You may or may not know, but two years ago I put the kibosh on launching an app and a startup called BirdieUp. I want to share a little bit about my journey, lessons learned, and what it means to launch a startup as a "regular guy"—by "regular guy" I mean I don't have any connections, live/work in San Fran or Pal Alto, or am a wiz at coding. I want to share my story from the how and why I thought of BirdieUp to a stint with Sharktank:
- What is BirdieUp
- Coming up with and designing the app
- 3 Years of sweat equity
- Launching on kickstarter
- A stint with Sharktank
What is BirdieUp?
For about 3 years I spent weekend and after-hours working on building and launching an iPhone app called BirdieUp. BirdieUp is the first social golf app designed to help golfers get better at playing golf. The BirdieUp app lets you record videos of your golf swing and get crowdsourced feedback from other players who can offer insights into your game. You can also message and chat with friends as well as use a calendar to arrange tee times and play golf with your buddies, and more. BirdieUp was founded on the idea that golf tips, tricks, lessons, and feedback only work when it is personalized for that exact golfer—this idea is validated by the jarring statistic that the average golfer shoots over 100 (that's not very good). Here was the fun ad:
In the sea of gps, scorecards, and data swing apps, BirdieUp is the first app of its kind and offers a unique value proposition—get better with personalized feedback that is actually relevant to you. The next best thing is an expensive coach.
Coming up with and designing BirdieUp
BirdieUp did not start out as a golf app. In fact, it didn't even start with having anything to do with golf! This was my first lesson: The best ideas have to win and I had to be adaptable to finding the right ideas.
I didn't start working on BirdieUp alone; I persuaded 2 family members to be part of the process as potential backers and advisers. When we had nailed down the original idea, of the app that was to become BirdieUp, I was asked a really important question I'll never forget:
"What's the emotional payoff of this app?"
I think about this in almost everything I do—after about 6 months of business planning and designing, I was asked a question that might force me to start all over. Could I be honest with myself and swallow my pride? The payoff answer ended up being "nothing" and the process of starting over began.
A special dinner that changed it all
A few weeks after the realization that the app I was working on was dead, my (now) wife and I went for a dinner to celebrate our dating anniversary. There are 3 things I can tell you about that night: My wife looked beautiful (no brownie points here, she doesn't read this), I had one of the best steaks of my life, and the idea for BirdieUp came to life. The foundation for the app we were building became the building block for BirdieUp.
3 Years of Sweat Equity
As a designer and marketer in the tech industry, I knew the challenges ahead of me—the internet is a big place. Its a long road to build an app and even longer to launch a startup but if you want to do it, ya gotta do it.
"A challenge only becomes an obstacle when you bow to it." -Ray Davis
We reached the point of "do or do not": The app screens were designed, UI kit built, business plan "ready" (everything I have learned & read about launching a startup or a product is to not waste time with a business plan like you might in biz school. Make it 2 pages: a 1-page feature list where you highlight MVP features and a 1-page monetization plan for the future.) After conversations with a great mobile app agency, mobilosophy, the funding we had ready to build the app, disappeared due to personal reasons (happens when you go into it with family).
At this point, it was time to rethink and restart again—whew. Okay, lets do this. I learned now that sweat equity was real. "Sweat equity: is the ownership interest, or increase in value, that is created as a direct result of hard work by the owner(s). It is the preferred mode of building equity for cash-strapped entrepreneurs in their start-up ventures, since they may be unable to contribute much financial capital to their enterprise." Sweat equity is real and hard to find—most people are unwilling to put it in. As funding dissolved and I needed to continue to move with speed, my partners and I agreed to let me move on my own.
Finding a developer
Funding dissolved, design and planning starting over, running solo. The next 6 months were spent redesigning the app to match current design trends, improving UX, tightening up the MVP feature set, and finding a developer to partner with. Remember what I said about sweat equity—most won't put it in. Finding a developer who wants to start up a start-up is not only hard, it is nearly impossible—working 40-60hrs a week and then to spend time after hours to do more coding is a tall order. After going through 3 developers it was time to try something new (yes I reached out to universities and students, but if you can believe it, students aren't interested in working for free).
