With 2 partners, Stefan co-founded Swipes, a company that developed productivity tools. The startup went through all stages and experiences, even almost fundraising $1M. However, over the 6 years of running, they weren’t able to really find product-market fit and they eventually ran out of money.
Hi Stefan! What's your background, and what are you currently working on?
Hi, Rich and Failory audience!
My name is Stefan Vladimirov. I am 29 years old and I’m a creative director and designer born, raised and currently based in Sofia, Bulgaria. 6 years ago, together with my two partners Kasper Tornoe and Yana Vlatchkova, I co-founded Swipes, a software company for thoughtful and delightful productivity tools.
Our journey started in the small Danish town of Aarhus and led us to Silicon Valley and back. We created a successful product in a highly competitive market that earned customer love, industry recognition, awards, and most preciously, a lifetime of learnings and wisdom. But It was not enough. Some of our strengths turned against us and drove us to exhaustion and the eventual shut down of the company.
Today I want to share with you what worked and what didn’t work for us. I sincerely hope that, by the time you finish reading this interview, you walk away with something that can help you do better in your business.
What's your backstory and how did you come up with the idea?
Every good story starts with some heroes. Those were me, Kasper and Yana: three hot-headed and talented young minds… Almost like by faith each one of us had the right specialty: design, development, and marketing. But, in reality, each of us had more than one role.
I consider myself obsessed with visual aesthetics and design. I am 100% emotionally connected with the work I do. I share the belief that only when you have an intimate understanding of the product and audience you can create a design that doesn’t just solve a problem but gets people to feel like a better version of themselves... it’s about the emotional response.
My first steps were in photography, learning to appreciate the beauty and to capture it. My educational background, however, took on a different shape. After finishing the Spanish High School in Sofia, I studied in Denmark, finishing a BA in Marketing and Sales. Yana, who at that point was my couple, took the same education.
Fast-forwarding to 2013 we were freshly graduated and aggressively unemployed. At that moment in my life, I had developed a keen interest in graphic and motion design, so I thought to myself: “You know what would be awesome? Starting my business selling design and photography services.” So I did it. And yeah, it failed. I didn’t get any clients, but it was a far more exciting and valuable experience than being on the job market for a marketing position.
Yana, instead, took a path into the newly forming startup scene in Aarhus. Startup Weekends were still a thing by that time, so Yana, being an entrepreneur by heart, spearheaded into the event, formed a team and won the award of the jury. At that point, we were not together as a couple anymore, but our friendship persevered. So when one day she called me and told me that her new boyfriend Kasper was in the need of a designer for his startup, I was in.
Wait so Kasper and Yana are boyfriend and girlfriend? More precisely, husband and wife and their son recently turned 1 year. And yes the 3 of us started a company together because that’s what millennials do.
Joke aside. When I met Kasper, I fell in love with the guy (like in a platonic manner!). He was sharp, honest and loved Star Wars. What else do you want from a co-founder? Kasper was working on a startup in London, but after failing to get it off the ground, he returned to Aarhus. At that moment I knew that the three of us would create something together. I didn’t know what or how, but I was certain that I wanted to work with them.
How did you build Swipes?
So the three of us sat down and got into businesses.
Initially, we started working on a fun dating app. The hard part came from the fact that none of us knew much about dating. Anyway, it was a great start that made us realize working together came along naturally.
One evening, Kasper and I were talking about task lists of the app’s development when one discussion led to another and before we knew it, Kasper and I were working on a “side project” that would later become Swipes. We realized that dating was not of our interested and that what we really wanted was to build the best task list app in the market.
Kasper made the prototype in a week, while I was fiercely refining the visual design and Yana digging out information about the market and users. At that moment, our skills clicked. In less than 6 weeks we had our product on the App Store and we saw the first couple of hundred people downloading the app. We were thrilled. We kept improving, shipping and having loads of fun.
