Our startup was founded at a Startup Weekend event in Manila, Philippines. If you are not familiar with Startup Weekend, you should check it out. They are held all over the world, and definitely a lot of fun.
In short, the weekend unfolds as a group of strangers form teams around product ideas and work over the weekend to launch a startup. It culminates with a final pitch to a panel of judges who choose a winner and prizes are awarded.
By the end, win or lose, you you get an invaluable crash course in the phases of the Lean Startup methodology. As a free added bonus everyone gets to experience hope, rejection, failure, disorientation, inferiority, and glimmers of hope once again in a condensed 48-hour format.
Fail fast, and if possible, fail right now.
Our original idea for the weekend was called “EmailGoGo.” It allowed a person to send and receive emails on a mobile phone through a SMS plan, not 3G. Where this idea came from is not important. It was our idea, and like most teams, we were extremely naive it. We thought SMS was a tube that allowed you to send any type of data through it. You just hack the protocols that limit the character count, and start sending email through it. Three minutes of research we realized that was easier said than done (i.e. it was impossible). Despite the nearly immediate setback, we persevered.
To build or not to build is not the question. Is it even a problem?
Instead of completely scrapping the idea, we kept at it. We figured if SMS was limited to 140 characters we would find a way to send and receive emails regardless. In the Philippines many people cannot afford cellular data, so the prospect of providing some internet functionality without 3G would be valuable. Thus like many other teams, we plunged into how we would build, monetize, and market this revolutionary product. We got ahead of ourselves.
At the suggestion of a Startup Weekend “mentor,” we considered another question, “is this product really needed?” In essence, validate that the problem actually exists with people we did not know (i.e. customer validation).
The only customer validation we could do on short notice was write up a quick survey and interview people on the street. We walked outside, and in 30 minutes we talked to 15 people, 12 of which said they would never buy our product.
Of the three that warmed to the idea, one said that he would only buy it because he did not have internet at home yet. He was our target audience, but 1 out of 15 ratio did not feel like the hallmark of a revolutionary product.
We also realized an important matter: our value proposition was not sustainable. As WiFi and 3G becomes cheaper we would loose market share. Who would want EmailGoGo if we they had easy access to WiFi? We were originally so focused on making the product work, that we did not see the fatal business flaws exposed by the surveys.
When at first you do not succeed, pivot.
EmailGoGo was unceremoniously killed on the spot. It was dead before we knew it. But despite yet another failure we changed gears and focused on SMS in a different context: a digital marketing channel. This idea came from our surveys, and it seemed to have traction.
SMSGoGo was born. In short, it was “Mail Chimp for SMS.” – easy-to-use software for small to medium sized businesses to send SMS messages to their customers, employees, volunteers, whomever.
It is not a new idea or an original one either. Sending permission-based/opted-in SMS marketing communications is popular elsewhere in the world, but not yet in the Philippines. In fact the Philippines has a SMS spam problem, so we saw an opportunity to be the first permission-based provider. Unfortunately we did not have enough time for another round of customer validation. Time was running out, and we had to prepare the pitch.
We worked through our business cases, value proposition, pitch deck, talking points, and even built a little software to demo if required. We used Pollinizer’s Universal Startup Pitch Deck as a basis for our pitch, which was a good place to start.
Each pitch was 2 minutes with a hard stop, so we rehearsed with a stopwatch several times. When it came down to giving the final pitch, we nailed it, but we lost the competition anyways.
We did receive a lot of positive feedback and interest from the audience and judges. It seemed like we touched a nerve, and at the after party we collected as many business cards as possible. The future of SMSGoGo was uncertain but it looked good.