How I in-validated a business idea in 3 months with little code, while traveling the world ✈️

Idea 💡

I was going through a large list of newsletters that linked to an even larger list of articles. Reading some, Pocketing others… and you know, never getting back to Pocket to actually read them. 😅 Same time I started listening to podcasts again. And on one of the monday mornings it struck me — what if I could save an article, the same way I could with Pocket’s browser extension, but it gets converted into an engaging audiobook! Not a robotic-sounding text-to-speech, but something that’s actually read by a human. That was it!

Research 📚

Again, I wanted to avoid mistakes I’ve done in the past and do hell-lot of research on this one, before sinking in too much energy and being attached an idea that won’t work.

Is there demand?

After asking a few friends what they thought about the idea, I quickly saw two groups emerge — those who were ecstatic about podcasts, audiobooks and spoken comtent… and those who didn’t care at all. Surprisingly I found zero people in between. That was actually pretty good, I thought! That’s the reaction a good idea or product should get. Hate it or love it! 😤 or 😻! Great ideas are polarising. I was surprised that audio content was like that. I felt I was onto something.

Very reassuring!
  • Market is growing and got ton of potential… In the USA, that is…
  • YC had a podcasting app in their W17 batch called Breaker — another good sign!

Can this be done?

Okay. So I learned that there might be more than 1 person (me) who wants this and likely to use it. Next on, I wanted to figure out how to deliver the service. I saw 3 routes:

  • Speech synthesis (TTS)
  • Crowdsource narration from students
  • Hire professional voice actors

YC Startup School

I got accepted into YC’s Startup School! OMG! Funny enough I applied with my previous company, that I just “closed” after 2 years of hustle (follow me, I’ll blog about it some time soon).

Some tangible progress. Finally!

One more week. Only now, I finally decided to come up with a name, domain and a landing page.
ReadByHumans.com — boom 💥 Thank god domain was available!

5 minute logo design…

🇸🇬 Singapore. Roller coaster is going down🎢 😧

End of April. Goodbye SF. Had to fly back to Singapore (That’s where I live). Startup School is still on. I went out and shared ReadByHumans idea with friends, fellow entrepreneurs and VCs. I was surprised how different the feedback and environment was compared to the Valley! Suddenly majority is skeptical and no one really listens to podcasts in Asia. In the USA, meanwhile, podcast consumption has been growing something around 20% year on year. South East Asia — flat. Ouch!

🌴 Bali. Getting real sh*t done

After spending two weeks in Singapore, I went to Bali for a month. I wanted to focus on ReadByHumans and ship something by the end of Startup School. There, I caught up with my friend Andrey Azimov, who recently exploded with his When To Surf. We thought it’d be cool to work side by side and keep each other in check. He also suggested to get my sh*t together and to ship, measure, rinse, repeat. 👊

Landing Page design 101. Good title is 🔑

Time to Ship! ⛵

I had an external deadline, which was YC Startup School Demo Presentation. June 16th. I aligned my Product Hunt and Hacker News submissions to be around the same dates.

Product Hunt

I followed best practices of Product Hunt launch. Tons been written about that, so just Google “Product Hunt launch checklist”. Tuesday midnight, SFO time. Which is 3 PM in Bali and Singapore — no need to stay up all night! One way or another, you still should be ready for a 24+ hour sprint with minimum sleep. Handling server load, replying to comments, calls, etc. Do take time to prepare. Following up on all the comments is something special! It’s a race!

Startup School

YC Startup School Demo Day was on June 16th. We got some traffic from there too. Also got good feedback. Notably, YC Partner Adora Cheung (Co-founder & CEO of Homejoy) tweeted about ReadByHumans all of a sudden:

What a pleasant surprise!

Hacker News

I had no idea how to launch on HN. Andrey had no idea as well, so he ran this by Pieter Levels. Pieter said “it’s a mystery, but it’s key to balance upvotes with genuine comments”. Oh well, let’s give it a try. As you will see below, most of the traffic came from HN, but not the most sign ups.

  • Strike deals with publications and authors. But I could not do that in an individual capacity, since it’s just way too much work, takes forever, costs are insane and… tl;dr not feasible for a bootstrapping project. Imho.
  • However, when someone finds your article and requests a narration in individual capacity — that is not considered distribution (tweet me if I’m wrong). It’s like hiring a personal voice over actor, whom you pay to narrate your texts for you. This could be an option…

Results. Let’s measure!

