twitter and so on.
In the 6 weeks of going from almost getting funded to getting rejected, I learned much about the importance of not standing too close to the elephant. I wasn’t attached to the product or the idea, but I wasn’t married to the user either because I did not know the user’s journey well enough.
I got back to it, and here are some things I did:
- I got out of the building and attended IRL events to meet prospective customers, interview them, and understand their pain points.
- I built multiple landing pages to A/B test what the audiences resonated with and sent them a follow-up form to ask them for feedback.
- I got into scrappy mode, joined Facebook groups, Telegram, and Discord channels, sent DMs on social media, and personally wrote to 100s of potential customers about what I was building.
- I drafted newsletters inspired by some of the best content creators I have been following and sent them to the segmented audiences to see what they resonated with and if they’d be happy to get on a call.
- I tested different hypotheses of who would be my customers by testing B2C and potential B2B clients who I could pilot the product with.
As confusing as this sounds, it is now beginning to put the full puzzle together for me. Instead of leading with the product, I am leading with the users. But first, I am finding a good number of users with whom I can share my product and focus on how I can provide value to them in the future. I will keep iterating the product based on discoveries and retention metrics.
What would be your advice for a first-time founder (bootstrapped) trying to find product-market-fit? Let me know in the comments section!