Life and Death of a Product


Lessons I learned from launching our app.

I thought we could build a minimum viable product in three months and keep our existing company intact. But, I was wrong.

I work for a creative services firm called Grain that is a result of combining three different companies in 2013. We are committed to cultivating goodness and have dreams that go beyond our current business model. We don’t have limitless resources, and we haven’t raised any money; but we still have ambitions to build products that impact the world.

We had to have a “come to Jesus” moment. Something had to go.

In March 2015, we decided to build an iPhone app that we’d been talking about for the past four years. However, as a creative services company we had various commitments like running our business, completing client projects and pursuing existing internal ventures. Those made taking on another commitment as large as this app impossible. We had to have a “come to Jesus” moment. Something had to go.

We were in the throes of an online magazine called the St. Louis Curator, that we launched as a passion project in January 2013. It published long form articles that focused on entrepreneurs and creative people who were attempting great things in our city. When we started, there were plenty of crime stories being published, telling us why we should be afraid; but there was a void when it came to the transformation St. Louis was undergoing from a conservative Midwestern metropolitan region to a creative entrepreneurial center. It was a story worth telling but wasn’t being told. So we took it upon ourselves to do it.

It was an expensive venture. We had two full-time writers and a freelancer who worked with us for several months. Some of our articles were paired with videos, so we also had our film team spending countless hours producing videos. The writing team operated as a marketing team for Grain, churning out content for our clients to grow their online reach. However, all of that work eventually dried up for more than twelve months. So, for that time, the writers were almost exclusively working on the Curator. Overall, we spent over $100K per year in payroll to keep the project afloat, and we were never able to monetize it. It was a failure. We loved it, but we knew we had to kill it.

Even though all the signs pointed to that decision, there were still consequences from it. We had an idea that shutting down the Curator would deeply affect the company, but it was a risk that we had to take in order to build our app. We just didn’t realize how severe the consequences would be for us.

We didn’t realize that a decision to pursue our dreams would put us through a nightmare.

After we announced to the company that the Curator was closing, there was a seismic shift in morale for the writing team. After two or three months, all of them resigned. Though unrelated to the writing team, Grain also lost a designer at the same time. It was terrifying for all of us who remained. We didn’t realize that a decision to pursue our dreams would put us through a nightmare. Those departures left a mark on the people who stayed.

Basically 31% of our staff left in four months. When we told our people the news for each person leaving, we saw their faces drop. Some cried. We didn’t know if more people would stay or leave. We didn’t even know if our company would survive. But somehow we moved on. In general, our other teams remained. Yes, we experienced a major shift in the makeup of our personnel, but the core of our capabilities as a company remained. In fact, we became leaner as an organization. That allowed us to be more efficient with our operating capital, which gave us the resources to pursue our app idea with more flexibility.

If you’re willing to fail around that idea until you get the execution right, you have a chance to make your dream a reality.

In September, we launched Smap. It’s an app that helps people discover and share places they love to eat, drink and play with friends. We saw a gap in the place finding experience. Searching and finding places through crowdsourced reviews are helpful, but there hasn’t been an easy way to see the places our friends go. And it’s natural for people to ask their friends for recommendations of their favorite places, but we were still using email, texts, and spreadsheets to document and share them. So we asked the question, why isn’t there an easier way to discover places from our friends on a single platform? That was the genesis of the idea that became Smap.

When we started to build it, we had every intention to limit it to just a MVP. Our team of designers and developers slaved away for three months, but we still weren’t happy with the result. We knew it could be better. We continued to iterate and push beyond the original scope to build something we thought could be something we would want to use. Three months became six, and we invested over $150K of bootstrapped funds to build it. Our MVP became a full version one.

The story for Smap has really just begun since we’ve only recently launched it. But here are some lessons we learned along the way:

1) Losing may be winning:

In hindsight, we discovered that without losing the writing team, we would have been hard pressed to have the resources to launch our app well. Ironically, even though we were terrified of losing 1/3 of our staff, we actually needed it to happen in order to create something new and realize our dream.

2) Fears are not facts:

I always thought uncertainty could really harm a company. And, I feared that losing the number of people we did would result in possibly killing our company; but, not only was I completely wrong, the very opposite occurred. Morale took a serious hit, but the oddest thing happened. People stayed. And even odder, they seemed to become even more loyal to each other, the company and moving forward together. I learned that my fears are not facts. They’re just fears, and they need to be tempered.

3) Follow your gut:

Innovation doesn’t happen by looking backwards. It only occurs by pushing forwards, but no one can see the future clearly. We had a sense that building this app and closing the Curator were the right decisions. But, we weren’t 100% sure. We just had to follow our intuition. By shutting down the Curator we basically produced a painful situation for ourselves. But in the process, it was what helped us have the space to pursue what we believed to be the future of our company.

As I said before, I was wrong: We took double the time to launch our app; the company didn’t stay intact; and our MVP became a full V1. But what I’m learning is that entrepreneurship is not about being right about everything. It’s about working with the right team and being right about one idea. If you’re willing to fail around that idea until you get the execution right, you have a chance to make your dream a reality.

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