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''A Series of Unfortunate Events'' and Moving On

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''A Series of Unfortunate Events'' and Moving On

This developer extols some of the difficulties that he face when stepping out to create a new product, and has some advice to potential startups.

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Let me start this post with some wisdom we all have to accept from time to time: Sometimes things just don't work out the way we want them to.

Following up is a little write-up of the last couple of months, what happened and what didn't. It might be just interesting to see what was going on, but I hope it might help a person or two too.

TLDR; Since this blog post got way longer than expected, I'm looking for some cool opportunities to help with.

Almost 6 months ago I talked about a startup I was working on. A lot of time went into it, especially since I was already working on it for more than a year at that point in time, though only in my spare time.

I wanted to fix a problem I knew about from my own experience. When people asked me about what it is, I mostly started with "4 years' frustration built into hard- and software." Catchy, eh?

Going deeper into the matter of what it was and what it will be when finished, people could see the potential and how it was supposed to help them and their companies. It often concluded with, "When can we have it?" It was very encouraging and promising, and it kept me going. Unfortunately, it also kept me in a bubble.

That said, I left Hazelcast at the end of 2017 and went ahead finalizing the last bits and pieces of the business plan. Even before leaving I was looking to collect some money. Some Angels were interested and the rest of the money was supposed to be a short-term bank loan. The European Union has some great subsidized loans for company founders, so it says.

Anyways, going into February 2018 we started to figure out it wasn't all that easy. Applying for the bank loan to get a fully working, almost final looking, prototype wasn't as easy as all the commercials about the startup culture in Germany being proposed by cities (Düsseldorf calls itself the Startup-City) made us (me and my wife) think. Banks are supposed to help companies and especially tech-startups, but guess what: hardware? Too risky.

Whatever, one option down, move on to the next. Unfortunately, the general problem seems to be that finalizing and producing hardware is pretty expensive.

Thanks to SOMs (System on Modules) and SBCs (Single Board Computers) you can fairly easily put together a prototype that works nicely in just a few weeks, however, to build a final product, you will need money. You need to create the PCB, you need to get certifications like FCC (US), IC (Canada), CE (Europe) to just name the most important ones. Bigger market means more certifications ahead.

As we talk about certifications, let's jump into what all of you might be interested in the most: what the heck did I want to build?

As most of you might know, I worked in developer relations for Hazelcast. That is the obvious stuff like blog posts, social media, the developer communities, conference talks, etc. At least for Hazelcast, however, it also meant conference booth work. As for the marketing booth, success is,  basically, leads. The number of people being scanned and hopefully converted into paying customers (in the longer term).

Conferences mostly offer badge scanners right as an add-on to your booth, just as they offer chairs, tables, and TVs. There is some trade-off though, as most often these scanners have to be handed back to the conference and you'll be emailed the scanned people with name and email. If you're lucky you also might get information like a company and phone number.

Apart from the obvious issue, that you don't know upfront what kind of information you'll get, there's also another issue: you have to wait for that information to arrive in your inbox. Statistics, on the other hand, tells us, you should follow up with a person visiting your booth in less than 24 hours for full potential. Best is if the person visited your booth on the first day and you followed up by the evening. Offer some additional, meaningful material, also propose to have a further look and if there are any questions, to come by the other day.

But wait, didn't I just say you have to hand the scanner to the conference to get the leads? Yes, I did, and therein lies the problem.

In general, from my experience, leads coming from conferences are often lower quality than leads coming from your own website. One reason why conference leads are often measured by quantity over quality.

But shouldn't conference leads be higher quality? I mean you talk to the people. You invest time, money, and power into those leads. Anyhow, you often can't follow up quickly enough to keep those people excited. You have to realize that attendees see plenty of companies at conferences and, again from my own experience, it's hard to remember all their names. Great collateral, therefore, is really important! Keep yourself in their heads!

Anyways, we found the issue, but how do we fix it?

