October 02, 2015

fail

Credit: Jeramey Jannene / Flickr / Creative Commons

It was 2013, and Jason Huertas was a few years out of college when he got an idea. It came to him after reading a New York Times story about Tesla’s new Model S.

The story dinged the Model S’s battery for not lasting as long as promised in cold weather. It got a lot of attention; and even more so when Tesla CEO Elon Musk fired back with a blog post on why the New York Times story was wrong.

Huertas was convinced by Musk’s arguments. He wanted to see the original New York Times story get an update. He began to wonder: what if people could directly respond to what’s on a website themselves?

“That idea is not new,” Huertas says. “People have been trying to do it for about 20 years. Some people refer to it as 'annotating the web.'”

But no one had done it successfully. He was young, smart and ambitious. Why couldn’t he be the one for the job?

Annotating The Web

“I was a first-time entrepreneur at the time,” Huertas says. “And I think most first-time entrepreneurs — whatever that quality is that makes someone take the leap of faith and quit their job and start a company, you always have what I like to call these ‘blinders’ on. You have to believe that you're going to be successful.”

He recruited two friends from college who knew how to code. They didn’t have an office. They worked in the hallways and library at the University of California, Berkeley, where one of the co-founders was still a student.

“In the hardest times, I was putting in about 100 hour work weeks,” Huertas says. “I remember the nights where I would only get about an hour and a half or two hours of sleep and just be going the next day on Red Bulls and coffee and soda and hyped up on caffeine all the time.”

In six months, they had a demo of the product they were trying to build: a browser extension (it’s like an app for your web browser).

“If you were a user and you went to, for example, the White House's website and they had a press release, then you could essentially rebut or write or start a discussion directly on the White House's website. And since the software lived on everyone else's computers, the White House couldn't really block it.”

But around nine months in, they were running out of money. Huertas was going into debt, and they couldn’t support the company much longer.

A life raft came in the form of venture capital. They were accepted into an accelerator program in Silicon Valley. They moved out of the Berkeley hallways and into a dorm-like space in an old hotel in San Mateo.

They were joined by 20 other companies. It was an exciting moment for Huertas.

But it wasn’t enough to make Critica work.

The End In The Beginning

Critica’s business plan was based on advertising, so they needed a lot of users to charge advertising rates that would support the company. But they weren’t able to quickly get the software up and running and out into the world.

When their time in the accelerator came to an end, they needed more money. But it wasn’t there this time.

“It was a really dark period of my life,” Huertas remembers. “Starting a company, it's kind of - I mean, I don't have kids so people with kids will laugh when I say this, but it was kind of like having a baby. It was my baby at the time. I was the one that convinced the other two to take that leap of faith with me. So I definitely took it pretty hard.”

But he also learned a lot:

Get Feedback Early

“We were kind of a sample size of three,” Huertas says. “We all thought it was a good idea. Obviously it would be successful. We're all three smart guys.”

So they started building the product they thought would be best. But they didn’t actually test it out on users or even know if people would use it.

“That ‘build it and they will come’ mentality is the completely wrong way to go about starting a company or starting a product,” Huertas says.

Get Good Fast

If you want to succeed in Silicon Valley, you’re going to have to get used to not putting out a perfect product each time Huertas says.

“I think a lot of kids these days, especially if you're smart and you're educated in this country, people are pushed to be perfect and get those A's and put in all the studying hours and that hard work. But when you're an entrepreneur, you don't have the time or the resources to spend six months building out a system like we did when you don't have user feedback, you don't have customer validation.”

Learn From The Past

You are probably not the first person to have the idea you’re developing. That means you can learn from the wrong turns that those before you took, and that you can use some of the tools already developed.

“Maybe they missed a key insight or something,” Huertas say. “No matter what problem you're trying to fix, there's probably some type of existing solution out there and you can use those existing tools or products and leverage those tools to test your hypothesis.”

Talk To Your Competitors

Huertas actually met with one of his competitors while still working on Critica. After it folded, Huertas wrote a note to the competitor thanking him for his help.

“And he pinged me back,” Huertas says. “He said, ‘Well you guys are working on the same thing as we're working on, why don't you come on in. I think you'd really like the technology we've built here and we could be a good fit together.’”

Huertas is now working for that company.

“So counterintuitive point that I learned is always speak to your competitors because you never know what's going to happen,” Huertas says.

Business, failure, Culture, tech, startups

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