After about a day, it was clear that I was getting about 22% conversion rate. From landing page views to email opt-ins.

Here is another point of view, if you are curious 😉

Funnels

I’ve never really thought about funnels before this project. I drafted a list of steps that users would have to take to start paying us money, if we were to sell a Premium tier. Those steps would be:

  • Land on page (Traffic)
  • Sign up with email (Subscribed)
  • Add private podcast feed url to their favorite podcast app and start getting FREE value from us. (Active Free)
  • Eventually start paying for more value (Paying)

Customer Development

For the upcoming several weeks, I did not want to invest more time in growing sign-ups. Instead, I wanted to focus on making my service loved by existing users. I emailed each of them personally, trying to understand why did they sign up, their expectations, their needs, and what would they pay for. Yes! It’s a good idea to ask for money ASAP. This was not meant to be a Silicon Valley type project, where I’d raise 1.5 Gazillion of Dollars and subsidize growth forever without thinking of making a profit and sell to Hooli. I wanted to validate if people would pay for something here and do that fast.

So why did we shut down?

Well, this all was not too bad. But there were few major issues.

Copyright 👮

Article copyright was a serious issue and I’m not a subject expert. Fear of things you don’t know you don’t know is real. Hacker News reaction reminded me that no one gives a f*ck about your positive intentions. I’ll say no more.

Economics 📈

I was spending about $300 a month on voice actors. I did not have an infinite budget and wanted to monetize ASAP or shut this thing down. Sooner or later I had to send out a sales email offering to pay for Premium service. The offer was “TOP 3 articles narrated on weekly basis + 1 FREE weekly article”. Only 1 person gave me his/her credit card information . 1 is better than 0. I smiled 🙂 Time was running. I could no longer sustain spending $$$ on voice actors, do all the weekly newsletters, article selection, audio editing and uploads. I gave myself time till the end of July, to find a way to break-even or shut down. And well, I had to shut down.

Lessons learned 🤓

  • Stay true to yourself and build what you yourself want. Don’t waste time for indirect routes and stop looking for shortcuts.
  • There are a ton of ways to validate an idea without writing a single line of code. Even when you think you should, try your best to find an off-the-shelf solution. Case in point: did not build a backend — just a landing page. Did not build mobile app — relied on existing podcast apps to deliver content via RSS feeds.
  • Know your funnel! Think in terms of funnels and apply them everywhere. Including dating. I never really thought in terms of funnels before Andrey forced me into it. When you know your conversion rates, you can suddenly start planning actionable targets all the way to break-even. Example: you calculated that you need 100 paying customers at 9.99 a month to break-even. You learned your conversion rate is ~0.5% into a paying customer per month. Therefore you need to drive 20,000 quality leads to your landing page to eventually hit monthly break-even.
  • Talk to your customers. Again and again. Talk to them all the time. Get their feedback and quantify it on as many decisions as you can. Idealy call them. Forget Messanger and WhatsApp.
  • A popular idea and a business idea, that makes economic sense, are not the same. ReadByHumans was a popular idea. Still is.
  • Markets worldwide differ. What might work in the USA, might not work in Europe or Asia. And vice versa.
  • On the state of Text-To-Speech. When we sent some lower quality human narrations, our users thought it was synthesized. I thought an average human being would be able to distinguish between robotic and human voice. Wrong! The line gets more and more blurry. People also seem to have very high expectations from AI, since they confuse humans voice with a TTS output.

Thank you ❤️

Special thanks to all who helped me with ReadByHumans along the way! Close friends, Startup School batch members, people who reached out and offered feedback. Thanks Andrey for kicking my ass. Thanks, Adelina and Ritesh for reviewing my writing. Thanks to Jennifer M Choi, Dan Siegel for providing feedback in the early days. There are too many too many worthy names here, as the article was already too long! Thank you all who subscribed to ReadByHumans and chatted with me over email and skype!

Stay in Touch! ✉️

Hope this was useful! Please share this with all your Medium friends and hit that 👏 button below to spread it around even more. You can also engage me on consulting basis, if you need some js, react, node, ui/ux or growth help. Happy to help!

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Raman Shalupau

Raman Shalupau

CryptoJobsList.com - #1 job board to find and post web3, blockchain & cryptocurrency jobs.