Some companies started to use smartphone apps with the possibility to scan badges or put together simple forms. Don't get me wrong, those apps are a great help, apart from when they're not. Those apps are either temporary offline storing and synching to the cloud when internet (e.g. WiFi) is available or even worse offline only, which means you have to export the information into a CSV (or similar) file from every single smartphone you used. So information is spread across all used devices, but, in general, we should be faster than waiting for the end of the conference.

At that point, we can at least follow up people quickly enough, but looking at the new data privacy regulations in Europe to come, are we allowed to? None of the apps available takes care of people actively signing up to be mailed, and it's just not a thing outside of the EU. Meaning, most of those apps are illegal to use inside the EU since data is not sufficiently encrypted when stored.

PS: Did you already think about, that after May 25th, EU-citizen leads coming from conferences might not be legal to email anymore? They haven't given their active agreement to be emailed by you? Just my 2 cents though.

Anyways back to the proposed product, which was supposed to address some more issues we haven't talked about yet and I'm just naming a few solutions here, so take a guess at what the issue is for yourself.

In a quick round-up, imagine a small hardware box:

  • easy to use (for booth personal)
  • easy to understand (for attendees)
  • reusing existing tablets or phones
  • offering full control over the information you request from attendees
  • storing private information in a GDPR compliant way
  • synching to a cloud (if wanted) or
  • exporting information locally to a USB stick
  • provide features like fully electronic and lawfully stored raffles (everything's locally stored anyways)

And the best thing, it's company property. "Buy once, use anywhere" if Sun Microsystems would create the slogan. Obviously, additional features for the years to come were planned too, as well as third-party developer support.

But let's head back to the hardware development. As for the issue of certification, having companies buying your hardware device, that sole purpose is to be used at conferences around the world, you need plenty of certifications. Otherwise running the system would be illegal in some countries, especially when offering a WiFi signal to connect your tablets or phones.

That said, the major investment, apart from building the PCB, designing and prototyping the housing and the preproduction for a test-run, as well as the final first production run itself is certification. It's not in the millions but in the hundreds of thousands of Euros.

In the US, that's probably peanuts compared to common investments in big tech-companies; in Europe, however, it seems like a pretty big deal. And eh, what happens if you can't sell the boxes? That is at least the common theme we've seen. And forgive me for being blunt here, Germany is the main player in terms of conferences and trade fairs; we have data privacy rules close to the GDPR for years and overall we should be pretty interested in such a solution, but not so.

Darn, this post is already way to long. Let me get to the conclusion after almost 6 months of trying.

  • Do not leave your employer before actually having a signed agreement with the bank or an Angel;
  • If you do, have enough spare money to pay all your bills for the next few months (thankfully I did);
  • Expect everything to fail miserably last minute (and I just scratched the surface of everything that went wrong);
  • Figure out when to give up or delay.

Especially the last bit is important. It is hard, at least for someone from Germany, to admit that you've failed and that is time to step back. I'm not saying giving up; in our case it is somewhat like delaying the project. Life goes on, even though the "failing" is staying overhead for the year to come, at least in Germany. Not just from yourself, but others. No forgiving culture in Germany for that regard - not yet.

Apart from that, I'm still all set to fix this issue. If hardware design is too complicated or too expensive, maybe it'll be just the software. Maybe it'll end up being an open-source project, downloadable to a RaspberryPi or BeagleBone, who knows?

I still think those issues are worth fixing!

All right, enough of the talk. As the TLDR already suggested, I'm looking for new opportunities now. Sitting at home got boring and I really want to get out again. Don't get me wrong, sure it's unfortunate that it didn't work out, but that's what life is. Sometimes things just don't work out. You don't need to feel sorry for me. It was definitely worth a try.

I'm happy to help with all things developer relations and tech marketing. Also happy to help to build communities or help out as an additional external contractor to an existing developer relations team.

If you're interested, feel free to contact me via email, Twitter (DM is always open) or any way you like.

To finish off, I hope reading all of this didn't bore you too much. If there are further questions about the experiences made or what I would do differently the next time, or maybe just asking to help with preparations on your business plan or anything like that, let me know, too. Happy to help whenever possible.


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