❌ Failed startup
✅ Successful startup

Notezilla: The Wikipedia for High-School Notes that Made $0

Ada is a 24-year-old trans woman who 8 years ago failed to add joy to the education system through her startup Notezilla. She was motivated to start this Wikipedia for High-School notes site after finding that her informal notes on Shakespeare were a hit at her school, but she failed to find the right audience for her business and had to shut it down.

Trinidad and Tobago
Education
Bad Marketing

Ada Des Etages

December 20, 2018

Sponsor Failory and get your business & product in front of +20,000 CEOs, startup founders, entrepreneurs, developers and marketers every month.

Do you want to grow your business? With GenM you can get free marketing from an apprentice as part of their training. The student will work 40 hours per month creating content, increasing SEO rankings, carrying out advertisement campaigns...

Want to take ownership over the growth of your business, but don't know where to start? Get 1-on-1 advice from vetted growth experts about your business.

Do you want to grow your business? With GenM you can get free marketing from an apprentice as part of their training. The student will work 40 hours per month for only $49.

A 5-minute read that's informative, witty and free? That's Morning Brew — the daily email that delivers the latest news from Wall Street to Silicon Valley.

Hi Ada! What's your background, and what are you currently working on?

Hey :) I'm a 24 year old trans woman from the Caribbean. These days I'm working on an email-first social network for companies. I'm just trying to bring a bit more empathy in a world where AI makes intelligence less important... but, 8 years ago when we started Notezilla, I was completely focused on adding joy to our education system.

What motivated you to start Notezilla?

The short story is that I was a student with a Big literature exam coming up, and, never having read The Merchant of Venice, I figured that the quickest way to learn it was to teach it. I wrote a pile of notes written in a conversational tone as if I were sitting next to a friend trying to teach them Shakespeare. I used lots of local dialect, gave the characters nicknames, and expressed any surprise, or delight, or sadness as the emotions came to me. Sometimes I even called characters 'assholes.' No one was really meant to read these notes.

That night I put it all in a .zip file and shared it on facebook (google docs wasn't really a thing yet). The next day an acquaintance of mine had liked my notes enough that he had printed it out, and I was shook.

Maybe the natural progression was to become an author, but I had just seen The Social Network (this was before we realized how dystopian it was)... so, I thought:

"If I became an author, I could only help the few people that had access to my books, but, if I made a Network, I could Change the World.”

Fast-forward 6 months, and my high-school sweetheart and I started Notezilla -> Wikipedia for High-School notes. Educational resources created by students, for students. The authors would learn by teaching, as I did, and the readers would get relatable, approachable notes to study with.

Hire digital marketing interns. 40 hours for $49/month.

Learn More!

AD

Don't let your software be the reason your startup fails.

Tanooki Labs combines scalable technology, strong product thinking and the experience of having launched over 150 products to help you bring more to the table.

👉 Learn more

From Wall Street to Silicon Valley...

Are you busy? Sure you are — that's why you need Morning Brew. It's a free daily email that gives a quick 5-minute rundown of the day's top business news. Join the 925,000+ people who start their day with Morning Brew!

👉 Learn More!

Reach +20,000 Startup Founders!

If you are looking to get your product in front of founders, CEOs, VPs, web and mobile developers, makers, consultants, marketers, bloggers, product managers, and many other thought leaders, then we can help you.

👉 Sponsorships

How did you build it?

Well, when we started, I hadn't done any programming or web development yet, so I pirated a bunch of Lynda courses and threw myself at learning everything that I could. I'm talking PHP, ASP.Net, CSS, UX/UI, Linguistics, Typography, I basically dropped all my hobbies, and focused entirely on learning the skills that I thought I needed to build the perfect product. I mean, it's great that I studied all those things, but did I really need to study TWO web stacks? Probably not.

While I was working on the Product, my co-founder was writing actual content for the website. Some of which ended up on a Blogger (with scores of adoring fans), and some she saved for the website.

Notezilla Blog

Eventually, maybe eight(!) months in, pushed by the deadline of a contest we learned about at the last minute, we hacked together a website that we finally showed to the world. Today you might charitably call it a single-page javascript application, except, I made it from scratch, and the notes (some of them very long) were encoded as html strings, in an array, in main.js . If we wanted to correct a typo, we would have to Ctrl-F in the javascript file, make the change, and then re-upload to Heroku.

Notezilla Welcome

Later in this story, again, only pushed by an external deadline for an innovation tournament I, quite sensibly, swallowed my pride and we built it on Wordpress with a custom theme that used a tagging convention and some fun php to get the nested navigation that we needed.

Which were your marketing strategies to grow your business?

It was almost entirely word of mouth. I see now how much of a double-edged sword that was. If you only spread through friends sharing with their friends, you have no control over the type of users you get. If the problem I'm solving for you is studying at the last minute before an exam, then when you recommend me, you're not going to say, "Here's Notezilla, Wikipedia for High-School notes," you're going to say, "Check out this website that I'm using to cram."