"Insanity: doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results." – Albert Einstein
Launching on kickstarter
This thing called Kickstarter...Everyone is doing it. "If a potato salad recipe can raise over $60k, and I've seen your app, I'm sure you'll do just fine." Said the entrepreneurial head professor at a local university when I asked for help and advice. If it was only so easy.
Building a kickstarter page is a cocktail of SEO, cold-calling, and product marketing copy. You have to build the page so that it:
- Can be found organically through kickstarter
- Can be found organically through search
- Can sell the visitor on the idea & ability of the kickstarter to execute
You are essentially rewriting your entire website. Fortunately, being a marketer, I felt like this is something I could be pretty successful at; I could certainly build the graphics I needed for the page and write some half-decent copy.
Additionally, each kickstarter page has a video that introduces the product. This is the heart and soul of your page—the make it or break it section. The quality and engagement of your video typically determines the outcome of your kickstarter, so spend time on it and don't muck it up...I mucked it up.
It had about 15% engagement (amount of people who watched the video start to finish). Kickstarter average is about 23%.
Quick lesson learned. Within the first week I had to reproduce something much higher quality, with a better script, story, and filming. And I did. Engagement was up to 24%. Exciting.
Writing for the #1 Golf website
After 4 months of back and forth with the lead editor of GolfWRX, I finally convinced him to let me write an article for the #1 golf site on the web. By the time my article was to be ready, I had timed it to go live at the launch of the BirdieUp kickstarter (not a bad idea, huh?). 2 months of writing and edits, the post was ready. It launched only a few days after the kickstarter campaign launched and I had hopes it would drive strong traffic. The post was very successful with over 40 comments and nearly 20k views, but the traffic it drove was only around 300 users, even less to the kickstarter campaign. Not the result I had hoped for. A lot of effort and work that was great for GolfWRX but less for me. Okay...another win some, lose some!
The social media and advertising dance
Time to pay for some visibility and advertise. The 30 days that your kickstarter runs, it is a constant dance of looking and measuring ad data. Comparing user data, demographics, referral's, multi-variant testing, a/b testing etc. It was a constant daily challenge so that you could make sure you were maximizing your 30 days.
At the end of the dance, my Facebook & twitter ads (key advertising mediums) were performing well. While the numbers escape me, Facebook ads were very successful with a strong CTR (click-through-rate). Conversion was a different story.
At this point, my video was performing at 27% engagement (wow!) and I was very proud and hopeful this would garner the backings I would require—kickstarter is an all or nothing funding platform, which means you must reach your goal to receive any of the money raised. With solid traffic and great engagement, why wasn't I getting the funding I needed?
At midpoint during my ad campaign, I was getting really great traction with users ages 16-24 (my message & product were really resonating), so I adjusted really strongly to this bracket and my ads continued to be successful. Still no money. At the end, or near end, of the campaign, it dawned on me this might be the demographic least likely to spend money (or least likely to actually have money to spend). I think I was right. On to the next one.
My stint with Shark Tank
I love long shots.
You gotta believe in and play the long shots—otherwise there is no point in what you're doing. Shoot small and you will certainly get there. So, I applied BirdieUp to Shark Tank.
My wife and I were enjoying a weekend away in western Mass at a nice B&B when my phone rang: Caller ID said Los Angeles, CA. Now that was pretty cool feeling.
"Hi, is this Mike with BirdieUp? I'm so-n-so from Shark Tank here in LA."
I did some research and found out that there are over 20,000+ applications sent each season. To get a call back was more than I could have hoped for. We chatted for a about 10-15 minutes, as an initial screen. We talked about the funding I'd be looking for, status of BirdieUp, what the idea was, etc—once the inevitable check boxes in his head were marked off, he moved me on to the next step: written application and interview video. "Feel free to call me with any questions. But once you submit your application and video, you will only hear from us if we want to move forward with you." he said.
I never heard back.
Until the next idea.
There are plenty more side stories and anecdotes during the years of BirdieUp and many more lessons learned. The emotional journey of up & down, up & down, was something I did not expect. These are moments of "it won't work out anyways why bother" to "the people I surveyed loved the idea!" to "time to start over and redesign" to "this developer is awesome and he wants to do this".
I always keep my "green book of ideas" around for when more moments strike me. The book is filling up and its only a matter of time till I jump on my next idea. It was a ride of discovery.
Maybe I'll wait until the baby is alittle older.