Reading:3 mistakes I made during my first startup

3 mistakes I made during my first startup

Three years ago was an important period of my life. I was in my final PhD year, and I decided to create my first SaaS product. This first experience taught me an amazing amount of things. I had no pressure to do it since my PhD was still going on, and it was more like a side project. The project crashed more or less at the end of 2014 for several reasons. Today, I’m starting over and, for the second time, I’m working a product I desperately love : Elokenz.

I will try to publish weekly updates about how the new project goes. This is a commitment I’m doing to myself. If you want to follow it, please join the newsletter . My posts will be about success and failures, dilemmas and decisions. They would be published on my personal blog, on Elokenz Blog or elsewhere, but you’ll always get a quick email about the latest post via the mailing list.

This post was initially titled “I’m doing it again… the startup addiction” (thus the cover picture) but on the course of writing, I decided to focus more on 3 mistakes I’ve done during my first project. Before hitting the “publish” button this morning, I read Loic Le Meur (@loic) latest post about the startup creator feeling. Therefore, instead of writing my own “startup addict” post, I suggest you to read Loic’s one. Instead, below, you’ll find a list of three mistakes I’ve done earlier, and my challenge is to avoid them during my second project.

3 things I’ve done wrong during my first startup trial

My first project (WordiZ) definitely went wrong after 1.5 year : it was not a massive crash but rather a soft landing on the wrong spot, few miles away from where it was expected. Now that I’m writing this blogpost, I realize that I should have listed my mistakes earlier, because they seemed more obvious few months ago than they are now.

If you want to read more about my very first steps, you can find some articles listed in the “30 days startup challenge” serie (I didn’t keep the posting pace though).

1 - Not securing the team motivation

The main challenge I faced on day one was that I had almost no experience in web development. The first thing I did was to hire a freelancer to develop the first version of the website. I used a nice methodology I found on WhatTheDev Blog from @JohnKDeVries. The freelancer was good, maybe too good : he was queueing freelance jobs, working for several clients at the same time. Therefore he delivered each task with some delay. It was not fun for any of us, so I stopped working with him.

I know I could code myself, but I decided to use Django as the framework behind my app, and the learning curve was quite steep. It was better to get some help for my first steps. I called a friend, who called a friend… and finally, those two friends joined me.

That’s us when we started

We achieved a lot together in the course of 6 months. We built a working platform for the SaaS business, and a search engine for a long-term scope. But, each of those 2 friends got offered nice job opportunities and decided to quit the project. This is totally fine, and that’s not something one could avoid. The main problem was that I felt that the team motivation faded in the last months.

I felt that our ambitions were not aligned. Since I could not deliver them enough proofs about the business validity, they lost their faith in the project after few months. We were expecting thousand of free subscribers for the very first months, but only got a hundreds. We reached our first thousand members after one year only. When you are not the one who brought the idea and when you don’t see the potential because you are in the tech side, you can only judge on what founders inspire you, and what numbers can tell you. This is pretty fair.

So, for this second adventure, we’ll need something to keep our future team motivated, despite slow progression rate or negative events. Fanny, my co-founder on this new adventure, suggested recurring team activities (I’m pretty sure that when she’ll get back in Toulon, we’ll try the Escape Game one of my friend runs). This is probably what we’ll do. I also love reading, and one book I read about entrepreneurship suggested to share books within the team, so that values get aligned in a better way.

If you have other suggestions, please, drop a comment.

2 - Hacking things cannot be a real scalable business

I’m a hacker ! Not the one that penetrates your networks (like in Mr Robot TV show). Neither I am the one that cracks into your paid software to make it free. But I stood at the crossroads between the two : when I was a teenager I loved to learn from these two worlds. Then I discovered SEO, and it became a new sandbox for me. Publishing links on websites can sometimes be done with hacking techniques and reverse engineering.

Later, social media appeared, bringing new challenges, such as finding a way to import social metrics that are not publicly offered via an API. During the course of WordiZ creation, I got inspired by Tom Anthony (@tomanthonyseo).

At that time I found a way to import G+ shares despite they were not offered by the regular API. I was the only application to offer such information. I used it to build a notification system for bloggers.

I believed in the project, it was useful for me, and useful for any other blogger. But such hack cannot be included in a scalable system. The value could be turned down at any moment if the hack was fixed by Google. As a matter of fact, the hack was fixed once or twice : this always took me one day or two to find a new way to import the data. One or two days during which I could not focus on other tasks.

So, as a commitment to myself, for this second startup, I promise I will not use hacks into my future products. I think I can use them internally (for growth, sales or marketing), but not on the product that is delivered to my users.

Don’t hack things you don’t own, or you’ll break your own product

3 - Getting biased by vanity metrics and PR

When you run a business, you need numbers to understand if you’re doing right or wrong. Some numbers give you an intrinsic value and are often called actionnable metrics : weekly/monthly active users, monthly growth, monthly churn, retention rate… While other numbers trigger pride among founders but are not relevant to your business, these are called vanity metrics : total number of users/downloads, total number of social followers, visitor counts, … read more on that here by Eric Ries.

As some people put it, “Vanity metrics are good for feeling awesome, bad for action”. I totally agree since I felt awesome during my first project, but didn’t really know a real reason to explain that, and my project crashed while I was not expecting it.

Associated to vanity metrics lies another mind twisting mechanism : Press Coverage. Your own perception can change when your project receive coverage. Though Press is aimed to the outside world (investors or customers), you eventually read what is written about you. To my opinion, if something can work more effectively on your own vanity than your business metrics, it’s definitely press coverage. Getting cited by a big journal is amazing, but clearly, it doesn’t give you indications on how to drive your company.

In my first project, I was keen on answering bloggers who asked for an interview, I got multiple spikes of traffic to the app homepage. This made me proud. I was certain my startup couldn’t go wrong with such enthusiasm from journalists and bloggers. Yet, these people are just happy to publish something. They are happy if you provide them stories to write about. Don’t get fooled by this behavior. This is not a proof that your idea is worth anything.

My challenge, now that I’m working on Elokenz, is to put press coverage with the other vanity metrics. If you read Trust me I’m lying from Ryan Holiday (@ryanholiday) you’ll see how easy people can manipulates the media… but also how this industry can really go further than ink on paper. Media are powerful and they kind of have a life of themselves.

All is Vanity by Charles Allan GILBERT
Vanitas vanitatum et omnia vanitas

Just as a final food for thought about vanity : I discovered it was a recurring topic in Painting. Vanity paintings describe (ok, let’s switch to some high-level French):

  • le thème philosophique de l’inéluctabilité de la mort
  • la fragilité des biens terrestres
  • la futilité des plaisirs

I guess that this could easily be adapted to a startup.


I hope you will find interesting ideas during my startup exploration with Elokenz. Don’t expect to read the regular (bu***it) stories like “How I got 10 000 subscribers in 24 hours” in these blogposts. My goal is to be genuine, honest and to bring you my own startup story so that you could get inspired and experienced about things you might encounter one day. Once again, if you want to get updated about future articles, just sign up to the newsletter.

Drop me a comment if you recently have failed a project and understood why that happened.

Credit : Teaser photo by Shaun Price