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Interview with a Successful Startup Founder

REPitchbook: Building a SaaS Priced at $1,500/Month and Making $0

Charlie Reese
Charlie Reese
March 28, 2019
Category of startup
Software & Hardware
Country of startup
Canada
Revenue of startups
Interview with a Failed Startup Founder

REPitchbook: Building a SaaS Priced at $1,500/Month and Making $0

Charlie Reese
Charlie Reese
March 28, 2019
Category of startup
Software & Hardware
Country of startup
Canada
Cause of failure of the startup
Poor Product

Charlie Reese is a Canadian software developer who came with (what he thought it was) a revolutionary idea for a SaaS business in the real estate industry. Using his knowledge in JavaScript, React, and SQL, he built a prototype in 6 weeks. But he failed to validate his idea and shut down.

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

Hi Failory!

My name is Charlie Reese and I’m a software developer working out of Toronto, Canada.

I grew up about an hour north of Toronto on a farm. After high school, I enrolled in Commerce (business) at Queen’s University, and later started my career in M&A investment banking.

Investment banking sucked (a lot), so after ~3 years I quit to travel, surf, and learn to code. After a year of pain (learning to code from scratch was not easy for me) I started to get the hang of programming, and was hired as a full-stack / back-end developer at Tulip Retail (we’re hiring).

In late 2017, I founded a startup called REPitchbook. It was revolutionary - it generated customizable management consulting style presentations from real estate market data IN SECONDS. It also made 0 dollars. I’m happy to tell my story!

These days, I’m the founder and lead software engineer for what I think is the best stock screener and alerting application available online - MarketSnitch. I definitely took the lessons from REPitchbook and learned what not to do!

What motivated you to start REPitchbook?

As a former investment banker, it was my job to prepare presentations and analysis for clients to win deals. After spending ~8 months learning to code, I thought: “if I made it easy for others to create management consulting style presentations / pitches, they too could win deals. Professional pitches for everyone!”

That thought was enough to motivate me to start working full-time on the MVP for REPitchbook; I worked on the MVP for several hundred hours over the next 6 weeks.

I definitely should have put more thought into the product, target market, etc. More on that later.

How did you build it?

Using my newly acquired JavaScript, React, and SQL skills, I hacked together a (laughably insecure) prototype over 6 weeks.

After the prototype was complete, I set up a meeting through a family member with the owner of several real estate brokerages. I showed him the prototype, and showed him the presentations it could generate. He loved it, and he gave me the go-ahead to do a pilot project with 4 real estate agents in one of his brokerages.

If the 4 agents testing it liked it, we agreed that I would give all the agents in the brokerage (about 100) access for $1500 / month.

REPitchbook was also publicly accessible online (individual agents could sign up), but it received minimal traffic. I didn’t spend any time on ads or SEO.

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Which were your marketing strategies to grow your business?

At the time, the “digital marketing” landscape was new to me. Because of this, I was most comfortable with in-person marketing (i.e. setting up meetings / coffees with potential customers). I also did some cold-calling, but had little success with that.

After I secured a pilot project and some initial users, I continued meeting with other brokerages and pitching them the product. At this point, my marketing strategy was to get pilot projects at other brokerages (through emails, calls, and in person meetings), and convert the pilot projects into sales.

While talking to current and potential pilot customers, it slowly became clear that there were some pretty major product issues.

Which were the causes of REPitchbook failure?

I think REPitchbook failed for two reasons:

  1. A horrible user interface; pilot customers were not able to figure out how to use the application.
  2. No email integration; pilot customers did most of their marketing through email, not long-form print / presentations.

After spending 6 weeks trying to alter the product to appease my pilot customers, it became clear that the design was so bad that there was almost no hope. Further, since it was a SPA (single page application), the poor UI was tightly coupled with the back-end logic; the application required a complete rebuild.

After 6 weeks of piloting the project, I decided to kill it. At the time I didn’t feel I had the skills required to pivot / rebuild the company (I was new to programming and design), and I wasn’t ready to invest more time into it since I hadn’t made any real sales.

In hindsight, I probably should have brought in another developer or designer... I wanted to learn to program and build products myself though; I wasn’t willing to delegate.

All in all, I felt pretty defeated.

Which were your biggest mistakes and challenges you had to overcome?

My biggest challenge regarding REPitchbook was building a user-friendly, secure prototype with my limited programming experience.

I definitely made a lot of mistakes while building REPitchbook, and I’ll outline the 3 most important ones below.

My first mistake was that I tried to add too many features to the initial product. The result of this was lots of features that felt half complete and clumsy, and no features that felt finished. I think this contributed to the poor, confusing user experience of the application.

My second mistake was that I didn’t adjust for initial customer feedback pertaining to the product’s poor design. No one specifically said it, but 100% of agents were unable to use the application without instruction when I met them in person. I think it’s pretty safe to say that if users can’t use your application without guidance, you probably need to improve your UI / UX.

My third mistake was that I didn’t validate the idea before I started building. I assumed real estate agents wanted to pitch potential clients using professional presentations. Almost none of them wanted to do that (they wanted to market to potential clients using email).

Which were your expenses? Did you achieve some revenue? In the end, how much money did you lose?

Ah yes, now the most embarrassing question.

I made $0 in revenue (for the reasons mentioned above), despite getting a pilot project fairly quickly and lots of positive feedback on what the application was capable of producing.

If there is a silver lining to this failure, it is that expenses were minimal (other than my time) since I did not outsource any of the development / marketing work; I’d guess expenses were ~$1000 all in.

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

First of all, I would include fewer features in REPitchbook’s MVP. This would allow for fewer, more polished features, resulting in a less confusing, more agreeable experience.

Second of all, I would talk to customers (and perhaps sell to customers) before writing any code. Talking to customers helps you prevent wasted effort and develop a product your customers want in less iterations.

Finally, I would spend WAY MORE time working on the design of the application. This experience taught me that, to your user, your design is your product. Said another way, if your UI / UX makes your user feel stupid, your UI / UX is stupid, and users won’t want your product.

Which are your favorite entrepreneurial resources?

My favourite entrepreneurial website is IndieHackers. Definitely check it out if you haven’t already - they are doing a great job dispelling the notion that you need VC funding to successfully grow your business.

Otherwise, I like to learn by reading - I have four favourite books.

  1. My favourite book on sales is Traction: How Any Startup Can Achieve Explosive Customer Growth (by Gabriel Weinberg and Justin Mares).This book is a no nonsense guide to the many sales channels available to every startup. It discusses why many startups wrongfully ignore most sales channels, and how any startup can identify which channel is best for them.
  2. My favourite book on design is The Design of Everyday Things (by Don Norman). I now refer to this book as the Design Bible. It is overflowing with useful insights for improving your products UI / UX. It is not only for application design (hence the title), but it still very relevant for technical creators.
  3. My favourite book on technology entrepreneurship is Hello, Startup (by Yevgeniy Brikman). This book is a crash course on everything you should know if you are a developer who wants to start (or work at) a startup.
  4. My favourite book on data science / consulting is Fooled by Randomness: The Hidden Role of Chance in Life and in the Markets (by Nassim Nicholas Taleb). This book will change the way you look at market information (and possibly those working in financial / information markets) forever. This book helped me understand why I could safely ignore most people pontificating on BNN.

Where can we go to learn more?

Visit Charlie Reese to learn more about me / how I learned to code, and MarketSnitch to learn more about the startup I’m currently working on!

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