From a business perspective, the first two years of my entrepreneurial career were an epic failure. For most of 2015 and 2016, I spent every night and weekend building our audio sharing community, uTalk (later changed to Wavve). It's hard to think about how much time we invested, and in the end, we decided to liquidate everything we built for pennies on the dollar.
☝️ You can read more about the journey and lessons learned from our failed business here.
Changing our Perspective
As we were winding that business down, we found a new market opportunity. Determined not to make the same mistakes as with our first business, we adopted a "money ball" approach to product development and focused on building a profitable business rather than optimizing around a venture raise.
Being "Broke" can be a Superpower
Being broke and shouldering a quarter million in debt created enormous pressure. I never felt comfortable. If I wasn't working, learning, and building, I was moving backwards. This isn't hyperbole. My loans were negative amortizing and the interest payments were $1600 per month and growing.
I used holidays and any available PTO to work on Wavve. And despite putting in 80 hour work weeks for the two previous years, my wife and I were still one emergency away from missing our rent payment. We were still living paycheck to paycheck and just trying to keep our heads above water.
By 2017 my income turned a corner as I started earning $120/hour as a contract engineer. This was probably the hardest period for me to stay motivated pushing Wavve forward.
I had no savings, access to capital, or family wealth. My only asset was my time, so I had to be careful in how I balanced the continued investment in Wavve with contract work. I still believed my best chance for paying down student loans would be through a passive-income generating business, so I decided to continue burning the candle at both ends and doubled down on Wavve.
BUT... this time we adopted a more scientific process for deciding what to build and when to build it. This was the most basic version of a feature and we would only start building when customers were begging to pay us for it. For example, during the first few months, I was skeptical as to whether this could be an actual business so I didn't even build user accounts or authentication.
The first version of Wavve was a static web page with a dropdown for customers to choose their video design. When a customer paid us, they'd send us their design assets and we'd upload them to the website. Then we'd email them a link to the site's public IP address (that's right, we didn't even have a domain name), so they could choose their design from the dropdown and generate a video.
I taught my business partner how to upload assets to Amazon S3 and how to use git to update the static site's code with a link to the newly uploaded image. This got us by for a few months and our first 30 customers were all onboarded this way. By then we were wasting so much time manually uploading these files that I decided to build out proper user accounts, database schema, etc...
As we scaled up to 100 customers, we started hitting memory issues on AWS EC2, and every time this happened I'd have to manually access our compute instances and either free up memory or restart them. As our free AWS credits expired, it became more and more important to devote a large share of my time to infrastructure.
With our previous venture, I wasted months modeling data, setting up authentication, user accounts, making infrastructure decisions, and in the end it didn't matter because we never validated that people were willing to pay for our product. This time around we focused on profit-first. The experience was horribly disjointed, the UI was horrible, video generation regularly failed, and it required a lot of back and forth with each customer, YET these customers were willing to overlook all of those short comings. Looking back, this was incredible validation that we were on to something big.
We crossed $1000 MRR in May, 2017 and I decided to go BIG on building a custom editor so the design experience became totally self-serve. This took about a month to build, but all the effort was worth it. From June to the end of the year we grew by 4x.