Lots of entrepreneurially minded blogs talk about their successes and how they happened. Not many people want to talk about failure, or even just those projects that don’t grow but still refuse to die. Every successful business person I know has had at least one failed product, and usually a small string of failures that lead to success. The trick is to learn from your failures, figure out why they failed, and to try to do better at the things that you did badly the last time. Always be learning. I’ve seen a lot of people write lately that if you aren’t shipping, you’re dead. I don’t really believe that, but I do believe that if you aren’t learning, you definitely are. Things will pass you by so quickly and you’ll have a terrible chance of succeeding if you aren’t constantly learning and trying to do better.
So on to the first web app I ever made: Hngry. Hngry was the first app I ever wrote in Ruby on Rails (I literally wrote it as I read the first version of Agile Web Development With Rails), and I was super proud of what I’ve made. I got Louie Mantia (total rockstar these days, but back then he was just a young designer with a lot of talent) to design some icons for me, and I launched it. I built it because at the time I was in college, and my girlfriend and I ate out a lot and always had the same conversation: Where are we going to eat tonight? And, what are we going to eat there?
It was a web app that used the Yahoo Local API to let you search for restaurants in your area and add them to your list. You could browse metropolitan areas and see popular restaurants in that area. Each restaurant had a rating and users could review it, see maps of the restaurant’s location (using the Google Maps API), and eventually even add menu items/photos.
I’m pretty sure there was a tag cloud or two in there as well, because it was right in the middle of the big Web 2.0 movement. There were Hngry widgets for PC and Mac. I was super excited about it, and I thought it was great. A few people told me they liked it and that it was useful to them. Then I saw this blog post: http://www.disambiguity.com/hngry-not-that-hungry/ which ruined my week, and which I still can’t get out of my mind to this day. She basically panned the whole app, calling it things like “fundamentally flawed”, “obviously hasn’t had the advantage of any kind of designer, interface, graphic or otherwise”, (little did she know that I’d actually paid someone to do the icons, although I must say I wasn’t and still am not the best at web design), and even called it a “wasted effort”. At the time, it was actually moderately successful (it had a few thousand users), which made her comments even more confusing to me.
I took it super personally. I spent all of this time building the app, working hard on something I thought was awesome and useful (because I’d heard/read over and over again that you were supposed to build things for yourself first, because lots of other people have the same problems as you), and who was this person to just trash my first real web project? Who did she think she was? Why did she pick such a rude way to go about saying what she said?
Eventually I (mostly) got over it, and I added some of the things that she was talking about, although she never came back to the product, as far as I know.
Most of her issues with Hngry stemmed from the fact that in building the app for myself, I’d forgotten about the other users and their problems, and why they’d even want to use Hngry at all instead of whatever they were already doing. Sometimes your biggest competitor isn’t another app, it’s people who are comfortable using “broken” solutions to their problems. Speaking of that, at one point, I decided that the way that Hngry would make money would be by charging restaurants to be able to customize their pages, add additional information, like specials and coupons, and have a nice home for their restaurants on the internet. This was 2006, and lots of restaurants didn’t even have web presences at all, so I figured that it’d be an easy sell. I even joined our state’s restaurant association in the hopes that I could talk to restaurant owners personally, get them on board, and work from there. Well, the first part worked. I met and talked to a lot of restaurant owners, and they were nice enough. However, they didn’t really see a need for Hngry (even though they thought it was a neat idea), and not one restaurant owner ever paid me for a custom Hngry page, which was really sad because I had printed up thousands of cards that they could use to promote their custom Hngry pages.
I couldn’t even bear to throw out the boxes of cards until we moved for the second time 2 years ago and I decided I had to let it go. Lessons learned: Don’t print up promotional material for something you haven’t even sold yet, and don’t pay much attention to people who just tell you something is cool. Get a product out there and see if they buy it. That’ll tell you all you need to know.
Hngry wasn’t a total failure, though. One day I decided to add menus to the site, and I googled for companies that were making menus available online. The one that stuck out was Campusfood.com, which eventually ended up becoming DotMenu, which was bought recently by GrubHub. After talking to me for awhile over email/phone, those guys decided to fly me out to New York to talk to me about working together and pick my brain, and after I gave a presentation to their CEO, President and a few other people over there, we worked together for a few years and integrated over 200,000 menus into Hngry, with online ordering through them. I even got a job offer (which I ended up turning down, mostly because their web stack was ASP, and I already knew that no matter how much I liked the people or projects, I would not want to write ASP as my full time job). We still worked together for years after that, though eventually I ended up shutting the first version of Hngry down after Urbanspoon showed up and did a lot of what Hngry did, but better. Pretty awesome outcome for a “failed” first project, though.
So what else did I learn? I learned how to write web apps in Rails. I learned how to connect to APIs. I learned how to set up a web server. I learned how to talk to CEOs. I learned that building something that you think is awesome does not necessarily mean that it will be successful. If you build it, they might not come. I learned that even though some people might be harsh in their opinion of your app, you have to listen to their actual points and decide if they are valid, and try to ignore the meanness. Also, it taught me to listen to people who actually use my apps.
I used some of these lessons down the road when I relaunched Hngry as an iPhone app. More on that later.