Our numbers were growing and online media outlets started to notice our product and praise it for it’s simple and delightful design. The first big media review for Swipes was The Next Web and that’s when we hit our first 10,000 users.
We didn’t have a business model at that time. The app was free and we were actively looking for funding. In 2014, we met our first angel investor Kristian Ottosen who put the first check for $35k. We felt like winners. Kasper and Yana, who had just relocated to Bulgaria, started to assemble and build a team. The app was steadily growing and people LOVED IT.
That same year we did an integration with Evernote, which was the productivity giant at that moment. Our product aimed to deliver untapped value to Evernote users, helping them sort trough tasks. It was a success. We were invited to take part in the Evernote Conference, winning first prize for Best New Startup. Not bad for a team of nobodies.
Which were your marketing strategies to grow your business?
Our user and retention rates kept on growing. We were doing well on App Store Keyword optimization and content marketing. But the thing that was making it work was that people loved the product. Releasing the long-awaited version for Android and crossing half a million users. Swipes was hot. Media was writing about it, Apple featured us multiple times on their App Store banners and lists. We had success, but we were still not a business.
Looking back, our biggest challenge was building a sustainable monetization model. We were only thinking about growth - the faster the better. We firstly tried a subscription model, but conversation rates were really low. It was 2015 and people weren’t really keen to pay money every month to use apps. So we moved to another monetization strategy that was far more challenging: team collaboration.
This way, we got into an odyssey of constant R&D and rework that defined the following 4 years.
Which were your greatest disadvantages? What were your worst mistakes?
Initially, we thought we could easily develop this new product. At that point, we had grown our team to 10 people and had raised more funds from investors. We had also attracted the attention of a prominent entrepreneur and investor from the Valley, to whom I will simply refer as Mister Big.
Mister Big was crazy about Swipes and he saw big potential for the app. So he started talking about investing $1M. $1 million US dollars for a team of 25 years-old co-founders who had started 2 years ago... Our ambitions and expectations grew exponentially and our vision blurred.
But as you might have sensed, the investment did not go through. We were “infected” with the megalomaniac mentality of the Valley, however. We wanted to build this new collaboration tool that would solve the work of teams in the same elegant manner as the Swipes Personal task list app. But we were running out of runway, and the sensible business decision was to fire everybody, use the funds we had to get to product-market fit and build a profitable business.
The three of us cared obsessively about the work we had done and the people we had been working with. Over the previous year, we had been creating a fantastic team culture and firing seemed like we would backstab our friends. But this was businesses and we eventually had to fire half the team.
You have to understand one thing about us as a team. We were obsessed with creating a simple quality experience that delights people. One of our blessings that ended up turning into a disadvantage was our perfectionism and strive for quality. We have spent weeks perfecting a product we had then release on the market just to realize we need to get back to the drawing board.
Our biggest misunderstanding was that people loved our initial product because it was delightful to use. Yes, that had a huge part in their experience, but most importantly it was serving them a need in a novel way. Swipes Personal gave our users a superpower to charge through their tasks like a champ and no matter the day to feel a sense of accomplishment. While the rest of the task list apps were focusing on getting organized, our focus was on achieving results, and that resonated with people.
With our team product, called The Workspace, we had many novel ideas and daring tested daring designs, but we never succeeded in cracking the value of the problem.
What were the biggest challenges you faced and the obstacles you overcame?
In 2016 Kasper and Yana moved to California. They were in the process of securing a $1M investment, but the relationship with the investor went sour and the deal was off the table. Soon after, I and the rest of the team followed them. At first, it was a new thrilling opportunity. We had been accepted into Alchemist one of the top B2B accelerators. There was a multitude of mentors, investors, and talent that we were meeting all the time. But as exciting the Bay Area was, it wasn’t our place.
We met a handful of incredible people who helped immensely with their mentorship (hey Michael Moon), but there were a lot of phony people. Too many for my taste. The Valley was trying to mold us into something we didn’t relate to. What do I mean by that? The whole crush it, hustle, fake it until you make it, go big or die trying mentality just wasn’t us. As a result, we were facing many rejections from investors, partners, and customers. But it was a blessing to understand who we really are and what we stand for.