So our starry eyed dreams of making education a delightful part of your life instead of something that you had to do as part of the system was not working out. Instead, our engagement graph looked like:

Notezilla Traffic

With a big spikes before the exams, but nothing before or after. We were never able to find (if they existed) the group of students who would thrive doing the sort of work needed to create resources, as we thrived.

I'm getting kind of sad talking about this now, even after so many years. We really wanted to make the world better and all that.

40 Hours of Digital Marketing for $49/Month

Do you want to grow your business? With GenM you can get free marketing from an apprentice as part of their training. The student will work 40 hours per month for only $49.

👉 Learn More!

Grow your business. Get 1-on-1 calls with +100 mentors.

Learn More!

AD

Which were the causes of Notezilla failure?

There were some specific moments that we really dropped the ball, like that time we made it to the finals of TIC Americas, and I stood up in front of an auditorium of investors and such, and then completely froze, forgetting my pitch and getting flustered.

Then there was the whole thing about having your business partner also be your romantic partner, and how messy that could (and eventually did) become, but mostly it was fear that killed us.

We were too afraid to try. What we needed to do was put ourselves into the world much sooner, and not be distracted with all the unimportant stuff. I mean, now everyone talks about shipping fast, and talking to customers and all that, but back then, we didn't have anyone to tell us that. To us, success looked like a perfect product that would somehow go viral.

If you had to start over, what would you do differently?

I would find a mentor who believed in us, and understood how to build online communities.

With Notezilla, the closest thing we had was this government sponsored grant/incubator, but outside of some hosted events, I don't think that they knew how to help us. I'm actually pretty sure that they couldn't, because a year after the program finished, they launched a clone, and dumped a bunch of money into dev and ads, but couldn't figure out engagement of any sort either. Eventually they pivoted to paying teachers to contribute content, but of course that didn't work, and the project was shut down.

I wouldn't really change much else because I learned what I needed to learn as painful as it sometimes was, but I think that it would've been helpful to have a third party to push us.

Which are your favorite entrepreneurial resources?

Easily the best thing I did to become a better entrepreneur was choosing to take a temp position at a big company after college.

Working alongside real people and learning about their lives and frustrations was the most insightful thing I've done in recent memory. None of the podcasts or websites I consume really compare to actively cultivating your empathy.

Plus, it reaffirmed that it’s not where I’m meant to be.

Where can we go to learn more?

If you want to bring your team closer together in a low effort way, sign up for tiny story club.  

If you know someone who works at an *asphalt lab/plant*, please reach me at ada@tinyproblems.com. I have questions about your mix design.

Or, if you're touched by my story you can send me an electronic mail at ada@tinyproblems.com.

And finally, here's a brochure for Notezilla for a little bit more youthful optimism in your day.

Notezilla Brochure

✉️ Subscribe to receive weekly startup related articles!

We’re always digging for more failure stories like Notezilla. Sign up for our newsletter to keep updated on the latest additions.

👇 Other Interviews

LiveAgent: Making +$250K in MRR with a Spin-Off Project
By 
David Cacik
  •  
February 21, 2019
United States
SaaS
Over 150K
Reroute Lifestyle: Find Niche, Create Content, Build Community
By 
Krista Aoki
  •  
February 21, 2019
United States
Blog
Up to 50K
Encharge: $3,950 in Pre-Orders - How to validate a SaaS idea
By 
Kalo Yankulov
  •  
June 20, 2019
Bulgaria
SaaS
Up to 50K
MealSurfers: Exiting a $7K/Month Food Startup
By 
Ali Jiwani
  •  
November 3, 2019
Canada
Food
Up to 50K
Standuply: Making $80K a month with a problem-solving Slack-first App
By 
Alex Kistenev
  •  
August 12, 2019
Australia
SaaS
Below 150K
Trackin: Solo Founding a +$167,000/Month Food Startup
By 
Bruno Didier
  •  
February 21, 2019
France
Web Application
Over 150K
140 Canvas: +17,000 visitors, 20 sales - The failed non-validated startup
By 
Harry Dry
  •  
July 17, 2019
United Kingdom
e-Commerce
No MVP Validation
Bad Marketing
Howell Market: How Bad Partners Killed an e-Commerce
By 
Cody Howell
  •  
March 17, 2018
United States
e-Commerce
People Management
Brisk: #1 Error: Being Dependent of Others
By 
Hampus Jakobsson
  •  
March 16, 2018
Sweden
Technology
No MVP Validation
Not Practical
Onepagetrip: Monetizing a Startup Is Not That Easy
By 
Ana Santos
  •  
March 16, 2018
Australia
Marketplace
No MVP Validation
Monetizing Issues
Eloquis: Losing $20,000 with a Bootstrapped SaaS
By 
Rohit Nallapeta
  •  
March 17, 2018
United States
SaaS
Unprepared Market
Not Practical
Ropero: Starting Big, Failing Bigger
By 
Rafael Soto
  •  
March 16, 2018
Mexico
e-Commerce
Unprepared Market