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3 lies I told myself that lead to the failure of Likewise

Have you ever watched Hotel Hell? It’s a TV series starring Gordon Ramsay, who is traveling around the USA, visiting hotels that are poorly managed and in desperate need of his help. I enjoy watching it now and then, especially while having dinner. Somehow watching hotel owners being told the truth by Ramsay is oddly entertaining and even soothing. One thing I never really understood is how deep in denial some owners are about the state of their hotel.

Recently I had another episode on, in the background, while having dinner. I was about to stuff my mouth with Dutch fries, when Gordon asks: “who is the most important person around this hotel?”. The staff collectively answers: “The owner! The owner is the most important person around here”. At that point Ramsay loses his temper in typical fashion: “NO! The fucking guests are the most important people around here!”.

Though it was directed at the owner and his staff, it felt like he was talking directly to me. Much like the hotel owner was in denial about the state of his hotel, I’ve been in denial about the state of Likewise, the note taking app I've been working on. Reason for not catching my mistakes earlier is that I repeatedly told myself these 3 lies:

Wrong!

1. I’m serving an audience with my product

I did have an audience in mind while building Likewise. The problem was that I didn’t start with solving a problem for my target audience, but that I started building my product first and only then looked for an audience to market it to. The usual questions like “what is your target group?” didn’t really make me understand that I was lying to myself, because I could answer them quite well.

It was only after reading the 100th tweet about this topic by Arvid Kahl that I started to question if I actually got the order correct. Then Gordon Ramsay yelling through my TV-speakers that a business is about the customer, instead of the product and its owner, finally opened my eyes to this glaring mistake that I was making.

2. I’m building a product that solves a problem

Likewise was supposed to be a note taking app, focused on visualizing notes. The idea was to enable people to take notes and to turn them into graph overviews, to make maps, and build other visualizations. Basically I wanted to make a digital detective board, and I couldn’t find an app that does exactly that. I thought to myself: this is a problem that needs to be solved. And I was going to fix it myself.

So why didn’t Likewise solve any problem? The answer is that the problem I was solving wasn’t specific enough. With Likewise, I was tried to nail too many things: note taking, e-learning, data visualization, collaboration, digital whiteboards and much more. Trying to “bundle” all these things, only resulted in the tool falling spectacularly short in all categories

3. Competition only means that there is a market for my idea

No idea is truly unique, so you’re highly likely to run into competition. If there’s no competition, it probably means that there is no market for it, or that there’s an issue that you didn’t foresee. These are the things I kept telling to convince myself that all the competition in the note taking space was a good thing. I didn’t really think of the following:

  • You need to have a very compelling reason for people to switch note taking apps. Once you have a bunch of notes, whiteboards, small databases and tables, it’s a pain to switch
  • Too much competition is a thing...
  • ... especially when you are competing with all of them, because your tool is too generic and not specific at all.

What’s next?

I will “park” the idea for Likewise for now, and focus on a different idea. This time I will try to actually solve a specific problem for an audience, and spend more on validation and market research, before I dive in and build a SaaS. You can follow my journey here on Twitter.

  1. 5

    Thanks for sharing! Your honesty and courage will guide you towards your next project, I'm sure.

  2. 3

    1 and 2 have gotten me in trouble many of times, too many to keep count. In this journey, I’ve learned clarity is your friend & compass to customers.

    🤞🏾Good luck, @ruudniew! You got this!

    1. 1

      Thanks for the support Helen!

  3. 3

    Hi Ruud,

    Thank you for honestly sharing your story! It is quite helpful to me because I am working on something similar, not note-taking, but a product to support lifelong e-learning. I had very similar struggles. I started with a really broad scope and fuzzy target audience, and enjoyed the initial two months of developing something I am passionate about. But then as I started to show the prototype to my friends, I kept getting negative feedback. People cannot grasp what the product does, and cannot see how it helps them. Like you, I got the order wrong as well by focusing too much on my own interests:)

    It was a painful realization of getting the direction wrong. But luckily I got some really good advises from more experienced folks. So now I just focus on a specific audience and make sure the product can serve one of their lifelong learning needs really well. (Here is a great video on how to understand what users really need:
    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MT4Ig2uqjTc)

    I really like your graph-based note-taking idea. The design of Likewise is also pretty. Perhaps you could just launch a very minimal version and see how it goes?

    Also, are you still interesting in the learning & productivity space? If so perhaps we can connect and talk. Thanks!

    1. 1

      Hi Sanderling, your story is very similar then! How did you find your specific audience and their problem? Because I think that might be the key to get the direction right.

      I believe that nothing is ever for nothing. For now I'm parking the idea of Likewise, but who knows what the future will bring. I think it's always nice to connect! If you'd like to, we could have a quick call to share what we are / have been working on? Just send me a DM if you're interested

      1. 2

        Hi Ruud, for me finding the specific audience is also difficult. Some thoughts:

        1. Focus on why not what. For example, one might be very interested in graph-based visualization (what), but customers don't buy what, they buy why. So instead the first question I should ask myself is, why a customer wants to see the graph? Can it improve one aspect of their life 10X?

        2. Start from myself and then talk with friends. I think a lot of products start with personal frustration (Dropbox, Airbnb, etc.). So myself will be the first target audience. If I don't find joy using the product then it won't work for others. After passing this self-test, I will talk to friends. Of course the hard thing is to get their true opinion, not polite answers like oh it's cool.