We were 5 people living in a 2-bedroom apartment on the outskirts of Palo Alto, on the other side of Arrastradero Road. Our window was literally overlooking at the cemetery where Steve Jobs was rested to peace. I started to feel resentful towards the place and life in general. And it wasn’t helping the fact that I was a thousand miles away from my girlfriend at the time.
But as difficult as it was, it was a moment I wouldn’t change. During this period, we learned as a team to be truthful about who we were and what we stood for. We eventually returned to Europe, a bit wiser and very exhausted.
It was 2017 and we still didn’t have a product-market fit nor a working business. But like the stubborn people we are, we kept on pushing. To extend our runway we raised capital from few American and Bulgarian angel investors among whom Bogomil Balkansky and Vassil Terziev. We doubled down our efforts and released another major rework of the team product. In the product release video, we used our dire situation to form a plot around. There was interest, but not enough, so we continued. Through 2018 and until the end of 2019 we kept reworking and releasing. We eventually ceased to look for investment money and focused solely on doing design and development projects for clients.
We ground ourselves to exhaustion. The company we were trying to create was feeding on our physical and mental health. One by one, we were burning out. So eventually in June 2019, we decided no more. It was a difficult decision, a very emotional decision. But it was either the company or our health at the line. We chose the latter. And this is how this chapter of our story ends.
If you had the chance to do things differently, what would you do?
I wouldn’t change anything. I am grateful beyond words for having been given the opportunity to go through this. But here are some advice I would gladly give the 23 old Stefan:
- Always think of the clients first and how you can serve them best
- Stay true to who you are and your values.
- Don’t skip steps. Build it slow. Build it steady. Most of the competitors in our space don’t necessarily have the best products, they simply have persevered the longest.
- Be patient. Set clear goals and strategize to achieve them.
- Done is better than perfect. Put things on the market fast and learn.
What did eventually cause Swipes’ shut down?
In June we took the hard call to cease work on Swipes. In full honesty, it felt like losing a war that you have been fighting with all you got until the last day. But you know what life goes after and we have been fortunate to have fantastic people in our team, investors, family, friends that applauded us for our tenacity and perseverance.
After the dust settled we naturally asked ourselves the question: Why did we fail? Why indeed?
In short—we took poor business decisions. After our initial success with Swipes Personal, we allowed our ambitions to outrun ourselves. As a consequence, we didn’t give enough appreciation to what we have already succeeded to achieve. Instead of putting our limited resources to build our business slowly around this first product, we decided we would make a bigger more successful one building it from scratch. We underestimated the bite we are taking and this decision exhausted us over the years.
We tried so many different takes on team productivity and discovered some very interesting design solutions, but over time our vision became blurry and so did our target audience. We were spending months changing our product and marketing, hoping that something would stick, just to face more disappointing results and engage in a new cycle of changes.
Today I feel much better and I am recovered from my burn out. And the partnership and friendship between the three of us are stronger than ever.
Currently, Yana and I are in the making of a new business and doing what we have been doing in the past 2 years to pay the bills for Swipes: brand strategy and design services for clients. Every day I’m learning more and more. I look back at the Swipes journey humbled at the bravery of our young selves and full with gratitude for what I learned.
I am more mindful of where and how I put my energy. And I am more open to adopting new skills and not silo myself into just one thing. I am going acting classes, helping my fiancé start her podcast and daring myself to Downhill Ride. I am grateful and happy to wake up and learn every day.
What are some sources for learning you would recommend for entrepreneurs who are just starting?
A book I would highly recommend to any professional is Jordan Peterson’s 12 Rules for Life - An antidote to Chaos. I have discovered many of the lessons I learned through the years of working on Swipes between its pages. It’s a good read for any young person that wants to take charge of its life.