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5 Comments

Started too soon, got crushed by serial entrepreneurs.

Hi everyone,

Wanted to share the story of my first startup and what lead to its failure.

Back in 2017, I was working at a depressing job with low pay and high work hours. Mainly I was in charge of anything related to content. We were a small team and the management was extremely toxic so there was a lot of tension.

That was what pushed me to building my first startup experiment. We got together with a high-school friend and started to work on our localized newsletter focused on concentrated information (quite similar to Morning Brew, which was a huge inspiration to us).

But we did things differently, we had a couple of specific niches we were covering and our content was really laid back. People loved it. Without any marketing, we got to around 2000 subscribers in the first 6 months.

At this rate, we weren't concerned with growth as we were doing this during the evenings and weekends. We were still trying to find our tone and polishing our reader-facing sections.

After the first year, we had around 5k subscribers and we started to focus on growth. We introduced a referral program, started to run ads and things really took off. But, that growth caught the attention of some other people and it was basically our death sentence.

One of our readers seemed really interested in how we did all we did and kept interview-like questions to us daily. I still don't have any proof of that, but after a while, the questions stopped and suddenly we had a competitor!

We were actually quite excited to see that we had a competitor, we thought this would be a great opportunity to learn and improve our product. During this period we started to talk with companies for sponsored spots on our newsletter.

But the most unexpected thing happened. Our competitors newsletter started to really look like our format. The fonts used, the color scheme, every thing. Then we started to see ideas that we communicated with our audience and didn't have the chance to implement yet, pop-up in our competitor. While it took us around 2 years to get to 10k readers, these guys reached 20k in just a couple of months.

They started to fill all of their sponsored spots while our growth basically halted. We still retained most of our loyal readers but we weren't getting anyone new.

It turns out these guys were a group of serial entrepreneurs with a strong team and lots of funds. They built the exact same thing we did and improved it drastically in a span of a couple of months. And I'm not going to like, after a couple more months, their newsletter services were way better than ours, we still had the unique content but aside from a very few extremely loyal readers, we lost most of our audience.

Finally, we decided to shut our baby down. It was taking too much of our time and energy while providing nothing in return. I really don't know what the moral of the story is. Even if we waited for a little to really get ready for the journey, we'd probably be late. Well, we know how going early turned out. So, sometimes things don't work out even if you do your best and have a great idea.

It's a bummer but that's the reality of things. The best thing to do is to learn from the mistakes and move on (even if I didn't elaborate on those in the article, believe me there were tons of mistakes we made). Currently I'm taking a break from building anything and focusing on my sweet new full-time job. But, one day I'll return. I don't know when, but I will!

Thank you

  1. 5

    That is a hard lesson and is quite the warning for the Indie Hacker.

    The takeaway could be 'don't give too much away' but if people are keen they'll find the info they need anyway.

    And I'm not sure whether it is a 'too early' issue as opposed to a 'wrong space' issue.

    If the market is super-niche and doesn't have room for several competitors it's going to be hard if (when!) competitors appear.

    I have a side project in a very crowded space with multiple big players (large, established international companies) and hundreds of small competitors but it manages to grow steadily because the market is huge and I only needs the tiniest fraction of it.

    I'm sure it will go well when you come back - if it doesn't kill you it will make you stronger!

    1. 1

      Agree on 'don't give away too much information'

      There's a perspective out there that ideas aren't worth much, and you should share as much as possible, which is largely true when it comes to new startup ideas etc.

      But when it comes to competitive business intelligence, that gives you a market advantage, that should not be shared - and people don't seem to realise that distinction.

  2. 1

    Honestly, this happens to every startup. The serial entrepreneurs you mentioned, will likely have their own copycats popping up to battle them. It's an unfortunate side effect of the tech industry - there's a reason Bing looks almost identical to Google, and Android similar to iPhone.

    Best advice for next time - fight them. If they start doing things better than you, give them credit, and then use that as a learning opportunity to make your product better. There was a long period of time, while they were gaining momentum, that you still had the upper hand and could have taken the fight back to them. It's kind of a brutalistic thinking, but it's true.

  3. 1

    You are just unlucky. If someone with funds and experience copies your idea and executes better and faster, there is not much you can do. Next time, try to find a product that you have a unique and strong competitive advantage and hope that no strong and better competitors (Google, Amazon, or others) decide to eat your lunch.

  4. 1

    Would you say you'd be able to outsource your content production models to let's say college students that are interested in particular subjects and all you'd need to do is become the editor or hire an editor that aligns within your particular writing system(styles, processes, etc.). I want to get into content writing. I want to write blog posts while leveraging my tech knowledge to bring my tech perspective so its not a generic type of content anyway can replicate because it stems from my experience.

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