It’s been almost 2 years since we started Apptimize. I think part of how we got here is by not knowing how hard it was going to be, like Columbus blithely sailing to India without knowing what the heck he was doing. When I heard the story about Columbus as a kid, I thought, “What an idiot.” Who starts sailing to somewhere with a bunch of ships without knowing the way? But every day we all launch towards a new world and rewrite the maps as we go.
When I started Apptimize I knew what our core strength would be: technological superiority. After working with a top team at GETCO where we were inventing technologies decades ahead of what anyone had, I knew how big a difference the team made and started recruiting the best people I knew from MIT and YC. I asked everyone who the best engineer they knew was and why. The first people we worked with were people whose references considered to be “un-hirable because they’re so good they just want to do their own thing.” Nevertheless I convinced some of them to join Apptimize. Everybody we hired, I made sure they were on board with the vision of inventing technology that would transform mobile innovation. Improving other people’s ability to innovate was what I had concluded was the highest leverage thing I could work on.
I’ve been lucky to have always worked on teams that are really good at engineering, and when you have a hammer, everything looks like a nail. For ages I viewed every problem as a technological issue. Didn’t matter what it was, technology will solve it. (Abortion? Duh, just invent a machine that sucks the fetus out and incubates it somewhere so you don’t have to choose between the rights of the mother and the rights of the child. Middle East crisis? Simply invent a machine, etc, etc.)
One of the first users who deployed Apptimize was a company I’d never heard of. I looked them up was surprised they simply put us into their very popular app, especially since this was a huge company that had just IPO-ed. Awesome! Basically they realized we had the best technology, way better than they could build in house. We didn’t need to do any marketing- they somehow found us despite us not being in the top search results for anything including our own name. They signed up despite our terrible website. They managed to integrate our SDK without any documentation and they deployed without ever talking with us. This was working.
Then our dashboard went down just as they were logging in to check out some test results. They were disenchanted and didn’t try to log back in for months.
“Sorry our dashboard was down for a few hours. This will never happen again!”
I reasoned the problem was that they lost confidence in our technology. A crack in one area signaled fissures in other spots. The solution was to attack the technology even more and make every single part amazing.
We worked on the product. I kept the prospective customer updated on all the new stuff we were doing, “We just added this feature that could be useful to you guys that no one else can ever build!” Eventually they were sufficiently impressed by our new features that they tried to install our update to use us again. I was surprised by how willing they were to try again considering the activation energy required to move their giant organization towards this idea again. “They must really want our product,” I thought. “They can’t build this in-house so they’re willing to endure a lot to try to use us.”
Then they couldn’t figure out how to install the new SDK because it was different from the old SDK. We explained, “The new SDK is fundamentally different. It’s better and does not require any programming at all to install. Can you start with a clean app and just follow these instructions? This SDK is easier and will give you a lot more power.” Awesome, right? Everyone else who’d tried the new SDK loved it. The number of support emails about how to install went to almost zero.
This company was different. They weren’t getting it and kept trying to install it the way they installed the first time.
“I’m not seeing the place to add the code snippet.”
“…There is no code snippet. Can you take out any code snippets you still have in there?”
After some back and forth, they gave up again.
After all the energy we put into making everything super fast and easy, after all our talk of saving our users time, they said, “We don’t have time but maybe in a few quarters.”
I lost 10 pounds of delusions right there. I learned a lot from that experience about a lot of different areas and don’t think we really made that many bad decisions, but I do think my perspective had been wrong in many ways. After all the resources we devoted into simplifying our deployments and making our product better and better, we discovered that the one customer it failed for was the one customer for which it mattered most. I had believed that if we had a product people wanted and the best technology, then we’d be good to go. I’d believed that the quality of our core features would be tested after the user set up the SDK. But that’s not what happened at all. The gap between reality and my expectations was oceanic. When you’re building a startup, a million things like this happen every day that teach you things you’d never learn in school.
One gap between school and reality is the way you’re judged on your work. In school there usually aren’t instances where everything relies on you getting the right things right at a particular moment that could happen at any time. Teachers are like, “Well, you got this one problem wrong but your work was ok so you get partial credit, and your other answers imply you understand the material, and I didn’t put anything on the test that I know we haven’t covered, so your total score is a B.” That’s not life.
In real life you can have done everything well but if you fail at this one thing then it’s all a fail. You also have to handle things that you couldn’t possibly know and that no normal person would be good at. Customers are like, “Your onboarding is annoying so I judge all the rest of your product as terrible, my browser is wonky with your site right now so I’m not going to assess this other stuff so it’s an auto-fail, why aren’t you amazing at graphic design in addition to everything else, you didn’t respond to my email in the middle of the night and now I’m never going to read it, so your score in mobile technology is an F.”
There are these clutch moments all around us where everything you’ve been working on for years comes down to one thing happening correctly and you simply have to nail it. If the customer can’t install your product, it doesn’t matter how amazing it is because they’ll never get to use it- you might as well have spent that whole time watching TV instead of building an awesome framework or whatever.
People have started messaging me about the YC interviews. I was debating whether YC tries to bridge that gap between real life. YC interviews are not real life; they’re like school because you know when and how you’ll get tested on certain areas. It’s not like you’ll suddenly have to demonstrate you know how to field a PR disaster if your product isn’t even launched. You’re at a certain stage and they only ask you things relevant at that stage and they only test that knowledge in a particular way. In real life, no one cares what stage you’re in- you better be ready when the test hits.
When we had our YC interview, everything we’d been working on came together for 10 minutes where we convinced some of the smartest people alive that we somewhat knew what we were doing. It was one of the first times we’ve ever had to pitch to skeptics, which sounds hard but is simple if you practice because you already know what they’re going to ask. No one has ever asked me a question I haven’t thought of already because all I do is think about the mobile space and the probability of someone coming up with a new question in a few minutes is low. Thus just work on an answer that people will 1) understand and 2) believe. In this type of situation, anything is possible if you prepare.
If you have an interview, please message me because I’m happy to help practice. I emailed many people when we were prepping for our YC interview and every single one of them met with us. It’s possible I’m a genius wrt cold emails, but for me the lesson is to pay it forward. Please give me a chance to do that!