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Startup School 2020 — Back to the drawing board

First week of the YC Startup School was a game changer for me. I need to rethink my idea, or fail fast!
Vladimír Záhradník
January 30th, 2020 · 6 min read

On January 20th, 2020, a new round of YC Startup School started. The timing was perfect — I work on my idea, and I welcome any advice about entrepreneurship. Without Startup School, I would probably read some books on the topic, but attending the course is better — I have to meet weekly goals that push me forward. An integral part of the course is weekly group sessions with other founders. I attended my first meet, and to my surprise, I had to host the first one-hour event. It was an excellent opportunity to practice my Toastmasters skills and to get some insight into my issues and the issues of others. I already look forward to the next session.

Before Startup School, I planned to work on my minimum viable product (MVP) part-time for the whole year of 2020. After the first week, I changed the deadline to twelve weeks. One would think twelve weeks is not enough to build a product. However, if you better understand what an MVP is, you conclude that it is doable.

Startup — the most challenging game I know

Like many of my peers, I played computer games. Unlike them, however, I grew out of it. To this day, I occasionally play retro games, or their remasters; the Monkey Island Saga and the Broken Sword Series are my most beloved ones. What I realized is that playing a game is interesting, and you feel good doing it, but it eventually ends. Also, your achievements in a game mean almost nothing in the real world. It’s just one of many things to share on your social pages, nothing more. Let’s keep aside professional gamers and streamers; they are a minority.

Being an entrepreneur is like playing the most challenging PC game of all time. It never ends, and the level you achieve is purely in your hands.

I take my entrepreneurship as a game; I never came to a better analogy. I play as “myself,” and I keep trying to build something useful out of nothing — no financial resources, lack of skills, lots of competitors. If I fail, I analyze what happened, and I try to do better next time. And yes, there always will be the next time. It’s something people like me have in common; they try again and again, no matter what. And I love having friends who are like this.

Comenio — let’s build a private Coursera

Even when I had no idea what will be my next product, I knew for sure that focusing on the niche market is critical. And while I was on a search for an idea for my next thing, I decided to build my professional network.

About one year ago, I started blogging, and for the first time, I thought about YouTube. As I had no experience with video production or content creation whatsoever, I skimmed through countless YouTube channels for the topic; and I found Think Media. It’s a channel that helps aspiring content creators with their humble beginnings. As I soon found out, its founder, Sean Cannel, is a co-author of a book called YouTube Secrets, a bestseller in the category on Amazon. Little did I know that Sean opens a whole new path for me. I registered myself in his mailing list, and when he offered a free webinar, I decided to attend.

He intentionally didn’t record his webinar; instead, he tried to keep the participants focused by forcing them to take notes. In one hour, he told us surprising behind-the-scenes facts about his success. As it turned out, YouTube income is only a fraction of what he earns; the majority of his income comes from digital courses and workshops. According to him, everyone can build a product to sell. Everyone has a unique story or skill to make a side income out of it.

Comenio — We let you build your Coursera-like site, and sell your courses through your website.

I thought about building a digital course for Udemy before. I have in-depth technical knowledge of many software topics, and I’m sure that there is a customer base for my classes. However, Udemy wasn’t for me out of two reasons:

  • If a user finds your course through Udemy Ads, Udemy will keep half of your profit
  • If you have your classes in a big marketplace like Udemy, the fact that a user finds potentially several courses like yours keeps the price low. If your course would sell for $100 and your competitor with decent reviews would sell it for $50, I bet the majority of users would pay him. Ultimately, many instructors have profits, but they are small. And if your class is in a narrow niche, you won’t attract many students, and the pay won’t cover your commitment and time.
Content creator
Image by StockSnap from Pixabay

Sean, however, suggested something different — build your course on your website and also do the marketing, all without an intermediary like Udemy. You need to try harder, but profit and potential earnings are magnitudes higher. For example, his course of building a successful YouTube channel costs about $700, and yet he sells it successfully. Even I bought one, and it is much money for me. Can you imagine selling a $700 course in Udemy? I bet no one would buy it there!

His webinar provided valuable insights, and I had to process much new information. As I thought about building my first course on my website, suddenly, it clicked to me — I need a platform to host the content. I need a platform hidden away from the user, which hosts all his courses, provides insights on students, integrates payment processors, and can host a simple webpage on a custom domain.

What is an MVP?

I always thought of a minimum viable product as something limited in functionality but otherwise fully functional. When I saw other e-learning platforms, they were miles ahead of me. How can someone pay for a product which is crude and lacks functionality? As it turns out, I’m not the only one with such thoughts.

I planned to bring up the Open edX platform, isolate the environment for different instructors, and set it up on a custom domain. However, this task alone would take months of work. You need to deal with infrastructure, automation, even with adapting the source code for your needs.

According to the YC CEO and Partner Michael Seibel, MVP should be extremely limited in functionality, and you should launch it in weeks. If you solve a problem, which is a pain for the people out there, so that they even try to come up with their solutions, they will be willing to use your product whatever buggy it is. And they will be happy to pay you for it! Remember, you’re trying to save them hours of work.

So there’s an answer to my problem. Did I find out an issue which is not solved yet, so that users will pay me for my early-stage product? The answer is no. As I worked on research, I found three companies that do something very similar — one of them does almost precisely what I had in my mind.

Should you pursue solving a problem, which is solved?

My opinion is that if somebody else already solved a problem, it’s better to pivot or find an entirely different problem. Think of it like this: Does your product have something which your competitors can’t provide? If so, you can proceed further and gather as much user feedback as possible. If you have nothing to offer except what’s already on the market, better stop and fail fast!

Pivot, or fail fast!

I know that the niche of online digital courses is rapidly growing and that there’s a potential. However, without being unique, I will have trouble getting customers, especially in times where my platform is immature. Potential investors will also see that; securing funds will be harder. There’s a high chance of slow growth or even stagnation. All in all, you’re not building a rapidly-growing startup but a business with an uncertain future; and that’s not something I plan to do. Unsolved problems are everywhere, just keep looking!

Does copycatting work?

In some cases, I saw it working in an e-commerce segment. A company distributes physical products in particular markets in Europe, and you decide to do the same in different markets. Because people buy material goods, there’s a chance to build a sustainable business. With online services, it’s different. If your competitor is a US-based company, it provides its services globally! Lack of localization may be a problem, but I believe it will affect only a small percentage of customers. In theory, you could bet on providing a localized platform for small markets, but it will be costly, and most likely, the gain of customers will be minor.

My next steps

At the moment, I’m on a crossroads. I put myself a deadline of twelve weeks to research the market, gather data, and collect user experience. The goal is to find out if content creators still deal with some problems with regards to providing digital courses, and how severe their problems are. In the end, I will either pivot my business in a new direction or abandon the idea entirely to find a new one instead.

If I should learn one thing with this project, it’s talking to users and getting some useful feedback. If I learn to do just that, I consider this project a success as the experience will be helpful in all my other endeavors.

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