        3. Study other products, particularly failed ones. Product Hunt is a great resource here. I see that for all the failed products, the creators were initially very enthusiastic. So I ask myself, why they fail? Why can't they see the failure earlier? Is there any pattern of failures?

        One thing I found after doing these exercises is that the initial version should just focus on serving one user need. That need should be frequent (at least once a week), have a large user base, and low competition. I think I found one. But as you know, startup is highly risky and it might turn out the opposite:)

        Will DM you on Twitter.

  4. 2

    This is an absolute golden read. Thank you for posting your with your heart on your sleeve <3

  5. 2

    Great lessons! Learning from other's mistakes better than listen to their success story. Thanks for sharing

  6. 2

    Oh no, I did the same error with not having an audience. (Basically I built a platform that allows anyone to host things on the decentralized web however, at the moment people only need to know how to use FTP to do the upload - but it might still be too much)
    Instead, I should have found clients before coding it. Doing it now seems a bit complicated. And for number 3, there is no close competition (Maybe the idea isn't that good or I don't know how to market it correctly)
    Now I have an idea of audience but I still need to find how to reach out to them, and verify they can use FTP or otherwise quickly wrap something for them so they can use the product by themselves.

    A serie like hotel hell but with startups could be quite interesting otherwise, maybe on IndieHacker directly, with the help of everyone here?

    1. 2

      A series like Hacker Hell would be fun to watch for sure. We can have @arvidkahl be the person who visits the projects and helps them get back on track. He'd only need to brush op his swearing, because so far he's been most kind to everyone.

  7. 2

    Nice writeup. I hope you have a successful next project idea!

  8. 2

    Thank you for sharing the update on your project and all the valuable lessons you have learned. I have been following along since March when you were gracious enough to reply to my first Indie Hacker post. The Likewise landing page and education element really inspire me. I have re-read your post several times and am fairly certain I have made several of the same mistakes you have but I may be too close to my product to know if they are fixable yet. Awesome that you were able to make a positive impact on the health of others through a vaccine location tool! I can’t wait to see what you do next! Best of luck on your next indie adventure :)

    1. 2

      Thanks for the encouragement Ardith! Let me know if I can try RevenueRabbit sometime, and I'd be happy to give feedback :-)

      1. 1

        That would be great, Ruud! I keep thinking about Monica’s tweet/advice about building your own micro-communities, but I haven’t come up with a real plan yet:

        In any case, I intend to launch the free version of RevenueRabbit.app this month for feedback. Oh no, now I have some accountability! Thank you for volunteering to give me feedback. I am very grateful. Let me know how I can help.

  9. 2

    Thanks for sharing this!

    Funny story is that I was just getting started thinking about creating a note-taking app to mix Notion / Obsidian / Roam (ie second brain) with a UI centered on the graph/visualization. It's something that I strongly believe in, but it's just me vs me, so it's probably wrong ;-)

    I'm just brainstorming at this stage, but you made great points. It's very crowded, and convincing users to switch is going to be hard too.

    The first step is probably to find/build an audience interested in note-taking, second brain, and similar ideas and apply the mom test approach.

    1. 4

      I still believe that the idea isn't bad, quite the opposite. But that's also the big danger.

      What I wish I could tell myself when I was still brainstorming:

      1. When investigating competitors like Roam and Obsidian, actually try to find out which target audience they are serving. Do you want to serve the same audience, or is there another audience that desperately needs a similar tool?
      2. There are more competitors than you know. Check Producthunt for recently launched projects (last 6 months) that do something similar, and find out why they are successful or why they failed. I bet you can at least find 1-3 fairly similar projects per week
      3. Make the idea more specific. Don't underestimate the effort that goes into building a good text / markdown editor. Don't underestimate the effort that goes into building a digital infinite whiteboard. Don't underestimate the effort that goes into building a graph overview. These three things could be a business on their own. Bundling them is time consuming and hard, you need to have a direction before you start doing that.

      Keep asking yourself the question: who am I trying to serve with this tool and would I want to spend the next months/years on solving their problem?

      If you want to connect to talk more about the idea, feel free to DM me here or on Twitter

  10. 2

    Thanks for sharing "Gold" Ruud !

  11. 2

    Thanks for sharing, @ruudniew. Just followed you on Twitter :)

  12. 2

    Thanks for sharing ruud,
    I have a question:

    From the website it looks like the tool you are building is not complete, so how did you conclude that it failed, did you have beta users who didn't like it?

    1. 4

      Great question! The lies I'm referring to actually had more side effects, that indicated that something wasn't completely right. Especially lie #1 and #2 combined.

      While building the tool, I kept getting stuck in "rabbit holes", and I found it very hard to get out of them. I figured this was because I had a hard time prioritizing. Prioritizing is hard in general, so when I asked others about that, most people told me they had the same problem. Only now, after realizing that I made these mistakes, I understand that for me it was actually a side effect of not serving an audience and not actually solving a problem. I don't mean to say that everyone who finds prioritization difficult is making the same mistake. Just it's hard to prioritize without being able to talk to your target audience...

      Another thing that I didn't mention in the post: I built a small tool that sends alerts when a covid vaccine is available around the user. It was something the Netherlands didn't have yet. I built it in a few hours, but I got lots of sign ups, and it doesn't even have a UI or website at all. It just solves a problem that my friends and family experienced. No more, no less. This little taste of success helped me realize something was wrong with how I approached building Likewise too

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